Te Pou Tupua: Tūrama Hawira and Dame Tariana Turia with Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui Chair Gerrard Albert.

I am the River: Whanganui iwi on the four natural laws that guide them

Māori leadership throughout the Covid-19 crisis has looked different from iwi to iwi, and hapū to hapū. In Whanganui, as before, iwi have taken their lead from Rangi, Papa and the sacred River, writes Āneta Rāwiri.

Just over three months ago, on March 11, the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 coronavirus a global pandemic. It proposed a range of efforts aimed at reducing the global impacts of the virus and preventing millions of deaths.

Indigenous peoples worldwide, tāngata whenua in Aotearoa – and Whanganui whānau, hapū and iwi – mobilised quickly to lead a global indigenous response to Covid-19. Within Te Awa Tupua, we acted as we have for centuries – according to a close belonging to the River.

Our first and most important response was to reaffirm ourselves as part of a community; and not just a community of people, but a River community made up of the earth, sky and waters of Te Awa Tupua and all the life that exists within them.

Our old people describe this as a community of whakapapa, which begins with Ranginui rāua ko Papatūānuku me ā rāua tamariki. Within this community, we are younger relatives to our senior kin of the natural world. It also determines our relationships with others. The River has always sustained us this way – especially in times of crisis.

In 2017, New Zealand parliament passed a 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

In 2014, we entered into the Te Awa Tupua Agreement with the New Zealand nation state. The agreement became part of New Zealand law in 2017, but it has always been part of our River law. It is a step towards addressing the acts taken by New Zealand to separate us from our community of whakapapa and exclude us from its decision-making.

Those successive acts, taken over a century and a half, placed our community under enormous stress and brought us into a state of crisis. They left the River degraded and its people marginalised and vulnerable. The agreement is one way we’re rebuilding ourselves as a strong, healthy and vibrant whakapapa community; and working to bring about an equality of participation in New Zealand’s decision-making.

It responds to the crisis of colonialism by aiming to ground all decisions that affect the River in whakapapa and kawa. It also recognises that the wellbeing of the River and all its life – and the wellbeing of its people – are one in the same. We describe this natural sovereignty as Te Mana o Te Awa me Te Mana o Te Iwi.

The Te Awa Tupua agreement is based on four kawa which we refer to as Tupua Te Kawa. These natural values or laws are set by the River itself and its whakapapa community.

Ko Te Kawa Tuatahi

Ko te Awa te mātāpuna o te ora. The River is the source of spiritual and physical sustenance

Te Awa Tupua is the source of spiritual and physical wellbeing for all of its natural life – including Whanganui whānau, hapū and iwi, and other River communities.

Ko Te Kawa Tuarua

E rere kau mai te Awa nui mai i Te Kāhui Maunga ki Tangaroa. The River flows from the mountains to the sea

Te Awa Tupua is the Earth, Sky and Waters of the Whanganui River and all the natural life within them – including Whanganui whānau, hapū and iwi, and other River communities.

Ko Te Kawa Tuatoru

Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au. I am the River, the River is me

Te Awa Tupua and Whanganui whānau, hapū and iwi are inseparable.

Ko Te Kawa Tuawhā

Ngā manga iti ngā manga nui e honohono kau ana, ka tupu hei Awa Tupua. The small and large streams flow into one another to become Te Awa Tupua

Whanganui whānau, hapū and iwi and other River communities will work together collaboratively – for the health and wellbeing of Te Awa Tupua and its people.

Brooklyn, Hira, Dominic and Pūrerehua Pātea sharing the message “protect our whānau” in the Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui Facebook videos.

Tupua Te Kawa reflects an understanding that there are two peoples, two nations and two legal and governance systems that live alongside each other within our River community and a wider Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s a starting point towards reaching a shared understanding of this.

More importantly, in our River law, it is the River that determines people’s decision-making and their activities. The tripartite nature of the agreement reflects this. The River itself is a party to the agreement alongside Whanganui iwi and New Zealand. In addition, Te Pou Tupua is to speak and act on behalf of Te Awa Tupua to uphold Tupua Te Kawa.

Tupua Te Kawa aims to build with New Zealand a shared commitment to support the health and wellbeing of the River and its people. This will be achieved when all decisions affecting Te Awa Tupua are made on the understanding that the River is a living being – and whole system which includes all its natural life.

Tupua Te Kawa is reflected in our response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We took steps to protect our cherished elders, who are our leaders of today – and our children, who are our leaders of tomorrow. We continued our tikanga Whanganui to ground us in who we are, strengthen our belonging to the River and each other, and nurture our resilience.

Throughout lockdown Kiritahi Firmin and her son Panatahi taught whānau about taught whānau about growing and gathering kai  in their Māra Kai Facebook videos.

We met online via social media to share in ruruku and other tikanga whakapiki ora. We shared with each other our knowledge and experiences of rongoā, māra kai, mahinga kai and the maramataka. We shared waiata and whakatangi pūoro. We continued to teach and learn te reo me ōna tikanga.

We stayed home and looked after each other. We kept our whānau safe, happy and well. We followed physical distancing, whānau bubbles and regular hand washing, especially when we went out. We stayed in touch with our wider whānau and shared messages of love and funny videos on social media.

We cared for our whānau in need by providing food packs, emergency housing, and health and other care support. Our tikanga Whanganui-based approach aims to address the colonialism that drives inequality in our social and economic outcomes. We continued to work in essential services and, where we could, we worked from home.

We continued discussions to rebuild our collective ways of life through restoring and caring for Te Awa Tupua’s lands, waters and natural life, papa kāinga and adopting renewable energy sources. We continued to plan for whānau- and hapū-based social and economic activity that provides and cares for us – and our tūpuna awa.

We worked with our communities and a wider New Zealand society to respond to Covid-19. We continue to work with them as we move to address the impending impacts to all our livelihoods. We continue to work towards systemic change to address the River’s degradation and our marginalisation and vulnerability.

That starts with an equality of participation in local, regional and national decision-making; and equality in the distribution of resources. It is the only way to begin addressing systemic colonialism and support rebuilding a healthy, strong and vibrant River community that can withstand any crisis.

Rāhui and tapu have always been important tikanga for Whanganui hapū and iwi. The pandemic required us to place a rāhui on certain activities and respect tapu to prevent fatalities to people – because a single preventable death due to Covid-19 is one too many.

Under the rāhui, we saw the wider natural world start to come back into balance. Many of us enjoyed the change of pace and coming back into a natural state of balance within ourselves and our whānau. We now have an opportunity to bring all our relationships back into balance.

New Zealand is currently resetting the values base for its local, regional and national decision-making. The intent is to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis more caring and understanding of each other – and stronger collectively than we were before.

This must include resetting its relationship with the natural world and tāngata whenua. For Te Awa Tupua, this means developing and implementing new decision-making systems based on Tupua Te Kawa; and an equality of participation.

We look forward to building a River community and wider Aotearoa New Zealand, where we live and work together in truly collaborative and decolonial ways – which are grounded in whakapapa.

Only then will we address exclusion, marginalisation and vulnerability; and build the health, strength and resilience of our very sources of life.



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