Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.
I am the river and the river is me.
Māori saying regarding the Whanganui River, New Zealand
Untold winters it lay
Clagged by whirl,
Half-forgotten, even by ngā tuna.
The name took on water,
paddles were torn from the hand,
as rapids took you into a long turbid embrace
until the awa became a beheaded eel
headwaters sacrificed for power.
When the waka rose again,
crenellated flanks glistening
this gift was reined in:
the sound of its drying
a slow inhalation
Kukuta, dark vessel of memory
your name uttered each dawn and dusk
of our wending, hard journey;
you ride on still.
Drops ripple outward with song.
Rapids’ names recall ancestors.
Descendants still take up their paddles,
step into vessels of wood, of fibreglass, of hope.
Place chants histories; chants place story:
at Tawatā, Patiarero, Koroniti, Atene, Pūtiki.
Young paddlers, Ngā hoe e wha,
borne aloft on memory’s flow,
they renew their place in the land
and are reborn through water.
Awa – river
Kukuta – the canoe I was lucky enough to paddle in during the annual Tira Hoe Waka or journey by canoe down the Whanganui River, run by & for Māori of the river, who are known as Te Atihaunui a Paparangi. Māori are Aotearoa/New Zealand’s indigenous peoples.
Ngā hoe e wha – the paddlers from all points, a play on the Māori phrase ngā hau e wha, the four winds.
nga tuna – New Zealand’s long-finned eel (the Māori term is tuna), are probably the world’s largest
Wai – water; crucial component of the word wairua, which in some ways means spirit(uality)
Waka – Māori term for canoe, traditional or modern
Whanganui River – New Zealand’s longest navigable river, the Whanganui is a current of story and memory, full of Māori and non-Māori histories, many detailed by writer David Young and in Vincent Ward’s film River Queen. My father worked with local Māori on various matters, including a claim to NZ’s Waitangi Tribunal over water and other unfulfilled rights. That claim was but one part of the nation’s longest litigation.