David Young’s new book Wai Pasifika explores Indigenous views, values and practices about water across the Pacific. It celebrates te mana o te wai, and urges us all to reframe our thinking about life’s most basic substance.
You can never step into the same river twice, according to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, but writer David Young has been stepping into, standing in, swimming in, and fathoming the meaning of rivers for decades.
His first book, Faces of the River, was published in 1986. Thirty-five years later, his latest book on water has appeared. It is part of the continuum of a life dedicated to the wai of its title.
While that earlier book focused only on New Zealand rivers, this new book casts a much wider net, looking at Indigenous water beliefs and practices across the Pacific, from Aboriginal Australians on one edge of the Pacific rim to native peoples of the American Northwest on the other.
It describes how foundational water has been in Pacific cultures, and how vital it is that we get water management right in modern times. Vital, because rivers and lakes, springs and streams have been described as nothing less than the “bloodways of Papatūānuku.”
In the foreword of Faces of the River, a former chief judge of the Māori Land Court, Eddie Durie, wrote that rivers teach us “where we have been, where we are now, and where we might be going.”
He paid a high tribute to Young in saying that he had “followed the instruction of the river.” Three-plus decades of further instruction has yielded this Pacific-wide consideration of water — and it comes at a time of environmental crisis, when, like never before, humanity needs a clear sense of “where we might be going.”
Copiously and luminously illustrated with photography by Richard Sidey and Aliscia Young, Wai Pasifika is not just an examination of how to manage the substance that is essential to life on earth — but which blinkered materialists think of as a “resource”. It is also an approach to how to be in relationship with water.
It is “an attempt to convey the cultural sacredness of water to a world that has, for the most part — and to its peril — turned its back on such thinking,” Young writes.
Wherever he looks — in Aotearoa, in Indigenous Australia, in Rapanui, Kiribati, Hawai‘i and Oregon — he finds a renaissance of traditional water thinking, “a revival of relationship between communities of the land and a sense of what they have come to understand about water in mythical, moral and practical terms.”
In all these places, the Indigenous value system struggles to assert itself over a dominant and very different western approach. That approach is based on the idea of separation between humans and nature, including water, whereas Indigenous societies value linkage and connection, the weaving together of human life and living earth.
“When Polynesians include in their whakapapa the recitation of ancestors that are rivers, plants, animals and even insects, these are more than poetic inventions,” Young writes. “Each recitation frames the speaker not only in time and in their landscape; it also reminds them and their audience that there is a continuous thread of life between humans and nature.”
As Young has learned, this sense of kinship and belonging is part of the meaning of tūrangawaewae. But tūrangawaewae is not just about finding identity, it is equally a demand for taking responsibility. “It is also the space that is created by a culturally evolved way of seeing the world. Tūrangawaewae is a way of being, a way of perception, of being enfolded by a culture with its beliefs, ethics and lore.”
No culture has had longer to finesse its lore and law around water than Australia’s first people, living in a continent defined by water scarcity — a 60,000-year survival journey.
While admitting that his knowledge of Aboriginal lifeways is limited, Young cannot help but admire an environmental awareness that is so embedded in Aboriginal culture as to make western understandings seem shallow, trivial and suicidal in comparison.
“Their cultural adaptation to the land was so profound it seems likely that there was no separation between long-term and quotidian thinking. Once European exploration of the interior began, it was Aboriginal memory of sites and ingenuity that, on occasions too many to count, saved the strangers from certain death in what appeared to them to be a pitiless and waterless land.”
Young quotes Ngarrindjeri elder Tom Trevorrow, who described his people’s traditional environmental management plan as: “Don’t be greedy, don’t take any more than you need and respect everything around you. That’s the management plan — it’s such a simple management plan, but so hard for people to carry out.”
And so easy to lose sight of in the political machinations surrounding water, as we see with the Three Waters reforms and other water policy discussions in Aotearoa.
Aboriginal philosophy, writes Young, is “based on a sense of creative engagement with the earth; of being able to feel the land and respond with an embodiment of that feeling in appropriate action.”
“Appropriate action” is at the heart of Aboriginal law. One of Young’s sources, Janet Turpie-Johnstone, describes how law is the result of relationship. “The laws are about our relationship to water and the land,” she says.
And so it is on this side of Te Tai-o-Rēhua. In te ao Māori, the system of environmental law is framed as kaitiakitanga, “the obligation, arising from the kin relationship, to nurture or care for a person or thing,” as the Waitangi Tribunal has put it.
Kaitiakitanga responsibility, noted the Tribunal, can be understood “not only as a cultural principle but as a system of law.”
Just as with Aboriginal law, the legal system that developed in te ao Māori was based on relational values: utu, manaaki, tuku.
“These concepts resulted in a legal system embedded in values, rather than rules, and conveyed in stories of creation, songs, dance and artwork, rather than statute books,” legal scholar Jacinta Ruru has noted.
Those values, writes Young, “were as foundational to the voyages to new destinations as the waka that carried Polynesians to their last three islands of settlement, defining the further reaches of their oceanic territory — Hawai‘i, Aotearoa and Rapanui Easter Island.”
It is to Hawai‘i and Rapanui, Kiribati, Sāmoa, Niue and the Pacific Northwest that Young turns his attention in successive chapters of the book. In Hawai‘i, he learns that law, water and wealth are linguistically as well as relationally connected.
Because water is so precious and limited on islands, the Hawaiian word for law is kānāwai, “of the water”, a reminder “that the fundamental concept of law is associated with water rights.” The word for “wealth” is the word for “water”, “doubled for emphasis to give waiwai.”
In traditional Hawaiian society, notes Young, “there was no conception of property pertaining to land or water, only to water use.” An abundance of water was an abundance of wealth. Conversely, it was scarcity that generated laws of water management, and, more fundamentally, reverence for the natural world.
“It is the knowledge of scarcity, written in the mindmaps and stories of the islanders and passed down with strictures that will not be denied, that created the cultural architecture of respect for nature,” Young writes.
The system was far from perfect. Extinctions followed wherever Oceania’s inhabitants settled. But whereas those failures of ecological stewardship led to value systems such as kaitiakitanga that encode human restraint, embed the principle of reciprocity and foster reverence for nonhuman life, the West has struggled to embrace ecological limits to expansion, and continues to commodify the natural world. Illusions of “unfettered abundance driving [an] expansionist myth” persist, and species continue to be sacrificed on the altar of human exceptionalism and entitlement.
In considering the Indigenous experience of water in Aotearoa, Young makes an intriguing point about the connection between rarity and value: “For the Western mentality, rarity is so often a precondition of respect and of value. . . . Polynesia’s sacred regard for water, born of frequent deprivation, might have declined given exposure over a period of 700 years to generally plentiful water. But the contrary applies. . . . Māori gratitude for and awe of water was both profound and enduring.”
Young gives an extensive consideration of traditional Hawaiian thinking and practice concerning water, noting how an intricate, interlocking system of values and rights was steamrollered by colonisation, in which “the individual took preference over the community; heavy water-using businesses over indigenous rights; and lifegiving waters were subject to the strenuous endeavours of heroic engineering” — a trio of effects that will sound familiar to anyone in Aotearoa.
Hawai‘i, as here, has been enmeshed in prolonged water battles. Yet despite the colonial overthrow of the Indigenous water economy, Young reports that all is not lost. “The public trust doctrine is gradually winning favour in ways that . . . will give more priority to the indigenous — as nature, as people.”
Young explains the origin of that doctrine: a 1973 Hawaiian Supreme Court ruling that found that water rights could not be owned, and that all the waters of the kingdom were subject to a public trust which included protection of the flow and purity of water for future generations.
“Would that modern law everywhere had remained this way,” Young writes. “Apart from anything else, it surely would have made international responses to climate change an infinitely simpler task.”
Young describes himself as an environmental historian, which may be an accurate description of his vocation but fails to convey the joy he clearly feels in the presence of water in its myriad manifestations.
Early in Wai Pasifika, he quotes lines from poet Theodore Roethke that speak to that sense of connection:
And all the water
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins.
I suspect this has always been Young’s feeling. A line from Faces of the River similarly reveals his deeper intent in documenting the water world: “In contemplating a river’s flow or its meander, in listening to its murmur, one may come to hear the heartbeat of the land.”
Ever alert to telling examples from the natural world, he explores the sacred significance of the peppery-flavoured kawakawa shrub, a relative of the tropical kava. He quotes the late Ngārangi Rangiuia, who shared the knowledge that “kawakawa is the only plant that doesn’t have a whakapapa back to Tāne and to some of his wives.
“That’s because it was given by Io, the supreme god. It is there to always remind us, being called kawakawa, that there is a right way to do everything. Whereas tikanga changes and adapts according to circumstances . . . the kawakawa is a reminder to us to ever be mindful of our actions.”
Not surprisingly, given its name and role, kawakawa is often planted near waterways and used to purify drinking water. It is also why kawakawa leaves are used as a headdress in times of mourning or welcome.
“After being dipped in pure water, its leafy stems were used to sprinkle water as a purifier over a person or whenua or even streams,” Rangiuia explained. “There were many ceremonies. People would bind kawakawa leaves into a bundle, breathe their thoughts into it for, say, a good harvest, and disperse it onto water.”
Māori esteem for water purity and purification is well known. The same is true elsewhere in the Pacific. Young describes Hawaiian purification ceremonies, known as hi‘uwai, in which practitioners “would first bathe their piko — the three navels — the genitals, the navel, and the crown of the head to open the pathways to the gods, the ancestors, and the future. They would then wash their eyes, nose, and mouth to be able to see more clearly, hear more distinctly, and speak more wisely in the coming year.”
This description comes in a chapter entitled “Keepers of the long view” — an idea which seems so necessary yet so challenging to embrace in an age dominated by short-term thinking.
Fundamental to the long view of life on earth is the practice of reciprocity between humans and nature. On that subject, Young discusses the widespread Indigenous practice of the gift economy, one of the most well-known examples of which is the North American potlatch, which was central to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
The potlatch practice is based on a belief system that treats all parts of the earth, both living and nonliving, as members of a community worthy of equal respect. Tribes who embraced the potlatch “understood their debt to nature and the dangers of personal accumulation: an essential aspect of gratitude in all relationships,” writes Young.
The mythic origin of the potlatch is a story with deep implications for modern times. As cultural critic Lewis Hyde explains: “It was the Indian belief that all animals lived as they themselves lived — in tribes — and that the salmon, in particular, dwelt in a huge lodge beneath the sea.
“According to this mythology, the salmon go about in human form while they are at home in their lodge, but once a year they change their bodies into fish bodies, dress themselves in robes of salmon skin, swim to the mouths of the rivers, and voluntarily sacrifice themselves that their land brothers may have food for the winter.”
Humans must honour that gift with thanksgiving and respect if the cycle is to continue. The first salmon to appear on a river is caught and ritually welcomed by a shaman. There are speeches and songs of welcome before everyone is given a piece of the fish to eat. The intact skeleton is then reverently returned to the sea.
Gift exchange preserves and increases the cycle. “It is this that distinguishes those who live by and of their land from those who see nature as an infinite resource for exploitation,” Young adds.
And it is on this thought that the book concludes. What nations and cultures caught up in the vicious circle of exploitation rather than the restorative cycle of stewardship must do to survive, is to reframe the way we orient society, Young writes.
“Not tribal but definitely attentive to the earth and its nuances; not necessarily communal but certainly community-oriented; not Luddite but certainly inside a closed rather than a consumptive linear system that, on current trends, is not only wasteful and destructive but also, as if we do not already know, ultimately deadly.”
Wai Pasifika was published by Otago University Press in 2021. 304 pages, RRP $60.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.