Ko au te awa ko au te awa ko au / I am the river and the river is me

A portrait of the indegenous people of Whanganui New Zealand

Ko au te awa ko au te awa ko au / I am the river and the river is me

Martin Toft


120 pages
63 colour photographs
Hard cover: oatmeal linen
Paper: Proline Uncoated, 148 gsm
Size: 25 cm x 20 cm

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In February 1996 I returned to New Zealand to begin a new adventure. I was a young photographer then. I had previously lived for a year in Auckland but had no contact with its indigenous population. On a whim from a family contact to a Dane, who had lived here for a while. I jumped on a train from Auckland to Tauramunui, a rural town situated in close proximity to the Whanganui River in an area known as the King Country on the North Island of New Zealand.

For weeks I tried and failed to make any photographs or make much contact to Maori living in this area. But, my luck changed when I met a Pakeha (white man) who was building hunting lodges deep in the native bush surrounded by Tongariro National Park. At the official opening of the Waipari Lodge complex I met a tribal leader from a Maori tribe who owned the rights to the land and who was a partner in this new commercial venture of bringing rich American game hunters to shoot deer. The weather on that day was terrible; wet and rainy. During his opening speech the clouds suddenly opened and the sunlight was shining through, bathing him in a warm glow. The tribal elder welcomed me onto his ancestors land and afterwards he pulled me aside and asked me what I was doing here. I told him, I had come to learn about his people and wanted to make a portrait about Maori culture and their spiritual connection to the land. I explained that so far people were sceptical and did not want me to photograph them. He looked at me intently and said, ‘what you are doing is important, not only for yourself but for our people too.’

And so, my journey began. In the next 6 months I met and photographed some incredible people who lived along the banks of the Whanganui River and in the foothills of three active volcanoes forming the Central Plateau on New Zealand’s North Island. During this time I learned their language well enough to be welcomed onto the marae and explain my purpose. Later, I took part in an illegal occupation of a piece of ancestral land along the river inside the Whanganui National Park. Around the campfire at night I would listen intently to warriors Paiki and Hokio talking about the mythical homeland Hawaiki, a Polynesian island where upon a dwelling with four doors housed all ancestors and spirits of  the black, blue, red and yellow people. In the end, I was adopted into a Maori tribe, Mangapapapa and were given a native name Pouma Pokaiwhenu (Pillar of Purity and Food of the Earth.) These photographs tell the story of my encounter with those people, the Maori.

The photographs in this book also represents a much broader portrait of rural life in and around the town of Taumarunui - originally a Maori village which linked the central North Island settlements with those down the Whanganui River. This book is not about the river of Whanganui specifically but its flow of water symbolises more a life force that connects different communities together and it is also a vector for a much broader cultural identity and heritage of both people and place. With these photographs I wanted to portray how they lived and worked without any romantic conviction of indigenous people living in 'exotic' places.

The name of this project is Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au which translates directly as I am the river and the river is me. This is an expression that the ancestors of the tribes of Whanganui used to say as they travelled the river. It reflects both on my own experience of living within a tribal community along the Whanganui River, as well as represents Maori’s spiritual connection to their ancestral land. Since the 19th-century Maori have protested against their threatened river interests heralding the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history against the government. This began in the 1930s with petitions and court action; these led in the 1990s to the Waitangi Tribunal hearings, and after that the settlement process - which are still on going to this day. At the heart of all this is the Whanganui tribes’ claim to the river, which is still seen as both an ancestor and a source of material and spiritual sustenance. The issue is, who owns the water?



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© Martin Toft, April, 2015