With a career that has taken her from Whakatāne to Otago, to the hallowed halls of Harvard, to the front line of Standing Rock, lawyer Natalie Coates has fought for Māori and indigenous rights wherever she’s been needed.
She has appeared in the Supreme Court for the Urewera ‘anti-terror’ raids case, and volunteered in ‘war-like’ conditions at the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota. She has sat across the table representing iwi in Treaty negotiations and has taught contemporary Treaty issues to students studying law. She was a recipient of a Fulbright Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga graduate award, a New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Scholarship and a Ngarimu VC and 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Masters Scholarship, enabling her to obtain a Masters of Law from Harvard University. Add to that being the wife of a newly-elected MP and a first-time māmā to a head-strong (almost) one year old, its easy to say Natalie Coates is one kick-ass wahine toa.
“I actually had no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I was younger,” she says, thinking back to her time at Whakatāne High School. “Mum and Dad paid for a special careers consultant and we had to travel all the way up to Cambridge to meet with her. I did all these personality tests and she said I should study medicine. So that was it.
“Then on the drive back home I realised I hated blood, so I made the decision to go Dunedin and study law instead.”
Graduating from the University of Otago in 2010, Natalie completed a Bachelor of Law (first class honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (first class honours, majoring in Māori Studies). There she also found a lifelong mentor in Jacinta Ruru, New Zealand’s first Māori Professor of Law. Coates had grown up witnessing inequality and saw, through her studies, the impact great lawyers could have on the marginalised.
While she spent her summers as a clerk for some of the larger law firms, including Russell McVeagh, she decided the big law firm experience wasn’t for her. At the completion of her studies, she headed overseas in search of a new adventure.
Landing in London, via tipi haere through South East Asia, hearing how easy it was to pick up work, she waited for her dream job to fall into her lap.
“Then the recession hit,” she remembers. “I had heard stories of people waltzing into law jobs and I thought, ‘I have an honours degree, I’ll be sweet’. I got rejected from everything, even waitressing.”
While filling her time with a few admin roles, she decided to volunteer for Survival International, an organisation working with tribal peoples around the world. Working on the protection of isolated communities from encroachment, while still applying for any paid job she could find, Coates had an epiphany: “I realised I needed a job I was passionate about and be qualified enough that [employers] couldn’t say no!”
She wasn’t ready to resettle at home but returned to take up a short-term junior role with Aurere Law under Annette Sykes. It was during those six months she assisted on the 2007 ‘Operation 8’ case which saw 17 people, including Tame Iti, Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara, Emily Bailey and Urs Signer, arrested under the Terrorism Suppression Act in the Te Urewera Raids. With those higher qualifications still in her sights, Coates applied to New York, Columbia and Harvard Universities to complete her LLM (Masters of Law) degree. She was accepted by all three, choosing Harvard, and became one of two Māori at the time (the other, now National MP Dan Bidois) to study at the school.
Of Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Hine whakapapa, Coates comes from a tight-knit family. Her dad worked at the Kawerau Mill for more than 30 years, her mum stayed home for a while raising the three tamariki. The Coates siblings learned te reo Māori, had a close connection with their marae and were schooled under the watchful eye of their nan.
“It was a little controversial sending us to Te Teko Primary. Not because Nan was the principal, but because it was a low decile school and not seen to be great, educationally. But it turned out to be one of the best decisions for our whānau, and grounded us kids in a really cool way.”
Nan, or ‘Whaea Coates’ as she was to be addressed at school, had a reputation for being a no-nonsense kaiako who could have even the biggest boys in tears if they misbehaved. She can’t have been too bad because her love of teaching rubbed off a little on her mokopuna.
Academia became an attractive pathway for Coates: “It’s a space where you can make quite a bit of impact.” With an interest in indigenous rights and legal pluralism, on her return to New Zealand she took on a teaching role at the University of Auckland focusing on jurisprudence and Treaty issues. Two years later, she moved into practice with Kahui Legal and now divides her time between Auckland and Whakatāne teaching and practicing law.
“It is interesting to explore the ways the state legal system and tikanga Māori interact,” she says. “Lawyers need to push the space we work in, but as Māori we all need to make decisions about how we want to live. We need to rebuild our structures that were subject to colonisation, grow our reo and take ownership of the sort of life we want to live. It doesn’t always have to be in the shadow of the legal system.
“A lot of Māori lawyers have got into the game to make a difference, using the tools of law to advance our people in whatever way that may be. As a lawyer, it is your job to push the boundaries by using the court system. But part of our job is to also realise Māori are never going to find liberation within the system.”
A key to achieving tino rangatiratanga, Coates says, is to help Māori become more prosperous in Aotearoa. Thanks to media and television, lawyers are often only seen prosecuting or defending criminals. But law has many more facets to it. Coates provides advice to clients on public law, commercial matters, the law relating to trusts, Māori land law and on issues around Māori, human and indigenous rights. Along with larger Māori organisations, she has helped set up joint ventures so Māori can pursue financial and employment opportunities.
Some of her most memorable work has been at the Treaty negotiation table, she says. While a lot of her cases are confidential, one highlight was helping Waikato-Tainui and Hauraki iwi settle out of court.
“It was most satisfying because while it went to the Māori Land Court, we were able to negotiate an outcome and find a compromise. The court process creates winners and losers, so its a nice feeling when you both come out winning.”
She is also enjoying her current mahi helping Te Whānau ā Apanui iwi with their settlement negotiations. The process can be long and drawn out, and being in the thick of it gives a deep sense of the issues involved and an insight into the dedication and commitment by unrelenting whānau.
“The Treaty claims process is divisive for anyone going through a claim,” says Coates. “Iwi inevitably settle for a fraction of what they have lost and cross claims are massive. The process forces you to draw boundaries. Māori society didn’t have set boundaries, people had different hononga at different times, but the law entrenches a hard line.”
She says the settlement journey allows iwi to acknowledge the past, address the injustices and rebuild. But it doesn’t solve Treaty issues.
“While it might solve some of the injustice, we still have to navigate how the Treaty is relevant to our lives and nation moving forward. It still has a key role to play.”
In 2016 Coates married Kiritapu Allan, a fellow lawyer and now, list member of parliament for the Labour Party. It was on their honeymoon that the pair volunteered to help Sioux tribal members fighting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. While in California to speak at the World Indigenous Legal Conference, with plans to follow on with a honeymoon tour of America, they were tagged in a Facebook post looking for Māori to support the protest action.
Standing Rock had already attracted solidarity from indigenous groups worldwide, with Māori supporting by way of the ‘Haka for Standing Rock’ movement.
When one of Kiritapu’s friends said she was on her way to deliver solar panels to the camp, and with flights to North Dakota on sale, the pair believed it was a tohu and made their way to the reservation.
“There were two road blocks, one from the police and one from the local tribe. We made our way into one of the camps and set ourselves up in the legal tent.”
The pair weren’t qualified to act as lawyers in the US so set about interviewing people returning from the front line, pulling together a comprehensive written record of events that could be presented in court later down the track.
“It was like a war zone,” remembers Coates. “We happened to be there when one of the camps, in the direct path of the planned pipeline, was being forcibly removed. Helicopters were flying overhead, there were snipers on the hill, people young and old were being blasted by pepper spray, hoses and rubber bullets. There were horrific stories and injuries, people walking around bleeding.”
While she had experience in indigenous issues and looking into international human rights recourse, what she learned from local lawyers in Dakota was more frontline triage; getting people out on bail so they could come back and do it all over again the next day.
“I’ve never been involved in a situation like that in Aotearoa. We had only been there for such a short period of time but it still took a while to recover from.”
At 33, Coates is now becoming a master in multi-tasking. She is currently teaching undergraduates at the University of Auckland, practicing law in Whakatāne and being a new mum to daughter Hiwaiterangi – who has already challenged māmā’s negotiating skills and natural ability to take control in difficult situations.
“She is determined, stubborn and cheeky,” laughs Coates. “This is one of the hardest, but most rewarding things I’ve done in my life.
“I’m looking forward to what is next in store.”
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