Supporting the intersection of politics and Māori studies

In 2023, Dr Maria Bargh (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa) was promoted to Professor of Politics and Māori Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, becoming the first wāhine Māori to achieve this position. This achievement builds on a lifetime of work aimed at bringing together politics and a Māori approach, whether that be to elections, resource management, or other aspects of political life.

Professor Maria Bargh
Professor Maria Bargh

“Being appointed Professor of Politics and Māori Studies doesn’t just symbolise the work I have been doing,” Professor Bargh says. “It also symbolises the direction our country is moving in—we’re embracing Māori approaches in many aspects of political life, and we are working together to face the challenges in front of us, like the climate crisis. We are respecting different worldviews and approaches and using all of those to find the solutions we need.”

Professor Bargh is the daughter of Robyn Rangihuia Bargh and Brian Bargh, who are well known for founding Huia Publishers. When Professor Bargh was young, the family moved to Papua New Guinea.

“Living in Papua New Guinea, as well as a later student exchange to Brazil, really shaped my thinking about the environment and about justice,” Professor Bargh says. “My father Brian worked for the Catchment Board testing water in Papua New Guinea, so I was very aware of the political issues around the mines and water pollution there, even as a young child.”

After returning to Aotearoa, Professor Bargh completed her schooling before coming to Victoria University of Wellington to study politics. She remembers even as a young child being interested in politics and spending her lunchtimes at school discussing parliament and Māori rights, but coming to university to study made her realise that politics was her passion. She got involved with the Ngā Tauira—Māori Students Association and attended many hui about decolonisation and constitutional change around the country.

Professor Bargh continued to pursue her passion for politics and Indigenous approaches by completing a PhD in Political Science and International Relations at  Australian National University, examining neo-liberal practices and Pacific Indigenous resistance. After completing her PhD, she returned to Aotearoa, where she took on various projects, including working for one of her iwi, Ngāti Awa, before taking up a role initially for one trimester in the Politics programme and then in Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. During her time at the University, Professor Bargh has continued her commitment to bringing politics and Māori Studies together.

This work has two clear strands: helping bring a Māori approach to Aotearoa’s political systems and decisions, and teaching students (and others) that all politics in New Zealand is underpinned by Māori politics.

“There is a whole world of Māori politics out there, and despite it being fundamental to our unique democracy, many students who come through the University are completely unaware of it,” Professor Bargh says.

“It is vital that students and teachers of politics, law, and government know about the first politics of this country: Māori politics,” Professor Bargh says. “Government agencies are more attentive to co-design, Te Tiriti, and legislation that includes Māori approaches. Graduates who don’t know enough about Māori political approaches are being underserved.”

Professor Bargh says that working together and incorporating different perspectives is the way to solve challenges, like climate change, facing our society.

“The approaches to environmental management which have created climate change cannot easily help us solve it. Mātauranga Māori however can provide innovative and different solutions,” Professor Bargh says. “Māori already take leadership roles in mitigating and adapting to climate change. For example, large areas of Māori land hold much of Aotearoa’s biodiversity and absorb carbon and Māori communities are actively protecting it.”

Professor Bargh is currently involved in two big initiatives working to take a ‘tika approach’ to solving challenges.

Professor Bargh is Deputy Chair of the Electoral Review Panel, which has brought together political experts to review Aotearoa’s electoral system. Professor Bargh is bringing her expertise in political science and Māori studies together to examine how the electoral system can better uphold Te Tiriti, as well as better meet the needs of everyone participating and voting in New Zealand. She is hopeful of seeing some positive changes made in the system.

Professor Bargh is also involved in several environmental projects, both for her hapū and for the BioHeritage National Science Challenge.

“The work I am doing for my hapū is particularly meaningful to me,” Professor Bargh says. “We are working towards making our mountain predator free and restoring the native bush and wildlife.”

For those who want to follow a similar path to her, she says,

“Start from your own place, your own family and community. Consider the ground under your feet and your connections to place here, then expand from there—you’ll be in a stronger position to make change. We all inherit histories from our ancestors, sometimes unpleasant, but what we can do—regardless of background—is to reflect deeply on our histories, our current political and economic positions and then work together to make the world a better place.”