Written by: Adrian Bathgate
Rising in the mountainous heart of the North Island of New Zealand, the Whanganui River has for centuries been an important route of trade and communication with enormous spiritual significance for Maori.
Maori legend has it that the river was carved out of the land by Ranginui ( Sky Father) as a gift to Matua te Mana ( Ruapehu) and is referred to as the teardrop of Ranginui. Later on, the great mountains of the central plateau, Tongariro and Taranaki, battled over the maiden Pihanga. Defeated, Taranaki fled west to the coast where he remains today and with his passing, the land split open. The tears shed by Taranaki at his loss, filled the ravine and became the Whanganui River.
Whanganui is the longest navigable river in New Zealand (and the third longest overall), which made it an important route for Maori to reach the centre of the North Island. By the time Europeans settlers arrived in the 1800’s the riverbanks were home to a number of Maori villages, making it one of the most densely populated parts of the country.
The collective name for the people of the river is Te Atihaunui a Paparangi. The river joins Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Hauaroa together in what is known as he muka na te taura whiri a Hinengakau; a strand of the sacred rope of Hinengakau.
E rere kau mai te Awanui, mai Te Kahui Maunga ki Tangaroa
Ko te Awa, ko te Awa ko au.
The river flows from the Mountains to the Sea
I am the river and the river is me.
The Iwi (people) of the lower reaches are Tupoho. The middles reaches Tama Upoko and the upper reaches, Hinengakau.
Whanganui’s Identity Recognised
Maori efforts to secure recognition and protection of the Whanganui River date back to the 1870’s, when the threat of the effects of European settlements and activities such as mining, agriculture and forestry began to have an impact on the health of the river.
Decades of negotiations culminated in the New Zealand Parliament passing a law in 2017 which granted the river its own legal identity, known as Te Awa Tupua, with the same legal rights and responsibilities as a person. Te Awa Tupua recognises the river as an indivisible entity, from its source on Mount Tongariro until it meets the Tasman Sea, with all of its physical and spiritual elements.
Giving the river the identity of a person was a world first and reflects the fact that Whanganui Maori regard Te Awa Tupua as more than just a natural resource, it is a tupuna, or ancestor.
This innovative approach recognises the deep spiritual connection between local Maori and the river, ensuring its protection as the lifeblood of the region for centuries to come.