Law interpreted through a Māori love story

There’s a love story with a twist about a woman of substance, Rongomaiwahine, the principal ancestor of the people of the Māhia Peninsula in the North Island of New Zealand.

Carwyn Jones talking to another collegue in the Law school

A young man called Kahungunu—from whom Hawke’s Bay’s iwi Ngāti Kahungunu takes its name—arrived in the area determined to marry Rongomaiwahine.

Although she was already married, he set about impressing her and her family, observing how shags dived for pāua and learning to do it himself to feed the tribe. Eventually, Rongomaiwahine’s husband drowned and she married Kahungunu.

Dr Carwyn Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu), senior lecturer at Victoria’s Faculty of Law, is collecting stories like this to explain Māori law in an accessible way. The three-year research programme, which explores Māori legal traditions, is funded by a Marsden Fast Start grant.

Carwyn aims to show there is more to Māori law than the customary rights that may be recognised by the New Zealand legal system. Customary law tends to be defined as a body of social rules that have developed through habitual repetition over time. But, he says, this is only a narrow slice of how law is created.

Legal principles, reasoning and deliberation are at play in Māori law and it remains relevant to New Zealand public life, Carwyn says.

“Māori stories can be viewed as a body of case law, in a similar way to a collection of decisions from the New Zealand courts can illustrate a particular form of legal argument and reasoning.

“Even at a very simple level, the story of Rongomaiwahine and Kahungunu provides some basic information about law and legal process,” Carwyn says. “For example, the story tells us about the site of decision-making authority. The marriage between these two ancestors, both from chiefly lines, was not only a decision for the two individuals involved. The wider community had both a stake and a say in whether the marriage would take place.”

Carwyn says a persuasive factor was Kahungunu’s ability to provide food for the community. When placed alongside other stories, this might reveal key principles and mechanisms of gift exchange and Māori forms of contract.

“Kahungunu’s study of the diving shags may also point to the importance in Māori law of a close observation of the natural world in determining appropriate ways of acting, perhaps in the context of resource management. The origins of the two key protagonists recounted in this story are also the basis for the present-day distinct political identities of the iwi Rongomaiwahine and Ngāti Kahungunu and have been relied upon in recent decisions about the allocation of commercial fishing assets.

“Knowing Māori law and how it can be applied to resolve disputes, identify rights or establish and maintain durable relationships provides lawyers with a whole range of additional tools. Hopefully, this will enable the New Zealand state legal system to deal with Māori law in a more sophisticated way.

“But the primary objective is to help strengthen the confidence of Māori communities to use our own law to manage a much broader range of public interactions,” Carwyn says.