Hundreds sang softly and a few tears were shed as the Whanganui River settlement was signed off yesterday.

At least 500 people crowded Ruaka Marae at the Whanganui River settlement of Ranana for the gala occasion. Marquees were erected for the visitors, flags flew and cars and buses lined the road.

Guests were welcomed in three waves and included the Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson, the Maori King Tuheitia Paki and Ngati Tuwharetoa paramount chief Sir Tumu Te Heuheu.

The welcome ceremony included a splendid wero (challenge) with taiaha flourished and piupiu rattling. Before the signing, four traditional trumpets blew in unison and there was a rare performance of the poipoi whakapapa.

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The Whanganui River will be a very different river in 50 years, Mr Finlayson said, because the agreement puts its health and wellbeing first.

Its people had never willingly relinquished possession of it, or the things that gave it its essential life.

A trip on it with the late Sir Archie Taiaroa convinced him it was important and that a just and durable settlement was needed.

Support for this settlement from river hapu and iwi was overwhelming. The word for the day was "kotahitanga" (unity), he said, "with small and large streams flowing together".

There was no hint of protest, despite reservations expressed by the new chairman of upriver iwi Tamahaki, Paora Toho. Members of that iwi were among those who signed.

The settlement has yet to be passed into law. It makes the river and all its tributaries a being with rights and gives $30 million to repair its health and $80 million in financial redress to its tribes.

The river becomes an entity in its own right, Te Awa Tupua.

"The Crown will not own the river bed. The river will own itself. That's a world-leading innovation for a river system," Mr Finlayson said.

Its rights are to be upheld by two people, one chosen by the river tribes and the other by government. The next stages would not be an easy journey, but would change the relationship of the tribes with local and regional government.

Whanganui iwi spokesman Gerrard Albert said the river was an ancestor.

"All may recognise that and take the responsibility to care for their ancestor...

"What's being created is shared. It's not just for Whanganui. We must all care for our ancestors in that way. From that basis stem the rights of us as iwi and hapu."

Negotiators for Whanganui have included Brendon Puketapu, Nancy Tuaine and Jamie Ferguson. Speakers for the iwi included Turama Hawira, John Maihi and Brendon Puketapu.

Whanganui people who died before the settlement was reached were in everyone's thoughts. Sir Archie Taiaroa was often mentioned. Others were Rangitihi Tahuparae, Matiu Mareikura, Niko Tangaroa, Pestall Pauro and Morvin Simon.

Ned Tapa (centre) was one of those in the wero as visitors approached. Photo/Bevan Conley
Ned Tapa (centre) was one of those in the wero as visitors approached. Photo/Bevan Conley

Applause greeted Mr Finlayson when he spoke of his admiration for the "great and noble" Te Tai Hauauru MP Tariana Turia "the foremost politician of her generation, I think", and when he mentioned Wanganui Mayor Annette Main, who was among the hosts at the marae.

"She has been utterly committed to this settlement, and excited by it."

There was plenty of ceremony. Several rousing haka, the chanting of whakapapa accompanied by poi, prayers and hymns. King Tuheitia's daughter, Nga Wai Hono i te Po, was symbolically accepted as part of Whanganui.

Tribes from outside the region included Ngati Maniapoto, a blue-scarved Waikato Tainui contingent with the Maori King, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngai Tahu represented by Sir Mark Solomon. Mr Finlayson also brought at least 10 diplomats from countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea and Canada.

He said special features of the Whanganui settlement were the 148 years of legal battle that preceded it, the fundamental identification of Whanganui iwi with the river, and the river's severe degradation.

BEDECKED: All the flags of the Whanganui River are flown. With them are Wanganui City College students (from left) Courtney Martin, Rangimarie Wiari, Eruera Heitia-Ponga, Te Wanihi Rowe and Te Waiora Pirikahu.050814WCBRCSIG68.JPG
BEDECKED: All the flags of the Whanganui River are flown. With them are Wanganui City College students (from left) Courtney Martin, Rangimarie Wiari, Eruera Heitia-Ponga, Te Wanihi Rowe and Te Waiora Pirikahu.050814WCBRCSIG68.JPG

"This is a dirty river. When you fly over in a plane you see silt pouring into the Tasman Sea. Clearly something has to be done about it."

It would take time to fix, but should be very different in 50 years.

He stopped short of saying making the settlement was unique. He'd heard of a river in Ecuador that had its own legal entity, and that work was being done in North America to give natural resources their own identity.

The complexity of the settlement didn't make it difficult, either.

"It was an extraordinarily determined and gifted bunch of people and it worked very well," he said.

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