Jamie Tuuta (41), the new chairman of the Māori Television board, was earmarked for tribal leadership from an early age. By 19, he was already playing an active role in tribal affairs, including in settlement negotiations for Ngāti Mutunga. No surprise then that the Waikato University trained lawyer became the youngest Māori Trustee when he was appointed in 2011, aged 34, and continues to play a leading role in many iwi and business organisations, including Te Ohu Kaimoana and Te Rūnunga o Ngāti Mutunga, both of which he chairs.
In this kōrero with Dale, Jamie talks about his Taranaki roots.
Kia ora, Jamie. You carry a very prominent Taranaki name, from Ngāti Mutunga. Can you tell us something about that background?
Well, I was born in 1977, at a time when Māori first names weren’t in favour, and certainly my grandparents and mother weren’t big on them. So my full name is Jamie Grant Daniel Tuuta. And I was born and raised in Urenui, a small settlement north of New Plymouth.
The Tuuta name comes from our tupuna, Tuta Tutere, who was born in the Chatham Islands. His parents and grandparents left Taranaki in the early 1820s with our Ngāti Mutunga tūpuna. They went to Wellington first, and then on to the Chathams in 1835. Tuta returned to Taranaki with his parents in 1867, but he went back to the Chathams and lived and died there.
Then my great-grandfather, Te Keepa Tuta, was brought back as a young child by one of his grand-uncles and was raised just north of Urenui by the McClutchie family, Te Kapenga, and others.
That was all about maintaining the connection between the Chathams and Urenui.
So I grew up in Taranaki, and I was raised by my grandparents, Bill and Elisha Tuuta. My mother was Mahere Kura.
She had me when she was 20, but she wasn’t with my father, who was a Pākehā man — and I’ve had very little to do with him in my life. I know who he is, but we’ve never engaged.
He was from a farming family, and the disturbing thing for me was that my mother didn’t think she was good enough for him. Recently, she told me: “Things were different back then. We were Māori and he was Pākehā.”
I think that my grandfather had a word to my father, and said: “Nah. We’re all right. We’ll look after our moko, our boy.” That was the context. So my mother had me, and then I was raised by her and my grandparents.
I ended up living with my grandparents — and their life centred on our marae, Urenui. The old man, Bill Tuuta, was eventually the chair of the pā trust and he went on to be the chair of our iwi entity group. Elisha, my grandmother, who I called Mum, was heavily involved, too. She was one of the main cooks at the marae. Urenui marae was our world.
How about brothers and sisters?
Bill and Elisha had eight girls and a son — and they also raised me and a couple of my other cousins. So we had quite a full house and we grew up in an extended whānau environment.
I also have a younger brother, Jason, who lives on the Gold Coast with his wife and five children.
You mentioned being disturbed by your birth mother’s acceptance that she wasn’t “good enough” to have a Pākehā husband.
Yes. That was her perspective. And I guess that tells us what the climate was in Taranaki during that period. The dominant culture was very non-Māori. Quite racist. To the extent that, when she went to high school, there were particular streams like home economics or sewing, and typing or secretarial work. And because she was Māori, that was where she was placed, even though she was smart enough to go into the higher classes.
One of the teachers was saying to the Māori kids: “No. Hang on, you lot. This is your path back down here. Don’t get carried away.” Elisha, Mahere’s mother, was told that Mahere could probably handle the higher stream, but she’d be “better off” on the lower path.
When I fast forward to when I came along, and then became ready for high school, things had changed significantly within the Māori landscape. So I was given opportunities that my mother, aunties, uncles, and cousins didn’t have. If they had, things might’ve been different. So I’ve been very fortunate.
I suppose you started off at Urenui Primary School.
That was a wonderful experience. I remember getting on the school bus and the Pākehā kids would be astonished at how many of us there were. They’d be asking: “How many people live in your house? How big is it?”
Well, we had about 15 in our house. It was a three-bedroom house with a bach sleepout. I never had my own room — and I never had my own bed until I went to boarding school. I used to sleep with my grandparents.
Despite those racial undertones within the community, there were beautiful aspects, too. Like being there with all my whānau and cousins. And like my Primer 1 teacher, Mrs Dunbar, who had taught my mother, aunties, and uncles. So she knew the family really well. Her husband ran the local store. And they both encouraged me — as well as encouraging the old man to invest in my education and send me away to boarding school.
From Urenui Primary, I went on to Manu Korihi Intermediate in Waitara. I was in a bilingual unit there, and the wonderful thing about Manu Korihi was that we had Māori and Pākehā kids together in that unit.
And the next step was high school at Hato Petera in Auckland. A Māori boarding school. I had cousins at Te Aute, Hato Paora and Hato Petera. But one of my aunties got the old man leaning towards Hato Petera.
What was your attitude to school at that stage?
Given our background at Urenui, I was motivated to do well at Hato Petera — especially as a lot of my cousins and whānau hadn’t been afforded the same opportunity. So I was determined to do my best.
But I think there was another influence that came from being a teenager at a time when change was occurring within the Māori world. Through the ‘70s, there were the protest movements and then the Waitangi Tribunal being established. Things like that.
And, in the late ‘80s, our own tribe was coming to grips with the broader change that was happening across te ao Māori. You had the Maccess and the Mana programmes led by the government — and they were a catalyst for iwi to ready themselves to move into this new era.
At Ngāti Mutunga, the consequence of land confiscation was that we had just one remaining marae. That was Urenui, and that was basically the lifeblood of our iwi community. We had no formal rūnanga. Just pā trustees. And, for a number of years, Ngāti Tama operated out of Urenui because the Ngāti Tama marae had been burned down in 1915.
So we lived together as Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga at our marae. We had pā trustees which were made up of uri of both iwi. And then we had a finance committee for Ngāti Mutunga and a finance committee for Ngāti Tama.
The only political entity in Taranaki up until the 1990s was the Taranaki Māori Trust board, which was created and born out of the fact that we had the Sim Commission in 1927 that recommended that Māori in Taranaki should be compensated for the raupatu and also for what happened at Parihaka. So the trust board was formed to receive the annuity payment as a consequence of the Sim Commission.
The trust board was the only political entity in the region that was receiving funds and basically providing grants to iwi and marae. And there was a view within Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama, and Ngāti Maru that we weren’t getting our fair share of those funds as a consequence of not being represented on the board.
So, in due course, you had iwi starting to form their own individual political entities for the purpose of undertaking things like Maccess and Mana. The old man was the chair of our pā trustees. And then he became the inaugural chair of our Ngāti Mutunga iwi authority, which was the first formal Ngāti Mutunga institution and which then received funds from the government for Maccess programmes. Then it was also responsible for undertaking the research for our Waitangi Tribunal claim.
So, early on, as a teenager, you were aware of these developments?
I was fortunate, in some respects, that, in 1989, when I was about 12, our iwi was gearing up for the next era of our iwi development. And, even though I went away to boarding school in 1990, I was often talking with the old man about all of that activity at the marae where we had our office.
And I got to be immersed in all of that. So it really enriched me. Especially as I had such knowledgeable, down to earth, supportive aunties and uncles, kuia and pāhake. I guess that’s what really drives me — because being born into that environment, it’s who I am.
It’s not about “giving back”. It’s more that I’ve got responsibilities and obligations to continue the legacy stemming from the old man and old lady.
The legacy goes back to when our tūpuna made the decision to leave Taranaki — and then to leave Wellington and go to the Chathams. Actually, at that time, in 1835, they thought about going to Sāmoa. They had two options — Chathams or Sāmoa. And some of our relations probably wish we’d gone to Sāmoa where it’s a bit warmer.
It’s that sort of legacy — and a great deal more, including the fact that three of the first four Māori doctors in the country have come from Ngāti Mutunga (Te Rangihiroa, Ta Maui Pomare, and Pohau Ellison). They’re an inspiration for us and I tell my relations that we’ve got to draw on those examples.
I came through that whole development and then, after the Waitangi Tribunal hearings, we looked at getting into direct negotiations with the Crown. That was tough because our people had to come to grips with this Crown process. And that was a challenge.
Then, not long after I finished school, I became one of the two rangatahi chosen for our nine-member rūnanga. So that was my first governance position more than 20 years ago.
Your experience as a young guy in governance has morphed into masses of roles on various boards, almost too many to list. But that hasn’t been an accident. Your colleagues must have been seeing one or two traits in you that encouraged their confidence in you.
I think it’s to do with commitment. I used to go to our pā trustee meetings every month. The old man would be yelling and shouting at his cousins. And I used to think: Why the hell are you arguing and fighting? We had very little. But they were very passionate about what was important.
The old man lived by a particular whakataukī: Kia ū ki to marae, ma to marae ka kīa koe he tangata. Hold fast and be committed to all of the aspects of your marae because it is through this that you are a whole person. That’s the thing that makes you tick.
The old man was the chairman of the pā trustees. He was over there mowing the lawns. He was there unblocking the toilets. It was about manaakitanga. And it’s about having empathy and being a respectful person. You’ve got to have some passion for the particular kaupapa. And it’s about common sense — and always being open to learning.
You’ve had some good advice along the way?
I remember in particular talking with one of my relations a few years ago. He was doing some coaching and mentoring here in Wellington. I’d never really planned anything in my life. Never planned to be the Māori Trustee. Never planned to do all these governance things. I’ve always believed that our path is set before our time, and what happens will happen. And that things happen for a reason.
But he asked me two questions. The first was: “What are the things that give you energy in life?” And the second was: “What takes your energy away?”
Those questions made me realise that, although I’m busy with my day jobs as Māori Trustee and in governance, it’s what I do back home that’s the source of energy and keeps me going on the other non-Ngāti Mutunga, non-Taranaki work that I do.
What that speaks to, is that, whether you’re in governance, management or whatever you do, you’ve got to understand yourself and what inspires you. Because, if it doesn’t inspire you and give you energy, it’s always going to be an uphill challenge.
I’m assuming that fatherhood has also changed your attitude toward work and that it has also been a source of spark and inspiration.
Naturally, when you have children, it does make you reflect on where and how you spend your time. And it’s always been a challenge for me to try and make sure, when I’m so involved in the iwi space, and the Māori space, that the whānau don’t miss out. It got to the point for me where, because I was away so often that when I was home the kids would ask: “What are you doing home, Pāpā?” Questions like that make you reflect on your priorities.
At 41, you’re still a young man. But, just as you were earmarked for greater things before you were out of your teens, are you looking closely at our rangatahi coming through?
Yeah. I’m a big supporter of ensuring that we’re providing pathways for our young talent to develop. But, although there’s greater opportunity today, it’s still hard. And that, I think, is because there’s a challenge in helping our young people to see the relevance of te reo and Māori land and the like.
How do we inspire them to want to work within the Māori space? How do we light that fire?
I’m also a big believer in ensuring that we don’t immerse people only within the Māori world, whether that’s the cultural, commercial, or political world. We also need to ensure that we have capable young and not so young Māori working in the public and the private sector.
Recently, I did a presentation for Fonterra, and I told them that, although they’re a New Zealand company, they don’t look like one — and that they’re also a Māori company, but they don’t look like one.
It’s true that they’re probably the largest single employer of Māori in the country. I think there’s more than 2,500 Māori working for Fonterra overall. But most of them are on the factory floor or driving trucks. They haven’t moved up into salaried positions. If Fonterra want to change that, they need to give some of these young Māori an opportunity, their first break. That would be part of rethinking the development of our whole workforce so that we bring people through.
Of course, we now have a younger generation of millennials who have a different way of thinking about things — about how they want to manage and balance their lifestyles. A lot of people might say that’s their problem. But employers have to adapt to meet the needs of the emerging workforce.
Every area in New Zealand has its own combination of history and potential. And Taranaki is distinctive because of the confiscations, the military invasion, and landlessness — and more recently, the attitudes that made Andrew Judd’s mayoralty so difficult. Of course, there’s progress, but do you see any particular moves we need to be making?
I believe we have to emancipate ourselves from an attitudinal thing. It all starts there. Too many of our people are stuck in a certain restricted mindset. I can understand why, but we’ve got to find ways to unshackle ourselves from that constraint.
It’s easy for some of us because we don’t have to worry about putting food on the table, paying rent, or paying power. But many of our whānau don’t have that luxury. So they’re limited in what they think they can do. Limited in their ambitions. And not aware that we can do so much more as a people. That we can prosper.
I just want to be a change agent — to do my bit to help bring about a more positive attitude. It’s not a matter of being remembered. For me, it’s about having a loving whānau. My kids having choice and, through that choice, being able to flourish and prosper.
As I say to them, we’re almost living in parallel universes. I like taking them back to Waitara and Urenui. Going back home and realising that wi-fi is not the norm. Going back home and realising that Sky television is not normal either. Most of the whānau don’t have doors on their bedrooms, let alone wallpaper on the walls. There’s a stark contrast that they can see.
It’s not about us judging these families. Instead, the experience gives the kids a perspective as to why I do the things I do. And that includes the family group conferences and, as a whānau member, dealing with other situations that can be challenging and really distressing whether it’s because of substance abuse, family violence, or being in the position of not being able to look after their own kids.
But we’ve got to keep going. When I go home, I’m still Boy. I’m Jimmy. I’m Jimbo. They’re very proud of what I’ve done. But, as I remind them, I’m very proud of what they do. And we can be an example and inspiration for others to follow because it starts with just a positive mindset. It starts with our attitude.
We need to show that it’s okay to want more — and that more is quite possible.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jamie Tuuta is the Māori Trustee and CEO of Te Tumu Paeroa. Te Tumu Paeroa protects and enhances Māori land and assets, administering 100,000 hectares of land throughout the country and managing a variety of investment interests.
Jamie has held a range of governance positions in iwi development, agribusiness, fishing, investment, health, Māori development, tourism, and education. He’s currently a director of Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd, chairman of Te Ohu Kaimoana (the Māori Fisheries Trust), chairman of Te Rūnunga o Ngāti Mutunga, independent chairman of Taranaki Mounga project, and a director of Moana New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.
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