A Northland man who will be working in a Native American tribal court after he graduates from Harvard Law School believes tribes in the United States have valuable lessons for Maori as they settle with the Crown.

Whangarei man Kingi Snelgar and his partner Kiri Toki were awarded Fulbright Scholarships to study at Harvard University in Boston to complete their Master of Laws degrees. They headed overseas in August last year and will graduate on May 26. After graduation Mr Snelgar will work as a judge's clerk at the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and Ms Toki at the Navajo Nation Supreme Court in Arizona.

Mr Snelgar, of Ngapuhi, Ngati Hau and Te Whakahotea descent, has completed classes on mass incarceration, indigenous governance, US constitutional law and international human rights.

"It has been rewarding, inspiring and eye opening. The quality of the professors and the fellow students is exceptional. It was very daunting to start with but I soon found my feet," he said.


Mr Snelgar said there were many similarities and inequalities that existed for Native American people and Maori across all the socioeconomic indicators, such as health and poverty. The biggest difference is legal sovereignty, said Mr Snelgar.

"Native American tribes have their own separate lands over which they have sovereignty, meaning several have their own parliaments, court systems, for example.

"For us in Aotearoa, this might be a model that iwi might wish to explore - basically having more control over their whenua and people.

"This is quite a technical area but the main point I think is that tribes in the US have valuable lessons for Maori as we settle with the Crown and decide on our governance structures and nation-building."

Before leaving for the US Mr Snelgar studied law, Maori studies and politics at the University of Auckland and worked as a prosecutor for the Crown in Auckland. He has learnt a lot about indigenous justice and sovereignty which he hoped to bring back home.

"Here in the US many tribes have sovereignty with their own governments, courts and police. This has been really interesting to learn about and I hope to take this home and share my experiences with iwi like Ngapuhi who are looking at their own governance structure."

Mr Snelgar said he is excited to work at the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court for six months after graduation.

He said he plans to return home to Whangarei at some stage to work as a defence lawyer.