New Zealand river’s personhood status offers hope to Māori

WHANGANUI, New Zealand (AP) — The Whanganui River is surging into the ocean, fattened from days of winter rain and yellowed from the earth and clay that has collapsed into its sides. Logs and debris hurtle past as dusk looms.

Sixty-one-year-old Tahi Nepia is calmly paddling his outrigger canoe, called a waka ama in his Indigenous Māori language, as it is buffeted from side to side.

Before venturing out, he makes sure to first ask permission from his ancestors in a prayer, or karakia. It’s the top item on his safety list. He says his ancestors inhabit the river and each time he dips his paddle into the water he touches them.

“You are giving them a mihimihi, you are giving them a massage,” Nepia says. “That’s how we see that river. It’s a part of us.”

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In 2017, New Zealand passed a groundbreaking law granting personhood status to the Whanganui River. The law declares that the river is a living whole, from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.

The law was part of a settlement with the Whanganui Iwi, comprising Māori from a number of tribes who have long viewed the river as a living force. The novel legal approach set a precedent that has been followed by some other countries including Bangladesh, which in 2019 granted all its rivers the same rights as people.

In June, five years after the New Zealand law was passed, The Associated Press followed the 290-kilometer (180-mile) river upstream to find out what its status means to those whose lives are entwined with its waters. For many, its enhanced standing has come to reflect a wider rebirth of Māori culture and a chance to reverse generations of discrimination against Māori and degradation of the river.

Whanganui Māori have a saying: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au: I am the river, and the river is me.

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