Being asked to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the highest recognitions for academics around the world.
Now a Waikato University indigenous studies Māori researcher, Linda Tuhiwai Te Rina Smith is set to join the ranks alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and another inductee; Oprah Winfrey.
Established in 1780, the academy celebrates the excellence of its members as people who have addressed significant challenges. There are over 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners among them.
Smith is believed to be the first Māori elected to the academy, whose work on indigenous studies and decolonisation is taught in universities around the world.
She told Breakfast that she didn’t even know she was nominated to become a member until she began receiving well wishes after it was announced she’d been picked.
“A colleague of mine had sent me one of those weird texts where it had said ‘congratulations, I’ll be in touch later’.
Then during the day, I got some emails from the academy which to be honest I had to go and look up because I thought, what on earth is this about.”
It’s not the first significant step she’s taken for Māori, she was one of the first wāhine to become a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2016 and is also a member of the Waitangi Tribunal.
While Smith says there have been improvements in the treatment of Māori in New Zealand, she says there’s still a long road left to go.
“It’s taken 40 years for people to actually talk about decolonising our curriculums, decolonising the academy, decolonising universities. We’ve really only just begun the conversation about it, let alone done it.”
In order to spark progress in how New Zealand interacts with indigenous culture, Smith says there needs to be a societal reset in how people interact.
“We’ve got to imagine a different kind of society… the amount of casual racism in New Zealand is terrible. We’ve got to address the systemic racism underneath it which fuels it.”
Only two other Kiwis have been invited to join the prestigious academy, evolutionary biologist David Lloyd in 1993 and former Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2012.