Last month, National Geographic published A Voice for Nature, a feature story about the legal personhood of the Whanganui River. The story was written by Kennedy Warne, a co-founder of New Zealand Geographic and a regular E-Tangata contributor. Here he recounts a recent journey — geographical, historical, personal — to Te Awa Tupua, the river of sacred power.


I come to the river from the north, and because all stories about this awa must acknowledge the mountains that give it birth, I pause at the foot of those mountains and greet them.

Despite it being early summer, Ruapehu, Matua te Mana, retains his white winter coat of snow. His head and shoulders are shrouded in cloud, expressive of the intimate connection between Ranginui and Papatūānuku, whose longing, one for the other, is the context of all life.

It is said that, when Ranginui saw Ruapehu’s lonely heart, he placed two teardrops at his feet. One of those drops became the Whanganui River, the other the Tongariro.

Tears at the river’s beginning, and tears ever since, many of them shed when the river’s headwaters were diverted into the Tongariro Power Scheme in the early 1970s. The scheme’s pipes and channels spread across the landscape like a creature with multiple throats, sucking up the trickles and rivulets that swell to become the rivers of the central plateau.

The water is diverted into a lake, then into a tunnel, then through the penstocks of the Tokaanu power station into Taupō, discharging finally into New Zealand’s longest river. Instead of flowing south, it now flows north. Instead of being part of the “whole and indivisible” awa of ancestry and mana, it is siphoned off into a river system to which it has no spiritual connection. It is a deep affront to Whanganui people.

When the Waitangi Tribunal investigated the Whanganui River claim in the 1990s, one claimant witness recalled his koro crying over the lost water and saying that “my river has been severed, the head has been cut. What is there left for me?”

Did the Crown discuss the diversion of water with Whanganui iwi? Not once. In his evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal, river champion Archie Taiaroa stated that “at no time during the development of the Tongariro Power Project were Whanganui iwi or any of its representatives consulted”, despite the Crown being fully aware of the iwi’s claims to ownership of the riverbed.

How could it not be aware? For 24 years, from 1938 to 1962, the tribes had doggedly pursued legal proceedings regarding native title over the river. They were the longest running legal proceedings in New Zealand history. When that process failed to return control to them, they pursued every other device short of war — petitions, occupations, protests, written and oral submissions to local and central government. They went to extraordinary, almost superhuman, efforts to preserve their customary rights. But the Crown wasn’t listening.

Archie Taiaroa described a public meeting in 1968 in Taumarunui, during which Hikaia Amohia, a nephew of the river’s great petitioner Titi Tihu, and the principal claimant in the subsequent tribunal proceedings, asked why the government was taking water from the awa without the approval of the iwi. The chairman ruled him out of order. Said Archie: “There was nothing particularly unusual about this reaction. … There was a total failure or unwillingness to understand.”

Never surrendered

I take the Tūrangi–National Park road to view the Whanganui intake structure, a concrete edifice at the edge of a pine forest. On one side of the structure is the inflowing Whanganui, arriving unimpeded from the flanks of the sacred mountains. On the other, a trickle dribbles away downstream through overhanging toetoe. The rest of the river roars into a grated tunnel, to be conveyed to the power station 15 kilometres away.

When the scheme was designed, some 97 percent of the flow of the Whanganui’s headwaters was to be diverted. The take was reduced somewhat when dire downstream effects became apparent, but, in the eyes of its people, the river’s mana has been permanently damaged.

By the time the water was taken to turn turbines, Whanganui iwi had already endured 100 years of seeing their river manipulated and exploited by Pākehā. Yet they had been steadfast in asserting that they alone were entitled by the Treaty of Waitangi to own, manage and control their awa. It was their possession.

The Native Land Court, the Native Appellate Court, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and a Royal Commission of Inquiry confirmed that fact. The Waitangi Tribunal found the same, saying that “the river was never freely and knowingly surrendered by them but that, contrary to the Treaty of Waitangi, and to their prejudice, Crown acts, policies, practices, and omissions combined over the years to relieve them of it.”

The tribunal made special note of the humiliation that Te Ātihaunui-a-Papārangi (the Whanganui iwi collectively) had endured, in that “they are obliged to appear as supplicants before a number of authorities that control the river’s use, when, in terms of the Treaty, they own the river and the authorities should be making supplications to them. It is something that adds considerable salt to the wound of wrongful deprivation.”

By Treaty guarantee, they possessed the river, even as they were possessed by it. In legal terms, they possessed native title, something they never gave up. They never set aside their duties of management, guardianship and control. To lose control is to lose mana. To lose mana is to lose everything — to become a wraith and a shadow, a fleck of foam on the river of life.

Eventually, in its settlement, the Crown acknowledged these realities. In the landmark 2017 Te Awa Tupua legislation, which gave legal recognition to the personhood of the river, the Crown admitted it had failed to uphold the Treaty. It regretted its failure to address the iwi’s grievances. Redress, it said, was long overdue. “This settlement marks the beginning of a renewed and enduring relationship between Whanganui iwi and the Crown,” it promised.

The river is at the centre of that promise. By enshrining its personhood in law, the river’s mana is mightily restored, and by simple fact of reciprocity — “I am the river, the river is me” — so is that of the people.

The legislation recognises the “inalienable interconnection” between Ātihaunui and the river — a 700-year conversation between people and place. Legal personhood is not something that has been projected onto or infused into the river. Rather, it is inherent in the nature of the river, a pre-existing condition.

The people’s lives are woven into the river’s flow, and vice versa. The people invoke the river, dream the river, sing the river. They celebrate its gifts and cry over its diminution. They engage in a mutual dance of ora. When the river is living, they are living. When the river is dying, they are dying.

Love and theft

I continue on to Whanganui city. I have Bob Dylan’s album World Gone Wrong playing to remind me of the river’s historical abasement. I could equally have been playing Love and Theft.

I am mostly thinking about the future, how personhood shifts the paradigm of what can be done to and with a river, but I don’t want to forget the long, hard years that led to this breakthrough legislation.

I take a stroll around Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, the site of a contentious 79-day occupation in 1995, and stop in front of a granite plinth on which a statue of a former premier and Whanganui resident John Ballance stood for close to a century. The statue’s head had been knocked off prior to the occupation and replaced by a pumpkin. Then the entire statue was taken away and placed in storage. The statueless plinth remains.

Ballance was targeted because of policies concerning land and Māori, and probably because, as a premier, he was a representative of the Crown. He also promoted the hated Wanganui River Trust, the body that wreaked such damage upon the river, while simultaneously denying Māori any role in its management.

Ātihaunui strenuously opposed the trust’s efforts to tame the river, make it more navigable and use it as a quarry. In 1895, a petition signed by 151 Whanganui women of rank protested the trust’s wilful damage to eel weirs, lamprey weirs and whitebait dams that had stood for generations.

“We your petitioners all say that we are Maori women of Aotearoa,” they wrote. “In the year 1840 Queen Victoria’s Treaty of Waitangi gave to the Maoris of Aotearoa the absolute rights over their fishing grounds, their lands and their tidal rivers. Your petitioners ask what is the principal reason of the Government breaking Queen Victoria’s Laws.”

It was an unanswerable question, and the petition brought minimal relief: one eel weir was temporarily saved. Meanwhile, rapids were dynamited, weirs destroyed, boulders removed, riverbed gravel extracted. Business as usual for a government intent on bending the river to its economic will.

Decapitation of the premier’s statue may well have had a symbolic resonance with how Whanganui iwi regarded the decapitation of their river for hydroelectricity.

In 2009, a bronze substitute was erected outside the council chambers, during Michael Laws’ mayoralty. Unlike the striding statesman depicted in the original (a duplicate of which stands outside Parliament Buildings in Wellington) this Ballance is seated. He stares at an intersection with a furniture store on one side and the Whanganui Chronicle (which adopted the “h” in its masthead in 2018) on the other. The plaque describes him as a “nation builder” — a phrase that conceals as much as it reveals.

Another monument in the gardens takes me by surprise with its provocative message. It is a controversial memorial to the “brave men who fell at Moutoa in 1864 in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism” — a reference to Pai Mārire, and an exceedingly one-sided view. Given the scrutiny that public statuary celebrating colonial history has come under in recent years, it seems strange that this statement of stereotypical prejudice hasn’t been given a balancing context.

Amid the gardens’ grand Victorian edifices, the only nod to pre-colonial history is a rock at the river’s edge, with a simple plaque stating that this was “the landing place of the canoes of our ancestors.”

Tuatahi ko te awa

Political machinations happen on land; the river flows on regardless. “Tuatahi ko te awa, tuarua ko te awa,” Gerrard Albert tells me when I meet him. “Of first importance, the river. Of second importance, the river.”

Gerrard, who has a background in environmental planning for local and central government, became lead negotiator of the Whanganui River claim following the death of Archie Taiaroa in 2010, and now chairs the post-settlement entity, Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui Trust.

He says it was elders like Taiaroa and Titi Tihu — another in the long line of “old people” who pitted themselves against the behemoth of the Crown and its ingrained prejudice against Māori interests — who imbued in him an attachment and devotion to the river.

I ask him about the name Te Awa Tupua. Is it an ancient name? Or a name coined for the settlement and legislation?

“It’s a modern usage,” he tells me. “A new vehicle for an old concept. The Resource Management Act talks about a river defined by statutes, a river someone else has created, not the river that completes me. Te Awa Tupua is the river I recognise, the river I know. Our approach has been to claw back that river, and the new legislation allows for a paradigm shift to do that.”

Te Awa Tupua is the new waka, Gerrard says. And the sharp point of that vessel — te ihu o te waka — is the indivisibility of the river. Previous statutes reflected the European approach to the natural world, one of segmentation, division, partition. Under this philosophy, rivers consisted of beds, banks, water, and imaginary median lines so that landowners on each side of a river could say they owned their half of the river.

“The new statute gives us back the river we know,” he says. “It’s the same dance hall, the same dancers, but the music has changed.”

I ask him if Pākehā can join that dance. Can Pākehā say: “Ko au te awa?”

“That’s what we want them to be able to say,” says Gerrard. “The river isn’t just iwi, it’s community — and that includes Pākehā communities. That’s not to say there aren’t tuākana. They need to recognise that. But we need to continue to exercise our obligations to the teina. Do we always say to our little brother: ‘You belong down there’? Who was Māui? Teina.

“Te Awa Tupua avoids arguments about what percentage of governance belongs to you and what belongs to me. That just leads to stalemate. Let everyone acknowledge the kawa of the river. Kawa doesn’t distinguish between Māori and Pākehā. Kawa is Rangi and Papa. Let everyone come into that way of thinking.”

How this paradigm shift plays out in practice remains to be seen. When the personhood legislation was passed, many media outlets speculated on whether this meant the river could sue those who polluted it, or, in turn, be sued if the river flooded their homes or land.

“It’s natural for people to think like that, because when they hear ‘legal person’ they think about corporations and trusts and that kind of thing,” Gerrard says. “Yes, rights are inherent in personhood, and they have to be addressed, but so are obligations. The important thing is removing the anthropocentrism that characterises decision making around natural resources.”

He gives me an example. In 2039, the resource consents which authorise Genesis Energy to divert water from the Whanganui River expire. “I say to Genesis, you have to get serious about this because you’re taking blood from an ancestor. The reality now is that in 20 years’ time, when you come to put that needle in, that ancestor can speak for itself. That’s going to be a hugely different scenario.”

In the river’s embrace

We press noses, and I ask him for a karakia before I retrace my journey upriver. I have in mind to visit the grave of his mentor, “Uncle Archie”. I have learned that in the Māori world, past and present, living and dead are not categorically separated, as they tend to be in Western tradition. They mingle in a seamless, timeless unity. So I want to say a word to this old man who helped navigate the river claim through the legal rapids as skilfully as he would have poled Te Awa’s rapids in a canoe.

I take the winding River Road, stopping to explore some of thebiblically and classically named kāinga: Hiruharama (Jerusalem), Koriniti (Corinth), Atene (Athens), Rānana (London). How true the whakataukī: He ripo, he tipua, he kāinga. At each rapid, kaitiaki and people dwell.

At Pipiriki, a flotilla of blue canoes comes into view. It’s a group of Napier secondary school students, finishing a three-day journey from Taumarunui. The canoes bump ashore at the landing, and children stumble out, some of them dripping from a drenching in the rapids, high-fiving, faces alight. The leader’s voice rises across the water in a loud karakia, to which all respond: “Haumi ē, hui ē, tāiki ē.” Join together, bind together, let it be done. This is the kawa of the river, bringing all into its embrace.

I reach Taumarunui, then turn south again, taking the road on the western side of the river, a no-exit road that ends at Tāwhata. On the way, I stop to view the Pai Mārire poles at Maraekōwhai: the war pole, Rongo Nui, and the peace pole, Riri Kore, which have been standing since the 1860s.

When built, Rongo Nui had two cross-beams, pointing north, south, east and west. At the ends of the beams were carved hands, beckoning to the four corners of the land, urging warriors to come to the river and fight under the banner of Pai Mārire.

The poles are succumbing to time’s decay. One of Rongo Nui’s cross beams has gone, but one remains, its two hands outstretched, beckoning still. Not to bear arms, but — in my mind, at least — to bear witness to the new way of construing the natural world, and the human place within it. River, mountain, forest as persons, not inert resources, inviting relationship, not unfettered exploitation.

At Tāwhata, I see a boy with a rifle sitting at the side of the gravel road and ask him where the urupā is. I tell him I’ve come to pay my respects. “Go down that track,” he says. “It’s right below us. You won’t miss it.”

I park under the broad canopy of a shade tree, where a couple of benches are propped against the trunk for people who want to hold kōrero with their ancestors. The tiny, fenced cemetery has only a handful of graves. Some are decorated with trinkets and treasures: deer antlers, toy cars, garden lights, a well-loved woollen cap. One is piled high with a pillow of plastic flowers.

Archie Taiaroa’s grave is marked by a plain flat stone. No adornment, no plinth, no statue. True mana never needs to flaunt itself.

“You are the river and the river is you,” I say, and hear a bird cry in the forest nearby. Rangahau e Tāne, mīroi e Tāne. Tāne who provides, Tāne who embraces.

I wash my hands from a flagon of water that lies next to the gate, then drive away. But Tāwhata has another gift for me. As I pass a paddock that slopes down towards the river, two grazing ponies, one white, one brown, gallop up to the fence, then run beside me, manes flying, neck and neck, side by side.

The sight thrills me. I want it to be a metaphor for my country, just as I want nature’s personhood to be a reality for the world. In my conversation with Gerrard, he had spoken of the awa’s personhood being “an inclusive proposition,” and it urgently needs to be.

Who doesn’t share grave concerns for future generations, and the dire impact that the escalating environmental crisis will have on them? Perhaps those generations will look at these statutes — Whanganui, Te Urewera, Taranaki in the pipeline, and others that will sprung up in their wake — and consider them to have been harbingers of a new relationship between humans and their planetary home. Not one based on command and control, divide and conquer, the tropes of dominance. Rather, like the river itself, seeing human and nonhuman as an indivisible and living whole.

The ponies stop at the corner of their paddock while I drive on. Below them, below the willows and poplars, whose leaves flash grey-green and milk-white in the summer breeze, the great river flows. I recall the proverb that the river is a plaited rope of unity, and I feel gathered into its skein.

It has taken a lifetime to come to this place.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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