Earlier this year, the New Zealand Parliament passed a remarkable piece of legislation declaring the Whanganui River to be a legal person. This was quickly taken up by global media: “New Zealand declares a river a person,” read the headline in the Economist, in an article that revealed uncertainty about what such legal recognition meant. Was it another quirky example from Downunder or a radical and effective form of environmental protection? The legislation was almost immediately taken up by Indian jurists as a precedent for making a similar declaration in respect of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Yet the story of the statute’s making is a very local one, in which legal recognition of the river’s personhood is deemed to be a postcolonial incorporation of Indigenous concepts of ecological spirituality and interdependency with nature. Both the local historical context for its making and the tensions that the statute manifests need careful unpacking.
The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act recognizes the particular attachment to and understanding of local Māori Iwi, who collectively take the name of the river. Whanganui Iwi refer to their “tupuna awa,” or ancestral river, and explain that they are ancestrally obliged to protect the river in order to protect themselves. Recognizing their definition of this ancestral being as an “an indivisible and living whole,” the act defines the river as a “spiritual and physical entity that supports and sustains both the life and natural resources within” it and “the health and well-being” of the communities of it (Sections 14 (1) and 13 (a)). Many have therefore claimed that the passage of this statute in an otherwise secular settler state demonstrates, in a neat postcolonial reversal, that the law is finally “catching up” with Indigenous spiritual knowledge. As earlier versions of the bill were debated in parliament, Māori politicians from across the political spectrum hailed the extraordinary labor of earlier generations of Whanganui leaders whose efforts have culminated in this belated legal recognition. Media reports and commentaries commended the government for finally understanding that, for Whanganui people, the river is a person.
However, in what follows, I question the assumption that the legal fiction of personality is an accurate translation into law of what Whanganui people believe and practice. Holding open a space for considering the declaration of the river’s legal personality in critical terms—itself a “way of caring for and even renewing the object in question”1Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), x.—I argue that this beguiling notion cannot capture the plural and heterogeneous expressions of attachment, practices of belonging and care, economic interests, and complex notions of identity that Whanganui people bear in relation to the ever-changing river. The legislation is better interpreted as a strategic compromise reached between Iwi and the New Zealand state, as these distinct political entities negotiate settlement packages for long-standing grievances. It may also be another example of particular postcolonial imaginings in this country as it re-locates itself in the watery south Pacific rather than as a distant outpost of Britain. In this process of geopolitical reorientation, notions of Indigeneity and the sacred provide new ways of expressing national identity.
The declaration of legal personality endows the Whanganui River with standing in court where it can defend its rights. In drawing up the legislation, lawyers turned to the argument made by American environmental scholar Christopher Stone in 1972 that trees should have legal standing. (Though, significantly he did not consider the role of Indigenous peoples in pushing for environmental protections.) Stone defended his controversial argument as necessary in order to move beyond seeing nature as a “thing” valued only in terms of an economic resource. In any case, as he pointed out, plenty of non-human objects had already been granted legal standing, notably corporations and even states. In the post-World War II era of expanding human rights, those who had previously been considered as right-less—including women and African Americans—were winning new legal equality. Expanding the idea of legal personality to include non-human natural objects was itself an inevitable expansion of the morality of the law, he claimed. In the case of non-humans, while these legal persons could not, of course, represent themselves in court they could be represented by humans appointed to attend to their interests. Following Stone’s proposals, the Te Awa Tupua Act creates a guardianship structure, with one representative appointed by Whanganui Māori and another by the government. They are charged with supporting the river’s health and representing it if and when legal issues arise.
In the context of a settler state seeking to further enhance a distinctive policy of biculturalism in a post-imperial world, using the “vehicle” of legal personality carries with it a particular kind of politics. Some hope that protecting the river’s health in terms that recognize distinctive Indigenous relationships to water might even take New Zealand law in a new direction—toward an indigenized future that is better attuned to environmental exigencies. It is certainly a far cry from a 1958 legal decision on the rights of Whanganui Māori to their river, in which one judge dismissed the “cosmogonic [sic]” explanations of claimants about their inextricable identity with the river as “mere symbolism,” unrecognizable in a positivist legal idiom of “practical realism.”2Quoted in Miranda Johnson, The Land is Our History: Indigeneity, Law and the Settler State, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 140. In hearings about the river in the 1990s, the Waitangi Tribunal (created in 1975 to investigate Maori claims of breach to the colonial Treaty of Waitangi) acknowledged that conceptual binaries drawn in earlier court cases between the material and spiritual, the real and the symbolic, were untenable. It also found that Whanganui people’s relationship to the river was distinct. “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” (“I am the river, the river is me,”) goes one of their most well-known sayings, which the tribunal interpreted as an Indigenous concept of belonging that could not be easily folded into notions of property ownership.
It is perhaps the rhetorical effectiveness of this phrase, its economic expression of an interdependent identity of the river and the people, that has led some lawmakers and a wider public to claim that, in Indigenous terms, the river is a person. But doing so echoes older colonial and racist tropes of natives mistaking Europeans for gods. To refer to a river in ancestral terms, or to express one’s sense of identity as intertwined with that of a natural force or process, is not equivalent to what Stone (rightly) worried might be seen as a “fanciful” notion, that non-human natural objects could be considered legal persons. The simplistic idea that the river is a person does not accord with the complex record produced over a century and more of protests, petitions, and litigation on the part of several generations of Whanganui leaders who wanted to control the use of the river by individual settlers and government bodies.
This archive reveals diverse, complex, and even contesting accounts and claims about Whanganui peoples’ changing relationship to, need for, and dependence on this waterway. They certainly spoke of the river as ancestor and life-giver, but in none of the accounts that I have seen do Whanganui people call the river a “person,” which etymologically refers us back to roles played in theatre, to the masks worn on stage or in public life. The river was (and is) a boundary and highway; it harbored potentially harmful forces that need to be respected and placated. Whanganui people prayed at its edge and were baptized in it. They demanded that riverboats plying the tourist trade along the “Rhine of Maoriland” pay royalties to them, and they sought compensation for gravel removed from the river’s bed. Many Whanganui people were, and are, devout Catholics, and in legal appeals they quoted Biblical passages and they recounted founding stories of the “plaited rope” that bound together the different communities from the headwaters to the sea.
The Australian philosopher of science Helen Verran asks us to consider the “puzzling process of singularizing a governance object” as a political event, particularly in cases where different knowledge systems are in play. In this case, the fiction of legal personality singularizes diverse and heterogeneous understandings of the river in a form that, it is claimed, actually recognizes Māori beliefs and practices. This claim serves a wider politics of national identity in which New Zealand becomes postcolonial by incorporating, through a process of translation, key elements of Indigeneity. In questioning the adequacy of that translation, I am holding open a space for telling other stories, ones that do not necessarily accord with the expectations of postcolonial politics, or reveal the moral progress of the law, or even necessarily equate Indigeneity with a spiritual attachment to nature.
In this piece, Miranda Johnson argues that legislation of the Whanganui River in New Zealand as a legal personality exemplifies political tensions between the local Maori Iwi and the secular state interests. Here, she suggests that this watershed legal action does not constitute the real Indigenization of state law or progress for Indigenous sovereignty. Rather, Johnson proposes discourse surrounding the declaration of the Whanganui River as legal personality conforms to postcolonial politics of reconciliation within secular knowledge and legal systems, thereby erroneously singularizing the myriad relationships that the local Maori Iwi have had and continue to have with the river.
Johnson raises several insightful points regarding the consequences of this local decision, especially in recognizing the way the global factors contributing to this decision, i.e., Christopher Stone’s arguments in the US (Hutchison 2014), and the legal implications it has had for communities around the world, i.e., the Ganges & Yamuna decisions (Safi 2017). However, Johnson tends to minimize the global relevance of this very specific regional event. As Johnson argues, the context of this legal event is local, but she fails to recognize similar political conflict and compromise globally among other Indigenous peoples. While she argues “the story of the statue’s making is a very local one,” she misses that contemporary disagreements between Indigenous peoples and secular settler states influence and are influenced by globalized information systems and often reflect one another. As Valerie Alia (2009) argues, the New Media Nation, a body of Indigenous media actors is “[n]o real ‘nation’ in the political science sense.. [and] exists outside the control of any particular nation state,” but has emerged from “a shared colonial inheritance” and has allowed Indigenous peoples “to engage in transcultural and transnational lobbying.” The role of global media in Indigenous political sovereignty is unaccounted for in Johnson’s argument, and needs to be included to recognize similar political positions of Indigenous peoples around the world in relation to settler states. In this way, analyses in one regional context, like Stacie Swain’s (2017) analysis of the spiritualized metonyms like the eagle feather amongst Canadian Indigenous peoples as a challenge to Canadian statue authority, can have traction in the case of the Whanganui River – not because Indigenous peoples around the world share a similar religious/spiritual context (in that they all share one expression or another of ecospirituality and other supposedly similar Indigenous worldviews), but rather, because of the similar political contexts Indigenous people are positioned in. The Whanganui River here, as a spiritualized subject, is a site of resistance for Indigenous peoples to New Zealand colonial authority, just as the eagle feather in Canada is a spiritualized challenge to the secular colonial government. While Johnson briefly acknowledges the echos and entanglements of this event around the globe, she fails to describe fundamentally similar struggles Indigenous people face globally with settler states and the role media plays in fuelling these interconnected global events.
Of course, her argument for local historical contextualization of events of such important political moment is justified, as Indigenous peoples globally share no essential cultural characteristics in and of themselves outside of their positioning outside of common orientations relating to secular state governance. I argue that by contextualizing local Indigenous histories and recognizing the importance of global forces (like the New Media Nation) & facsimiles (like similar rulings regarding the Ganges & Yamuna river) of such events, scholars may make more meaning of them.
Alia, Valerie. 2009. “Scattered Visions, Global Voices.” In The New Media Nation: Indigenous Peoples and Global Communication, 7-30. New York: Bergahn Books.
Hutchison, Abigail. 2014. “The Whanganui River as a Legal Person.” Alternatve Law Journal 39: 179-182.
Safi, Michael. 2017. “Ganges and Yamuna rivers granted same legal rights as human beings.” Last modified March 21st, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/ganges-and-yamuna-rivers-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-beings
Swain, Stacie. 2017. “Between Recognition and Regulation: Relating Indigenous Sovereignty to Canadian Secularism and State Violence.” University of Victoria, 1-19.
Sam Maclennan states that “the Whanganui River here, as a spiritualized subject, is a site of resistance for Indigenous peoples to New Zealand colonial authority, just as the eagle feather in Canada is a spiritualized challenge to the secular colonial government”, sparking my interest to explore how these two instances of political resistance connection in an additional way. Both of these instances have shown that Christian symbols have contributed to challenging secular colonial government authority through Indigenous spiritual symbols. This religion vs. spiritual dichotomy or relationship is interesting to consider in an intersectional manner because we usually classify “religion” and “spirituality” as two separate and distinct domains. But in these instances, we see them as systems working together to make a positive impact, and to help create strength within Indigenous communities, when challenging the secular state government. As such, my response will pose a critical question pertaining to the intersectional relationship of both symbolic systems as mechanisms of political resistance and explore possible answers to it.
This article highlighted the role that Christianity played in the lives of the Whanganui people and within their struggle with state authority. What significance does Christianity (or any organized, institutionalized religion) hold for, or as complementary with Indigenous spirituality, in challenging state authority? Miranda Johnson argues that “[m]any Whanganui people were, and are, devout Catholics, and in legal appeals they quoted Biblical passages” (Johnson 2017). Stacie Swain (2017) states that the eagle feather “has been attributed with both political and spiritual significance, as if it was the feather that gave [Harper] the strength to stand up for Indigenous nations against the wishes of the Canadian federal governing powers” (1). Moreover, Swain’s footnote states that reports have shown that “Harper stored the feather, brought to him by his brother who found it on the trap-line, within the Book of Isaiah, and that he gave interviews holding the feather in one hand and Bible in the other” (Swain 2017, footnote 2, 1). In both instances, a Christian symbol was utilized to help Indigenous Peoples challenge secular state authority. Was it only the eagle feather that gave Harper strength to stand up for Indigenous nations? Or did the eagle feather gain its power through, not only Indigenous spiritual traditions, but also Harper’s inclusion of Christian symbols, like the Bible?
When approaching the New Zealand state authority, the Whanganui people found their strength within biblical passages, while also using their “Indigenous concepts of ecological spirituality and interdependency with nature” (Johnson 2017) as the underlying reason in making sure the Whanganui River obtains personhood under the law. Christianity and Indigenous spirituality may complement each other and may be able to be used together to challenge a long line of colonialism carried out by former Christian governments through various assimilationist policies. When considered in this manner, I think it is important to acknowledge that during the aforementioned colonial projects “the issue was not with the message of Christianity, but the cultural medium within which it was presented—the White culture that wanted to dominate and exterminate the Indigenous cultures in order to ‘Christianize’ them” (Radner 2014). This showcases the complicated and intricate relationship between spirituality and institutionalized religion. In both instances, Indigenous spirituality, through the symbols of the eagle feather and the Whanganui River, can be seen to be complimentary with Christianity, as an organized and institutionally recognized religion. Through the representation of Indigenous spiritual symbols alongside traditionally Christian sacred items, such as the Bible, it appears that both cultural conceptions are not mutually exclusive from one another.
Radner, Issac. 2014 “Indigenous Religions and Christianity: Acculturation and Assimilation–A Summary.” Indigenous Religious Traditions. October 22, 2014. http://sites.coloradocollege.edu/indigenoustraditions/6-•-independent-projects/indigenous-religions-and-christianity-acculturation-and-assimilation-a-summary/.
Swain, Stacie. 2017. “Between Recognition and Regulation: Relating Indigenous Sovereignty to Canadian Secularism and State Violence.” University of Victoria, 1-19.
When examining Miranda Johnson’s article, it seems that Sam’s comment introduced critical critiques of Johnson’s work. There are two main critiques that I feel highlight where Johnson may have not have conceptualized the importance of: the overall significance of this individual event, and the role that new age media has played. Focusing on these two critiques, is something that I will attempt to briefly expand on.
When focusing on the first critique of Johnson’s lack of acknowledgement of the overall significance of this individual event, it may expose Johnson’s colonial outlook on the situation, rather than fully incorporating an indigenous perspective on the issue. Johnson discusses how she believes that the court decision to officially name the sacred river as a person is not necessarily what the Māori Iwi have been fighting for in past years, as Johnson (2017) states, “I argue that this beguiling notion cannot capture the plural and heterogeneous expressions of attachment, practices of belonging and care, economic interests, and complex notions of identity that Whanganui people bear in relation to the ever-changing river,”. Johnson may introduce certain points such as this one which may actually have somewhat of credibility to them, however, there are crucial thoughts that she could be missing. Johnson must recognize that although the ultimate decision that was reached may not have been exactly what the Māori Iwi group has been fighting for in the past, that indigenous groups seem to have a much more difficult time in regards to having their rights and spiritual practices acknowledged in a colonial state. This outcome may not have been what they ultimately wanted, yet it is a stepping stone which may allow them to protect their river from colonial corporate interests. Other colonial states such as Canada, America, and Australia for example, have had a strong hold on the autonomy and rights of their indigenous groups, however, with a court ruling such as this one, indigenous groups in other countries are able to recognize that their is a real possibility that their rights and spiritual practices are respected and given legal recognition as well.
Johnson’s lack of acknowledgment of the overall significance of the court ruling in the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act, and not recognizing the overall importance of it in terms of other indigenous groups in a way ties into the next topic of the importance that new age media is able to play in colonial and indigenous strifes. Although some may argue that the media that is available to us today is a product of Eurocentric innovation and modernity, it can now be used as a type of tool for indigenous groups around the world to come together in unity to fight against the ongoing battle of assimilation and colonialism. Taking an indigenous and colonial fight happening across the world in the Standing Rock protest, the use and of media became a crucial element in the fight to ensure that the water remained uncontaminated. Whether it was the evident media blackout from major news agencies, possibly showing the recognition by these agencies that if this protest is given recognition that it could majorly sway perception in a way the State would not want. Individual news reporters and social media was a major influence in regards to showing the people what was really happening. Having the media traditionally taking the side opposite of indigenous groups has created a negative connotation of what indigenous groups such as Maori Iwi and what they truly stand for. Using Sam’s comment as a base for what has been discussed allows the reader to recognize that Johnson’s lack of acknowledgment for the overall importance of this individual event may skew the reader’s thought of the intentions of the Maori Iwi, and dimension not only the Maori Iwi’s fight for indigenous resurgence, but also other indigenous groups around the world as well.