Doug Graham Had It Wrong – Anyone Can Love a River


by Tony Orman

Former National government Treaty Minister in the 1990s Doug Graham  once said that “Maori had spiritual feelings for lakes and mountains and rivers that Pakeha people neither shared nor understood.” 

I would be surprised if Doug Graham had much to do with the outdoors and particularly with trout or salmon fishing and just going with the flow out there with the river. But those “spiritual feelings” he attributes exclusively to Maori are wrong and arguably racist.


 Doug Graham – former Treaty minister

Besides what exactly is a Maori? There are no full blooded Maoris in 2023 according to most although I understand there may be a very few. But many of those involved in Maori advocacy have a minority of Maori ethnicity. It has been said Sir Tipene (Stephen) O’Regan for example is 1/16th Maori. So when Doug Graham talks of Maori’s “spiritual feelings for lakes, mountains and rivers” is he saying that Tipene O’Regan’s 15/16th European heritage has no emotional attachment to lakes, mountains and rivers, but the 1/16th Maori heritage has?

When I go trout fishing, I don’t have to catch a trout to have a great day on the river. I can sit there beside the river and just mentally merge with the current flow, the mountains and the fresh air. Yet I have no Maori bloodlines. 

“Maori” friends

And I have closely associated with some New Zealanders with strong Maori heritage. The late Ted Bason, life member of the Nelson-Marlborough Fish and Game, was a very close friend and confidant, a man I deeply respected and trusted totally. He was of strong Maori lineage. We fished together. I have had other friends of storing Maori bloodlines in rugby days and on other trout fishing and deerstalking trips.

“Spiritual feelings” to do with rivers, mountains and lakes can be felt by anyone, regardless of ethnic background. 

At the time, noted historian Michael King rightly challenged Treaty Minister Doug Graham’s racial claim and would have none of the racial exclusivity to the felt emotion and renewal and in fact laid claim to the emergence of an analogous Pakeha spirituality.

“Such a feeling among Pakeha people is now widely shared and as our Pakeha culture puts down even deeper roots into the soil of this country and as those roots become more hallowed by the passage of time, those feelings will become more intense.”

Pioneer Emotions

But then did the first European pioneers have that spiritual appreciation of lakes, mountains and rivers? Perhaps it never had to “emerge” as Michael King suggested because it already was there among the first and subsequent waves of English settlers arriving in New Zealand?

After all, the European pioneers must have had strong attachment to fishing rivers for almost immediately they set about releasing trout into rivers, streams and lakes and instilling into new laws, in line with the egalitarian society they wished to set up in the new colony, the right of all regardless of wealth or ethnic background, to go fishing. 

Thus both the Fisheries and Wildlife Acts prohibited the selling of fishing, hunting or shooting rights. In doing so, the pioneers had shed the feudal system of the Home country where the right to catch a trout or salmon or stalk a deer, was by dint of access fees, the preserve of the wealthy upper class.

“A River Never Sleeps”

One trout fishing writer whose prose captured the feelings of being as one with a river was Roderick Haig-Brown. Few men know rivers so intimately and fondly as did Roderick Haig­-Brown. No one, before or after 17th century author of “The Compleat Angler” Izaak Walton, has written of these long and deep-running friendships more lyrically, more eloquently, than Haig-Brown in his wonderful book, “A River Never Sleeps.”

And why not recollect Roderick Haig-Brown’s expression of that spiritual attachment to rivers, that anyone may experience and develop?

Roderick Haig-Brown and Englishman by birth who emigrated to Canada wrote “A river is water in its loveliest form; rivers have life and sound and movement and infinity of variation, rivers are veins of the earth through which the life blood returns to the heart.


Roderick Haig-Brown –   “rivers are veins of the earth through which the life blood returns to the heart.”

Love a River

“One may love a river as soon as one sets eyes upon it; it may have certain features that fit instantly with one’s conception of beauty, or it may recall the qualities of some other river, well known and deeply loved. One may feel in the same way an instant affinity for a man or a woman and know that here is pleasure and warmth and the foundation of deep friendship. In either case the full riches of the discovery are not immediately released–they cannot be; only knowledge and close experience can release them. Rivers, I suppose, are not at all like human beings, but it is still possible to make apt comparisons; and this is one: understanding, whether instinctive and immediate or developing naturally through time or grown by conscious effort, is a necessary preliminary to love.”

Inevitable Love

“Understanding of another human being can never be complete, but as it grows toward completeness, it becomes love almost inevitably. One cannot know intimately all the ways and movements of a river without growing into love of it. And there is no exhaustion to the growth of love through knowledge, whether the love be for a person or a river, because the knowledge can never become complete. One can come to feel in time that the whole is within one’s compass, not yet wholly and intimately known, but there for the knowing, within the last little move of reaching; but there will always be something ahead, something more to know.”

His favourite two rivers were the Campbell and the Nimpkish both on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. But the Campbell was his favourite. 

“The Campbell is the simpler river of the two, easier to know and understand for all those reasons. Nimpkish is more wonderful, more impressive, more beautiful; but Campbell – and not simply because I live within sight and sound of her – is the better of the two to love.”

Footnote: Tony Orman has been a trout fisherman for 76 years

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5 Responses to Doug Graham Had It Wrong – Anyone Can Love a River

  1. R. Whyte says:

    No surprises that a National MP (“Sir Doug”) would cosy-up to Maori. What would he know about Maori spirituality? Shane Jones would give better advice these days..

  2. Charles Baycroft says:

    What most people have forgotten or choose to deny is that we are all descendants of hunters and gatherers who depended totally on nature for their survival. Our primitive ancestors lived in tribes that occupied rather large territories because people who survive by foraging need access to a lot of natural resources.

    Our primitive ancestors all appreciated and revered the natural resources that they would die without and tended to deify and worship them to thank and appease them.

    Life was all over if the seasons did not repeat as required, the plants did not grow to feed them and the other species they depended upon stopped reproducing.

    This ancestral resect and appreciation for nature has been passed on to modern people and that is why we enjoy natural environments and enjoy hunting and gathering rituals.

    What has also happened is that we have become more dependent upon and appreciative of money than natural resources.

    Our natural resources are regarded as sources of wealth that more and more people want to own and control instead of protecting and sharing with others.

    Admitting that wanting ownership of rivers, land, and the resources in them is based on financial ambition (aka greed) would not be seen as virtuous.

    A much better strategy is presenting this greed as a spiritual connection with nature that other people do not have in order to take what belongs to everyone from them.

    The truth is that this “spiritual connection” is still present in people of all ancestry because they are all descended from hunters and gatherers who were dependent upon the abundance of nature for the survival of our species.

    • John Mulgan says:

      Well said, Mr Baycroft.

      As Jared Diamond observed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel”: Intensive agriculture was the biggest mistake in human history. It changed society from the more egalitarian hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural society with a plantation priest-king order run by accountants. Average human height, musculature, fitness, and happiness all declined. Look at the transformation of New Zealand since 1990. The kids are on screen instead of on stream and fitness and mental health and relationships with other human beings are all down.

  3. Paul Peychers says:

    You’re correct there Tony.
    Politicians are mostly removed from the outdoors due to their job choice I’d say. Obviously there are exceptions though. It’s a sad indictment of our governance that many rivers are seriously depleted or polluted now. We will keep an eye on Mr Luxons moves in this term to see if that changes.

  4. J B Smith says:

    It’s not the fish you catch, it’s the peace of mind you take home at the end of the day. I strongly suspect Doug Graham (no knight in my mind) wouldn’t have a clue about that.

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