Jacinta RuruJacinta Ruru, who lectures in law at Otago University, is the country’s top tertiary teacher this year. She’s also New Zealand’s first Māori law professor (as of this year) and the only Māori on the law faculty at Otago since 1999.

Jacinta’s innovative kaupapa Māori approach, incorporating Māori stories and worldviews into the study of law, is resulting not only in more Māori law students passing and excelling at higher levels, but also more lawyers generally who are embracing matauranga Māori.

Here she talks to Dale Husband about the challenge of making our legal system more respectful of Māori views.


Kia ora, Jacinta. Thank you for joining us on e-tangata. Now, let’s turn to that unusual name of yours. Jacinta Ruru. That suggests you have links with two different worlds.

The Ruru is from my Raukawa whānau, just north of Tirau in the Waikato. A nice little marae, Papāramu marae. That’s on my dad’s side. My koro was John Ruru and my nanny was Kataraina Ormsby. She was Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Maniapoto. My dad is Norman Ruru and he’s one of the younger brothers in a large family.

And the Jacinta name? Well, although I don’t admit this to many people, I was born in Australia. Mum (Andrea) and Dad were over there at the time. Dad was mining in Kalgoorlie where they came across that name, Jacinta. And they both liked it.

I like it too. I don’t know what it means though. Do you?

I like to tell my children (Ariana and Nicholas) it means “royalty” and the colour purple.

And where are your mum’s people from?

Mum is from a Pākehā family and was brought up in New Plymouth. My grandad Trevor Sommerton had English genealogy — and my grandmother on my mum’s side was from Australia.

I’m the oldest of three kids. I have a brother, Jared, and a sister, Rachel. And we’re all living here in Dunedin at the moment which is really nice. My sister’s about to have a baby so it’s very exciting.

Even nicer. But how come Dunedin? Did the Ruru clan gravitate south?

Dad gravitated south, bringing Mum with him. I think the southern landscape was an attraction after the time he’d spent mining in Australia, because he loves the mountains and the prospect of finding gold. So we were brought up at the head of Lake Wakatipu in Glenorchy. It’s a very small place, where Dad was doing a lot of scheelite mining, and possum and deer hunting.

Mum and Dad now have the family home here in Dunedin and they still have a business in Queenstown. It’s a kapa haka business, Kiwi Haka.

It’s a beautiful place Dunedin. But Glenorchy? You know, you’re the only Māori I’ve ever spoken to who’s grown up in Glenorchy. And then there’s your dad with his kapa haka enterprise in Queenstown. So big ups to your old man for ensuring that there’s a little stamp of Māori in that tourist town. But what about school? Where was that?

I started off primary school in Glenorchy in 1980. A tiny, little school. A brief stint in Riverton, then Cromwell (at Cromwell Primary and Cromwell College) where Dad was working on drilling and blasting the new road for the Cromwell Gorge. Then Queenstown at Wakatipu High School.

And your taha Māori? Was that a given in your whare?

Yeah. But we didn’t grow up with the language. Dad certainly did, but we didn’t use reo at home. There were plenty of Māori families in Cromwell, though, because the Ministry of Works was building the Clyde Dam. A lot more compared with Glenorchy and Queenstown. But, looking back on my whole school career, I’m aware of only ever having one Māori teacher, Mr Ross Paniora, and he was excellent.

Then it was on to university. And legal studies. What prompted that?

Mum and Dad instilled into my brother, sister and me that tertiary education was something that we should and could do. They hadn’t been able to themselves, and they wanted us to believe in ourselves and take that opportunity.

I didn’t like school. But there was a big moment for me in the fifth form when I read some Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace short stories. That was the first time I’d seen injustice written about from a Māori perspective — and I wanted to know more.

As a fifth former I thought I’d go into documentary making. So I went on to university in 1993 and started off doing Māori studies and political science, sociology and education papers. Then, in my second year, I had a friend who was studying law. And, when I saw her notes on the Treaty of Waitangi, I was intrigued. For the first time, I realised there was an opportunity in law.

So I turned to law studies — and I’ve never left. I love the idea that you can create an argument in law that must be heard. That you can present it to a court and it has to be responded to. So, while I struggled with the learning of law, I could see the opportunities in it. And I could see the injustice within law itself. That was very obvious to me. And I knew that, over time, it must change. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re making progress.

We’ve also got to the point where you’ve just received the supreme national award for tertiary teaching excellence. That’s for the quality of your work in the law school at Otago University. So how did that feel when you were singled out and acclaimed in front of your folks?

I was overwhelmed. Shocked, too. And I was kind of fumbling around because I had to read a little speech. But I didn’t have that ready with me and I had to find it. Then I had to walk up on to the stage with the past winner, Karyn Paringatai, who was also from the University of Otago to meet the prime minister. Karyn had the korowai to pass on to me as the next supreme award winner. It was very emotional. An incredible moment.

The citation, Jacinta, gives the strong impression that, in the course of your 15 years of teaching law, you’ve done your best to weave matauranga Māori into the students’ studies. Have you felt that matauranga Māori has been undervalued in our considerations of law?

Yes, it has. In fact, I believe that the law discipline — for the most part, up until the 1980s — has been quite hostile to Māori and to Māori knowledge. The law has positioned itself as being objective and unbiased and neutral. But, as a student myself, and then as a teacher of law, I think law has been anything but.

But perhaps, as New Zealand law develops, we’re now seeing more attention being paid to indigenous, or taha Māori, views of what’s right for Aotearoa.

Yes, we are seeing that. And it’s an amazing experience to be able to bring that Māori voice more strongly into the law. This is new to the discipline of law. And we’ve had some significant steps along the way. For instance, in 2012, the Supreme Court made it clear that tikanga Māori is now a source of law in New Zealand. It’s recognising that the first laws of these lands — our Māori laws —do have a place within our common law. Within our legal system, the courts are still working that through. And it’s the lawyers who need to be presenting strong arguments to the courts that are going to shape how our legal system can become more responsive to that Māori voice — and value the answers that Māori can bring to questions of justice.

So, in New Zealand, we are developing some indigenous perspectives that are affecting how our laws are written and interpreted?

I think we are. Slowly. It’s a very slow process. The common law of England was implemented here in New Zealand following the signing of the Treaty in 1840. And in transplanting the English law, it was made clear that English common law must adapt to the New Zealand circumstance. And a core component of the New Zealand circumstance is Māori law. So, our laws are slowly starting to evolve and change and embrace Māori concepts.

Just looking at our legislation in recent years, we can see that parliament has become more comfortable in using Māori terminology, Māori language. Important Māori concepts are coming through into the legislation. And, more often now, the use of Māori is not being translated into English in the legislation. So there’s an expectation that our lawyers and our judges and New Zealanders who are working with that law, have an understanding of Māori law. There’s still a lot more that our legal system needs to do in this space. But we’re certainly starting down a new road that is more respectful of the Māori voice, Māori law.

Is that the case with the Resource Management Act? The RMA became law in 1991 partly so that we, as kaitiaki, could have a say in developments and be able to protect sites that we hold close to our hearts. But that’s being challenged now.

This is where it gets tough. The RMA recognises that land and water are taonga and it recognises the Treaty of Waitangi. So the RMA provides a really good platform there for allowing Māori to bring arguments through to the court. But often, even when you’re bringing through a strong Māori argument, for example, about water or land use in a subdivision, there are competing values. Economics and so on.

And, often, it is those other priorities and interests that overrule Māori when it comes down to a court hearing. Which is very, very disappointing. So, I think, as a country, we’ve still got a long way to go before we can say that we have developed a dynamic New Zealand legal system that is embracing Māori. Once you start to pit Māori values up against other values, Māori do still tend to lose in court.

Are you disappointed that the government has the habit of ignoring the recommendations from the Waitangi Tribunal.

I am disappointed about that. I think the Waitangi Tribunal is a jewel in our country. I think the tribunal’s work — and the bicultural way it works — makes it a remarkable institution. And I know it’s the envy of many indigenous groups in other countries.

The tribunal has brought together this massive amount and depth of knowledge and expertise. It is astounding and I wish it was taken more seriously by all New Zealanders.

Can we turn back for a few moments to your teaching — and to the citation when you received your award? It mentions how you’ve tried to weave this taha Māori into the courses that you offer your students. How do you go about that?

Well, I use a lot of non-traditional law. Our law students are really only used to reading legislation and decisions from the courts. But I like to bring in short stories from our Māori authors. And poetry. Documentaries, too.

Some of the beautiful creation stories are now recorded in our legislation as part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlements. In the schedules to those Acts, there’s a glimpse of those wonderful, rich, deep stories from the Māori world. So, I try and share all that with my students within the classroom.

And then, outside the classroom with my Māori law students, we come together as a strong whānau. We’re there to support one another. It’s very much a wraparound, holistic programme. We do a lot of whānau activities that are fun. Some of them cultural. Some of them are just studying together.

One activity includes working with Māori students in the local Dunedin secondary schools. We bring them into the university campus and spend time with them role-playing. For example, it might be a courtroom with the police officer and the offender and the judge. Or it might be a family court situation.

We also try to link our Māori law alumni with our current Māori law students, and help manage the transition from secondary school, through university here, and on to practising as a lawyer — and still being a part of this wider whānau here within the law faculty.

Ka pai. And what about inspirations? Are there particular people or books that you could recommend?

I love the work of Patricia Grace. Some of her stories are very powerful. And there’s the work of Joe Williams who’s now a judge of the High Court and was chairperson of the Waitangi Tribunal. Any of the Waitangi Tribunal work is valuable too. But certainly I would say Patricia Grace, Joe Williams and Eddie Durie.

And another who has inspired me is Professor John Burrows who was my PhD supervisor. There are a lot of us around the world who are John Burrows groupies. He’s very strongly articulating and creating the indigenous law as part of the whole law experience in Canada.

Finally, how well off are we when we come to the next wave of emerging, challenging Māori legal minds?

We have many, many amazing law students coming out across the whole country who are strong in their Māori language, in their Māori culture and in the law themselves. Some of them are gathering experience overseas — such as at Harvard University. And Stanford. That’s where one of my students, a really strong woman from Tūwharetoa, has just gone.

They’ll be facing many big challenges in our legal system in the future because there’s significantly more that needs to be done to make our legal system more respectful of Māori views. Water is obviously a big issue on the horizon.

And another one is the 1941 Privy Council case that states that the Treaty of Waitangi must be incorporated into legislation before it can be utilised within a court situation. That needs to be overturned. I don’t think that case stands up today. It doesn’t reflect where we ought to be in New Zealand. That’s the next big battle for us.


© E-Tangata, 2016

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