Jacinta Ruru (Raukawa, Ngāti Ranginu, Ngāti Maniapoto) 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 judgements, 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 myths 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 myths and legends aren’t simply fanciful stories—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.
“As a family we didn’t know anything about university, or what university meant,” she says. “I certainly didn’t know anyone who had studied law.”
At Victoria University, Ruru enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts, taking up politics and Māori studies courses, hungry to learn more about how New Zealand worked. When she glimpsed what a friend was studying in first-year law, she was fascinated.
“It was seeing how the Treaty of Waitangi in particular was being taught in that first-year class, and realising for the first time that law has the potential to be a really powerful discipline,” she says.
Law was a path to justice, to having her voice heard. If you make an argument in court, it can’t be dismissed—it must be responded to, she points out.
But Ruru was dismayed to find out the extent to which injustice was built into a system that is supposed to deliver fairness. New Zealand’s legal system is the product of British culture, and it’s rooted in that culture’s values and ideals, largely ignoring the first laws of the country: tikanga Māori.
Ruru decided to explore how Māori values could be incorporated into common law, and began by looking at one aspect of it—the legislation surrounding national parks. She’d spent her childhood on the edge of one, Mt Aspiring National Park, enjoying the “enormous freedom” of wide-open spaces—the mountains that had drawn her parents away from the north.
“We’d be up there on those mountains and those hills a lot and knew they were really important to Ngāi Tahu, but I really wondered where Ngāi Tahu were,” she says.
The first names for the landscape had been erased and replaced, and the peaks around Glenorchy bore Pākehā names: Alfred, Christina, Earnslaw, Larkins, Bonpland.
“I tried to explore how and why the law could do better in recognising Māori relationships with land,” she says. “I went back through the whole history of national parks legislation, looking at how they are described in law. They’re very clearly described as places of scenic value, recreational value and scientific value. But we’re still completely missing within that core national park legislation any recognition that these lands are significantly important for Māori identity.”
Ruru continues to study how indigenous peoples around the world can own and manage the natural world, whether that involves land or water or minerals. A decade ago, she and one of her students worked on the idea of ‘legal personality’, building on an argument by American law professor Christopher Stone that nature ought to have legal rights, as people do.
“The work that I was doing was in the context of water,” she says. “I wondered, could we neutralise that ‘ownership’ issue, move away from a debate as to who owns the water to thinking about, maybe, the water owns itself? It is a tupuna—can our law recognise that?”
In 2012, this came to pass. The initial agreement between the Crown and the Whanganui River Māori Trust was signed and Whanganui River was granted legal status, meaning that neither the Crown nor Māori own it. The river owns itself. In court, it must be represented by an advocate arguing for the river’s interests. In March 2017 the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill was officially passed.
Te Urewera was granted the same status in 2014.
Ruru is pleased to see that Treaty of Waitangi settlement statutes now include local legends as a way of recording an iwi’s connection to a place—and she has her students read those, too.
“They haven’t really been read widely by New Zealanders,” she says. “Some of that legislation is beautiful as to how it describes iwi relationships with land.”
At the beginning of 2016, Ruru became the co-director of Ngā Pae o Te Maramatanga, one of New Zealand’s ten Centres of Research Excellence, which is devoted to studying subjects relevant to Māori communities.
The same year, it won $25 million in government funding to be spent across five years, and under the direction of Ruru and co-director Tracey McIntosh, its community of researchers is investigating issues around three major themes: the Māori economy, the environment and wellbeing.
“All of our research is being led by Māori and in conjunction with Māori communities,” says Ruru. “That is something that distinguishes us from other research centres or groups. We’re committed to providing useful, transformative research, and we have that across three different areas, bringing together researchers from across the country.”
Researchers cover topics as broad as: How can small and medium-sized Māori businesses be strengthened? What is the Māori approach to bringing up children? How can Māori track and protect muttonbird populations? What is the tikanga on the marae when young people, rather than their elders, are fluent in te reo?
Ngā Pae o Te Maramatanga has also had an important role in encouraging Māori postgraduate students and pairing them with mentors, and in bringing together international researchers on similar issues. At the end of 2016, the centre co-hosted a weeklong conference on indigenous research with more than 500 guests from 50 tribal nations around the world.
Being part of a community is crucial for Māori academics, says Ruru, as many of them are lone voices. She remains the only Māori staff member in the law faculty at Otago University, and it can get tiring, she says.
“Many Māori are isolated within their department and it’s a big issue,” she says. “It’s absolutely fundamental for a Māori researcher’s career just having that connection with other Māori researchers, it gives you the confidence to do what you’re doing, and those opportunities to be mentored and challenged.”