Māori Fulbright scholar to study environmental law in US

By Leo Horgan

Maia Wikaira (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa) has been awarded the 2016 Fulbright-Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga Graduate Award and will travel to California to study at Stanford University. 

The Fulbright programme was established to promote mutual understanding through educational and cultural exchanges between the US and other countries. 

Every year a carefully selected group of outstanding NZ academics are awarded scholarships worth thousands of dollars to study in the United States, with many Māori among them.

Wikaira is an associate at specialist Māori law firm Kahui Legal and will complete a Masters in Environmental Law and Policy specialising in freshwater law and policy and indigenous rights at Stanford. 

Wikaira credits her parents with encouraging her to study law from a young age.

Wikaira says, “Growing up, my father always encouraged me to study law or become a doctor. For him, those professions brought with them a sense of service that he knew our people needed.

My mother’s background is as an English teacher and she instilled in me a love of reading and writing, so I gravitated toward law.”

Wikaira’s interest in freshwater law and policy stems from a very personal connection to Aotearoa.

“Wai Māori and wai wera is part of my whakapapa and my upbringing," says Wikaira, "When I was little I attended Waihi Te Kohanga Reo on the shores of Lake Taupō. Swimming in the lake and trips to Tokaanu Thermal Pools were part of kōhanga life and we were taught about our deep connection to these places.

When we moved from Tūrangi, our whānau holidays back home were about whānau picnics and swimming at the lake at Waitetoko, playing and swimming along the Tongariro and Tauranga-Taupō Rivers and heading to the hot pools at night in the winter to warm up.

I feel this deep sense of duty to protect our wai resources so that future generations can enjoy these experiences.”

In her professional capacity, Wikaira has been involved in a number of projects that are relevant to freshwater issues and current law and policy reform.  She hopes to expand on this experience in California.

Wikaira says, “My proposed specialist topic is provision for iwi rights and interests in New Zealand’s freshwater law and policy, a subject of ongoing dialogue between iwi and the Crown. My aim is to learn from freshwater regulation experiences in the United States, and further abroad, and contribute to current freshwater reform in New Zealand upon my return.”

As a Fulbright applicant, Wikaira was required to apply to a number of US Universities.  She gained acceptance to New York University, Columbia University, Harvard University and Stanford University.

“In the end, I chose Stanford for a range of reasons," says Wikaira, "The academics at Stanford are some of the USA’s foremost experts in water law and policy. California is facing significant water shortage issues, so there will be much I can learn from observing the challenges they are facing that Aotearoa is yet to encounter.

Finally, but importantly, through the Stanford Māori Leaders Boot Camp and Stanford First Nations Futures Programme, Stanford University is proving that it is an institution that understands and values indigenous perspectives.”

Wikaira sees iwi and hapū as natural leaders when it comes to protection of Aotearoa’s environment.

“We need only look to the governance arrangements achieved in relation to two of New Zealand’s longest rivers, Waikato and Whanganui, to see the success of models of governance and policy direction that put iwi at the centre of fresh water management solutions.  

The next round of water reforms are significant, dealing with complex issues that will take vision and bold leadership to resolve.

It is my view that in order for a sustainable and enduring solution to be achieved, provision for iwi and hapū rights and interests in freshwater must be central to the reforms.”

Wikaira encourages Māori to take advantage of the Fulbright programme as they are often well placed to fulfil the goals of educational and cultural exchange the programme seeks to encourage.

Wikaira says, “Our rangatahi Māori are culturally astute, know the value of their indigeneity, and demonstrate that value with ease. I see it on the marae, the kapa haka stage and in many other environments. These qualities make rangatahi Māori perfect ambassadors for Aotearoa and great candidates for the Fulbright and Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga programmes.”

Wikaira also notes other young Māori have received a range of awards under the Fulbright programme, not just the Fulbright-Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga Graduate Award.

“It’s important to note that other young Māori have received Fulbright General Graduate Awards and their successes are also worth noting and celebrating.”

The next round of Fulbright scholarship applications are due on the 1st of August 2016.