Coming home

For Dr Billy van Uitregt, moving to Aotearoa New Zealand marked an intergenerational homecoming.

Dr Billy van Uitregt

Dr van Uitregt, a lecturer in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, has whakapapa to Ngā Rauru, Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, and Ngāi Tūhoe on his mother’s side, and Dutch on his father’s side. He was born and raised in Australia, and now has a home close to the Whanganui River. He splits his time between Whanganui and Wellington, where he teaches on Kelburn campus.

“I’ve always wanted to come to Aotearoa, just to connect with my Māoritanga. I wanted to live in Whanganui down the line, so I can be where my mum was from, and build my own connections with my iwi and hapū. It’s definitely a coming home of sorts.”

Dr van Uitregt’s dual Indigenous and settler colonial identity has shaped his perspective on research. Reflecting on his first experience doing research with Indigenous communities, he is critical of the way the research team approached partnering with the community.

“There was no power-sharing going on in that relationship—we had an idea of some research we wanted to do, and we wanted to do it on their country. Setting the research agenda wasn’t a mutual thing.

“That continued mentality of extraction is so rife when working with Aboriginal communities. We benefited, whereas I don’t know what benefit they had. I see that sort of thing playing out time and time again.”

Dr van Uitregt originally completed his PhD in evolutionary ecology, but his experience on that research project shifted his focus to Indigenous world views and knowledges, particularly around environmental conservation. After graduating, he worked with the Anindilyakwa Land and Sea Rangers in the Northern Territory on environmental conservation projects, and then with First Nations communities in the South Australian Murray–Darling basin on water policy.

“That really shifted me into thinking about policy, and I’d never been a policy person. I thought it was boring!

“It’s actually quite profound for defining the way we do things. Particularly when it comes to environmental policy—it’s a reflection of our culture and our environmental ethic as a community.”

After moving to Aotearoa, Dr van Uitregt began working for Massey University and Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research on Māori representation in Aotearoa’s Antarctic research, policy, and governance. His view is that when engaging with Indigenous worldviews and knowledges, it is important to keep the western, Eurocentric worldview and knowledge system in frame and up for scrutiny.

“We need to articulate and research what the settler colonial worldview is, and what implications that has for the research we do.

“How do we engage scientists within this western university structure to reflect on their own knowledge system? How do we get them to think about how they can effectively engage with mātauranga Māori in a meaningful way that isn’t extractive or exploitative, and doesn’t subordinate mātauranga Māori or Māori voices and communities?”

Dr van Uitregt’s advice to researchers who are looking to engage more meaningfully with Indigenous communities is to examine their reasons for conducting the research.

“The fundamental thing to do is reflect on your own motivation. You’re the only one who can really be the judge of that. If you’re coming from a genuine place of partnership and sharing the power, then you’ve got a good foundation.

“But you have also got to know that you’re going to get it wrong, and when that happens, take the growling and come back with a new approach.”

Dr van Uitregt is currently working on learning te reo, and he plans to further expand his language capabilities so he can continue his work further afield.

“That’s where my interests are—working with settler colonial communities around the world where they are imposing on Indigenous peoples, to try to understand how you can break down the power structures that are inherent in those societies.

“I want to become fluent in French and Spanish, so I can do this type of work with any settler colonial society. It would be amazing to kōrero in whatever language pops up.”