20 Apr 2017

Water Fools? - The river is me

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From Water Fools?, 9:45 pm on 20 April 2017

It is a still morning at Levin's Lake Horowhenua and many cars have parked up to admire the lake.

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But for Muaūpoko Tribal Authority deputy chair Robert Warrington, it is more than just a view.

"We have [had] this affinity with it for so long," he says.

"You look around and now there is heaps of cars here. Everyone coming down to have their lunch here. 

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 Robert Warrington sits in front of Lake Horowhenua Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

"They look at that because it is beautiful... But not only do we know the beauty but we know every story about every inch of it." 

"I can point out spots - like over there is Pipiriki and that is probably the last inter-iwi battle that was had in New Zealand". 

However, like many of the country's waterways Lake Horowhenua is polluted. 

And the damage runs deep. It is not just a physical problem for Māori - it is spiritual and cultural. 

That's why Mr Warrington is at the lake every week, helping with riparian planting, fishing for pest fish and sampling the water. 

Views of the Whanganui River from the Putiki bank where the kura is located.

  The Whanganui River from the Putiki bank where Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi is located. Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Further north, Wai Māori chair Ken Mair is sitting on a park bench at Pakaitore overlooking the Whanganui River and trying to articulate the relationship Māori have with water.

Ken Mair, chair of Wai Māori Trust

 Ken Mair, chair of Wai Māori Trust Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

"Water is an integral part of the spiritual and physical sustenance of the Māori people," he says.

"You can see the water suffering everywhere."

"The immense damage that has been done by people towards water has to be fixed up by us understanding that the maemae is not just within us as a people but actually the maemae, the pain, is within the water.

"Whether that is through pollution, dairy farming... etcetera." 

Whanganui Iwi leader Gerrard Albert says his people have a saying: "Ko Au te Awa ko te Awa ko Au - I am the River and the River is Me." 

Indeed, it's Māori protocol for people meeting for the first time to say a mihi or pepeha that explains the main waterway from their iwi territory.

"The way in which we have been brought up to relate to the river is as if we are talking about ourselves," Mr Albert says.

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 Whanganui Iwi Leader Gerrard Albert Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

"Te Ao Pākehā, tends to put [the river] just in the environmental sort of box... so they put a lot of things in front of that box - economic interests, social interests, political interests. 

"Whereas as Māori, every time we greet each other, every time we have an occasion, mihi, whaikōrero, karanga, all of our tīkanga is based around recognising our relationship with our lands and with our waters, and we wear it out front. 

"We wear it on our sleeves."

Last month, the Whanganui River was given the same rights as a person - a world first. 

Mr Albert was involved in the settlement and says while a lot of fuss was made about it, it was the only mechanism to ensure Māori values for the river were upheld in today's legal system.

'Our awa is our tupuna'

Students at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi. From left to right, Tumaia Hamahona, Anahera Hamahona, Trey Aitokia and Mataamua Biddle.

Students at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi. From left to right, Tumaia Hamahona, Anahera Hamahona, Trey Aitokia and Mataamua Biddle. Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Nestled on the banks of the river at Putiki is Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi.

The sounds of children laughing and playing in te reo Māori radiate across the marae and the urupa.

You can hear the flow of the river from the school gates. 

Tumaia Hamahona, 12, says in te reo that the river is sacred to his people and that it is very cool.

"He tino pai te awa mō mātau katoa nā te mea kei roto i te awa ngā ika, ngā kai mo mātou katoa. 

He tino tapū te awa kia mātau. Ka haere kaukau au ki roto, ae, tino pai."

Principal Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Te Atihaunui-a-Paparangi Miriama Harmer at her desk in her office

 Principal Miriama Harmer Photo: RNZ / Leigh McLachlan

Tumaia says he loves to swim and fish in the Whanganui river.

Principal Miriama Harmer says the atrocious state of the country's waterways is telling. 

"The health and wellbeing of our people can be seen in the awa and over the years, due to the way that it has been treated, our health and wellbeing of our people has suffered," she says.

Ms Harmer incorporates the river in the school curriculum and says the students have a deep connection with the awa.

"Our awa is our tupuna... We have always had her guiding us." 

Ms Harmer says the recognition of the awa as a person means that everyone now has a responsibility to treat it with respect.

"We have not been treating her well, yet despite all that, she still flows freely and strongly and is still a beacon for us." 

Water Fools? is a unique RNZ series running on air and online, and examines the state of one of our most precious resources, water.