The speaking poles of Whanganui

A river of manifold voices

Adzed pole at Kakahi marae / Kennedy Warne

I first came to Whanganui River, Te Awa Tupua, 30 years ago, while working on a story by one of the river’s great narrators, David Young, for the third issue of New Zealand Geographic.

Last December, after proposing for several years that National Geographic publish a story on the legal personhood statutes that have been passed in New Zealand (Te Urewera in 2014 and Te Awa Tupua in 2017), I returned to the river to write a short story on just that subject, which appeared online last month.

As is always the case with writing, there were innumerable other things that could have been said, and today E-Tangata has published a story based on the journey I undertook for National Geographic.

Not included in either story was a stop I made at Kakahi, situated at the confluence of the Whanganui and Whakapapa Rivers, south-east of Taumarunui. At the marae, I noticed a tall, square-sided pole that rose high and cast a shadow over the lawn in front of the buildings. I walked to the pole and ran a hand over the adze marks, recalling that the Whanganui is renowned for these pou, which have been erected to make declarations of war, peace, boundary matters and more. And today the two people who are designated to speak on behalf of the river are themselves called poles—pou tupua.

An elderly woman was weeding and tidying graves in the urupa near the marae, and I asked her about the pou. Her father had made it, she told me. It was a peace pole, a pole that spoke of reconciliation. She said that in her day when children misbehaved they were sent to the pole to reflect on their misdeeds.

I thought this marvellous, that from the earliest age children learn that not just humans speak. Ceremonial poles do, too. And so does the river.