Tariana Turia: The river is calling ... but are we ready to answer

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Time and time again I return to our stories, our life shared in and around the Whanganui River, our way of life. Photo / APN
Time and time again I return to our stories, our life shared in and around the Whanganui River, our way of life. Photo / APN

In 1920, the beauty and the mystery of the Otamatea River was revealed to the world in Jane Mander's first novel, The Story of a New Zealand River.

According to the critics of the day, the story was not well received by New Zealand readers. They condemned the failure of the novel to conform to the conventions of the 19th century British novel. For this was instead a story which proudly, defiantly, expressed an intimate sense of belonging to the hills and mountains, the creeks and meandering rivers of the land Mander called home.

A century later controversy and conflict over the New Zealand river still run rife. The modern debate, however, has been less about our rivers and our landscapes and more about running a commercial agenda around partial privatisation, ownership, economic interests and authority.

My old people taught me that if you respect the river and treat it well, it will in turn look after you. And so as the debate has raged on, I have returned home, to sit by our awa tupua and reflect on what this is all about.

Time and time again I return to our stories, our life shared in and around the Whanganui River, our way of life. My cousin, the late Matiu Mareikura, told the Waitangi Tribunal "the river is the beginning, the beginning for our people from the mountain to the sea. It ties us together like the umbilical cord of the unborn child. Without that it dies. It is our life cord, not just because it's water but because it's sacred water to us."

There is nowhere in the world that I can feel more at peace than bathing in the still tranquillity of te awa tupua. It is our lifeblood, a faithful friend, our mother, our father. We go there to fish, to play, to wash, to pray. We sprinkle ourselves with water to cleanse and to heal. We feel purified, sustained, revived.

When we have a problem we go to the water to talk. When we are sick the river renews our strength, giving us the power to continue on. I am always amazed at some of our staunchest kuia, who release themselves from hospital to go on the Tira Hoe Waka - our summer journey down the river for weeks at a time. They never falter - and in turn the river protects them and keeps them well.

We catch eels, we travel on our river highway, we learn about our traditions, and sometimes we just go there to swim.

We all have a story to share about the importance of water in our lives. In a great response to the current debate, Kawakawa man Richard Duley remembered how he had been consumed by the simple beauty of Moturua Island, or felt the lump in his throat gazing out over the Turangakumu summit. I could feel his love for the land, his sense of coming home. It is my story too.

Dame Joan Metge coined the phrase "talking past one another" to describe the difficulties that can occur when the concepts of one culture are being talked about using the language of another. I can't help thinking that this is what happening in the discussion around the rights of water management and allocation.

The only way out of this conundrum is to talk to each other rather than past each other. I think what we would find if we shared more of our stories is that we have more in common than we might think.

When Lisa Carrington won gold in her kayak, or double scullers Cohen and Sullivan raced to victory in the rowing regatta, there would be many a New Zealander who could instantly connect with that amazing moment of being at one with the water.

What the water debate has provided us with is a perfect opportunity to explain to each other why we feel the way we do about water.

Our childhood memories are built on the banks of the river, building dams across the local creek, jumping in the midst of whirlpools, riding the waves, drinking in the deep pure ponds of mountain dew. And so it stands to reason, as generations have maintained this precious relationship with water that we need to in turn respect water as a gift from the gods to look after for the sake of our children's children.

The fundamental question then is not who "owns" the resource but what are our obligations and responsibilities to keep it fresh and clean and flowing.

As Maori we do take seriously our responsibilities as caretakers for the future. At home we knew that when the fish didn't come there was something wrong with our river.

The causes were complex - farm runoff, gravel extraction, sewage discharge, headwater diversion, commercial fishing operation, landfills. Multiple interventions had made the river lower, slower and warmer, dramatically affecting the usual habitat of the eels and affecting the quality of our natural environment.

And yes - as guardians, as descendants - we care passionately about the various uses and abuses that our river has suffered and have taken action in the courts, in the media, in the Parliament to protect te awa tupua from further harm.

As a teenager I never understood about the relationship that my parents had with our river as a source of ultimate sustenance.

At that time when I was living at Putiki, we were not allowed to swim or to eat kai from the river because it was sick, it was desecrated, it was dirty. Over my life I have lived with that sense of loss and I resolved to do my bit to restore our river for my mokopuna to once again live as we used to live.

It comes back to where I began, with the story of a New Zealand river. I have always believed it is possible to have unity through diversity. Others may see the river as a source of energy generation, a transport link, a source of food. We see ourselves as inseparable from the river and the land. If one is affected, so too is the other. My friend the late Niko Tangaroa used to say the river is the heartbeat, the pulse of our people. It binds us together from the mouth of the river, from one bend to the next. We are related all the way through. We have no option; by our birth we are born to belong.

The different water stories we have provide us with the road map to move forward. Ultimately this is a value-driven debate which does not just belong to politicians or leaders or lawyers alone. It is our story as New Zealanders.

There is a korero we have at home - the river is calling for its people. The question is, are we ready to hear the call?

Tariana Turia is co-leader of the Maori Party.

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