Jacinta Ruru was in fifth form when her English teacher at Wakatipu High School handed out photocopies of a short story by Witi Ihimaera.
The Yellow Brick Road was different from anything she'd read before: a handful of scenes from a Māori family's move from Waituhi to Wellington in search of a fresh start, their fractious road trip narrated by Matiu, the chatty, oblivious youngest child.
It was Ruru's first time reading about New Zealand through a Māori pair of eyes. She'd learned history was told by Pākehā voices, and English classes involved long-dead British novelists.
But The Yellow Brick Road marked a turning point. It was full of clearly-sketched characters that Ruru recognised. They talked like people she knew. They faced challenges that she understood. And her parents, too, had left whānau in the North for a new life in Glenorchy, far from their Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Maniapoto relatives.
"It was incredible to know there was someone out there writing these stories," she says. "I think that's what helped keep me engaged in secondary school. By reading this work and having it seriously considered as one of our core English texts, the teacher was validating a Māori voice."
Ruru has made a career out of incorporating Māori voices into New Zealand's systems—from its common law to its classrooms. A professor at the University of Otago's law faculty, where she has been teaching since 1999, she opens her classes with short stories and poetry. It's a surprise for students, who are accustomed to reading legislation and court judgments, but it works—Ruru was last year named the best university educator in the country, shortly after becoming one of the first two Māori women nominated to the Royal Society of New Zealand.
She teaches first-year law to a class of 600 students, as well as advanced courses on Māori land law and indigenous peoples. Her students work with land lawyers in Dunedin and role-play making submissions to a Māori Land Court judge. They look at local landmarks and read the Ngāi Tahu stories in which those features of the landscape are described.
"I really want students to understand a Māori perspective of land, and why land is important," she says. "Indigenous poems can really present whole issues around colonisation in a really remarkable way."
Ruru recognises that indigenous stories aren't simply fanciful myths—they're a record of the rules and values of the culture that created them. They explore what happens to people who break the rules, and people who do the right thing. They describe traditions and affirm important relationships. They are, in short, a form of law.
"The challenge we have today is to understand how we might give respect to that, and to the foundations of law," she says. "Part of that is recognising that Māori had their own legal system and continue to have their own legal system, and that legal system has some very exciting and relevant ways for dealing with the issues that we as a country are dealing with. So I think there's a great opportunity for us to embrace both our legal histories."
Ruru always felt she'd go to university, even though while growing up she only knew one person who'd been—a neighbour in Glenorchy. Her parents told her she could attend if she wanted to, although she says it was impossible to imagine what it would be like.
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