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How a River Was Granted Personhood

Apr 22, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by David Freid

For more than 700 years, the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, fought to maintain their spiritual connection to the Whanganui River. Mostly, it was a losing battle: Rapids were dynamited, gravel was extracted, and water was drained and polluted. Promises were broken. Generations of Maori looked on as awa tupua—their river of sacred power—was treated as a means to an end or, worse, as a dumping ground.

Then, in 2017, something unprecedented happened. The New Zealand government granted the Whanganui River legal personhood—a status that is in keeping with the Maori worldview that the river is a living entity. The legislation, which has yet to be codified into domestic law, refers to the river as an “indivisible, living whole,” conferring it “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities” of an individual.

An ancient Maori proverb reads, “I am the river, and the river is me.”

David Freid’s short documentary The River Is Me seeks to understand how the landmark legislation came to pass, its significance for the Maori, and how the river’s new legal status will be enforced in future litigation. In the film, Freid interviews many experts on the subject, including the Maori leader and treaty negotiator Gerrard Albert and Chris Finlayson, the former attorney general of New Zealand who worked with the Maori to pass the legislation.

“The Maori believe that their ancestors live on in the natural world, and that they are stewards of the earth they’ve inherited and to the ancestors who came before them,” Freid told me. “The Maori don’t separate themselves from the river, so the rights protect both simultaneously.” Freid said that the new legislation will give the river the right to choose how it is used. “Anyone who fishes in it, pollutes it, diverts it, dams it, or does anything that could have an impact on the health and quality of the river will have to be approved by the river,” he said. Two representatives have been appointed to speak on behalf of the river—one chosen by the Maori and one by the government of New Zealand.

“Most people in America would laugh at the idea of a river being treated as a person, yet we don’t bat an eye over concepts of corporate personhood,” Freid said. “That’s really reflective of our culture, if you think about it.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.