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A fair legal system honours tikanga and reo Māori (Image: Tina Tiller)
A fair legal system honours tikanga and reo Māori (Image: Tina Tiller)

ĀteaOctober 6, 2022

A legal system that honours te ao Māori is possible, but there’s work to be done

A fair legal system honours tikanga and reo Māori (Image: Tina Tiller)
A fair legal system honours tikanga and reo Māori (Image: Tina Tiller)

At his law school graduation, Herewini Ammunson spoke of his connection with te reo Māori, the revolutionary impact of the late Moana Jackson and the bicultural future of the legal profession in Aotearoa. Here is that speech.

The below has been amended for clarity.

We have a Māori saying, “E kore te ako e mutu” – learning never stops. Justice Sir Joe Williams tells us that the law is a code. We now know how to read, interpret and apply this code in the “real world”. Parts of the code have undergone huge changes in the last 30 years, including the years we’ve been here. One of the people who carved that change into New Zealand law was himself a graduate of our law school. 

The late Moana Jackson was a disruptor, a thought leader, a revolutionary: the journey he embarked on, he took Aotearoa on too. Matua Moana’s destination was a future Aotearoa that looked very different to the one he grew up in.

He helped to normalise tikanga Māori in the law. He challenged us to “challenge the system” and rebuild it from the ground up. He strategised, steering the waka and leading the team – fearless and feared.

Matua Moana’s legacy is a nation where tikanga Māori is now alive in our legal system and our law schools, a nation where people challenge the systems that have for so long oppressed te iwi Māori. And whether tikanga in the law thrives, whether it struggles or whether it dies: that part is up to us. This is what it means to be a lawyer in Aotearoa in 2022.

I owe a lot in my legal journey to friends and mentors from Ngāti Porou. One of them is Te Raumawhitu Kupenga. This waiata he composed is a play on the words of haka taparahi: Kura ti waka taua.

Tera te haeata takiri mai ki runga o Aotearoa. 

He kura wiwini, he kura wawana.

He tia, he ranga.

Whakarerea iho ana te kakau o te hoe.

A new dawn is breaking as Aotearoa travels into the future. Sometimes we will need to paddle quickly – he tia – other times we will need to paddle slowly and deliberately – he ranga. We paddle for the conditions – whakarerea iho ana te kakau o te hoe.

Hawaiki is often referred to as the spiritual homeland of te iwi Māori but it’s also a term we use to refer to new destinations. To get to the new Hawaiki – the Hawaiki hou – we need everyone paddling. 

Our waka is crafted by the best: Tā Apirana Ngata, Moana Jackson, Sir Tāhakurei Durie, Justice Sir Joe Williams, Dame Sian Elias, Sir Robin Cooke, the list goes on. One day some of our names will be added to this list. 

A year ago, the New Zealand Council of Legal Education, in a unanimous decision, made it compulsory for all law schools to include tikanga Māori in their curriculum. From then, what it means to be a lawyer and law student in Aotearoa changed forever. 

We need to be bicultural and bilingual, we need to understand tikanga Māori and mātauranga Māori. Just as we need to understand the basics of a contract or statute, we need to understand the basics of the first laws of Aotearoa.

The home of tikanga is the marae. It’s not a courtroom, or a lecture theatre or a government agency. For the law to ever truly be a bicultural part of Aotearoa, we must dedicate our time to upholding te tiriti in our practice. 

We have to go to our local marae, get to know the locals, the mana whenua. They are the true guardians of tikanga and mātauranga Māori. Renowned te reo expert Pania Papa, says “ko te reo Māori te waharoa ki Te Ao Māori” – Te reo Māori is the gateway to the Māori world. 

Te reo Māori is not only our national, endangered language: it is now our duty as lawyers of Aotearoa to make an effort to understand it. 

Te atua o te reo Tīmoti Kāretu says: “E mōhio ai koe ki ahau, e mōhio koe ki tōku ao – me mātua mohio ki taku reo” – In order to understand me and to understand my world, you must know my language.

The struggle for te reo has been fought in different ways within every Māori family, including mine. My grandmother was part of the beaten generation of tamariki Māori, banned from speaking their language. My dad learned how to speak as a student at this university in the 80s. We are slowly getting it back.

I grew up next to my marae out in the wops and I used to have to go to lots of hui about land and treaty claims. Watching everyone file in, us kids immediately knew who the lawyers were because they wore suits (and they were the only people we weren’t related to). That’s when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer one day.

I’d like to close on a whakaaro from my tipuna Tamahau Mahupuku of Ngāti Moe and Ngāti Hikawera o te Wairarapa.

“Ko te mātauranga a te Māori, anā nei he moana, ko te mātauranga a te Pākehā he moana anā. Ko te wahi e whakawhiti ai aua moana e rua, kei reira ngā ika nui hei kai mā tātau.” 

Maori knowledge is like an ocean, and so is Pākehā knowledge. It is where these two oceans meet, that is where the biggest fish are for us to eat. 

So, e koutou mā that is our task. To take our waka out, to go fishing together and to try to find that bountiful spot between our two oceans.

Keep going!