Throughout my life in New Zealand, Whanganui has been a bone of national contention and confusion. I have grown up calling it Wanganui, however in 2009 the Geographical Board proposed to change it to Whanganui, (pronounced: fon-ga-noo-ee) as many believed it should have always had an ’h’ in it, which was believed to have been dropped sometime during European settlement. Now the Whanganui River is making international headlines for being the first river in living memory to be granted a legal identity. Regardless of whether you ‘h’ it or not, its traditional name is Te Awa Tupua, which roughly translates to 'the spiritual river'. Starting on the volcanic slopes of Mt Ruapehu and draining towards the Tasman Sea, the Whanganui River has one of the largest remaining tracts of remnant podocarp forest and has been an important source of food and transport for all New Zealanders throughout history. (Check out http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/whanganui-region/1
for more details.)
In traditional Maori culture, Iwi (or tribes) generally associate with a waterbody. One of the first questions asked in a formal greeting is ‘no wai koe’ – ‘What birthing waters have you come from? What is your Lake/River/Spring? Where are you from?’ These waters are not only where you come from, but define who you are and your place in society. Ngati Hau (Whanganui Iwi) take their name, spirit and strength from their river, and they have a saying ‘Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au’ (I am the river. The river is me.)
Now the respect is being paid back to in kind to the Whanganui River. Being granted a legal identity
means the Whanganui River will be recognised as a person when it comes to the law – ‘in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests’. It will be interesting to follow this one river's transition into humanity, and see exactly what it means for it, and other rivers in the future.
Whanganui River. Photo: freewallpaper.co.nz