The Life of a River

A Maori Cultural View of Rivers

by Kei Merito

Bay of Plenty Conservancy. Department of Conservation


As a child, I lived with my grandparents by the Whakatane river.

My grandparents taught me how the Maori regarded and respected the river, they said that the river was protected by the Atua (God) and we humans had to seek God's permission through prayer before carrying out any activity such as swimming, fishing, etc.

As a result of the Atua's influence certain qualities were placed in the river and the Maori referred to these qualities as:

(a) Mauri or life giving principle. Each river had its own mauri, and the mixing of water from two different sources such as two different rivers or water that contains or has contained human, animal, toxic or industrial waste is dangerous and could affect the productivity of the river.

(b) Mana - spiritual power and authority originating from the Atua. Permission to use the river had to be obtained through prayer.

(c) Tapu - ceremonial restriction which has been placed on some part of the river by a tohunga or priest such as:

(i) a death caused by drowning - rahui;

(ii) ceremonial purposes;

(iii) the making of fishing nets or building a canoe, etc.

Failure to respect tapu (intentionally or unintentionally) results in trouble, sickness, or even death and the help of a tohunga or ritual expert is required. There were certain degrees of tapu and tapu was either temporary (in the case of a rahui) or permanent tapu. Tapu could be uplifted through the process of whakanoa (to make common).

My grandparents showed me places where taniwha or river guardians lived and in most cases these places were dangerous. Humans, especially children, were forbidden to swim or fish there.

The Maoris named rivers after events or persons, for example the river where we lived was called Whakatane river because the river mouth is by the Whakatane township. The naming of Whakatane occurred when the Mataatua waka (canoe) reached that shore from Hawaiki many centuries ago. When the waka made for shore, all the men left the waka to explore the new land and the women remained in the waka. In those days women were forbidden to carry out any manual task on the waka.

Unfortunately the waka was not secured properly and it began to drift out to sea with the outgoing tide. Wairaka, the daughter of the chief of the canoe realised that the waka was in danger of being swept onto some rocks, so she stood up and shouted "Kia Whakatane au i ahau", meaning "I will carry out the task given to man". The women grabbed the oars and rowed the waka back to safety and since then the area has been known as Whakatane.

My grandparents also told me that the Maori classified water into categories each based on spiritual and geographical features. The Maori word for water is wai and the following classification of water is offered:

· Wai-ora: (pure water). This is water in its purest form. It is used in rituals to purify and sanctify and has the power to give life, sustain wellbeing and counteract evil. Waiora also means health.

· Wai-maori: (freshwater). This is referred to as ordinary water which runs free or unrestrained and it has no sacred associations.

· Wai-kino: (polluted). The mauri of the water has been altered through pollution or corruption and has the potential to do harm to humans.

· Wai-mate: (dead water). This class of water has lost its mauri and is dead. It is dangerous to humans because it can cause illness or misfortune. Geographically it refers to sluggish water, stagnant or back water. Some tribes refer to it as waikawa.

· Wai-tai: (salt or water from the ocean). This term also refers to rough or angry water as in surf, waves or sea tides.

· Wai-tangi: (grieving waters). Refers to a river or part of a river which through some mishap has caused death, much pain and grieving to the tribe.

· Wai-ariki: (hot springs or curative waters). The term ariki means "chief" in English and they are referred to as the chiefs or patriarchs of all waters.

There are many rivers with names that begin with the word wai (water), for example:

· Wai-kato: (full flowing river).

· Wai-rakei: (the place where the pools were used as mirrors).

· Wai-rarapa: (the glistening waters).

My grandparents told me that Maori regarded the river like the human body, if it is not kept clean it will become sick and may lose its mauri and die.

Wai has many meanings related to the idea of water as the essence of life. Waiora, waimaori, waikino, waimate and waitai - are used to define concepts for maintaining balance and interconnections between all living things and processes. Used as a prefix to a word, water means synchronised action. Wai-ata means to sing or chant.

Wai has spiritual meaning and wai-rua means one's soul or spirit as well as one's attitude or mood. Wai-wai means saturated, essence, the real thing, or soaked.

Modern industrial and agricultural practices have used rivers as a way to dispose of their wastes. This has harmed the mauri (life essence) of the water. Maori traditional knowledge and spirituality provides guidance on how we should view our waterways, how we can protect and heal the waters and ourselves through the principle of kaitiakitanga. Kaitiakitanga is caring for the whole of nature with reverence for people and all of earth's resources as gifts from God to be treasured and safeguarded.

Suggested Exercises

1 Find out the Maori name of a river near your school and its meaning. You may have to ask the kaumatua (respected elders) of the local Iwi.

2 Find out if there are places sacred to Maori on that river which you would need to respect.

3 Is the river being polluted? If so, by whom and what and can your school do something to stop the pollution.

4 Ask the kaumatua of the local Iwi about the cultural significance of the river.

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