Kingi Snelgar is a lawyer from Aotearoa. Having worked as a Crown prosecutor in his homeland, he has also worked as a Human Rights observer internationally and – on completion of an LLM at Harvard – joined the Standing Rock protests in South Dakota in late-2016. Attended by more than 150 American Indian nations, the movement began last April, and sought to stop construction of the Dakota Access (oil) pipeline. Commissioned by the Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s route crosses the sacred tribal lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, threatening not only the nation’s livelihoods but the purity of their water – a vital resource.
Protesters secured a halt on construction on December 4, 2016, but the decision was subsequently reversed by US president Donald Trump in his first week of office.
How did you come to be involved with the Standing Rock movement, and what did you do there?
I finished my Masters and wanted to learn more about the way that sovereignty works for indigenous nations. That was one of the areas I studied while I was at Harvard – the way that indigenous nations and iwi can have their own governments, their own prisons, police force. I was interested in how that worked, and whether it could translate or be applied to New Zealand. So I went to Pine Ridge, which is where some of the main resistance to Custer came from indigenous people [in the US Civil War]. Custer was killed by the Lakota people, who were the people that I ended up working for in Pine Ridge.
I worked there for maybe two months as a judge’s clerk. My job came to a halt pretty quickly – there was an issue that came up and three of the judges that I was working for were terminated. That’s a story in itself, tribal politics. It was pretty shocking to have judges removed, because I was a big supporter and still am of tribal sovereignty and letting indigenous peoples have more control, because I think that helps with issues like suicide and a lack of identity. I could go on – but that happened, and I was following what was happening online on social media with Standing Rock, which was only a few hours away. I think I knew one person there and decided to just go on my own. I didn’t have a car so a friend lent me one, and I made my way up there. Had no expectations about what I might do, and yeah – just got talking to people.
They asked me to do a speech to the camp as a way to introduce myself, because I was Māori and I don’t think any Māori had been to the camp. Then they said, you’re a lawyer – you should come work with us on the legal team. There were about 10 lawyers. Some were just finishing their studies, so still students, but some were lawyers. I’d done some stuff with the United Nations earlier in the year, and thought I could help with some of the international human rights issues that had been raised. I put together some short statements, and then just talked to leaders and other people in the camp about what they thought the issues were, and would try and translate that into short statements.
Is it hard adjusting to being back in New Zealand after being over there?
Yeah. It was, it still is. Just the kinds of discussions and the people that you meet. I miss the Harvard environment too, and working with the communities there. I really enjoyed that.
How long were you at Harvard?
One year – the LLM. There was some cool stuff that happened there too, like the Royall Must Fall movement. The Harvard Law School seal was a slave owner’s crest, and the students organised and petitioned the university to remove it. That happened within the space of a year. I was involved in that, and it was probably the highlight of my time. It was just cool to see that even Harvard – an institution that values its legacy – was willing to change pretty quickly.
So from there you went to Pine Ridge, and then Standing Rock. What was it like to be involved in the protest?
It was pretty overwhelming at first, because of the relationship that Māori had with some of the people that were at the camp. When I arrived they were very emotional about having someone Māori there. It was intense, because it was this community-driven movement that had no influence from the state or a government, and were just organising in a very indigenous way. It was really good for me to see, because that’s the stuff I really enjoy – seeing indigenous people having their own ability to make decisions.
“It was this community-driven movement that had no influence from the state or a government, and were just organising in a very indigenous way.”
With things like the courts not working, and it being difficult to make change through politics, it was refreshing to see that it’s still an option to gather. It’s not something that only happened in the 70s and 80s. It has its limits I guess, as we see now with Trump going through with the pipeline. It’s probably the most significant experience of my life on a personal level, and also professionally.
Can you talk a bit about the particular power there is in different indigenous groups meeting? What it was like for you personally?
It’s basically like you’re the same people, but different. It’s so strange the similarities in experience across all indigenous nations. The colonial legacy – what happened, and what continues to happen. And then just things like humour. We have the same dry humour, we value the same kinds of things, like Mother Earth, and water. To go to Standing Rock to support Standing Rock people with their fight against the pipeline was just natural, and consistent with my upbringing.
The really cool thing about being indigenous is that you can go anywhere and just feel like you’re at home, because you share the same values. But there’s a lot to learn – they do things differently, and we do things differently. There are lessons that Māori can learn, and lessons that they might learn from us as well. It’s a really good learning experience, and you’re doing something good too.
So you felt like everyone there was willing to learn from each other?
Yeah, because you’re on camp time. You would have busy periods, but I made an effort to cruise around and meet people, and to go to other nation’s camps. At its peak, I think there were probably 150 nations present at Standing Rock. Each nation would have their own small tent site and fireplace. You could just go around, and sit and have some frybread with them, and talk. I made an effort to do that, to pray as well, and to attend some ceremonies if I was invited to be part of that.
How did the protest itself play out while you were there?
It was in its early days, I was there in late-August through the month of September. That was when there were dogs used against some people, but before the water cannons were used, and it got really cold. I came back to New Zealand in November. But the other big thing was the temporary halt by Obama in light of the threat that the National Guard was posing to the camp.
What were your feelings when construction of the pipeline was halted, and what were your feelings when Trump revoked that decision?
When it was halted I was really happy, obviously, for the people and to show that something like a protest or a gathering can still be a tool for change. It’s not a redundant tool. But I guess Trump is a pretty unique character in global politics, and I knew that it was coming, so I wasn’t surprised when he decided to overturn that decision and grant permission for the pipeline.
It’s obviously terrible, but there are still broader victories, in the sense that Standing Rock demonstrates the importance of gatherings for indigenous peoples and environmental protectors, as a way to bring attention to the issues we face. And to remember that there’s still a lot of power and influence in these kinds of gatherings, despite the overall result not being in our favour at Standing Rock.
I think you have people who have attended, like myself, that feel like we have a network of like-minded people. When issues keep creeping up, now there’s this network that’s more engaged and available. There are good things that have come out of it. A lot of young people were leading the movement as well, so that’s that next generation being developed.
Are there other links that you can talk about between the Standing Rock community and issues that Māori people face in New Zealand?
The Haka with Standing Rock was on Facebook, and that was a pretty cool thing – that you had hundreds of different groups of New Zealand Māori doing haka in support of what was happening there. In terms of similarities, there are many with extractive industries or mining, and the threats that those pose to waterways, and to sacred places – wahi tapu. The conflict between large corporations and indigenous peoples is everywhere. New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, in the States, across the world. It’s a common theme, and I think that global network is a way to bring more attention to what’s happening, and to not feel alone.
Going forward I’m not sure what it means for us, I just think that we are more aware of our own issues in our own backyard, hopefully.
Where are things actually at right now in South Dakota?
Permission to continue construction has been granted by Trump, but there are still court cases pending. Work is ongoing, but I can’t confirm if they’ve actually started the under-river construction. There have been a lot of protests happening in Washington around climate change, and Standing Rock is a big part of that, but the court processes are also going to be difficult because Trump gets to choose who his Supreme Court judges are. I don’t think that should stop people from getting out and having their voices heard.
The protest is about the pipeline first and foremost of course, but it seems like there’s more to it. It’s not just about this one project, right?
Absolutely. It’s a turning point in the way that indigenous peoples want – not just themselves – but they want the world to think about how we relate to water, how we relate to land. It’s part of realigning our consciousness around what our place is as humans in the world, and how we relate to land not just as a resource to be exploited but as a treasure. That’s the most important indigenous message, I think, coming from Standing Rock – that water is life. And that land is not just something to exploit or to use for money, but it’s actually something that we should take care of and nurture.
“It’s part of realigning our consciousness around what our place is as humans in the world, and how we relate to land not just as a resource to be exploited but as a treasure.”
That’s what I think the bigger picture is, and that many people can relate to – for example, forests as having some kind of energy. Or as we say in Māori, a life force. That there’s some special relationship that you have to nature that – it’s not just a resource, but it’s actually something to take care of.
Much of law is framed from a Western perspective. As a Māori lawyer, how do you reconcile the two? Are there particular barriers that you come up against quite a lot?
Absolutely. The legal system is a reflection of the Western legal system. At its heart the concept of property is: you do labour to earn it, and then it’s yours as an individual. Fundamentally, that’s inconsistent with how indigenous peoples think of property. It’s not something that you individually own, but it’s a collective taonga, or a treasure that’s to be looked after.
“At its heart the concept of property is: you do labour to earn it, and then it’s yours as an individual. Fundamentally, that’s inconsistent with how indigenous peoples think of property.”
But yeah, it’s really difficult coming from legal training – there are just so many clashes, on so many levels, in the way indigenous peoples and the Western legal system relate to land, to water. Part of my, kind of mission in life is to try to realign that, or change that. Maybe not internally, but just to bring more attention to, hey there are other ways we can think about land, or water. Or prisons – prisons are another big thing that I’m working on.
And suicide – these sorts of issues seem to present in similar ways for different indigenous groups, right? Was that a surprise to you when you went to Standing Rock, or were you aware of those parallels?
Yeah, totally aware. I’d been to the UN and met other indigenous peoples as a pretty young guy. Talking to the other young people there, it’s the same issues. So I knew already the value in going to other nations and being respectful as an outsider, but also trying to learn or share experiences, solutions to different things. I don’t think Māori have the answers to everything – although other indigenous peoples think we’ve got it all sorted back in New Zealand. I was quick to say, ‘we’re ok, we’re doing well but not everything’s ok’.
But yeah, parallels – like you said, suicide is a huge issue. And then the internal issues, around things like the legacy or the influence that Christianity has had on some of our traditional concepts – like the role of women, even on Māoridom. Those are concepts that are the same across other indigenous peoples.
I’d really like to talk more about these sorts of things, for various reasons. Would you be up for doing another interview at a later date?
Yeah, it’s a very sensitive topic with – all people, but especially Māori. I think it’s worth talking about the place of women in Māori communities; some of our teachings, or traditional practices really come from Christian ideals, and not from the way we actually look at the world.
Kingi Snelgar is a lawyer and activist from Aotearoa, New Zealand. He has an LLM from Harvard University.
Header image by Jessa Lewis.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.