Tama Potaka is an achiever. That was clear when he was making his mark as a student at Te Aute College 30 years ago. And not surprisingly, his academic prowess was confirmed as he gathered up his degrees in the course of his law studies at Victoria University and then at Columbia University in New York.
But he hasn’t become an advocate of flying solo. He believes that none of us, however smart, has anywhere near a complete package of talents and know-how. So he’s encouraging us to look around for partners with complementary skills when we’re thinking about a new enterprise.
That’s been one of his theme songs as he’s made his way in the corporate world and in an ambitious and impressive range of Māori ventures. He outlines some of those in this kōrero with Dale.
Kia ora, Tama. Tama William Potaka, as a matter of fact. And you were born in 1976 in Raetihi Hospital in the Ruapehu and Ngāti Rangi rohe. Now what more can you tell us about your beginnings?
Yes, I was born in Raetihi, and at that time my parents and brother and sister were living at Makaranui, a small settlement in between Ohakune and Raetihi.
Mum and Dad were schoolteachers, and they’d gone into teaching when that profession was well regarded and supported by whānau.
My mother, Johanna James, grew up in Ōpunake in Taranaki. Her father was Pākehā and his father’s whānau had migrated to New Zealand in the late 1800s and settled in Taranaki, in around Otakeho and Auroa.
Mum’s mother, Sina Chase, had maternal origins in the Ngatauerua and Robinson whānau in South Taranaki and paternal connections through Moawhango (Taihape) in Mōkai Pātea to the Te Raro and Pine whānau.
When Mum left high school in Ōpunake, she went to teachers’ training college in Palmerston North. And that’s where she met my father, Tauaiti (Paddy) Pehitāne Potaka.
My father’s family were mainly from Mōkai Pātea and Rangitīkei — particularly Rata (just south of Hunterville), Ōtara and Utiku (north of Hunterville towards Taihape).
Dad was brought up on the Taraketi block at Rata which was Ngāti Hauiti whenua. There were some strong links through to the Whanganui River (Kumeroa, Tumango and Goffe whānau), and Ngāti Raukawa. He grew up in Rata and went on holiday now and again to Utiku and the Whanganui River, and then Porirua as his mother’s whānau were around Ngāti Toarangatira at Takapūwāhia Pā.
After training as teachers, Mum and Dad spent most of their early days teaching in schools in areas they knew. For instance, Dad was the principal of Ohakune primary school back when I was born. Our family spent a couple of years out at Akitio, just north of Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast.
Then we came back to Raetihi and ultimately Rata, to our whānau farm. We resumed farming our whenua, teaching, and community life based around the marae. This involved rehabilitating the marae and the community which had essentially become defunct over the 1960s and ‘70s as people moved away into the cities.
We’ve been focused on whānau, farming, marae and community, and education — Māori education, mainstream education, global education. And also on restoring the marae and encouraging our young people to re-imagine our present and our future and channel the chiefly heritage of our peoples. Unfortunately, that heritage has been degraded through the historical efforts to alienate Māori from controlling and managing our land and resources.
Obviously, you’ve put a lot of time and effort into understanding the history and the whānau relationships. And your folks made a special investment in you by sending you off to Te Aute College.
Yes, my parents believed in education and in seeing that their children had access to things that they didn’t necessarily have themselves. So my brother, Pehitāne James, went to Te Aute in 1981. He’s the same vintage as luminaries such as Paora Sharples and Poia Rewi.
My sister, Raina Moengaroa, went to Turakina in 1985. That school was set up by members of the extended Hauiti and Ngāti Apa whānau along with the Presbyterian church and ended up in Marton.
And I was fortunate enough to be sent to Huntley, a boys prep school in Marton, for my final year at primary school, where I was one of only two or three Māori boys there. Then, in 1989, I went to Te Aute in Hawke’s Bay.
The class that I was in had some boys who became folk legends, such as Billy Weepu, Karl Te Nana, and Darren Beatty. We also caught up with others like Julian Wilcox and Aidan Warren who’d decided to stay on for a “postgraduate seventh form” year. Julian, as you know, became a broadcaster and Aidan’s a judge.
Of course, preceding and following us, there were many others who’ve gone on to do magnificent things for our communities and country. I put that down to their determination and belief in their own rangatiratanga — and also the motivation and inspiration you have when you’re fortunate enough to go to a school like Te Aute.
Like students at other Māori boarding schools of the time, Te Aute boys were instilled with pride and a commitment to being the best Māori male that they could be, whether that was as an engineer, a sports star, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, an astrophysicist, architect, or whatever. “Whakatangata kia kaha” — acquit yourself and be strong.
And when you moved on to Victoria University, I’m guessing that your time there coincided with a lot of Māori change-makers seeking to address injustices from the past — and that there would’ve been plenty of political kōrero and inspiring colleagues.
I think much of the good fortune that I’ve had has been built off of the tautoko and aroha of other people in the marae and agricultural environments in local communities such as Rata, Raetihi and Pukehou.
Māori and Pākehā really invested time and energy to support my aspirations. At Te Aute, I received a lot of tautoko from the teaching fraternity who saw some potential in me and others. I was well supported by the teachers in my academic career to be the best that I could be.
Fortunately for me, I became the top Māori male secondary school scholar for 1993. I had the highest aggregate marks in the seventh form “Bursary” exams of any Māori secondary school student across New Zealand. So that sent me on quite a distinct academic pathway. Paula King, who became a doctor and then a senior medical research fellow, was the top Māori female scholar that year.
And off you went to Columbia University in New York?
Well, first there was Victoria University in Wellington, as well as stints of hay-making and working as a rouseabout in shearing sheds. And mowing lawns, too. At Vic, I did a Bachelor of Laws degree (with first-class honours) and a BA in political science and Māori studies. I was really involved in the student life. I served on the University Council for a year and other organisations such as Ngā Rangahautira (the Māori law students’ association) and Ngāi Tauira (the Māori students’ association).
I spent just over five years at Vic before pursuing my academic dream of studying at a globally renowned law school — which ended up being Columbia University School of Law.
In those days, it was unusual for someone to go from uni in New Zealand straight into studying overseas. Usually, you did two or three years of private or public legal practice. Then you’d get a Fulbright scholarship or something of that nature and off you went. At that time, Dale, you had to nail three things. Get admitted to the university, get enough funding, and find housing.
Fortunately, Columbia University gave me a partial fees waiver, and a number of other organisations (like PKW Incorporation, International House, the Victoria University Foundation, and the Wellington District Law Society) gave me financial support. Some of my friends also loaned me some money. So I was able to become a human rights fellow and to focus on constitutional law and civil rights and study for a master’s in law for a year.
Then I sat and passed the New York bar exam and became an attorney at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett on Lexington Avenue.
Did you take a strong sense of Māoriness with you?
I’d lived with the connection to land, te reo and tikanga Māori pervading our whānau. With our parents, we used to go to many, many weddings, anniversaries and tangihanga where that notion of tikanga was instilled in us. And we’ve always believed — my father and mother, my brother, my sister and I — that if you look after the whenua, it will look after you. It’s one of our fundamental responsibilities in life.
That’s the most important thing. If we look after the whenua and the resources around us, we’ll get reciprocity from that. That’s part of what we’d call mana whenua in my part of the world. If you go into the courts today, or in regulatory interface, mana whenua takes on a whole range of different interpretations and for some reason ends up being about boundaries and exclusion.
Where I’m from, mana whenua was mainly about responsibilities, rather than jurisdiction. There’s no use talking about mana whenua when the urupā is broken. “E kore au e ngaro he kākano i ruia mai I Rangiātea” — don’t forget your roots.
When you returned home, I understand that there were a lot of corporate and governance roles that you were offered. But you weren’t presenting yourself as knowing it all. And you’ve been an advocate of developing good networks. Have you made a point of building and utilising strong networks throughout your career?
My truth is that “everybody has something and nobody has everything”. And it’s like that for business. It’s like that for community and charitable activities. It’s like that for iwi and other Māori organisations. And it’s like that for me. As I’ve grown older, it’s become less about how much I know and more about connecting what we’re trying to achieve with people who know what we don’t know.
While I’ve found out (thankfully) that I don’t know very much at all, I’m usually good at asking questions and trying to find out answers which can help transform lives, communities, and ultimately the country.
And that’s my purpose. It’s to help facilitate transformation and change within my own whānau, and within the communities and country where we live. I can’t do that alone — no one can.
I remember an entrepreneur’s hui I went to and the guy running it said: “You either grow or you die.” I think that’s good guidance. And growth in order to facilitate change is where I’ve been at for the last 25, maybe 35 years. Some people love that, and some people don’t. I do.
And I encourage even my own children to keep on asking questions, keep striving, keep looking. Although sometimes it might be difficult, you might find some interesting answers or interesting pathways.
Tēnā koe, Tama. With your background and experience you could easily have opted for a corporate lifestyle. But, instead, I see you’ve turned to iwi and Māori development. Like with Tainui Group Holding and the Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki nation now.
I know you worked in corporate life. Successfully, I’m sure. But when you moved across to work in a corporate way for tribal and other Māori entities, I imagine that you found some differences.
I went to a conference recently and it was about the environmentalists in the National Party. They’re called the Bluegreens — mainly National Party people who like to support the environment.
I spoke about some of the principles of the Bluegreens, one of which was that the economy is sort of focused on the environment and commercial realities. You’ve got to have environmental as well as commercial thresholds to build the economy. And I said that’s partly true for tribal and Māori communities. But in tribal and Māori communities, there’s also no economy without identity and society.
Māori have a degree of whanaungatanga or mana whenua or mana moana. And you have to have those additional elements in order to be a strong, sustainable economy in the tribal and the Māori sphere.
Whereas in corporate organisations, although they’re evolving, 20 to 30 years ago it really was just about commercial thresholds — and then, all of a sudden, you got a few environmental thresholds, and now more and more corporates are looking to the ESG lens (the environmental, social and governance lens) and responsible investment, and trying to satisfy those things as well.
Well, for Māori organisations, there’s also a cultural lens. We could become huge, multibillion-dollar organisations, but if no one speaks te reo and there’s no tikanga and no marae, how can we say we’ve succeeded?
We have to have a space where identity and society and whanaungatanga are foundation stones for a successful economy. Or you can say, actually, it’s not about the economy. It’s about our planet and society — and the planet and society constitute what are really important.
The economy is a means to enable a better place, but it’s not an endpoint in and of itself. You’ve got to have commercial, environmental, social and cultural touchpoints to create a sustainable community and planet.
In some ways, I think that the tribes that I’ve been fortunate enough to work for (Waikato-Tainui and Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki), and others that I’ve had something to do with, particularly my own iwi, are moving in the right direction. But they have to be careful they don’t try to be the “Ministry of Everything”.
And that’s where the partnerships or relationships with others are critical because you can’t be the best in the world in everything. You have to choose. “What am I going to be really, really good at? And what are the things where I’m going to partner with others so we can be good together?”
There’s been some criticism of our post-settlement tribes for being seen to be in pursuit of profit and focusing on growing the base settlement pūtea. But they also have the social and cultural responsibility that you speak of. Do you think that we’re getting the mix about right? Any thoughts along those lines?
It’s not for me to say whether one tribe has succeeded in achieving its goals or another tribe has failed. It’s probably more up to the tribal members. “Ko tōu piki amokura, nōu, ko tōku piki amokura, nōku.” Your protocols are for you and mine are for me.
It’s very hard, though, for any organisation to be everything to everybody and to be the Ministry of Everything. But if we think that the Treaty settlements are going to provide us with the necessary resources to solve all our problems, we’re in dreamland. That’s not going to happen.
But what we can do is leverage the endowments, the talents, the relationships and the networks we have to get things moving, to improve things for our mokopuna, rangatahi and our kaumātua.
Dale, you and I have about another 20 or 30 years to help facilitate that transformation. Some tribes do some things really well. But I know of no tribe that does everything perfectly. That’s just not a reality at the moment.
Tribes as well as other Māori organisations, like the Manukau Māori Urban Authority and Te Whānau o Waipareira, are trying their best for their communities.
But they will find it challenging to do everything that they want to do and at the level of satisfaction they seek. What we’ve got to ask ourselves is this: “Where are we going to make the most impact to achieve the ultimate objectives?”
If you listen to Uncle Whatarangi Winiata and Mātua Sir Mason Durie, they’ll say: “You’ve got to defend the past. You’ve got to preserve our identity.” And I think we can all agree with that.
But they also foreshadow and encourage us to realise more of our human potential, both as individuals and at a collective level. You can see that a lot of individual Māori are off doing their own thing, and not seriously engaged with their marae and iwi so much. Kāore he raru — that’s no problem. I also see many others retain that sense of responsibility over time for the broad iwi and Māori collectives. Ngā mihi hoki.
Iwi have a huge responsibility to help realise the human potential of their members. It’s a New Zealand responsibility. It presents a nationwide challenge too. Take truancy for example. We’ve got some schools with only 55-60 percent attendance. That’s a situation where, as a country, we’re not realising the potential of those young people.
When we’ve got 40-45 percent of secondary school children in some schools who are not at school, we have to figure out whether school is the right pathway for them — and if it isn’t, whether we have practical options to facilitate their learning.
And it doesn’t matter if they’re Asian, Pacific or Māori or Pākehā, because New Zealand’s education system needs the right settings for all our rangatahi.
We’ve been touching on some big picture issues. I wonder if you might reflect on one or two smaller but perhaps more satisfying challenges in your work.
I don’t know that I can pick one out, just like that. Shortly after the September 11 tragedy, an Afghani asylum seeker turned up in the detention centre out by the JFK airport in New York. And I was assigned to help him seek asylum in the US.
It was very unusual because he was from Afghanistan and basically people from Afghanistan were blamed for the terrorist attacks. But I was dedicated to ensuring that this young man got the judicial hearing that he deserved. And I helped him achieve asylum.
That was a very narrow, little but satisfying piece of work that I did 20 years ago to help someone in difficulty. Lawyers do that mahi around the world all the time, including in New Zealand, where they help people who are in dire need and who have a genuine case. And I acknowledge and admire those people for the good work that they do.
Lately, Dale, I’ve been involved as a negotiator with my cousins on the Treaty of Waitangi claims for the four iwi of Mōkai Pātea (Ngāti Tamakōpiri, Ngāti Whitikaupeka, Ngāi Te Ohuake and Ngāti Hauiti).
It’s enthralling and educative. And if I didn’t have a resilient mind, it could be very depressing to become more and more aware of the challenges that our people have had to deliver on their aspiration to create and build a nation alongside the Crown and other New Zealanders — and how those aspirations have been undermined, even eradicated and exploded over time.
So it’s important for me, as a negotiator, to tautoko that mahi and ensure that there’s a suitable and sustainable resolution. Treaty of Waitangi settlements don’t “save” an iwi. As I said, Treaty settlements are not the solution for everything. But what settlements can do is give some basis for growth and for resetting the iwi narrative and trajectory — and that’s the type of work that I take great pride in.
We haven’t got there yet. We haven’t finished that mahi, but I’m part of the team that’s helping resolve that alongside and in partnership with the Crown. “E kore e mau i a koe te waewae hape a Paratuae” — you will never catch the club-footed son (Hauiti) of Paratuae!
One of the things that I’ve done in the economic and the commercial space was go around with some rangatira Māori, having a thousand cups of green tea talking with Māori and iwi investors to create a private equity investment vehicle. And we’ve been able to coinvest $115 million from 45 organisations committed to growing the economic wealth of their people.
Te Pūia Tāpapa fund has now invested alongside groups like the Super Fund. It took about 18 months to achieve, as well as many decades of dialogue and aspiration among many investors to get there.
The most important thing I’ve done, however, is to help my mum and dad, along with my siblings, retain the whānau farm in our whānau ownership and tilling the land for food and revenue.
While others have been content with selling their interests in land, we have remained focused on making sure that our children and their children have tūrangawaewae — a place to stand on. So that we can grow food, we can look after our urupā, and we can say: “Nōku tēnei whenua, nō ōku tūpuna, mō āku uri whakaheke” — this land is my responsibility, from my ancestors, for my descendants.
We must remain loyal and vigilant to our land and to our country.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, Tama?
I run by whakataukī, Dale. Words that have helped drive my life. Some of them are biblical. Some of them are Māori in orientation. Some of them are sayings of great leaders. And one that I’ve always respected comes from an absolute New Zealand warrior, a champion of farming and enterprise, and someone who demonstrated loyalty to the monarch, to New Zealand, and to the Treaty of Waitangi, throughout his life with everything that he did.
Tā Āpirana Ngata was a Te Aute old boy, and he popularised a whakataukī, a proverb, that’s driven my life.
“E tipu e rea mō ngā ra o tōu ao. Ko tō ringa ki ngā rākau a te Pākehā, hei oranga mō tō tinana. Ko tō ngākau ki ngā taonga a ō tipuna, hei tikitiki mō tō māhuna. Ko tō wairua ki te Atua nāna nei ngā mea katoa.”
Grow, o tender shoot, in the changing and evolving times of your life. Use the technologies of the world and Pākehā as a pathway to help to realise your life’s potential. Commit your heart to the treasures and the taonga of our ancestors as a plume, as a topknot and feather for your head. Dedicate your wairua or your spirit to those things beyond the realm, to the spiritual world, to our Atua. It was because of them that we are here and that’s where we will end up.
And that’s a beautiful translation. Kia ora, Tama. It’s been a pleasure to kōrero with you.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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