The Waikato-Tainui relationship with the river is closely bound with the Kīngitanga and the Pai Mārire faith that King Tāwhiao brought back from Taranaki. Tikanga is a series of rules that are passed down from tūpuna (ancestors) and give Waikato-Tainui (and others) a basis for respecting the river, its resources and the environment. The purpose of tikanga is to find balance with and to protect the natural world of which we are all part.
The Kīngitanga is significant to Waikato-Tainui practices regarding the river. For Waikato-Tainui, the marae on the river are the centres of Waikato-Tainui communities that support the Kīngitanga and its values. Their histories continue to link them to the river and the Kīngitanga. Many Waikato-Tainui marae carry the names of the Kīngitanga and continue to celebrate poukai – gatherings that Tāwhiao began in 1884 to symbolise the importance of the relationship between the Kīngitanga and the marae.
Waikato-Tainui children have been raised to respect the river as a tupuna. Children were taught not to play in the river where taniwha (guardians) were known to appear. If they saw a taniwha making its way upstream, children were told to get out and sit on the bank to pay it respect.
In a similar way, tikanga taught people that the river was not to be polluted.
“We were taught not to mistreat the River by putting rubbish in it. My grandmother used to liken putting rubbish in the River to having rubbish being put in your own mouth.”
(Statement of Evidence of Iti Rawiri, prepared for Anchor Hearing in the Environment Court, Appeal RMA 662/97, April 1998)
Tikanga also determines how fishing was to be conducted. For example, the first catch of every season is returned to the river, even if the net is full.
“That’s for them, the tūpuna: that’s your koha (thanksgiving) to them.”
(Iti Rawiri, Oral History, 8 December 1998 cited in Parsonson, 1998)
Fish were allowed to die with dignity, and so they are not cooked straight from the river. Eels are also given respect in that they are not speared or disturbed while they are feeding.
When fishing, the tikanga is to only take what was needed. Often kaumātua will still caution fishers to only take what is needed and to not be greedy with food.
For marae, their mana is closely linked to kai. Marae have their own speciality foods. For example, for Tūrangawaewae, it was tuna (eel), for Horahora, it was kaeo (freshwater pipi), and for Tauranganui, it was matamata (whitebait).
Other resources are also important. Meat from freshwater kōura (crayfish) was sometimes used to rub on the gums of babies to help with teething. When it was used for this purpose, it was not used for eating. Watercress is used for food, raupō (reeds) were used for building houses and kiekie and harakeke (flax) are used for weaving clothing and whāriki (mats). These could be gathered from along the banks of the rivers and streams or from islands in the river.
Over time, constant human contact and a disrespect of the river has led to the decline of the health and wellbeing of the river. This has had an effect on the ability of marae to provide for their manuwhiri, and in turn, it affects their mana.
Some hapū and whānau put rāhui (restrictions on use) over certain times of the year to help fish stocks to replenish. Other practices include whānau letting others know when they are fishing so that a particular area of the river is not overfished. In some areas, such as Waahi Stream, different whānau had their own places where they would set their hīnaki (traps) for tuna, and in the lower parts of the river, different whānau had their own bench to set their net for whitebait. Tikanga would set the expectation that whānau rights would not be interfered with.
Rāhui can also be used to respect a death that has happened in the river.
Tikanga relating to childbirth involved newborn babies being taken to the river and being washed. This created a link between the life force of the river and the child so that they were one.
The river is also acknowledged as having healing qualities.
“[H]e waiora, he wai manaaki i te tangata, he wai whakaora i te tangata.
(The River is life-giving, the River nurtures the people, the River heals those who are sick.)”
(John Haunui, Oral History, 7 December 1998 cited in Parsonson, 1998)
Many people today still speak of the healing properties of the river. Many people from along the river have their own stories and experiences about the healing qualities of the river.
This article was written by Jonathan Kilgour, Research and Projects Manager, Waikato-Tainui College for Research and Development.
Copyright: Waikato-Tainui Endowed Colleges Trust.