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Whānau Coalition Building: Intra-Group Relationality ≠ Best Practice Transferability

Naniette Coleman's picture

The beads in her traditional red, black and white headpiece rustled in response to her subtle bow.  Although the degree took years of work, it took only a matter of seconds for her advisor, Professor Mark Warren, to loop her Doctoral hood around her neck and drape it down her back. On May 26, 2010, Malia Villegas became one of very few Alaska Natives (indigenous) with a Doctorate.  Stanford educated Malia, co-editor of “Indigenous Knowledge and Education, Sites of Struggle, Strength, and Survivance” Malia, Fulbright scholar and newly minted Doctor of Education from Harvard University Malia is not one out of a thousand, not one out of a hundred or even fifty.  In 2008, there were only 21 Alaska Natives who obtained a PhD from any school at anytime in the United States.  It is safe to say that Malia is perhaps one of twenty-five or thirty. 

Whānau means family in the language of the Māori, a Polynesian indigenous group found in New Zealand.  Dr. Villegas became better acquainted with the group during her Fulbright studies in New Zealand but the relationship that exists between Māori and her own Alaska Native people predates even her.  As she described it, when our glaciers melt their seas rise. 

In 2004 Professor Graham Hingangaroa Smith, a noted Māori scholar, came to Alaska and spoke at the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in the US, the Alaska Federation of Natives.  He shared the bold vision of a group from far across the pacific, the Māori, who wanted to mint 500 Māori PhDs in 5 years. Professor Smith’s work and that of his wife Linda Tuhiwai Smith  led to a similar program being set up in Canada with the goal of 250 First Nations PhDs by 2010 and discussions surrounding the creation of 100 PhDs in Alaska rapidly ensued after his talk.  Despite residing in three separate nation states, all three of these groups -the Māori, Alaska Native and First Nations people – had similar goals in mind: to increase the number of indigenous students in the academe and increase the number of scholars and faculty.  All of the groups had similar values or “relationality” as Dr. Villegas called it.  In her dissertation, she found that the shared paradigm of indigenous groups or relationality is one of “pie expansion.” If we help each other, the pie is endless, bigger than anything we can imagine.  She said that resource accumulation holds lesser value to indigenous communities because of their limited history with it.  What does matter, according to Dr. Villegas is building responsibility, stewardship, reciprocity and ultimately balance.  What ultimately happened in the end is fascinating, despite similar goals and similar values each group took a different "how" approach based on the “who, what, when, where and why” of their distinct coalitions. 

When it came to 500 Māori PhDs in 5 years Alaska Natives were inspired but knew the context in their community required more than collective will.  According to Dr. Villegas, there is a need for intergenerational activism.  Goal setting would not accomplish the result they wanted.  They also knew that setting up joint goals with other peers based on assumed similarities, even if they did have similar values, would lead them to a different reality.

The relationship between American native peoples in Alaska and American Tribal Colleges and Kiwi Māori people and their Kiwi First Tribal University is quite different.  Even on a more base level, as a group, Māori’s are more homogenous sharing one language with multiple dialects.  Alaska Natives have eight major culture and language groups with a variety of languages spoken within each.  Only 54 people on earth speak Dr. Villegas’s language, Alutiiq.  In terms of organizing, Māori’s have two television stations at their disposal they can reach their populace in a targeted fashion.  The prospects are much more complicated for multi-lingual Alaska Natives.  They do not have a television station at their disposal and if they did what language would they use?  Organizing for Alaska Natives is more silo-like with information transfer occurring at greater numbers within community than between communities.  Community goal setting has to include more people, with a greater variation of interests and perspectives.  The micro-politics and incentives at play in the Alaska Native context require a different type of mobilization than their Māori counterparts. 

So what lessons can we glean from coalition building between Alaska Native, Māori and First Nation peoples that can help coalition building in the diverse developing world context?

  • When reaching across borders, national, tribal, et al, understanding the culture of your coalition partners cannot be underestimated.  Even if you start with the same values, your coalition partner(s) may have a different context through which they view them. 
  • Sustained mobilization happens with knowledge of existing relationships, politics and pressure points within your organization and that of your counterparts. 
  • Collaborating with academic institutions and academics can help with the institutionalization and sustainability of your endeavor. 
  • Language differences can make organizing more complicated but not impossible.  You may want to note what does and does not translate. 
  • Ownership and timelines derived from within the group may have greater staying power.  The imposition of structure may not lead to a result or lasting coalition. 
  • Timeline flexibility may become more important with greater coalition diversity.  Coalition members may take different approaches to the same result because of context even when starting with the same goal and values. 
  • Take your time and do your due diligence.  The system will beat you if you do not understand the system. 


Proud did not describe the look on the faces of Dr. Villegas’ family when she straightened her back, meeting her Doctoral career as she ascended slowly from low bow.  It was apparent that she cherished every millisecond.  They all knew in that moment, as she did, that this was history in the making.  She will continue to make history because of the indigenous coalition building work she does across oceans.  Future endeavors for the multi-national coalition might be analysis based or action oriented.  Dr. Villegas noted that indigenous treaty settlement processes going on around the world could be the next challenge for the coalition. Perhaps the more corporate, legal rights based Alaska Native approach, which led to the largest settlement with an indigenous group in US history, the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, might inspire the approach of Māori negotiators continuing Waitang claim’s in NZ or future negotiations in Canada.  With over 30 years of experience, Alaska might have suggestions or best practices for the Māori to consider in their own context, returning the inspiration offered by the “500 Māori PhDs in 5 years” program.  Equal exchanges flow back and forth, like the Pacific that unites these indigenous peoples, despite their linguistic and cultural differences, they are Whānau.

Photo Credit:  Flickr User quayaq


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