By Jessica Pierucci
On Monday afternoon, July 17, 2017, the 2017 Schaffer Grant recipient, Rosemarie Rogers, delivered a fascinating presentation titled “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” or “I am the river and the river is me” about the personhood of the Whanganui River. Rosemarie traveled to the AALL 2017 conference in Austin, Texas all the way from New Zealand, where she is an Information Services Adviser at the law firm of Buddle Findlay.
Rosemarie started by taking us back to 1840, when over 500 Māori chiefs and the British Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi. The English and Māori versions of the treaty differed significantly, which created substantial disagreement over the meaning of the treaty.
This disagreement ultimately led to the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to settle treaty claims by the Māori arising from the actions of the British Crown. The tribunal initially had limited powers over claims arising before 1975, but its reach was extended in 1985 to historical claims that date back to 1840.
The dispute over the Whanganui River is one of those historical claims.
Before discussing the dispute over the river, Rosemarie shared two additional notable settlements coming out of the Waitangi Tribunal to provide context: the settlement of the Ngāi Tahu dispute and the settlement of the Te Urewera dispute.
First, the Ngāi Tahu dispute emerged from a complaint about land acquisition by the British Crown. In simple terms, the tribunal concluded that substantial compensation was required for the land and rights to significant sites were transferred as part of the settlement.
Second, the Te Urewera dispute arose over the status of a national park and is in many ways a precursor to the outcome of the Whanganui River dispute. The tribunal concluded that the, now former, national park, in Rosemarie’s words, “owns itself,” in that it is a legal entity. This vested the land in Te Urewera, granting personhood to Te Urewera.
These prior outcomes provide foundation for the tribunal’s conclusion that the Whanganui River is a legal person. This conclusion can be found in a settlement officially finalized through the passage of a bill by the New Zealand Parliament just a few months ago, in March 2017. Rosemarie shared the sad history of the Whanganui River explaining that it was used by the Māori for transport and food until the British Crown destroyed much of their ability to do so. Māori people brought this claim to right this wrong.
Now, as a result of the settlement, there is hope for the future of the river because, as a legal person and taonga (meaning ancestral treasure), the river has rights. The river will be appointed representatives to represent its interests.
During the Q&A, Rosemarie shared that this recent settlement has been covered by many major news organizations (NPR, The Guardian, BBC, and the New York Times, to name a few). She also entertained a lively discussion with attendees about the potential implications of personhood for the river. According to Rosemarie, the Whanguanui River is the first river to be legally declared a person, so many of the decision’s implications are not yet clear. That will be the next chapter in this river’s story. Maybe the topic of a future Schaffer Grant lecture? We’ll just have to wait and see.