In what Albert described as “flash” law offices overlooking the capital Wellington’s harbor, they began talking about treating the river as one, indivisible being that had rights, just like a person. In short, the way Māori had seen it all along.

Giving rights to natural entities wasn’t entirely new. In 1972, United States legal scholar Christopher Stone wrote an article titled “Should trees have standing,” where he argued that natural entities should have some of the same legal rights as humans. That wasn’t so much of a stretch — companies and ships can be legal people and guardians can be appointed to speak on behalf of others, such as children or people with disabilities, who can’t speak for themselves.

But at the time, Albert didn’t know about Stone — “I didn’t have a clue who he was.” He just wanted the river to have the legal recognition his forefathers had been fighting for for decades.

In the halls of Parliament, other politicians weren’t paying attention to the groundbreaking legal agreement being negotiated in their midst, Finlayson remembers. But as a lawyer himself, legal personhood made sense. “None of this was particularly radical or groundbreaking,” he said. In fact, the European centric way of thinking about land was “weird,” he said.