By Rosemary Rangitauira 13/04/2021

The melody from the classic movie Wizard of Oz echoes as Jacinta Ruru explains what inspired her to attend university, and her ambition to help create a more just society in Aotearoa.

Jacinta, who affiliates to Raukawa and Ngāti Ranginui, specialises in the research areas of indigenous peoples and the law.

She is a professor at the University of Otago’s Faculty of Law and a co-director at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the country’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence.

Her career has partly been inspired by the short story, Yellow Brick Road, by Witi Ihimaera which trails a Māori family travelling from Waituhi near Gisborne to Wellington, which is described in the pūrākau (story) as the Emerald City. On their travels, they run out of gas and no one stops to help them.

The pūrākau cemented for Jacinta the social prejudice that existed when she first read a short story by a Māori author while in Year 11. It encouraged her to attend tertiary education and her pursuit of knowledge.

This year, she has been influential in the development of a publicly released book called Ngā Kete Mātauranga – Māori Scholars at the Research Interface.

A co-editor of the book which showcases the personal stories of 24 Māori scholars, Jacinta has aspirations for it to be a useful resource for taiohi (young people).

“ We hope that the book reaches Māori kids all over the country and that they too can aspire to study cool things like geology, physics, history, philosophy at University. As the Māori scholars in this book demonstrate, most of us grew up knowing very little about University. Many of us grew up really removed from the tertiary education sector, we didn’t know anyone who went onto University. That doesn’t mean you can’t come here and be a huge success. We want and need more Māori researchers – the University leaders just need to do a better job at creating a better workplace for us that values our mātauranga (knowledge)!”

Jacinta says Ngā Kete Mātauranga enables people to see how mātauranga Māori can work alongside western disciplines.

“In Mātauranga Māori, we have a framework of knowledge that is more integrated and holistic, so there is value in incorporating greater integration of Māori values and knowledge in areas such as research and resource management and policy development in areas such as health and education as well as science. But it must be integrated from the beginning, not added on at the last minute.

“This book is an opportunity for us to provide New Zealanders with an insight into how mātauranga Māori is positively influencing the Western-dominated disciplines of knowledge, and how it can further do so.”

Jacinta is involved in many kaupapa rangahau (research projects).

“I’m currently working on lots of amazing projects including reforming New Zealand’s environmental law to recognise Māori rights and interests, particularly in water. The new legal commitment which gives effect to Te Mana o te Wai in environmental decision-making and more opportunities to demonstrate in action Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which strives to create a society that lives in partnership,” she says.

The Dunedin-based professor is also penning a few books including updating a pukapuka (book) about the New Zealand Legal System and writing another about Māori law in Aotearoa and another about the curation of 150 Māori books published over two centuries called Te Takarangi. A research paper about Te Takarangi, which was led by Jacinta, was published in 2018.

Jacinta is passionate about mātauranga Māori and supporting a drive by a number of kairangahau Māori (Māori researchers) wanting to embed its value into the landscape of Aotearoa, the home of te reo Māori and Māori culture.

Jacinta’s overarching vision for Aotearoa, through her research area of indigenous people and the law, is for tāngata whenua to be recognised as having legal rights and interests to own, govern and care for New Zealand lands and waters.

Bonus read

What advice do you have for upcoming Māori researchers?

“Do research that means a lot to you and your whānau and do that research in a way that makes sense to you and your whānau. Surround yourself with a wide team of people you can seek support from,” says Professor Jacinta Ruru.

The co-director at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, Jacinta also reminds us that indigenous knowledge is essential to retain. She says places like Ngā Pae (Māori Centre of Research Excellence) enable safe spaces for researchers to nurture their pūkenga (skills).

“Mātauranga (Knowledge) is an amazingly deep and rich set of knowledge born here in the Pacific.  Our mātauranga stems from a place of interconnection with all that is around us – this type of thinking and science is critical for helping to address the biodiversity decline crisis, the pollution of our waters and climate change.

“It is critical for our nation and is a lifeline of inspiration and support for all Māori researchers throughout the country. Ngā Pae is our beating heart of Māori research, it is our safe and nurturing place. Ngā Pae has the critical infrastructure and know-how for how to positively transform our nation. It puts Māori at the centre rather than the fringes,” says Professor Ruru.

You can purchase Ngā Kete Mātauranga – Māori scholars at the Research Interface in bookstores across New Zealand or online here.