Prize-winning essay

9th December 2021

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Nicholas Clark (Law 2020) wins the Cheney Prize in Arts and Social Sciences for his essay exploring how ‘being’ and personhood shape our legal system.

  • Nicholas Clark (Law, 2020)

    Nicholas Clark (Law, 2020)

The Whanganui River became the first river in the world to be considered a legal person and even has two appointed legal guardians that can speak on its behalf. 

Living Waters: The Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill and the incorporation of Māori ontology in the Aotearoa/New Zealand legal system focuses on a long-running lawsuit in New Zealand, in which local Māori people (specifically the ‘Whanganui iwi’ tribal body) have fought to have their worldview recognised according to Western law.

In order to protect the Whanganui River, which holds complex significance to the tribal body, they wanted the river to be represented as a person in legal terms and granted legal personhood. The essay highlights that the term ‘personhood’ can be a flexible concept, applying to corporations or other entities that possess a set of legal rights and obligations as well as to being human. Thus, a significant win by the Māori people, in this lawsuit, is that they were able to extend this umbrella term to include elements of the natural world. 

The Whanganui River became the first river in the world to be considered a legal person and even has two appointed legal guardians that can speak on its behalf. Long regarded as both a thing (‘taonga’) and an ancestor (’tupuna’) by the Māori, the river represents a source of food, a highway, and a spiritual mentor. Living in a globalised world, it isn’t clear what this means for law going forwards - what happens once a river becomes a person? What is clear is that the passing of this bill demonstrates that Indigenous knowledge could be incorporated into any legal system, as a mechanism to protect the natural world. 

Nicholas was inspired to write the essay after reading a book by Anne Salmond, Tears of Rangi: Experiments Between Worlds, given to him by his grandparents who live in New Zealand where he was born. “To the Māori people, rivers are a source of life formed by the tears of the sky god who helped create the earth, embodying the ancestry of the people” explains Nicholas. “Investigating this case was a way of getting in touch with the culture and beliefs of the place where I'm from” he adds. 

The judges congratulated Nicholas on his “engaging and thought-provoking essay.” 

Judges Laura Moody (Plant Sciences), Molly Grace (Biology), and Karl Kugle (Music) received 11 entries for the Cheney and College Essay Prizes. 

Although entries for the College prize in Science and Mathematics were strong, the judges were unable to identify an entry of sufficient excellence to warrant the award.