In a first for New Zealand, an agreement between the Crown and Whanganui Iwi makes the Whanganui River a legal entity in itself - an entity which owns its own bed.
About 80 iwi members were in Wellington yesterday for the signing of a preliminary agreement between themselves and the Government in the lead-up to settlement of their Whanganui River Claim (Wai 167).
The signing happened in Parliament's banquet hall at 4pm.
Present were Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson and Whanganui River Maori Trust Board chairman Dr Brendon Puketapu. The first witness to the signing was Martha Taiaroa, the widow of the late Sir Archie Taiaroa - a prime mover in the claim process.
The agreement recognises the river and all its tributaries as a single entity, Te Awa Tupua, and makes it a legal entity with rights and interests, and the owner of its own bed.
It will in future have two people guarding its health and wellbeing, one appointed by the iwi and the other by the Crown. When the next details are worked out, it will have its own set of values and a strategy to protect it.
Also present at the signing were Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, the mayors and officers of Wanganui, Ruapehu and Stratford district councils, and representatives of Horizons Regional Council and Genesis Energy.
Mr Finlayson commended Whanganui Iwi for their "positive and healthy" relationships with those bodies. He said there were more challenges ahead to work out the detail of values and strategy, and financial redress.
Wanganui Mayor Annette Main welcomed the agreement and congratulated the iwi for its inclusiveness and its focus on river wellbeing. She liked that the agreement safeguarded private property and public access to the river.
Its health and wellbeing was something the whole community could support and have input into, she said.
Whanganui Iwi spokesman Gerrard Albert said the tribe was absolutely buzzing and he was too. "I'm absolutely stoked that we're going to this next stage and that the Crown has recognised that the negotiation framework we signed last year is the one that will take us forward."
Asked whether he thought a final settlement could be reached by the end of the year, as Mr Finlayson wants, he said there was a lot of work to be done but the tribe was ready to meet any challenge. Present also were negotiators Nancy Tuaine and Jamie Ferguson.
History of the claims
Those parts of the Wai 167 claim relating to the Whanganui River were heard by the Waitangi Tribunal in 1994.
The tribunal issued its Whanganui River Report in 1999.
The Crown vested authority and control of the Whanganui River in local authorities through the Resource Management Act in 1991.
Negotiations between Whanganui iwi and the Crown in relation to the Whanganui River took place between 2002 and 2004.
Discussions between Whanganui Iwi and the Crown started again in 2009.
A Record of Understanding reached on October 13, 2011 outlined a framework for the next stage of formal negotiations.
The final settlement, including the deed of settlement in relation to the historical Treaty of Waitangi claims of Whanganui Iwi in respect of the Whanganui River, are yet to be decided.