New Zealand drew on its strong Māori culture to encourage a major Indigenous Studies conference to travel outside the US and Canada for the first time.

This is a fantastic achievement to bring NAISA to Aotearoa/New Zealand, as it has never been hosted outside of the United States and Canada before. So it’s a real coup for us.

Professor Brendan Hokowhitu, Dean of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato

New Zealand’s strong Māori culture and reputation in Indigenous Studies has attracted the world’s preeminent Indigenous Studies conference away from the US and Canada for the first time, to the benefit of scholars in the field throughout the Asia Pacific region. 

The annual Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference will take place in June 2019 at the University of Waikato, with organisers expecting up to 1,000 Indigenous Studies scholars from around the world.

“This is a fantastic achievement to bring NAISA to Aotearoa/New Zealand, as it has never been hosted outside of the United States and Canada before. So it’s a real coup for us,” says Professor Brendan Hokowhitu, Dean of the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato. Hokowhitu, with support from Tourism New Zealand and Hamilton and Waikato Tourism, was instrumental in securing the event.

“Māori have been seen as leaders in the Indigenous Studies space because of the general perception that Māori culture is strong and prominent in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s life, culture and politics. The strong Māori cultural renaissance over the last 50 years has made Māori Studies a significant site of not only language and cultural revival, but also of cultural studies and political and socio-historical research and analysis. So, from the perspective of other indigenous peoples, they are interested in what we’re doing here and how we've done it,” he says. “Aotearoa is on the bucket list for a lot of indigenous people.”

Moreover, bringing NAISA to New Zealand will allow the conference to incorporate more indigenous cultures from the Asia Pacific region, Hokowhitu says. There was the possibility of attracting more Australians, indigenous people from Taiwan, and ethnic minorities from China and South East Asia, and beyond. “Its an opportunity for Indigenous Studies to be re-interpreted in these places.”

Hosting NAISA will deliver an estimated $1.7 million to the local economy, as well as putting the University of Waikato, the Hamilton Waikato region, and New Zealand on the world stage, he says. “Waikato has had a strong indigenous studies programme since the 1970s. This will act as a great showcase for the work being done here and provide the opportunity to see the magnificent and critically engaged work happening abroad.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for staff and students from indigenous studies and other related disciplines from all over Aotearoa/New Zealand to interact with some of the best indigenous minds, to refresh, refocus and rethink our curricula, research and scholarship in terms of indigenous studies as an international discipline.”

Local scholars are also seizing opportunities to build relationships and network around the main conference, he adds. Mini events, including an indigenous postgraduate conference and an indigenous philosophy conference, are already being organised.

Hokowhitu attended the first NAISA conference - attended by only 150 delegates - while on sabbatical in Canada in 2007. He was elected to NAISA’s initial council in 2011, and as the event grew, talk turned to bringing it to New Zealand, he says.

“They were thinking about going offshore and asking me about it, but I was a bit resistant because I knew how much work it would be. But the support of Tourism New Zealand and Hamilton and Waikato Tourism was wonderful. With the help of Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme (CAP), my colleagues and I put together a basic info package and a very glossy bid package came back to us. We found Tourism New Zealand to be very flexible, as you have to be very careful with the imagery and messaging you put out for indigenous folks and they listened and we put together a great document.”

Hokowhitu adds that the NAISA board was not without its concerns. “I think it was a big move for them to agree for it to come to New Zealand. There are some risks and challenges, such as whether younger post graduates and students will have access to the funds to get here, and concerns over the time and distance to travel. But Tourism New Zealand ensured the bid document included information about accessibility, and wider travel opportunities to enjoy once they are here. If they are travelling from the US or Canada they will likely be here a couple of weeks, not just four days.

“NAISA remarked that New Zealand’s whole package was really impressive. The CAP programme even funded my travel to Vancouver for the NAISA council meeting to deliver the bid, and will help fund my trip to attend the next NAISA council to build on ideas for the programme.”

Plans so far include taking advantage of the cultural highlights of the Hamilton and Waikato region, Hokowhitu says. “We have looked at options including the Hobbiton Movie Set, which would be popular with our US visitors; Tamaki Māori Village for a cultural experience, plus other Māori-centric offerings. Being in the Waikato with the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) history is exciting. We will be holding one community day focused on community-based projects and sites of Indigenous importance including the very important history of the Kīngitanga and the Waikato. The local assistance has been great and I’m very excited for the delegates to come to New Zealand.”