Te reo Māori—a language of law

Law lecturer 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 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.”

He Papakupu Reo Ture: A Dictionary of Māori Legal Terms neatly encapsulates the three themes that typify Ms Stephens’s approach to research: it focuses on Māori identity, has a strongly practical element and makes connections between cultures.

“I have a very Māori-centric view of the world, but being a generalist is part of my research identity. I’m more interested in making connections than specialising,” she says.

“While I love academic life because it gives me time to think and to pursue my intellectual curiosity, I also like my research to have a practical element. It’s good to feel the work you’re doing can be used to help people.”

Ms Stephens (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākehā) contributes to Victoria’s ‘Advancing better government’, ‘Enriching national culture’ and ‘Spearheading digital futures’ areas of academic distinctiveness.

She studied Greek and Māori political mythology for her Master of Arts (Distinction) in Classical Studies, which she completed before studying for a law degree.

“I enrolled in a classics degree to help me interpret the world around me,” she says. “It was very useful for a career in the law because it gave me a framework for understanding argument and persuasion. It also made me realise people are motivated to create a founding mythology for themselves for the same reasons that motivate them to create laws for themselves.”

Ms Stephens has a strong interest in feminism and is contributing to a project funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation to rewrite a series of significant legal judgments from a feminist perspective.

She says the scholars chosen to apply a feminist lens will consider everything from the choice of language to the way judgments reflect women’s cultural identity.

The cases being reviewed range from benefit fraud to management of squid fisheries.

Ms Stephens is taking a mana wahine approach to the cases she is reviewing, which she says may not always coincide with Western views of feminism. “For example, Māori women don’t speak on marae. There are times when upholding the mana of Māori women may not tick the feminist boxes.”

One of her cases is a 1997 judgment that included a graphic description of sexual domestic violence. “I haven’t included that description in my version because it doesn’t uphold the woman’s mana. Her survival is more important than the details of what happened to her.”

Ms Stephens also has research interests in social security law and jurisprudence. She is writing a social security law textbook and has started work on a project looking at how Māori organisations use tikanga Māori to make decisions and solve problems.

“People have an instinct to create order in their lives. My plan is to record a series of meetings to explore how Māori groups make the rules and ensure the rules are kept,” she says.

The project is in its opening stages and Ms Stephens is still investigating ways to ensure its findings can be of use to Māori groups. As ever, she’s keen for her research to make a practical contribution to New Zealand’s future.