The Waikato River is very important to Waikato-Tainui because the history of the people is interconnected with the river.
For hundreds of years, the Waikato River has provided physical and spiritual sustenance for the people of Waikato-Tainui. The river was a means of transportation for waka and a source of food and resources. Technologies may have changed, but it still has this role today.
The iwi refers to ‘te mana o te awa’ – the spiritual authority, protective power and prestige of the river. It is seen as a tupuna (ancestor).
The river is seen as a living being that has supported the people of Waikato-Tainui. It is likened to the blood running through our bodies and is seen as being part of the bloodline of the people.
Waikato-Tainui have many pepeha or sayings that acknowledge the connection between the river and the people. One of these is “Waikato taniwha rau, he piko he taniwha” or “Waikato of a hundred chiefs, at every bend a chief”. Taniwha (a guardian) is used as a metaphor for a chief and recognises the many communities along the Waikato River. It acknowledges the connection between the river and the people.
Our tupuna awa is part of our life as our tupuna awa is the main blood vein of Waikato-Tainui, which encompasses all lakes, tributaries, puna and groundwater flows.Submission on Te Ture Whaimana, the Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River, Kaitumutumu Marae, Huntly, 2009, cited in the Waikato River Independent Scoping Study, p.19
Until the 1860s, Waikato-Tainui possessed the river and the lands surrounding the river. In 1863, the Crown set in motion events that dispossessed Waikato-Tainui of the land and the river by 1865. Despite this, the iwi has maintained strong cultural ties to the river that continue today.
Waikato-Tainui maintains connection to the Waikato River by acknowledging relationships with taniwha, animals and habitats along the river. The health and wellbeing of the river is closely connected to the health of the people. Careful management of the river environment is needed to ensure the ecosystem is healthy and, as a result, the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the people is looked after.
Not only is there a responsibility to protect the river, but the river looks after the people. Physically, this takes the form of resources such as kai (food) – normally eels and fish – and textiles such as harakeke and kiekie. It also takes the form of activities such as swimming, hoe waka (paddling), the biennial tribal event Te Tira Hoe o Waikato and the annual Ngāruawāhia Regatta on the river.
Spiritually, people seek nourishment and healing from the river as well. The river is used to heal physical ailments, baptise children and cleanse the spirit.
Respect for te mana o te awa is central to the relationship between the iwi and the Waikato River. Waikato-Tainui treat the river with reverence, respect and love. The iwi has developed tikanga (customary protocols) that help to maintain the balance with the river and the environment. For the iwi, access to resources and engaging in water activities comes second to tikanga.
If the river is in an unhealthy state, then tikanga might say that activities that damage the river further will stop for a period of time. This would happen through rāhui (prohibition), for example, banning the collection of kai after there has been a drowning in the river.
Sir Robert Mahuta summarised the Waikato-Tainui view of the river best when he said:
Nō tātou te awa. Nō te awa tātou. E kore e taea te wehe te iwi o Waikato me te awa. He taonga tuku iho nā ngā tūpuna. E whakapono ana mātou ko tā mātou, he tiaki i taua tāonga mō ngā uri whakatupu. (We belong to the river and the river belongs to us. Waikato people and the river cannot be separated. It is a treasure that has been passed down by the ancestors. We believe that it is our responsibility to look after [the river] for future generations.)Sir Robert Te Kotahi Mahuta, 1975
This article was written by Jonathan Kilgour, Research and Projects Manager, Waikato-Tainui College for Research and Development.
Copyright: Waikato-Tainui Endowed Colleges Trust.