The Yurok Tribe welcomed New Zealand attorney Maia Wikaira into their tribal justice system Thursday, calling the relationship with her a “bridge of sovereignty from the shores of Requa all the way to her home village.”

Wikaira was sworn into the Yurok bar and will work with the Yurok Tribe Office of Tribal Attorney as a legal fellow through March 2018. According to Judge Abby Abinanti, who administered the oath, Wikaira was required to take an exam to be admitted to the Yurok bar.

“She passed it with flying colors,” Abinanti said. “It concentrates on a combination of Indian law and Yurok history, so that she’s now ready to practice in this court. It’s very exciting to us to have her want to do it and then to do so well on the exam.”

Wikaira descends from the Maori tribes of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Ngapuhi and Te Rarawa. As an environmental lawyer in New Zealand, Wikaira said much of her work centered on water reform. She said she decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and studied at Stanford University, focusing on water allocation regimes and how they provide for indigenous rights.

Wikaira said she first traveled to Klamath to offer a presentation on the role her legal firm in New Zealand played in getting the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill passed earlier this year. The bill granted the Whanganui River in New Zealand personhood.

“That presentation led to a conversation with the general counsel about potentially turning the time after my study into a fellowship,” she said. “The Fulbright program encourages mutual cultural and educational exchange. There’s no question that being here and working for the Yurok Tribe has afforded me the opportunity to not only engage in that exchange, but learn really, really valuable lessons about what they are doing and what we can replicate or incorporate into our own work back in New Zealand.”

As a legal fellow, Wikaira will do legal research and provide other assistance to the attorneys at the Yurok Tribe. Even though she is barred in Yurok law and tradition, she is not barred through the State of California, she said, so her work will be supervised by a licensed attorney.

Wikaira said the Yurok Tribe’s priorities with regards to water issues were what initially made her want to work with them. But since she began working with the tribe in July, she has offered assistance on other tribal issues including fishing rights, Indian gaming issues and child welfare issues.

“It’s really exceeded my expectations in terms of the valuable work that I’ve been able to do,” Wikaira said of her fellowship.

Just before Wikaira took the oath to uphold and defend the Constitutional sovereignty and traditions of the Yurok Tribe, Amy Cordalis, general counsel with the Office of Tribal Attorney, expressed her confidence that her “international indigenous” sister would uphold the laws of the Yurok people.

“We are strengthening the international indigenous sovereignty of not only the Yurok people, but of your people, the Maori people,” Cordalis said. “As she goes through her career she will continue to spread the good will and values of the Yurok people no matter where she is located and you will always be welcome in our homes and in our court.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.

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