Making connections between cultures

Māmari Stephens was delighted when the Dictionary of Māori Legal Terms she co-led became a valuable resource for the Māori Language Act 2016.

Mamari Stephens, senior lecturer, School of Law
Māmari Stephens, Senior Lecturer, School of Law

Māmari Stephens can pinpoint the exact moment she found her identity as an academic.

Shortly after Ms Stephens began working as a Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington in 2006, she discovered it was difficult for law students to submit their assignments in te reo Māori, because there was no collection of Māori legal terms.

“That really lit a fire under me,” says Ms Stephens, who had been working in the Māori legal team of leading law firm Russell McVeagh before joining Victoria’s Faculty of Law.

“There was a view that English was central to the study of law and that perhaps te reo Māori couldn’t transmit Western law concepts. I was sure there must have been a tradition of Māori legal language, so I wanted to uncover those terms and put them in a useful format.”

The result of Ms Stephens’s determination to show Māori could be a language of law was He Papakupu Reo Ture: A Dictionary of Māori Legal Terms, which was published in 2013. It is the first ever Māori-English bilingual dictionary of legal terms and features more than 1,500 terms Māori speakers can use to practise law, draft agreements or talk about the law.

The papakupu was created by the Legal Māori Project, led by Ms Stephens and Assistant Professor Dr Mary Boyce of the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa. Senior students and graduates from Victoria’s Faculty of Law, assisted by Māori-speaking lawyers from the Crown Law Office and private practice, combed through more than eight million words dating back to 1828 to compile the dictionary, which is available both in a print edition and online at the Legal Māori Resource Hub.

Te reo Māori is a heavily polysemic language, with multiple meanings for many words and phrases. The words rangatira, mana and utu, for example, have thousands of meanings. While this added an extra layer of complexity to the project, Ms Stephens says she and the team loved the intellectual challenge of uncovering the subtle differences in the way words were used in customary and Western law.

Ms Stephens was delighted the dictionary became a valuable resource to the team writing the te reo Māori version of the Māori Language Act 2016. “It was a vindication that te reo Māori was more than equal to the task of describing legal concepts.”

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In a nutshell

My research matters because … It explores the complexity of ‘doing law’ in a Māori way, whether that be identifying Māori ideas or perspectives that can create change in the state legal system or exploring how law can be done and experienced outside that system entirely.

One of the inspirations for my research has been … The often unnamed Māori writers of letters, petitions, newspapers articles and think-pieces (before such a word was invented) of the past couple of hundred years who challenged all and sundry and fought, with their writing, for the rights and freedoms to live their lives on their own terms in this rapidly changing world.

The best thing about my job is … Having one at all. And having the kind of job that allows me to think and make connections between ideas and between people.

My career highlight so far has been … When people tell me how they have used something in my writing or in one of my research outputs to help them solve a problem or to wrestle with an idea. Oh man, what a privilege to have been useful.

My advice to aspiring researchers is … Be open.