Māmari Stephens, a legal academic and Anglican priest (and good friend of E-Tangata’s), is one of 24 Māori academics who tell their personal stories in a new book, Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface, edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora, and published by Otago University Press. Here’s Māmari’s essay from the book.


Twenty-four Māori scholars share their personal stories and their experiences of being Māori in the academic world.

I’d like to say my journey into law and mātauranga Māori started with a great urge to fight for Māori peoples, to do right, to remedy injustices. But that is not how it started at all. It started, in a way, with a whack on the leg. My leg, that is. 

Shift. Flicker. Focus. 

In my mind’s eye I was about ten or twelve, although, to be fair, every major memory of my childhood seems to stem from when I was about ten or twelve. In some ways I was a bit of a scared kid: scared of death, scared of the prospect of nuclear war and, in my heart of hearts, I was also scared of other Māori people. 

Other than my occasional timid forays into “Māori Club” and a trip to Ahipara under the wing of my oldest brother, I had no idea how to speak or understand te reo Māori. I had no clear idea that there was such a thing as tikanga Māori. 

Until, that is, the day I sat on a little table in our lounge at home in Christchurch. I was wearing shorts. 

My brother walked in, saw me and, in a few quick strides, crossed the room and slapped my bare leg. Hard. I still remember the sound, and the shock, followed by confusion and shame. 

“Never sit on tables,” he snapped. I have never sat on a table since. 

At that point though, I had no idea why I couldn’t. I had learned that I had crossed a line somehow, but I couldn’t see the nature of the line, nor what lay on either side of it. I had learned I was subject to a law, but not why. My brother never slapped me again, but the lesson remained.

Shift. Flicker. Focus again.

It’s 2013. We were about to go on to Korou Kore marae in Ahipara for a wānanga: me and some other people I didn’t know. I grabbed a cheap wrap-around skirt from the car boot. I knew enough about tikanga to offer a basic karanga, no one else seemed keen. 

Just as well, because my Aunty Mere was on the other side. She called, I called. We crossed the marae ātea. 

I was relatively confident as we moved into the wharenui, I put myself in the back row on the visitors’ side. I saw, but didn’t truly see, that some of the others had gone up to stand in front of the pictures of tūpuna on the far wall of the wharenui for a moment or two before heading to the chairs. I paid no heed. I had done my job. 

It was only much later that day when my Aunty Mere casually, yet very pointedly, let me know that it actually had been my job to lead the group up to the pictures, to allow due respect to be paid to those who had passed on before the whaikōrero could begin: “It’s what we do up here.” She sighed, “You must have forgotten.” 

No. I had not forgotten. I had never known. I knew something about karanga, but not enough. Up to this point, like many urban-based wāhine Māori, I had “learned” karanga in an ad hoc way, without grasping much by way of nuance or learning how to read what was going on around me. 

This time when I learned of my transgression, there was no shock, just a dawning realisation, a sick feeling, heat in my face and there it was again: shame. 

Three decades or more on, and I understood a little better exactly where I had crossed the line. In the months and years afterwards I was able to pause, listen, learn and develop the way in which I did karanga. Aunty Mere has passed on now, but her gentle but utter deconstruction of what I thought I knew has always stayed with me.

Shift. Flicker. Focus again.

We all woke up to a crisp Ahipara morning and the rhythm of the distant early-morning surf. The tide was out, but there was to be no beach walk this holiday morning along Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē. My Australian-raised nephew Caleb had discovered the beginning of the Herekino walking track on the Awaroa–Kaitāia road. We were off, Caleb, his dad, Mark, our cousin Medadane and I, to try out the track.

We pulled up just after 7am and saw two signs at the track entrance. One was defaced, but we could still see the Department of Conservation logo and instructions for walkers to keep the forest safe from the disease kauri dieback: SAVE OUR KAURI FORESTS! Don’t take in non-permit animals! SCRUB SOIL OFF SHOES! Or words to that effect. 

Caleb and Mark disappeared beyond the darkness of the track entrance that was wreathed with green fronds. Yet Medadane and I stood still, looking not at the neglected DOC sign, but to the right of it, at a hand-lettered sign on fence boards in two sections, with the red letters maybe fifteen centimetres high:



Caleb hadn’t really noticed either sign. Through no fault of his own, he could not have read the red one even if he had noticed it and could not have known it said something like, “prohibited in / the forest”. 

A rāhui had been imposed by local Māori from our hapū and iwi, our whanaunga. Medadane and I understood that the forest track had been made tapu, ritually restricted. But questions still flashed before me. When had the sign gone up? What was it for, exactly? Could the rāhui have expired? Who says when rāhui expire anyway? There was no signal on my phone, so we had no way to check. 

Ah well, no matter, the result was just the same. Medadane and I looked at each other, and then we shouted for the men to come back. We both understood we were forbidden from entering and that was that. 

My mind scrolled quickly to the faces of a couple of senior women in our hapū who would be pretty cross if we simply blundered our way past the sign and into the inviting coolness of the track beyond. Heck, our photo might even end up on our Wainui marae Facebook page or the Ahipara Takiwā page for all the hapū to see. 

Nup, the home people, the hau kāinga, call the shots here, not me, city-born Hone-come-lately that I have always been. “Beach walk instead, whānau?” Medadane called. No rāhui there at the moment. Back to the car. No shame at all, this time. 


These three minor moments show a haphazard development (of sorts) in my understanding of the existence of mātauranga Māori: in particular the way in which tikanga Māori comprises law. From vignette to vignette, like in scenes from an old Viewfinder, I am a slightly different person in each one. 

In the first, I cannot see any sign of law that I ought to be observing, and only learn it exists through (transitory) pain and fear. In the second, I see it, and the duty I have to uphold, but I am ham-fisted and ignorant and I fail, at least in part, to discharge that duty. In the third, I see the sign, I read the sign correctly, I act on my reading of the sign, and so I reinforce our tribal collective’s position with my obedience to the relevant tikanga. 

In all three episodes I am with whānau, other family members, to whom I am somehow responsible. Whakamā, or shame, attends me in the first two, but I avoid her outstretched claws at the last.


The law of any people shows us (among other things) the lines that we ought not cross, and it also enables us to identify the line-crossers. Law reassures us of our own centrality and normality. All peoples are legal peoples, and all people to some degree consider themselves to be “us” — bound by law of some nature, yet at the same time seeing those who are not so bound as “them”: not bound, not normal. 

My journey into law and mātauranga is one more defined by absence, understanding of loss, whakamā, accident and a sense of coming in from the cold, than by any programmatic acquisition of expertise. 

In fact, up until my early 20s, Māori people and language had never really been normal at all to me. Māori concepts and ideas were not normal either, except in the most abstract and safe way. I had never really understood my own position as a child of the urban migrations; as a child emerging from earlier generations of my hapū, bearing its history and not even knowing it. 

That position began to change as a result of learning basic te reo Māori for six months under the teaching and care of Niwa Short, Pererika Timutimu, Wilson Poha and others at kuratini (Wellington Polytechnic) in 1991. 

Until that point I had had no visceral understanding of what or who had been lost by Māori, but the process of entering into te reo Māori and listening to others, as we had to shed our skins and learn about what we had lost, changed me forever and is still changing me now. 

It also took me a long time to understand tikanga Māori as law by which I too could also be bound. Like most people in this country I grew up (in Christchurch with my Pākehā mum), presuming I was in a country with one complete legal system, to the extent I ever thought of such a thing existing at all. 

As far as I was concerned, we inherited this legal system, whatever that was, from the English, and that’s why we have courts and Parliament and stuff like that, not that I paid attention to what they really did. I had a brother who joined the police very early in my life, so law enforcement and uniforms were benign to me; police were there to keep me safe, so I believed.

My unthinking acceptance of a single and all-encompassing legal system was reinforced in 1993 when, quite unexpectedly, I became a probation officer. I was an underemployed radio-programme maker in Wellington and in a burst of curiosity one day I walked into the Community Probation Service on Thorndon Quay, then in the old Tramways Building, wondering if they had any jobs. 

I had trained in radio broadcasting at polytech, I had been working in Māori broadcasting at Te Upoko o Te Ika on Lambton Quay and I had little idea what a probation officer even was. Could I be one? I was 23, needed a better income and had few clues. 

Martin Roberts was the duty probation officer on that day, and answered my questions with patience and grace. A few weeks later he rang me and offered me a temporary job. I spent the next seven years jobbing as a probation officer, learning how to apply the Criminal Justice Act 1985, write pre-sentence reports, make sentence recommendations and supervise people on community-based sentences and on parole. 

For the most part, I never questioned my role in this system I had become a tiny part of. I learned a great deal from experienced officers like Martin, Fiona Kale, Etai Morgan, Marian Kleist, Trevor Shoesmith, Audrey Moonlight, Murray Olsen and others. I learned about public service, integrated offender management systems and government policy. I learned about servicing the court. I learned how to pitch my sentencing recommendations to judges in such a way that they would be more likely to be accepted. I learned little about Māori experiences in the criminal justice system. Or more accurately, I paid little attention. 

On the other hand, I met my husband-to-be, Maynard Gilgen, there, a Department of Corrections psychologist at the time, and it was he more than anyone else who helped me see that just as language loss was a deliberate policy, the legal system we were working in had never been inevitable and was not immutable. It was, and remains, the institutional result of choices made, though not by Māori, and its disproportionate and calamitous impact upon Māori has never been an accident but is central to its design and operation. 

His long-held anger and grief for Māori, for our people, worked further cracks into my unthinking acceptance of the status quo that had protected me from truth for so long. 

It was from this time in the early and mid-1990s, slowly, so very slowly, and helped by a lot of people wiser than I, that I began to understand the Māori world as more than a set of abstract ideas, surviving artefacts and compulsory ritual that I could simply learn and acquire like a series of badges. 

A couple of years into my probation life, our colleague and mate Etai Morgan suggested to me one day that I’d make a good judge. After my initial snort of disbelief, this suggestion prompted me to at least think about studying law. Could it be harder than probation work? 

I had little knowledge of lawyers. I don’t think I had ever met one when growing up or before my time in Corrections, I knew nothing of what they did, other than what I saw on television shows like Law and Order. I had just started studying te reo Māori and classics at uni anyway, so the next year I added first-year law and surprised myself by loving it and getting good marks. I have no recollection of Māori-specific learning in law that year, but I remember how few other Māori law students there were. 

Actually, noticing Māori absence was a hallmark of my university study. In studying Greek mythology and what it teaches us about ancient Greek society, I wrote essays about Māori mythology and what that teaches us about Māori society, old and modern. 

In my law study it was not surprising then that I began to wonder what Māori law was, where it could be learned and understood. In jurisprudence classes, I wrote about what the jurisprudential theorist H.L.A. Hart meant when he wrote about “primitive law” and I wondered what he would have made of tikanga Māori. 

With occasional exceptions, such as the Māori land law course, I was not learning anything specific about mātauranga Māori or Māori law in my law degree. Yet in 1997 contract law classes, Tony Angelo taught us the story of Ponga and Puhihuia and how that story could reflect Māori notions of contract. 

This was a revelation to me: that Māori narratives could reveal law; they could show the lines and what could happen when these were crossed or violated.

After saying goodbye to Corrections at some point, I graduated in law and in 2002 ended up working for Martin Dawson in the Māori legal team at Russell McVeagh (“Ngā Manu Tāiko”) as a summer clerk, a graduate position, and then as a solicitor. 

I learned that this Pākehā man believed with all his heart that Aotearoa had been Māori land and remained Māori land until Māori said otherwise. He had an abiding faith in the relevance of mātauranga Māori and in Māori people and in us, his small team, and in the ability of lawyers to help bring about change for the better. 

When he died in 2003, taking a little bit of all our hearts with him, not long after I had had my first son, I wanted to do something that he would approve of, perhaps even be proud of. A couple of years later I had my chance; I became a lecturer at the Faculty of Law of Victoria University. 

In the first year of holding that privileged position, I had a realisation, while on maternity leave with my second child. The general legal system of New Zealand has at its disposal an enormous wealth of Māori language law-related source texts dating back to the early nineteenth century, as Māori had sought from the earliest days of contact to understand and interact with Pākehā ways of doing things, including law both sacred and secular. 

Many of those Māori language texts still remain relatively unexplored, as yet, but in those texts resided a Māori legal language and terminology. 

By seeing the almost complete absence of mātauranga Māori in the study of New Zealand law, I realised that te reo Māori, despite all that colonisation had thrown at it, has always been an ordinary language of law and civic discourse. 

Te reo Māori, in fact, was an inevitable vehicle for mātauranga Māori, it has always existed inside and outside of the monolithic legal system, and we needed to pay attention to it. 

To cut a long story short, I was part of the Legal Māori Project based at the Law Faculty that collated a corpus of reo Māori sources, compiled and built a dictionary of legal Māori terms (He Papakupu Reo Ture, LexisNexis, 2013), and created a set of related online resources, including an online dictionary (the Legal Māori Resource Hub at www.legalmaori.net). I think Martin would have been proud of that.

My own inconsequential learning, stumbling and experiences of whakamā, along with those research experiences of looking for absences and seeing Māori legal language and concepts at work in pulling together the dictionary, has shown me the normality and ordinariness of tikanga Māori as laws by which I and other Māori can also choose to be bound as circumstances decree. Any exploration of tikanga Māori should look to the wealth of oral and written Māori textual and linguistic evidence that is so far under-explored. 

Such evidence can illustrate ordinary modern and historical practices (such as hui, or decision-making gatherings, as the pre-eminent forum for the generation of Māori law) of Māori communities, with all their variety and their changes over the course of centuries. 

These practices in turn reveal very specific concepts and values of relevance to law. The knowledge of these practised values is transmitted over time from person to person within, and between, Māori collectives, such as whānau, hapū and iwi. 

Such practised values will be at the heart of tikanga, although tikanga cannot just be reduced to a set of rules. Without relying on a centralised institution or set of institutions, tikanga itself is not only made up of the rules of behaviour, but also comprises the mode for determining when such rules ought to be used. Tikanga also enables the setting of standards for evaluating the proper use of such rules. In reality, there is no unified or consistent way in which tikanga appears to be viewed in Māori thinking and practice, but undoubtedly tikanga shows us what is valued within specific Māori collectives at any given time. 

These practices, standards and values are discoverable but, as with other Indigenous peoples around the world, there are serious gaps due to a fracturing of tikanga Māori that has occurred as a result of colonisation, war, urbanisation and modern Māori life. 

Notwithstanding this, we need good scholarship that generates sound mātauranga Māori and shows the operation of Māori law in all its fracturedness and sometimes wholeness. I have done little more than hint at what mātauranga Māori can add to our full understanding of law in Aotearoa New Zealand. I hope to do more in my current and future research and teaching.

There are small signs that the New Zealand legal system and New Zealand society, as a whole, is starting, slowly and reluctantly, to pay attention to mātauranga Māori, including Māori law, as a matter of relevance to all who inhabit this land. 

For years now, Sir Joseph Williams has been reading the signs and outlining the possibility of a third way of law, a “Lex Aotearoa” that incorporates Māori law (or Kupe’s law, as he terms it) and Cook’s law. That third way is where we in the legal research world need all the help we can get, as we look for new lines and new boundaries, and consider anew what we are really bound by. 

When a rāhui was imposed in December 2019 by Ngāti Awa after the eruption of Whakaari with the death of 19 people, the ritual prohibition was observed by most, if not all: Māori and non-Māori alike. 

In that moment of trauma, and maybe just for that moment, we had all learned to read the signs and see the line.


Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface, edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora, and published by Otago University Press, is now in bookstores for $60.

Māmari Stephens (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Moetonga, Te Rokekā, Ngāti Pākehā) is a legal academic and Anglican priest. She is a Reader in Law and Associate Chaplain (Māori) at Victoria University of Wellington. Māmari developed and co-edited He Papakupu Reo Ture: A dictionary of Māori legal terms (LexisNexis, 2013), a Māori–English bilingual legal dictionary. She wrote the first comprehensive text on social security law in New Zealand, Social Security and Welfare Law in Aotearoa New Zealand (Thomson Reuters, 2019). She is married to Maynard Gilgen and they live in Pōneke with their three tamariki, Te Rangihuia, Havelund and Jessica-Lee.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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