Healing Our Rivers and Ourselves: Learning with Indigenous Peoples of New Zealand

Sep 22, 2021, 10:00 AM, Posted by

Our health is inextricably connected to the health of land, water, and all living things. The ways in which Indigenous peoples live that connection offer lessons that could benefit all of humanity. 

A woman stands on a walking trail bridge over a river.

Our nation’s health is intertwined with the health of our rivers. And our rivers are unwell.

Drinking water, food, sanitation, clothing, transportation: almost everything we do involves an interaction with water. Yet many people in America take water for granted, not realizing that pollution, overuse, and climate change are putting a chokehold on the country’s natural water reserves—posing a direct threat to health, equity, and our way of life.

While many may think that new technology and innovation can resolve our water crisis, I believe that the solution lies with Indigenous practices that have fostered a holistic approach to living in relationship with the natural environment for millennia. Let me explain.

Our Relationship with Nature

Indigenous peoples share a common worldview of our relationship with the natural world. One that is guided by Indigenous values and principles of respect, cooperation and responsibility. These principles govern our individual and collective beliefs, behaviors and relationships—as given to us from our ancestors. While our customs may differ, our lived connection with our environment is universal. In sharp contrast, Western mindsets tend to view nature as a commodity, maintaining a relationship that is centered on resource-taking.

Rivers are an excellent example. The Māori peoples of the Whanganui River in New Zealand view their ancestral river, Te Awa Tupua, as an indivisible whole, incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements from the mountains to the sea. This catchment-wide approach ensures that all of the waterways that form the Whanganui River are viewed and managed, not in isolation, but with reference to the whole river as an interconnected ecosystem.

In the United States, and in particular the Colorado River Basin where I grew up, we create laws that slice up our rivers with little regard for their health. These laws divide our rivers in half between the upper and lower basins, separate out the groundwater from the surface water, and apportion the tributaries—cutting them up into allotments measured in cubic meters for the taking. We wield control over our rivers, damming and diverting their flow to water our crops and power our electricity. This approach leads to over-allocation, poor water quality, and rivers that are sucked dry.

Historic Roots

American’s view of nature as “property” run long and deep—and can be traced all the way back to the colonial settler attitudes. For the last 175 years, federal policies have systematically disrupted traditional life ways among the 30 tribes with historic ties to the Colorado River Basin. In the mid- to late 1800s, many river tribes were confined to small reservations, and in some cases, forcibly removed from their ancestral homes, dismantling their relationship with the rivers as their original custodians.

A similar colonial history is shared with Māori. In New Zealand, more than a century of laws, regulations, and actions of the government also fragmented the Whanganui River, diverting its headwaters, building hydroelectric dams that stem its flow and threaten its health. Since 1873, local Māori had sought to obtain legal protections for the Whanganui River, catalyzing “one of New Zealand’s longest running court cases.”

Five years ago, all of that changed when the New Zealand parliament passed unprecedented legislation granting ‘personhood’ to the country’s Whanganui River. Contrary to American law which defines nature as property, legal personhood recognizes the rights of the river to be healthy and to be protected from harm. It is also the framework by which the innate relationship of the River to the People and the People to the River is upheld.  

The Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 also created the office of Te Pou Tupua, which comprises two people—one of which is Matua Turama Hawira—to act as the face and voice of the river.

Learning From the World

The victory achieved by Māori iwi (tribes) for their Te Awa Tupua (ancestral river) inspired me to bring tribal leaders representing four tribes from my home state of Arizona, to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in 2020 to meet with Whanganui River iwi for a cross-cultural exchange.

The road to the Whanganui River wove through verdant forests that framed the river’s glistening waters, a sharp contrast to the red earth and towering rock formations of our desert home. We arrived at Hiruhārama Marae, a traditional meeting grounds nestled in a bend of the river, where, meeting us for the first time, Turama along with the local Māori community welcomed us as relatives.

We spent the next three days on the river, fully immersed in the culture and customs of our new relations. We stood before Te Awa Tupua and bowed our heads in reverence as our Māori guides acknowledged the river’s spiritual authority with prayer and invocation. We cupped our hands in the river’s flow and blessed ourselves with it. It was a sensory experience; one of love, connection and awe. Our relationship as one with the river had begun.

As desert people, it was the most time many of us had ever spent in and around so much water. For centuries, our rivers in Arizona were perennial. Today, their flow is now intermittent at best. For the past hundred years, legislation and water policy have allowed seven states to legally use more water from the Colorado River Basin. To make matters more dire, rising temperatures and drought have exacerbated the problem, drying out the headwaters and eroding tributary flows. The last time the Colorado River reached the sea unencumbered was 1963. The shortage has forced the federal government to take the unprecedented step of introducing water cuts. More than 40 million people and nearly 4 million acres of American and Mexican crops now depend on a water supply that is quickly dwindling.

Healing our Rivers and Safeguarding our Health

We are at a critical juncture where an innovative approach is needed to guide water resource management; one that reinvigorates our rivers from the mountains to the sea and guarantees a future where our rivers are healthy and access to clean water is certain for the coming generations.

It starts with changing the way we relate and think about our rivers.

We must begin by seeing our rivers as interconnected, living systems that incorporate not just physical but also metaphysical elements. We must approach our rivers with respect and care for them the same way we protect and care for our families. Only then will our decisions about water use be responsible and contribute to the vitality and longevity of our rivers.

In essence, we must prioritize the river’s health in our decision-making at the national, state, and local level. If we change now, we can heal our rivers—and safeguard our own health. Tribal Nations, the original stewards for many of our natural resources, can show us how and lead the way to a more sustainable future.

JOIN ME in conversation to learn more about how Indigenous approaches to water and land stewardship can help us build a healthier future for all.



Aleena Kawe headshot.

Aleena M. Kawe is CEO of Red Star International, Inc. and enrolled member of the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians.