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Māori constitutional law lies in stories not statutes

20 December 2016

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Māori constitutional law lies in stories not statutes

A Victoria University of Wellington law researcher studying Māori constitutional principles is focusing on traditional kōrero pūrākau (stories) rather than documents, statutes and court reports.

Dr Carwyn Jones, a Senior Lecturer in Victoria’s School of Law, has received one of three new Treaty of Waitangi Research Fellowships awarded as part of the University’s commitment to ‘Enriching national culture’, one of its areas of academic distinctiveness.

The Fellowships are for researchers engaging with the foundational importance of Māori culture to New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi as a partnership that enables communities to foster dynamic and productive interactions.

Dr Jones aims to use his Fellowship project to find mechanisms to ensure Māori constitutional principles underpin the application of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The project builds on his research identifying aspects of legal reasoning and process in the kōrero pūrākau of his iwi, Ngāti Kahungunu.

“To explore the operation of Māori constitutional practice from inside the Māori legal system itself, so as to understand Māori constitutional traditions on their own terms, requires the constitutional scholar or practitioner to look for statements of constitutional law and principle in places other than written constitutional documents, statutes and court reports,” says Dr Jones.

“Māori constitutional law and principles can be found in a range of cultural expressions, including kōrero pūrākau, waiata (songs), whakairo (carvings) and karakia (prayers/chants). These sources reveal, among other things, particular patterns of authority and decision-making (and constraints on constitutional authority).

“I will collect a set of kōrero pūrākau that demonstrate the way Māori concepts such as whanaungatanga (centrality of kinship), mana (spiritually sanctioned authority) and tapu/noa (the balance between sacred and the everyday) provide guidance on constitutional matters, in the same way concepts such as the rule of law and the separation of powers inform existing constitutional arrangements of the New Zealand state.”

Another of the Fellowships has gone to Dr Nikki Hessell, a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies.

Dr Hessell will look at the diplomacy involved in journalist Rēweti Tūhorouta Kōhere’s use of British poetry quotations to reinforce points in his articles in Māori language newspaper Te Toa Takitini during 1926—a year when Māori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi were being contested in parliamentary and popular debates on the Māori Land Amendement and Māori Land Claims Adjustment Act.

“Because the target readership of the newspaper is so clearly Māori, I’m interested in the fact Kohere sometimes prints the quotations in English as well,” says Dr Hessell. “I think part of what he’s doing is trying to indicate to a Pākehā audience that some of their culture is being used in this way. It’s a way of reaching out and saying, ‘We are interested in your literature, in your culture, and we are talking about it.’

“So I see it as a way of building a bridge to a Pākehā audience that can’t read the Māori content of the newspaper necessarily but will know they are not being ignored.”

Dr Hessell’s Fellowship research is part of a larger book project in which she is also studying use of British poetry for indigenous diplomacy in Africa and the United States.

The third recipient of a Treaty of Waitangi Research Fellowship is Dr Simon Perris, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies.

Dr Perris aims to remedy national and international neglect of Agathe Thornton (1910–2006), a distinguished classicist and scholar of Māori oral literature, who he describes as “one of Aotearoa’s unsung cultural heroines”.

As well as recuperating Thornton’s work and bringing it to a new audience, Dr Perris will use Thornton as “a starting point for rethinking the very idea of classical–Māori comparisons”.

He sees himself as following her lead: “As a scholar of languages, literature and culture, and as a Pākehā living and working in Aotearoa, my aspiration for this Fellowship is to inspire people, especially other non-Māori, to take Māori language, myth and literature seriously.”

Dr Maria Bargh, co-chair of Victoria’s ‘Enriching national culture’ steering group and head of the University’s Te Kawa a Māui/School of Māori Studies, says the three Fellowship recipients exemplify the kind of cross-cultural and transdisciplinary inquiry that makes Victoria New Zealand’sleading institution for vigorous, imaginative and challenging research on national culture.

“We are delighted to be able to provide this extra support for Dr Jones, Dr Hessell and Dr Perris through these Fellowships and very much look forward to the results of their research.”


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