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Waka at Tainui settlement celebration, Tūrangawaewae, Waikato, 22 August 2008. Image: Phillip Capper
Waka at Tainui settlement celebration, Tūrangawaewae, Waikato, 22 August 2008. Image: Phillip Capper

ĀteaNovember 6, 2018

Wai Māori: a Māori perspective on the freshwater debate

Waka at Tainui settlement celebration, Tūrangawaewae, Waikato, 22 August 2008. Image: Phillip Capper
Waka at Tainui settlement celebration, Tūrangawaewae, Waikato, 22 August 2008. Image: Phillip Capper

In this excerpt from the new book Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis, Tina Ngata talks about the whakapapa of life-giving freshwater.

Ko wai tēnei

When I speak to wai I speak to myself – and that is not only to acknowledge the inherent understanding that many Māori carry, which is ‘Ko wai mātou – we are water’ – but also that my knowing of wai has been developed through my own distinct exposure to elders, experts and experience. This linguistic relationship can also help us to understand our traditional perspectives, and the central role that water has played in our sense of identity and well-being. ‘Ko wai mātou’ also means ‘Who are we’. ‘Waiora’ relates to a sense of well-being across our physical, spiritual, emotional, communal and environmental dimensions, while ‘Wairangi’ describes a state of emotional and mental upheaval. Māori narratives of water are as diverse as they are rich – and so while I acknowledge the commonalities that carry across not just iwi, but also across many Indigenous peoples, I also honour the distinctiveness of my knowing, just as we should honour the distinctiveness of each waterway, and offer this as my own.

The whakapapa of water

Our world, Te Ao Māori, is a whakapapa – one vast genealogical chart that connects us as siblings, mutually dependent upon all that surrounds us in this time, and across time. Water first manifests in this genealogy as Wainuiātea – the great expanse of water, the gathering of all waters – who was the first partner of Ranginui, the Sky Father. Freshwater first appears as a consequence of the parting of Ranginui, Sky Father, from Papatūānuku, Earth Mother. Their grief and yearning for each other presents as the teardrops (rain) of Ranginui and the sighs (mist) of Papatūānuku. We can therefore see freshwater as the inevitable consequence of atmosphere, upon which all life depends. It is brought about through the separation of land and sky, held in place through the Atua Tāne, in the form of trees. In this form, Tāne is known as Tāne-Toko-Rangi – Tāne who holds up the sky. One of his multitude of other forms, however, is Tāne te Waiora – Tāne of the life-giving waters, of light, well-being and prosperity. It was the union of Tāne te Waiora and Hinetūparimaunga, the Atua of mountains, that brought about Parawhenuamea, personification of freshwater on land. That first sacred teardrop became Te Ihorangi, Atua of rain, parent of the hundreds of different forms of rain and snow that each had its own name, and also parent of Tuna, the freshwater eel. Once born, Tuna was given into the care of Parawhenuamea and Hinemoana, Atua of freshwater and saltwater.

Traditionally, these genealogical relationships aided our movements through this world. They helped us to understand our relationships to the trees, to the animals and the elements, and their relationships to each other. Whakapapa helped us to consider the consequences of our actions across multiple spaces, and make sense of what was happening around us. Indeed, relationships – whakapapa – are regularly cited as a foundational principle of Te Ao Māori. Māori scholars have often reflected upon the severe impacts of the loss of Mana Atua upon our people’s well-being, upon our perception of the world around us and our place in it. Indeed, the de-sanctification of nature has played a central role in the psychological assimilation of Indigenous peoples around the world. Most certainly our belief system of interconnectedness underpinned a different set of obligations to nature, and in turning away from that system, we also turn away from those obligations. What was once a relationship based upon connectedness and reciprocity between us and our non-human ancestors thereby shifts towards one of dominion over and ownership of assets.

The sacredness of water

When we consider these genealogical relationships, and the positioning of water within that genealogy, we see water for the sacred entity that it is – no less so than Rangi and Papa, the parents from whom we all descend. This is reflected in the many sacred rituals conducted with the use of water. The act of immersing oneself in water can, in some contexts, be seen as a powerful prayer in and of itself. It is not only physically, but spiritually, cleansing. Wai has the function of imbuing mauri (life essence) and mana, of committing any one thing or person to a sacred purpose. It can transition you from the restrictive spiritual state of tapu to the safer state of noa, and back again. Wai is present at our most sacred rites of passage – that of birth, and that of death. Even within sacred water forms, distinctions existed for the use of wai tapu, which could be used for the cleansing of corpses, and waiora, which could be used for healing and giving life. Particularly for wāhine, as the carriers of the birth waters, wai is a potent reminder of our own ability to give life and to oversee transition to death, and our duty to maintain whakapapa.

In addition to the sacred dimensions of water we had, and have, many other uses for it too. Water, of course, is vital for food, and mahinga kai (food systems) form the centre of village life. For Māori, the ability to provide food direct from our sources was a reflection of our mana – it demonstrated our ability to work together, to care for our resources, to remember and retain the skills that our ancestors refined over thousands of years, and to honour our responsibilities to Atua. All of these practices would reward us with abundant kai, and that in turn increased our esteem as hosts.

Water, like rain, and wind, was understood through a deeply complex framework, reflected by a multitude of names, each related to a different characteristic. Waiunu refers to drinking water; Waipukepuke is water that has been whipped by the wind to form peaks; Waihuka is frothy water; Manowai is water that has deep, strong undercurrents; Waiwhakaika refers to the specific ceremonial waters for the embedding of knowledge; Waiariki refers to healing or curative waters, often hot springs. At the other end of the scale we have Waiparu, clouded waters; Waipiro, odorous waters; Waikino, polluted waters; Waikawa, rancid, slow-moving waters; and Waimate, stagnant, dead or death-inducing waters.

Our ability to interact with these many forms of water appropriately depended upon our ability to ‘commune’ with the water, to listen, smell, taste and observe the waters and understand what each variation meant. Water has intelligence, comprised of its nature and the multitude of life forms within it that respond to various stimuli. Water communicates its needs to us, and our comprehension depends entirely upon the intimacy of our relationship with it. The maintenance of this relationship sits at the heart of kaitiekitanga – our principle of care and protection.

Waiora and ahi kaa – waters of life, and fires of occupation

The principles of kaitiekitanga and ahi kaa are inextricably intertwined. Ahi kaa relates to the sustained fires of occupation. We cannot understand the needs of our waterways unless we live with and by them. When we tell the story of the decline of the well-being of our own ancestral Waiapu catchment, we often link it to the depopulation of our rural lands. Indeed, in many cases the degradation of our waterways, from a Māori perspective, is a part of a larger story of colonisation, urban migration and the loss of ancestral knowledge around care and communication with nature. The fulfilment of our roles as kaitieki can therefore only occur once we are rematriated back to our tribal territories. I’ve borrowed this term from Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape director of the Indigenous Law Institute in Lenapehoking (New York), who says: ‘By ‘rematriation’ I mean ‘to restore a living culture to its rightful place on Mother Earth,’ or ‘to restore a people to a spiritual way of life, in sacred relationship with their ancestral lands, without external interference.’ As a concept, rematriation acknowledges that our ancestors lived in spiritual relationship with our lands for thousands of years, and that we have a sacred duty to maintain that relationship for the benefit of our future generations.’

We must physically be beside our waterways in order to utilise them, to speak with them, to listen to them and what they are saying through their scent, through their sound, through the taste of their kai, through their levels, through the life within them (or lack thereof), in order to realise this sacred relationship.

When I work with whānau, marae or hapū to determine what cultural well-being of their waterways means, we inevitably come to the question of ‘How do you know when your land and/or waterway is in a state of ora?’ Invariably, the answers incorporate relationships to the people – the food tastes good, we are able to use it for ceremony, the people are healthy, it is abundant enough to harvest from. This provides us with the definitive distinction between kaitiekitanga and conventional notions of conservation – which lean towards pristine, untouched ecosystems. Our notions of care always take into account a human dimension. It is our interaction with these systems that underpins our duty of care. We cannot fulfil our roles as kaitieki from a distance, and so depopulation of Indigenous territories, driven by social policies of urban centralisation, the shutting down of schools and the urban shift of economic opportunities, impacts upon our ability to retain our relationship and fulfil our roles. Similarly, our cultural capital, the richest resource for sustainable practice left to us by our ancestors, developed over generations of living in connection to these lands and waters, must also be accessible for future generations to inform our model of care – and so policies that fail to support our language, our cultural practices and our protocols within our territories inevitably impact upon our ability to uphold our roles as kaitieki in their fullest sense.

For this reason, when others come to talk to us about the well-being of our waterways, we will often wind up talking about the well-being of our people, and our culture. For us, they are all one and the same thing, enshrined through whakapapa, enhanced through familiarity.

‘Mātauranga Māori may at times be enhanced by western science, but must never be dictated by it.’ – Hal Hovell

The extraction of my people from our waterways has occurred across physical, epistemological, philosophical, cultural and spiritual dimensions. The tools of extraction have been political, legislative, economic and educational. When you ask me what it is that I want to see for the future of my people and our waterways – my ultimate vision lies not within the themes of ownership, which is not natural to us anyway, nor is it a vision of pristine cleanliness or even a standard of abundance – both of which will naturally ebb and flow.

My vision is the full restoration of our relationship to our waters. The honouring of our divine whakapapa, our genealogical relationship to and intimate interdependency with the waters. The return of our fluency in the communication of the awa, and responsiveness to the needs of our awa. The means of achieving this vision will require those same political, legislative, economic and educational tools. Within this vision rests the requirements for us to repopulate our territories and occupy our ancestral spaces. Within this vision also rests the requirements for us as Māori to engage with the gifts and skills left to us by our ancestors to inform our own creation, uptake and application of modern technology, in order to be the very best kaitieki we can be.

In 2017, Parliament passed a historic bill to recognise the special relationship between the Whanganui River and Whanganui iwi which provided for the river’s long-term protection and restoration by making it a person in the eyes of the law. Image: Fickr

While our ancestors left us valuable messages and inspirational models, we should never forget that our lands and rivers were different for them, with different needs, surrounded by different systems of living. Possibly the most powerful model of inspiration that we can draw from our ancestors is that of careful, purposeful care and observation. Through approaches informed by time-honoured holistic observations, and enhanced by technological advancements, our fluency in the reo of the awa can be renewed. Across our islands, our communities are taking up this challenge, and renormalising the ancestral arts of holistic, systematic observation and tracking. These systems of integrated habitat analysis are well recognised within conventional science as providing robust readouts on the well-being of freshwater systems – readouts that match those of hydro-chemical analysis.

Politically, across the country, local councils are stepping towards their Tiriti obligations, and entering into co-governance and co-management arrangements with iwi. The Waikato River, Lake Taupō and the Waiapu catchment are three examples of iwi working alongside the Crown through the Resource Management Act (RMA) to define their own expectations and means of care for their ancestral waters. The establishment of these co-authority arrangements surrounding our taonga calls for planning and decision-making powers under the RMA to be shared equally with iwi and hapū. The potential for these partnerships to afford our waterways the very best care possible will lay in the emphasis placed upon the vital dimension of relationship restoration. That challenge rests not only with us as tāngata whenua, but also with local government, which has become accustomed to the wielding of absolute power over the natural taonga of iwi and hapū.

Similarly, the granting of legal personhood to the Urewera ranges, Whanganui River and Mount Taranaki recognises a shift in the colonial systems of conservation and care towards perspectives that are rooted in Māori ancestry and centred in rights of care rather than rights of ownership. In celebrating these steps, we must always remember that the displacement of our people from their traditional roles of authority and care in relation to our lands, rivers, and mountains remains an act of injustice that can only be fully restored when our relationship to them is fully restored. This restoration journey will therefore continue to demand bold conversations around the wielding and distribution of power within settler–colonial systems. If we wish to envision a future that truly moves beyond our presumptions of ecological dominion, we must also consider the framework of domination that our very nation is built upon.

While many challenges remain, I hold out great hope for our future – the intertwined future of our waters and us as people. Our healing journey as a nation, however, must begin now. It must begin with an honest account of colonisation and its impacts, it must begin with an understanding of the social dimensions of environmental devastation, and it must begin with immediate shifts in the power dynamics that have thwarted social and environmental progression. Where steps have been made in that direction, healing has begun. It is my vision, and prayer, that those steps continue.

Mauri ora.


This is an excerpt from Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis edited by Mike Joy, published by Bridget Williams Books.

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