The 1890s was the beginning of the riverboat era, when the river acquired international renown as a scenic tourist destination. However this, together with all the other forces of modernisation, transformed the traditional life and customary use of the river, most drastically the harvesting of eels.
Whanganui River claim
The 19th-century protests by Māori over their threatened river interests heralded the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history. This began in the 1930s with petitions and court action; these led in the 1990s to the Waitangi Tribunal hearings, and after that the settlement process. In the 1970s the Tongariro Power Diversion took water that would have flowed into the Whanganui River from Mt Tongariro, and diverted it into the Tongariro power scheme. Since this time, protection of the waters of the river has been contested by Whanganui tribes (and environmentalists).
In 1993 a Department of Conservation hut at Tīeke, in the middle reaches of the river, was occupied by the Whanganui people. Their continuing occupancy has not only asserted their mana whenua (rights to the land), but also presented a traditional Māori face and attendance for the many visitors who journey down the river.
For 79 days in 1995, people of the Whanganui tribes occupied historic Pākaitore (Moutoa Gardens), beside the river and within the city of Whanganui. This protest was resolved peaceably, and a tripartite agreement with government and local government has since been signed. At the heart of all this is the Whanganui tribes’ claim to the river, which is still seen as both an ancestor and a source of material and spiritual sustenance.
Ruruku Whakatupua, the Whanganui River Deed of Settlement, was signed on 4 August 2014. This settlement is in two parts:
Te Mana o Te Awa Tupua. This provides for the establishment of Te Pā Auroa nā Te Awa Tupua, a new legal framework to recognise the Whanganui River as a ‘legal person’. The Crown-owned parts of the bed of the Whanganui River and its tributaries will be vested in Te Awa Tupua.
Te Mana o Te Iwi o Whanganui. This provides financial redress of approximately $115 million, including $30 million towards Te Korotete, a fund to support the health and wellbeing of Te Awa Tupua.