There were songs and tears as Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill had its first reading in Parliament on Wednesday.

Three busloads of Whanganui iwi were in Wellington for the occasion - one starting from Taumarunui during the night and meeting two from Whanganui in town at 5.30am. Those people were joined by others with Whanganui connections who live in Wellington.

They filled Parliament's gallery and overflowed into another room where they could watch the action on a screen.

It was a moment many have looked forward to for a long time.


"It was a beautiful day," one Whanganui woman said.

"It was amazing. I was an emotional mess and it was not just me, either. It brought back a lot of memories of a lot of people who had fought for this and weren't there to witness the prize."

Some of those people were named in Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson's speech.

He said the late Sir Archie Taiaroa was pivotal, and also named Michael Potaka and Dardanella Mete Kingi Mato.

And he said Whanganui Mayor Annette Main, also present, had been a wonderful supporter.

"Thank goodness she was the mayor when we were dealing with this issue."

Also present on Wednesday were Dame Tariana Turia and Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, who has a connection with the Whanganui River through its origin at Mt Tongariro.

Mr Finlayson spoke of the first petition to Parliament by Whanganui iwi in 1873 and said the tribes had never willingly relinquished their role with the river.

His was the first of many speeches. Both Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox and National list MP Joanne Hayes began theirs with a song, and those upstairs in the gallery joined in. Te Tai Hauauru MP Adrian Rurawhe incorporated a chant into his speech.

After the speeches, Whanganui iwi sang Te Wai o Whanganui, a song composed in 1939 by Te Ope Whanarere of Kaiwhaiki.

Gerrard Albert said its last verse summed up the importance of the river to the iwi.

The verse translates as "Ye tribes of Whanganui, let us with one accord unite with one voice unto the end".

The Whanganui group then moved from Parliament to Pipitea Marae for a low-key welcome and celebration, followed by a meal.

The bill has two more readings before it can be passed.

Mr Albert, the chairman of the Whanganui iwi post-settlement governance entity, said the legislation would establish a group of stakeholders who would produce a plan to improve the river's health and well-being.

Work towards that end will be financed by a $30 million contestable fund, Te Korotete.

"Te Awa Tupua is now calling, to its people, to the many communities of the river, to join together and prepare for the work still ahead," he said.