At nearly 200 miles in length, the Whanganui is New Zealand’s longest navigable river. It starts as an alpine stream, then gains steam with waters from other major tributaries. By the time it reaches its mouth at the Tasman Sea on the southwest side of the North Island, it’s a formidable force. And now, reports the BBC, it has been given the same legal status as a person under New Zealand law.
The legislation brings the longest-running legislation in New Zealand to an end—the culmination of more than a century of struggles by New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people to get the protection they think the river deserves.
For centuries, the river has been central to the lives of the Whanganui tribes. They've traditionally lived along the river and fished for eel there, but the Whanganui is more than a waterway. It is central to spiritual practices and self-identity. The waters are seen as sacred, and Māori people are taught to show it deference and respect. As a well-known proverb goes: "Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au" or "I am the river. The river is me."
But starting in the 1840s, European settlers began to threaten the sacred river with trade and riverboat tourism. Māori people protested and eventually pursued legal action. Protest and formal objections from the Māori over its ownership date back to parliamentary petitions beginning in 1873.
It took decades for New Zealand’s government to recognize the concerns of its indigenous peoples, and in 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission that inquires into Māori complaints against the Crown, was founded. In the 1990s, the tribunal held hearings about the Whanganui people’s complaints about the river.
“The relationship of the Whanganui people to the river transcends the mere physical world,” wrote the Waitangi Tribunal during the inquiry. “The river, for them…is not a convenient conduit for sewage or farm run-off, a means of electricity generation, or even just a transport link or source of food. It is the font of spiritual sustenance and renewal. It is a caregiver, a guardian, and a totemic symbol of unity.”
But though the tribunal found that treaties had been broken and that the Whanganui people had a rightful claim to the river, it took another two decades to gain legal recognition for the river itself. Now, writes the BBC, the river will be considered a living entity. It will be represented by one person from the Māori tribes and one from the Crown, and can be represented in court cases in an arrangement similar to a legal trust.
The declaration has been greeted with joy by Whanganui people. “This agreement makes it recognisable to those people that weren't brought up with the river,” a teacher named Manu Bennett tells Radio New Zealand. "Through the iwi [Māori] representatives, the river will have a voice.”