Rivers Voice – Morgan Southall

I have an interest in natural systems, particularly water systems and rivers, as well as in interest in the relationships between human and other-than-human beings. The accompanying studio’s theme, Tiaki Over Time, as well as some previous explorations within the Klamath and Skagit watersheds (of the Pacific Northwest), have led me towards exploring the relationship of between Humans and the Rivers of New Zealand. 

Upon brief online searches through newspaper articles, I found the New Zealand government has legally granted “personhood” to New Zealand’s Whanganui River, seemingly as a sign of acknowledgment towards the Maori and their guardianship of the river and its quality. I was interested in an other-than-human being becoming acknowledged as a being, in a legal standing. What does “legal personhood” for a river mean? How does it work? I was, and am still, skeptical at what that means and entails. 

I began my exploration thinking I would be reading academic and news articles, legal documents, and interviewing knowledgeable sources. I wanted to understand what this “personhood” meant for designers and planners – how could we apply this way of thinking to our planning and designs to create a more resilient, integrated and healthy place? I intended to synthesize my findings into an academic paper, one that could be applied to the Pacific Northwest. But my exploration started shifting as I began to see that New Zealand hadn’t really figured out how to address the wicked problem of river resources and “ownership”, and there were plenty of papers on the subject of “legal personhood” already. It seemed to me the legalization of personhood wasn’t the answer, rather a band-aid for a tumor.  

During this time, I had been traveling to various places in New Zealand, and of course every time we came to a stream, waterfall, or river I was compelled to get in, touch it, or at least stop our journey long enough to watch the water flow past. I began to take videos, discovered my phone’s protective case would handle submersion in water, and captured the sound of the rivers and streams as they flowed by. A comment from one of my companions led to me think that perhaps the product of my independent study could be something that could be seen and heard, something that could provide a stronger connection to these river beings. 

One of my main resources was a book, Tupuna Awa: People and Politics of the Waikato River. The book was written by Marama Muru-Lanning, and is derived from her PhD thesis. I learned from this book that her academic dissertation wouldn’t allow for some of the necessary knowledge about the river and its relationship to the people and land to be included, and Tupuna Awa was a way of including that knowledge. 

Across many of my resources I encountered the question of who speaks for the river? To which I had my own question of, what does a relationship between the river and ourselves as people look like? How can we work with rivers and watersheds in a respectful way, that acknowledges both the wants of the river and the wants of the people? What are those rivers saying and how do we interpret that? 

While many people might have their own opinion as to how to best approach these questions, my response for this independent study is taking a creative approach. The final product is a short video, welcoming the voices of the rivers to speak, shout, and sing, while also including my own interpretation of the rivers’ being.