Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a lecturer in comparative Indigenous histories at the University of Sydney. Her recent book, The Land is Our History: Indigeneity, Law and the Settler State (Oxford University Press, 2016), chronicles the unexpectedly influential story of Indigenous legal activism and judicial politics in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand in the late twentieth century.

Posts by Miranda Johnson:

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

The river is not a person: Indigeneity and the sacred in Aotearoa New Zealand

Whanganui River (Image via Wikimedia Commons, photographer James Shook)Earlier this year, the New Zealand Parliament passed a remarkable piece of legislation declaring the Whanganui River to be a legal person. This was quickly taken up by global media: “New Zealand declares a river a person,” read the headline in the Economist, in an article that revealed uncertainty about what such legal recognition meant. Was it another quirky example from Downunder or a radical and effective form of environmental protection? The legislation was almost immediately taken up by Indian jurists as a precedent for making a similar declaration in respect of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Yet the story of the statute’s making is a very local one, in which legal recognition of the river’s personhood is deemed to be a postcolonial incorporation of Indigenous concepts of ecological spirituality and interdependency with nature. Both the local historical context for its making and the tensions that the statute manifests need careful unpacking.

In this essay, I question the assumption that the legal fiction of personality is an accurate translation into law of what Whanganui people believe and practice.

Read the rest of The river is not a person: Indigeneity and the sacred in Aotearoa New Zealand.