Witness - I am the River 2

I Am The River

A rare insight into 19th century New Zealand and a Maori tribe’s struggle to protect their cultural heritage.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online. 

The Maori tribes of Whanganui take their name, their spirit and their strength from the great river which flows from the mountains of the central north island of New Zealand to the sea.

For centuries, people have travelled the Whanganui River by canoe, caught eels in it, built villages on its banks, and fought over it. The people say: “Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au” – which means “I am the river. The river is me.”

I Am The River is a film about a unique set of 700 glass plate photos which document Maori life in the 19th century.

The discovery of these previously unknown photographs in a garage in the Bay of Islands in 2001 provided a rare visual insight into New Zealand’s history and forged a link between the Maori of the present with the Tupuna (ancestors) of the past.

However, it provoked a storm of protest over cultural differences of ownership.


By Mark McNeill

I Am The River is the story of the Partington Collection – a remarkable set of several 100 glass plate photographs taken of New Zealand Maori living along the banks of the Whanganui River at the turn of the last century. The photos were uncovered by chance 100 years later in 2001.

The photographs are extraordinary. They document a culture at a period of great change and are a wonderful record of life at the time. They are also beautiful images which capture a mood and spirit that ordinary photos often do not.

The photos caused a sensation when they were first unearthed.

They were clearly a significant and valuable collection, and were put up for auction. However, the sale was vigorously opposed by descendants of the people in the photos, and they set out to actively disrupt the auction.

They maintained that the images belonged to the people in the photos and their families, not those who possessed the glass plates. It was a case of two very different cultural views of people, ancestry and ownership.

When Luigi Cutore and I set out to make this documentary we wanted to make a film that was true to both sides. We especially wanted to tell the story of the Maori opposed to the sale of the photos in a way that would be understandable to people who were not Maori.

We did not want to make a heavy-handed overtly political documentary even though the film deals with very political issues. We also wanted to feature the river that is a central focus for Whanganui people and the photos. And of course we wanted to display the wonderful images in the collection.

We deliberately chose to make the film personal not ideological – to tell the story and express the ideas through individual accounts of the people involved.

In the end we believe the honesty, integrity and decency of the characters shines through and speaks for itself. Watching them, we think it is easy to understand and appreciate why the descendants opposed the sale, and why they did what they did. It is a wonderful privilege to be able to tell that story and to help those ideas reach a wider audience.

Maori Words from ‘I am the River’
  • Hine Nakau – a key ancestor of the Whanganui River
  • Hei tiki – family heirloom
  • Tangowhakahua – to take one’s image.
  • Maauri – life spirit
  • Mana – prestige, authority, power
  • Pakeha – European New Zealander
  • Taketake – long-established, original, ancient, aboriginal, native, indigenous
  • Ta moko – facial tattoos
  • Karakia – prayers
  • Urupa – cemetery
  • Tupuna – ancestors
  • Kuia – elderly woman, grandmother, or female elder
  • Hui – meeting
  • Aotearoa – New Zealand
  • Whanau – family
  • Taonga – treasured thing
  • Whanganui – an urban area on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It is part of the Manawatu-Wanganui region
  • Iwi – extended kinship group, tribe, nation, people, nationality or race – often refers to a large group of people descended from a common ancestor
  • Wairua – spirit of a person which exists beyond death