From the age of 3, Benjamin Pittman began soaking up the stories of his family history. He retained it, and accrued many more over his 73 years, culminating in a progressive biography which is almost 15 years in the making.
Age 3 was also when he began drawing and painting his heritage. When the Northern Advocate caught up with the recipient of the Queen's Birthday 2021 Honours Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to Māori and Art, he was enjoying the serene surrounds at Oakura, working on completing the book he began in 2007.
"It's been a big journey which I started in the mountains of Colorado," he said.
"I was really lucky to have been brought up by astute and wise elders. They really spent a lot of time explaining things to me because I was interested. I was told at the age of three that I would have to tell the stories one day and, every so often, there'd be like an exam. They had a way of doing it by saying, 'Remember when I told you about…?'
"I became like the family genealogy historian."
Dr Pittman said he was shocked to hear he'd been appointed the award.
"I was quite shocked but then I realised, well, it's not really about me, it's about the people who've been a part of the journey."
Pittman attributes much to his ancestral wisdom.
"Our kaumātua – male and female - often spoke in such poetry and riddles as part of training one's mind, body, awareness of self and sense of responsibility and never a day goes by without something arising and making me think of these now, subliminal messages. They act as beacons and reminders and speak of truths which never fade."
One is: 'Do what is right and just and your tūpuna will walk behind and beside you, always, as protection: you have nothing to fear'.
"In terms of this award, I see it as the outcome of yet another exhortation: 'You must always help and look after those less fortunate than you, wherever there is a need and whatever it might involve'.
"This one always puzzled me as a child whose parents separated in 1956 when I was nine, and finally divorced in 1961 and who did feel very deprived. The same kaumātua later elaborated when I asked the question:
"'Because no matter how bad you think your life is, there are many others worse off and who need help more than you."
"This really set a pathway for my life: service to others and in the interest of important and good causes. This award recognises many who have helped, supported and been a part of many important projects over many years in Aotearoa, Australia, Hawaii and France. It also acknowledges all who have benefitted in some way because they too have been an integral part of the journey: their needs have provided the best reasons and motivations."
Pittman's many roles include chairing Creative Northland from 2016 and he has played a key role with the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery Project Control Group and Project Action Team since 2014. He was a member of Haerewa Māori Advisory Board for Auckland Art Gallery, a member and treasurer of Tai Tokerau District Māori Council and member of the New Zealand Māori Council. He was marae secretary and member of the Business Development Unit of Akerama Marae and has been chairman of Te Pouwhenua o Tiakiriri Kūkupa Trust Board – Te Parawhau ki Tai since 2016, through which he has been involved with a UNESCO research project on soil health, regenerative farming and tikanga-based practices in partnership with Auckland University of Technology and NorthTec. He has been involved with Sydney Marae Inc. and the Māori Women's Welfare League Poihakena Inc. in Australia. He developed Mana Pacific/Mana Pasifika, a Māori and Pacific Island cultural reclamation programme for use in various institutions in New South Wales. Pittman has been sought after for Treaty of Waitangi presentations, facilitating and a member of claims team for Te Parawhau and Ngāti Hau.
He was pleased to see the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery tracking towards opening this year.
"It's an attraction of quite a unique kind and it will be a magnet, particularly for overseas tourists. It'll be a focal point. Whangārei needs some culture."
The arts have always been a part of Northland and a major contributor to the economy but a lot of people don't realise that, he said.
"There's huge opportunities for growth and it's really inspirational to see young kids realise that there is a career opportunity for them.
"I returned to Northland after being away for 32 years and, in the whole wide world, this is the place to be. Tai Tokerau has huge potential and a great creative energy. I'm really happy here, it's ancestral to me, I love it. It's everything you could possibly want."