The Whanganui River now has a voice following the inauguration of two people whose duties are to promote, advocate for and protect it.

Dame Tariana Turia and Whanganui Iwi Poukōrero (tribal historian) Turama Hawira were inaugurated as Te Pou Tupua at a pre-dawn ceremony in Taumarunui at the weekend.

They will act and speak on behalf of Te Awa Tupua, the new legal status that recognises the Whanganui River as an indivisible and living whole. The status was conferred by the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017, which also established the Whanganui River as a legal person.

Whanganui iwi and the Crown jointly appointed Dame Tariana and Mr Hawira as Te Pou Tupua for the next three years, with Whanganui iwi leader Gerrard Albert saying the ceremony was a historic moment for the nation.

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"Seven months ago, Tupua te Kawa - the innate values of Te Awa Tupua that stem from a hapū and iwi value system - were recognised in statute for the first time. Dame Tariana and Mr Hawira have now been consecrated as the voice of Te Awa Tupua in line with Tupua te Kawa."

Mr Albert said Te Pou Tupua is an active rather than symbolic role.

"Dame Tariana and Mr Hawira will speak, promote and take any appropriate action they feel necessary to uphold, promote and protect Te Awa Tupua," Mr Albert said.

"The effort it has taken to achieve the paradigm shift that sees all communities of Te Awa Tupua share responsibility for the health and well-being of the river in line with Tupua te Kawa is not lost on them."

Dame Tariana acknowledged the importance of the role when she spoke at the inauguration ceremony.

"The station of Te Pou Tupua is probably the most important role either Turama or I have ever been appointed to," Dame Tariana said.

"It is a huge honour to represent Te Awa Tupua and to be able to serve the people."

Te Pou Tupua have the responsibility of speaking on behalf of and upholding the status of Te Awa Tupua.

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"We cannot do this without speaking to the communities of Te Awa Tupua first. Our initial task will therefore be to seek out and engage the awa community mai i uta ki tai, from the source of the awa to the sea, to gather views on how the new status and Tupua te Kawa can be best utilised in the interests of promoting and enhancing the health and well-being of the Whanganui River and its communities.

"We look forward with eagerness and humility to undertaking this task on behalf of the indivisible and living whole that is Te Awa Tupua."

Since leaving Parliament in 2014, former Maori Party leader Dame Tariana has been chair of the Parihaka Settlement Trust, Pou of Te Pou Matakana, Pou Arahi for the Accident Compensation Corporation, and Assessor for both Te Putahitanga o te Waipounamu and Tipu Ora. She is an Honorary Fellow of the New Zealand College of General Practitioners and is on the Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board.

Mr Hawira is an experienced cultural advisor, and a trustee and director of several hapū and iwi trusts. He has chaired the Ngā Rauru Iwi post-settlement governance entity, served as a director of Morikaunui Incorporation and presented research and advice on behalf of hapū and iwi claimants of the wider Whanganui-Ruapehu District to the Whanganui District Inquiry of the Waitangi Tribunal, WAI 903.