New Zealand Law Society - Te Ao Māori – Perspectives from Iwi General Counsel

Te Ao Māori – Perspectives from Iwi General Counsel

Te Ao Māori – Perspectives from Iwi General Counsel
Gwendoline Keel, second row on the right hand side of the waka, on her Tira Hoe journey.

Gwendoline Keel (General Counsel - Punenga a Ture at Waikato-Tainui) and Natasha Strong (General Counsel at Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei) discuss the way they operate as in-house counsel, filtering through the intergenerational lens of tikanga.

Gwendoline Keel describes Tira Hoe, a journey she did with Waikato-Tainui down the Waikato river not long after she was appointed as Punenga a Ture (General Counsel).

The event was a tribal experience. They started at the mouth of the mighty Waikato, near Taupō, and paddled down the awa (river) together, learning about the stories of history, land and the river itself.

“If I had to describe the highest point of my working for the iwi, I’d pick that journey,” says Gwendoline. “It does alter you as a New Zealander, a person.”

Natasha Strong

Gwendoline and her counterpart Natasha Strong, General Counsel at Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei, say that the trusts, charities, societies and companies they represent (which are part of a kete (basket) of iwi businesses) see the world differently. They see it through a tribal vision, a long lens measured in decades, centuries even.

“Our organisation has a very long lens,” says Gwendoline. “They are looking a long way into the future, far, far longer than other organisations do. So the tribe talks about mokopuna decisions – how this is going to affect their grandchildren.”

“The tikanga focus – Waikato tikanga (custom, values) – is very important in everything we do. Everything we do is based on a set of values that the tribe has and espouses, and they really live those values out.”

Gwendoline has spent four years developing the in-house legal team at Waikato-Tainui from ‘greenfields’, inventing the role of General Counsel, and what it looks like within the organisation.

In contrast, Natasha is just beginning that journey at Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei. She has been there two years, and also reflects that working for iwi is completely different from any other in-house role.

“It’s so purpose-driven,” she says. “Its purpose is to uplift whānau (families) so they can soar and meet their aspirations. That’s at the heart of everything we do. That’s why we exist: for the benefit of whānau members. It’s our sole purpose.

“So (there’s) a Te Ao Māori lens across everything – a real, long-term lens. The whānau, who all whakapapa back to the common ancestor Tuperiri – those are our members. My CEO describes it as: the mahi (job,work) she does now is for the generations she’ll never meet. We’re thinking about the children, and the children’s children’s children, and making sure that what we do now continues to help those children to live their aspirations.”

The role

Both Natasha and Gwendoline describe their legal work as, on one level, similar to that of any in-house legal team. There are contracts to review and advice to provide. Governance advice is important; as are IP, policies, negotiation, property, leases and so on. But there is also an overlay of Māori legal matters.

Natasha says she provides a lot of advice on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Crown partnership issues, as does Gwendoline. Because both iwi have trusts, societies and charitable trusts, there is also the administration of those entities requiring attention.

Our organisation has a very long lens. They are
looking a long way into the future, far, far longer than other organisations do.

“Setting up things like basic registers,” says Natasha. “Such as registers of information whānau have requested and of whānau member complaints; setting up a matter management system…..those were basic things that established in-house teams take for granted.”

Both lawyers have had to revise rules and trust deeds – with all the challenges involved. And each points to the on-going, intensive government legislative programme which requires their attention, input and submissions from a Māori world perspective.

Gwendoline is doing a Masters in Information Governance at Auckland University, specifically to understand and address concerns around governance and Māori data sovereignty.

“Data sovereignty is the idea that you, as the data subject, should be the person controlling your data, not Google or Facebook or whoever else,” she says, adding that Māori think of themselves as a collective, not individuals.

“There’s a particular jurisprudence emerging around Māori data sovereignty looking at how Māori ought to be in control of their own data, and what that means for how we interact with Crown or other agencies that might want to hold or use that data,” she says.

Through the legal viewfinder

Looking at iwi goals through their legal viewfinder, the pair find that the way they do their work is different too. It’s infused with intent.

“We always bring the law,” says Natasha. “We bring the lawyer’s way of thinking about the risks and how to mitigate them; and how to achieve the hapū goals within the legal framework. But it’s also about the relationship between tikanga and the law. In health and safety (for instance) we have obligations…to keep everyone safe; but that’s also what manaakitanga is about as well….Thinking about those issues with that lens enables us to ensure that our legal advice not only ticks the legal box, but is also fit-for-purpose for the organisation as well.”

“The organisation exists to compensate the descendants of those who suffered the raupatu (confiscation) and the economic, social and cultural recovery process that’s underway is such a privilege to be part of. It’s so interesting,” says Gwendoline.

As General Counsel, she gets ‘embedded’ into project teams in a way that, usually, in-house counsel may not.

“We did a housing project here called Te Kaarearea,” says Gwendoline. “I was on the team all the time, making that housing development happen. You’re not waiting for people to come to you. You’re embedded in the whole process. I found that a great way to spot issues early on, and to be effective as counsel.”

“You can be proud of that work,” she adds. “If I’m having a frustrating day, I will go out and drive round that development; it always cheers me up. I say: ‘Wow. We did that.’”

(The organisation’s) purpose is to uplift whānau so they can soar and meet their aspirations. That’s at the heart of everything we do.

Both general counsel agree that the best practice model for iwi is not just legal; it’s built around tikanga.

“That’s around consensus building, collaboration; how you negotiate; how you train people and bring them into the organisation, and the relationships you have with them,” says Gwendoline. “It’s quite a different model from a law firm. It feels entirely different to work in.”

Natasha steeped herself in Ngāti Whātua tikanga – and was helped liberally along the way by others. She describes many days as ‘hui and kai’, building warm relationships alongside legal advice and says that she likes to be very present and visible to whānau and kaumātua (elders).

“Ngāti Whātua is a very values-driven organisation,” says Natasha. “We’ve got a lot of ngā mātāpono (values). Things like: kaitiakitanga (guardianship); rangatiratanga (leadership); manaakitanga (care, aroha to others). I use those as a lens on how we deliver not just our legal advice, but how we think about issues that come across our desk, and how we get involved.”

Like Gwendoline, Natasha is pākehā, and both women have immersed themselves in learning te reo Māori and te ao Māori.

Carving pathways for the future

One of the key parts of both roles is ensuring there are ways for young people who affiliate to the iwi to participate in the business. It’s part of their remit to grow tribal capability.

Gwendoline looks for opportunities to get others ‘in the room’, creating ways for young lawyers to come into the organisation and look at future opportunities like in-house counsel.

“How can I empower people to get in that room and make a difference?” she asks rhetorically. “I think that’s what leadership is about and doing it in a way that’s consistent with the values of the organisation.

“So, we’ve got two lawyers in our team, and a third person at law school who’s chosen to go there because she felt really attracted to the kaupapa. We’re supporting her through law school. We’re developing this really fantastic pathway for our lawyers that wasn’t there before.”

Natasha, who is still establishing in-house protocols and processes, slowed by the need to get on the tools to meet a wave of demand for legal support, looks forward to the day when she can provide similar opportunities. Meanwhile, like Gwendoline’s team, Natasha’s team also supports their external legal counsel in training law graduates.

“And over the summer, we employed a young graduate lawyer from Waikato Law School,” she says. “He’s been helping with contracts and opinions, and he’s been fabulous.”

A job that changes people

If the mark of a great job is how much it changes a person for the better, each of these lawyers would say they have that role.

“Being purpose-driven is in my DNA,” says Natasha. “It’s really important to me to do work that makes a difference……It’s the most challenging thing I’ve had to do….and also very rewarding.”

“It’s changed my landscape of success,” says Gwendoline. “It’s changed me in that it’s made me realise that there is a very narrow definition of success going on in the legal profession. My definition of success now, is what I’m doing now – purpose-driven mahi. I feel so fortunate. The longer I’m in the role the more fortunate I feel.”