Indigenous studies professor first Māori to be elected to prestigious American academy

By Jessica Tyson

One of New Zealand’s foremost indigenous studies researchers has been elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, of Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou, Tuhourangi, is the first Māori academic on the list and joins late biologist David Lloyd and former Prime Minster Helen Clark as the only New Zealanders in the academy.

The academy was founded in 1780 and celebrates extraordinary people who help solve the world's most urgent challenges, create meaning through art and contribute to the common good from every field, discipline and profession.

 “I feel very honoured and humbled as a Māori woman to be elected,” says the professor, who has been a leader in the field of Indigenous studies and kaupapa Māori research for more than three decades.

As the author of seminal Indigenous studies text Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People, Smith is in good company, with media entrepreneur and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey on the 2021 list of 252 new global members.

Other distinguished members include Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Toni Morrison and Nelson Mandela. There are more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners among their ranks.

Indigenous connections

Smith’s books, articles and YouTube lectures are prescribed texts in universities around the globe.

“I never started my work because I thought organisations such as this would be interested in anything I do but it demonstrates some of the changes occurring in the knowledge world in terms of increased diversity, the inclusion of women and people of colour and indigenous cultures," she says. "It’s a sign that things are changing and I feel good about that.”

Smith was one of the first Māori women to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2016, and is also a member of the Waitangi Tribunal. She contributes to both research and Māori communities in a number of other roles and projects, and is doing research in the areas of health and family violence.

Smith has strong relationships with Indigenous researchers and communities around the world, including North America and Australia. She also has links to the United States, having lived in Carbondale, Southern Illinois as a teenager when her father was doing his PhD there.

“It was the 1960s, and the civil rights movement was gaining strength,” recalls Smith, who is a passionate advocate for Indigenous and civil rights. “Living in the US at that time helped give me perspective to the issues faced by Māori in New Zealand at that time.”

The academy is planning to hold its annual induction weekend for new members in April 2022 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Professor Smith hopes to attend if Covid-19 travel restrictions allow.