Mr Puumanawawhiti took a break from his role as research and communications co-ordinator for the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute to talk to the Rotorua Daily Post about his upbringing, career and the documentary which titled him genius.
Following the tradition of his mother’s family, at the age of 8 Mr Puumanawawhiti left his parents and siblings in Otaki and went to live in Hastings with his grandparents who took him in as a whangai (Maori style of adoption) child.
“As a child it was traumatic. But as an adult, I understand and deeply appreciate the privilege of being raised by my grandparents,” he said.
The purpose was for him to understand more about his tribal heritage, and under the care of his grandparents he developed a keen interest in Maori culture.
While others his age were preparing for high school, at 13 Mr Puumanawawhiti graduated with a diploma in Matauranga Maori from Te Wananga o Raukawa.
“I’ll be really honest, it wasn’t my decision,” he said about his enrolment to study.
“I was highly sceptical of being able to take on tertiary level studies.”
The support of his parents and grandparents taught him a valuable lesson.
“That even if you don’t possess the vision or aren’t aware of your abilities, you have to at some point trust in those around you.”
Being the youngest in the classroom was nerve-wracking, however that level of study “satisfied a deep craving for knowledge and understanding” he hadn’t been receiving at school.
Mr Puumanawawhiti, who describes his entire upbringing as “the result of political courses”, typed the words “political studies” into Google, and stumbled upon the five-week summer programme at Yale University.
“Yale was not the goal; it was just an extension, or another means of furthering that course,” he said.
For Mr Puumanawawhiti the biggest pressure point was letting down the community that had supported him.
“My whole community had fundraised for me to get there, my parents went into debt, and we applied for scholarships I wasn’t actually eligible for because I was too young,” he said.
“They had invested their hopes and aspirations into an individual being successful, and it sent a message to young Maori males that this was possible.”
At the end of his first summer at Yale, Mr Puumanawawhiti walked away with an A grade average, at only 15.
In 2012, when Mr Puumanawawhiti was 18, Pietra Brettkelly released her documentary Maori Boy Genius, which had followed his journey since 2010.
The decision to star in the documentary was one made by the entire family.
“My first thought was no thank you,” he said.
“But my family said, you know what, this documentary provides a platform to communicate vital messages that we think indigenous communities around the world can benefit from, take it.”
However, “genius”, is a title Mr Puumanawawhiti has found challenging.
“Unfortunately the film to some extent emphasises the individual,” he said.
“In my mind the genius is in the education and the background from which I came.”
Mr Puumanawawhiti was studying law at Victoria University in Wellington when Te Wananga o Raukawa – where he had since completed his bachelor degree in Matauranga Maori – called.
“They said if you come work for us and lecture political studies and Treaty studies, we’ll pay for your masters. So I said, okay, I’ll do that.”
The decision to move to Rotorua was motivated by a desire to contribute to “Maori survival”.
“I remember my resignation letter to Te Wananga o Raukawa.
“I said: ‘The whole ethos of the wananga is to encourage people to come back and contribute to the home of Maori culture, but this opportunity at Te Puia allows me to take Maori people and culture to the world.’ ”
Mr Puumanawawhiti has spent his life so far developing a firm background in Maori cultural, and political knowledge.
His hope for the future is to find “a marriage of the two”.
“There’s a criteria we expect of Maori leaders, to be able to get up on the marae and speak and understand the traditions, but then to own the boardroom, because modern Maori leadership requires it, it can no longer just be one or the other.
For now Mr Puumanawawhiti’s focus is on continuing the revitalisation of Maori culture.
He wants his generation to be the first that will “never be able to fathom a world where the decline of Maori language and culture is even possible”.
When I asked him if he will finish politics he told me point blank, “we were born in politics, I’m already there”, but parliamentary politics, give him 10 years.
SOURCE: Rotorua Daily Post