The River Runs in Our Blood   1 comment

Those who cast pollution on to the spirit of the River are casting it on to the spirit of my people. — Hikaia Amohia, Whanganui Iwi leader

There are limits to those DNA ancestry searches that help us “find our roots,” as we like to say. Such investigations can tell us something about the people from whom we have descended, which can help us think of our past, which in turn can foster a sense of belonging in the present. But the human genome is only one way of understanding our roots and constructing our identities, and that particular way neglects other potential connections to the present world in which we find ourselves.



The Original Whanganui River Claimants*

As an example of other ancestral connections we might pursue, take the Whanganui iwi of New Zealand. A recent article in The Guardian noted the successful conclusion of “the longest-running litigation in New Zealand’s history”: The Whanganui iwi claimed that the river they call Te Awa Tupu is a living being and in fact “their kin,” and thus should be granted “the same legal right as a human being.” After over a century-long legal process, the court has agreed. Cabinet minister and New Zealand Attorney General Chris Finlayson summarized the outcome thus: “‘Te Awa Tupua will have its own legal identity with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’”

New Zealand now officially recognizes that to harm the river is to harm the tribe, “because,” as Whanganui lead negotiator Gerrard Albert put it, “they are one and the same.” In the Guardian article, Albert explained that “all Maori tribes regarded themselves as part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas.” At one with and equal to other lifeforms of the earth: such a regard indicates a profound sense of belonging, not only to the past but also to the present. “‘We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe,’ said Albert. ‘And therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point.”


This past year, the United Nations sponsored dialogues on “Earth Jurisprudence,” or the Rights of Nature, with participants from eight disciplines: Earth-Centered Law; Ecological Economics; Education; Holistic Science; the Humanities; Philosophy and Ethics; the Arts, Media, Design and Architecture; and, Theology and Spirituality. For my part, I thought about how we might de-center the “masters of the world” view of nature as a step toward a new starting point similar to the one described by Gerrard Albert: living as if we were part of the world, as if we belonged to it. For many of us, it would be quite a stretch to think of the creeks and rivers near home as living entities, as something other than “natural resources,” either at our disposal and subject to our control. Even the staunchest advocate of “restoring” the Los Angeles River, for example, might balk at embracing the stream as a long-lost relative. To do so requires challenging our way of thinking about the world while being open to other ways.

I suspect that those challenges are what prompted Henry David Thoreau to begin one of his last published essays by expressing his desire to “speak a word for Nature,” which could be understood as standing up for nature’s rights. Instead of repeating the well established “civil” discourse of the “champions of civilization,” Thoreau tried to make an “extreme statement” that would rekindle in readers a familial spark, a true “sympathy” with nature, a reminder of the shared nature within us. You might say that Thoreau’s “speaking a word for Nature” is just for Nature; but if we can acknowledge our kinship with nature—rediscover our roots, as it were—we can understand that the word is spoken for us as well. “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present,” wrote Thoreau. Living in the present means living a full life, being fully alive in and among and as a part of nature.

The Guardian reported that hundreds of Whanganui iwi  “wept with joy when their bid to have their kin awarded legal status as a living entity was passed into law.” Rivers are part of our past, part of our living present. They are part of us, and we are part of them. Their future and our future are related.

*Back row from left, Kaiwhare Kiriona, Tanginoa Tapa, Tekiira Peina, Tonga Tume, Hohepa Hekenui, Henare Keremeneta, Middle Row: Te Rama Whanarere, Hekenui Whakarake, DGB Morrison, Titi Tihu, Ponga Awhikau. Front row: Taka i te Iwa Anderson, Kahukiwi Whakarake





Posted March 31, 2017 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

One response to “The River Runs in Our Blood

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  1. My belief has always been pantheism . . . that the only living thing is God, the Universe, the Cosmic Dance. The river is God, the rock is God, you are God. Contrary to appearances, there are no separate things. Spirituality, to me, is recognizing this and being grateful to the divinity all around us. Morality, to me, is acting well to respect and care for the Universe (and all of it’s aspects, in all of the forms God takes . . . eg the river and Mother Earth.) Dance well with the river!

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