Indigenous Exchange

Overview | Events | About | The Inspiration | Whangaui River | Exchange Principle

Indigenous Knowledge Exchange 2020-2023

All humanity is inextricably connected to the land, water and all living things.  

Our rivers are alive and embody a life force, spiritual power and authority unto themselves. As Indigenous peoples, our relationship with our rivers is sacred, reciprocal and for some, it is ancestral.  Our ancestors have left it in our hands to protect and care for our rivers for future generations.

Why is this important? 

The health of water is reflected in the health of people.

Water is an integral aspect of daily life for everyone – food, clothing, sanitation, transportation – almost everything we do involves an interaction with water.  Many Americans tend to take water for granted, not realizing that population growth, agriculture and energy production are putting a squeeze on the world’s natural water reserves.

The Colorado River is unwell.  For nearly a century, legislation and water policy has allowed seven states to legally use more water than is available.  To make matters more dire, unsustainable water use coupled with rising temperatures and drought have exacerbated the problem, drying out the headwaters and eroding tributary flows.  Now, 40 million people and nearly 4 million acres of American and Mexican crops depend on a water supply that is quickly dwindling.


The Māori peoples of the Whanganui River achieved national recognition of the river as an indivisible, living entity, inspiring Red Star International to undertake an Indigenous knowledge exchange.  This unprecedent piece of legislation was made legal when the New Zealand parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017.

Red Star International, Inc. is facilitating the exchange in partnership with the Te Pou Tupua (the human face and voice of Te Awa Tupua) in Aotearoa, and in Arizona, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. The exchange explores how the Whanganui Iwi sought to protect this sacred river. This exchange has allowed participants to experience the river through the eyes of its’ people, and  how they’ve endured for over a century with, multiple petitions and protests over generations.

Support for the exchange comes from a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Relate to the River

Seek its guidance in all things

“Kaua e kōrero mo te Awa, me kōrero ki te Awa”

“Do not merely speak of the River, speak instead to the River.”

E rere kau mai te awa nui nei
Mai i te kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa
Ko au te awa
Ko te awa ko au.

The great river flows
From the mountains to the sea
I am the river
The river is me.

The Whanganui Iwi view the Whanganui River as a living being, Te Awa Tupua; an indivisible whole incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements from the mountains to the sea. The enduring concept of Te Awa Tupua – the inseparability of the people and River – underpins the desire of Whanganui Iwi to care for, protect, manage and use the Whanganui River through the kawa and tikanga maintained by our tūpuna and their descendants.


For more than a century, the laws, regulations and actions of the Crown have broken the Whanganui River down into parts. The Te Awa Tupua framework takes a catchment-wide approach to ensure that all of the waterways that form the Whanganui River are viewed and managed, not in isolation, but with reference to the whole River as an interconnected ecosystem.

Te Awa Tupua acknowledges the mana and mauri (spiritual power and essence) of the Whanganui River system as a whole, including its tributaries and all of its elements from the mountains to the sea.  

Therefore, the health and wellbeing of one element of the River is intrinsically connected to the health and wellbeing of the whole River, including its mauri and its mana.


Te Awa Tupua recognises a set of indigenous values and customary laws that  reflect the innate relationship of the River to the people and the people to the River as guardians and sovereign partners in protecting the mana of the river and leading water policy, management, and planning.  It also represents a move towards restorative justice and sustainable practices for healthy waterways.

Te Awa Tupua recognises and is driven by four kawa, or four universal truths or principles that convey our relationship as indigenous peoples with nature, conveyed via the dictates of our tribe’s tikanga, or practical, day to day, expressions of connection with our River.

 Ko Te Kawa Tuatahi – the first principle

Ko te Awa te mātāpuna o te ora: the River is the source of spiritual and physical sustenance:

In this we understand that Te Awa Tupua is a spiritual and physical entity that supports and sustains both the life and natural resources within the Whanganui River and the health and well-being of the iwi, hapū, and other communities of the River.

 Ko Te Kawa Tuarua, the second principle

E rere kau mai te Awa nui mai i te Kahui Maunga ki TangaroaThe great River flows from the mountains to the sea:

Te Awa Tupua is an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea, incorporating the Whanganui River and all of its physical and metaphysical elements.

 Ko Te Kawa Tuatoru, the third principle

Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au: I am the River and the River is me:

The iwi and hapū of the Whanganui River have an inalienable connection with, and responsibility to, Te Awa Tupua and its health and well-being.

 Ko Te Kawa Tuawhā, the fourth principle

Ngā manga iti, ngā manga nui e honohono kau ana, ka tupu hei Awa Tupua: the small and large streams that flow into one another form one River:

Te Awa Tupua is a singular entity comprised of many elements and communities, working collaboratively for the common purpose of the health and well-being of Te Awa Tupua.

These four principles embody the status of Te Awa Tupua and from there our communities can begin to align our behaviours to accord with those principles. To assist this to happen, Te Awa Tupua has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.


We are grateful to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Tribal Council Secretary, Amelia Flores and former Councilman Herman ‘TJ’ Laffoon for their assistance in planning the exchange.

(Pictured with the Whanganui River, New Zealand in February 2019)