Kingi Snelgar is one of the new generation of Māori lawyers challenging and trying to change New Zealand’s legal system. He’s comfortable challenging the status quo — as he did, for instance, more than a dozen years ago as a King’s College student unimpressed by the school’s neglect of reo Māori.
And as he also did last year on his way home from doing a master’s degree at Harvard law school. On that trip he stopped off in North Dakota to lend support, at Standing Rock, to the Lakota people protesting against the $3.7 billion oil pipeline threatening their environment and their health.
So there’s a good chance that we’ll be hearing more of him. Meanwhile, he’s been telling Dale something of his background.
Kia ora Kingi. You’re a young man with a number of distinguishing features. Not just with a King’s College haka on your CV, and a stint in North Dakota at Standing Rock, but also with an unusual surname. It’s Snelgar. And that’s not at all common in Aotearoa.
That comes from Scandinavia, but the family settled in Kaitaia early on. And my parents (Denis and Eliza) were brought up in Portland, a cement town just south of Whangarei. I have Scottish as well as a Scandinavian whakapapa and a connection to Whakatōhea, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāi Tahu and, principally, to Ngāpuhi.
I was born in Whangarei and I’m from the Ngāti Hau Pehiaweri marae. We’re part of the Kake whānau. And my nan, Ruiha Kake, was a formidable woman. She’d left school as an 11-year-old to raise her nine younger siblings when her mother died giving birth. I was the youngest of her mokopuna, and, I like to think, her favourite. So I was spoiled by her as well as by my parents and my two older sisters, Orion and Carmen.
Nan was part of that generation that had te reo beaten out of them. But I was very fortunate (and grateful) for the work that her generation and my parents did to give me the opportunity to go to kōhanga reo and kura. My grandfather, Ben Wakefield, was from Ngāi Tahu. He didn’t know he was Māori until later in life. He was a ward of the state. So he had an interesting struggle with his Māori identity. They’re two important figures in my life — as well as my mum and dad.
And the line of work that your parents have been in?
They’ve both worked in healthcare. My mum was a nurse at the Kawakawa Hospital, then moved to Auckland and continued in healthcare. At the moment, in suicide prevention. My dad worked with Waitemata Health where he was the CEO some years ago. He’s now self-employed and still working as hard as ever, but enjoys fishing whenever he can, out in the Hauraki Gulf — although Mum is the one who brings in the big tāmure. She’s quite the fish whisperer.
When it came to secondary school, you went off to King’s College in Otahuhu. So you were mixing with students from some fairly affluent families. Fairly white too.
Well, I was going to go to Tipene. That was where my great-grandfather Toki Kake went. But that was the year that it closed. Whangarei Boys’ was another option. But Mum and Dad decided on King’s.
Going to board there was initially very difficult for me because I was coming from a kura and rumaki reo background. And, early on, I really struggled in that King’s environment. For a couple of years, I didn’t like it. I found it difficult to relate to the other students. But I was eventually able to understand the place and do well. And in hindsight, I’m super grateful for the opportunity to go to a place like King’s.
Once I found my feet, I pushed for change at the school because I wanted Māori culture to be respected. I met with the headmaster and his deputy to talk about the way the haka was treated. And they invited me to speak at the school assembly — which I did.
I also pushed for Māori to become a compulsory subject because I knew that students from King’s would be going on to hold influential positions in our society — and I believe that if they understood our culture that would be a step towards better relationship between Māori and Pākehā.
So I taught te reo in the morning, once a week — and I also taught the haka to the whole school during lunch breaks and in the evenings. (It starts with "A te Rangatiratanga" and can be seen from 2'30")
We’ll come back to King’s again shortly. But perhaps we should pause to acknowledge the kōhanga and kura people who helped you develop that strong sense of Māori self.
My mum and Hone Taimana and his whānau started that Kakariki Kōhanga out in Titirangi where I think I was one of the founding students. And Hone is a fantastic role model for me and someone I look up to for his strength in his taha Māori. Then I went briefly to Maungawhau and then Westmere Primary School. Teachers such as Matua Anaru, Whaea Dianne and Whaea Toru were hugely influential in me. I was in the bilingual unit at Westmere.
Then I went to Kowhai Intermediate under Matua Rawiri and Whaea Steph. That was a great experience. I’m just so grateful for those teachers who really encouraged and helped shape who I am today. And from there it was Western Springs, Ngā Puna o Waiorea, for about a year where Pa Fong was also an important figure for me. There are many teachers from those early years who I still keep in touch with.
At King’s, now that I have more perspective, I’m grateful to a number of teachers, particularly Warner Wilder, the chaplain, who’s recently retired. Ken Carrington, who was an All Black, is another. And so is Kepa Stirling who visited from Ngā Tapuwae and helped teach Māori to the students.
So there was a genuine push for taha Māori at Kings?
Yeah. And it’s great to see what’s happening. Te reo is being taught, kapa haka is thriving and there are quite a number of Māori students there now. When I was at King’s, there was just a small group from Tipene who came when their school closed. A few other Māori students too. But we learned te reo through correspondence.
King’s has come a long way and, hopefully, its approach will become more common in other private and mainstream schools.
I guess many of us think of King’s as being the school that’s been training the offspring of the right-wing, moneyed families of New Zealand. Families who may not have had much contact with Māori or much insight into Māori lives — although maybe that’s being unkind. But there’s wealth there, isn’t there?
Absolutely. That was something I could see as I got older and visited the houses of friends. I recall visiting the home of a Remuera boy. A mansion. Two Ferraris in the garage. Huge heated swimming pool. Three bathrooms. Maybe more. And it was an eye opener to see the cars that some of the kids were driving to school. Mercedes and BMWs. A real show of wealth.
Then Auckland University was next on your agenda, wasn’t it? And, no doubt, some contact with a number of influential Māori academics when you embarked on your law degree.
Between King’s and university I spent a short time at Māori Television as a receptionist and that was great to be there and have some contact with all these high-fliers of Māoridom. But, at university, it was another level because of the contact with some of our leading thinkers. And I read the work of people like Moana Jackson who I continue to see as a role model. He has this ability to explain things in such a simple, and Māori way.
Also there was Margaret Mutu, Valmaine Toki, Nin Tomas, Anne Sullivan and Anne Salmond. They were huge influences. Anne Sullivan taught Māori politics and her course was probably life-changing for me. Although I’d been brought up aware of Te Tiriti and some of the struggles through history, it was something else to hear it in an academic setting.
Nin was special too because she ran wānanga on the weekends for Māori law students, just out of aroha for us — to upskill our writing and comprehension. Anne Salmond is another role model who was very generous to me and Kiri, my girlfriend. We tutored for her and we learned so much from her. She continues to be a generous mentor.
We have a wonderfully rich history, although there are some sad aspects to it as well — and one sadness is that so many non-Māori, so much of mainstream New Zealand, don’t appreciate our country’s history, particularly the true history of us as a first nations people?
Absolutely. The mass incarceration of Māori people, poverty and the loss of language and identity — that is something that didn’t happen randomly. There is a history to that. And the consequences are what we see today. I keep trying to acknowledge that history in a way that mainstream, Pākehā New Zealand can engage with it. So that they don’t feel alienated. Because, although that history is confronting, Pākehā need to accept the legacy they carry.
Without education and without more awareness of that history and legacy, you get situations like Donald Trump. It’s a fear I have because it’s a slippery slope — and, if we don’t tackle things like racism, it’ll get worse.
Coming from a place like King’s, I’ve been exposed to ignorance from lack of education. It really angers me at times to see that because some of the kids I dealt with at King’s were really just products of their upbringing. And we need to change that intergenerational perspective of Māori and Pākehā so that we can move forward in a positive way.
Ka pai, Kingi. Well mate, I suspect that you’re going to have a lot to do with affecting that change. The path you’ve chosen so far has been law — and one element in that scene is the Māori lawyers association. Why do you think it’s important that we do mesh together in that way?
It’s huge to have Te Huinga Roia Māori because it’s an organisation where we can come together and share some of our struggles and successes. There’s a perception that we’re overloaded with lawyers. But we’re not. There’s only handful in my field — criminal lawyers. Here in Auckland, we have very few that do jury trial work. And we desperately need lawyers for those forums.
But, with Te Huinga Roia meeting once every year or two, we have an opportunity to come together to learn from each other. To share. And to commiserate if there’ve been difficulties. As Māori lawyers, it’s crucial that we’re open to new ideas. For instance, going to Harvard set me thinking about the idea of sovereignty in iwi.
We’re now operating in a post-settlement framework, and I appreciate and acknowledge the hard work that many of our iwi leaders and lawyers are doing to get the best out of that situation. But I wonder whether we should push a bit harder and look beyond that settlement framework. That framework has been imposed on us by the Crown and we could be challenging ourselves more about how we can develop as tribal nations rather than be commercial asset managers.
But that’s easy for me to say as someone coming from an academic setting. I’m conscious of the reality of the situations that we work in. So I’ve always tried to learn from the communities that I’ve worked with like Pine Ridge and Standing Rock. To learn from them and bring some ideas home.
Your legal studies at Harvard, and then your support of the Lakota protestors at Standing Rock is a reminder that there’s a growing international network of indigenous peoples. That network seems to be growing stronger, doesn’t it?
Yes, it is. And the Standing Rock protest reinforced the importance of the global indigenous network. It’s going to be important for us too when, through the social media or in person, we call on people from around the world to stand in solidarity with us. Because it’s the same issues everywhere. The extractive industries. The loss of identity and language.
I think that a massive part of our future as Māori people will be sharing with other indigenous peoples. And learning from them. We, too, have much we can learn from other indigenous peoples.
Indigenous people are the leaders on environmental issues. So solidarity among us is important — especially as we all know that legal avenues have their legal limits. We’ve experienced it ourselves. The Foreshore and Seabed legislation is a good example of that. But, when we run out of options through the law and politics, we can turn to what we know — and that’s gathering on our terms and, through prayer and peaceful resistance, knowing that change can happen.
Honestly, it was overwhelming for me as a young man to go to North Dakota and to be a kanohi on the ground for Māori people and to be acknowledged by so many people there because of my taha Māori. And then, to see recently how much support there is from Māori. Now, it’s huge. Hopefully this gathering is a turning point in history for indigenous people and that we are now more conscious of our role and use this momentum to tackle issues back here at home as well.
Kia ora Kingi. But do you see a time when more Māori concepts start affecting New Zealand law?
Well, I hope so. And I’ll keep contributing to that kōrero and to the pathway that we need to take if there’s to be the constitutional transformation that Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu are proposing. Initially, as a student, I was a little bit shy to challenge the Westminster system. But at Harvard, some of the professors encouraged me to think beyond that. It took me going to Harvard to receive that kind of positive reinforcement.
So now I believe we need to think about the constitutional frameworks — and challenge them. I also believe that tikanga Māori is a key to the future of our society. Things like Papatūānuku as a concept should be recognised as part of our legal framework. And, if we’re going to flourish as a human race, we need to embrace our indigenous thinking and not rely on individual, corporate minds.
Let’s look to some of the indigenous thinking. Acknowledge that our environment has a life force — and that we need to look after it and not just exploit it. Otherwise our future generations may not have a place to live.
I know that many New Zealanders are open to that. And that’s exciting because we’re not like the US. We’re not as dysfunctional. We have a small population. We have the isolation. We have the tools, in Māori society and other societies as well, to be a world leader in race relations and constitutional thinking.
Ngā mihi nui mō to kōrero i tēnei ata, e Kingi. Kia kaha, kia manawanui. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.