When he turned 25, Pou Temara had an epiphany that steered his life's course towards academic life and the preservation and strengthening of te reo Maori.

The University of Waikato professor received the Te Tohu Aroha mo Ngoi Kumeroa Pewhairangi award at the national Te Waka Toi Awards in Wellington on Saturday.

Professor Temara (Tuhoe) was recognised for his mastery of te reo Maori at the awards, which celebrate excellence in Maori arts.

But it nearly didn't happen.


Professor Temara grew up speaking Maori until he was 8, living with his grandparents in the bush in the heart of the Ureweras in a ponga hut with an earth floor.

He later moved to Auckland, where he went to boarding school and said he could have easily left his old world behind.

"But when I was 25 I had what you might call an epiphany and realised my destiny lay in the Maori world," he said.

Professor Temara studied at Victoria University and continued his career there before going to the University of Waikato in 2005.

His extensive knowledge of whaikorero (oratory), whakapapa (genealogy) and karakia (prayers and incantations) has made him a cultural authority.

He was appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2008 and chairs Te Papa's repatriation advisory panel.

Professor Temara is also one of three directors of Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo (the Institute of Excellence in Maori Language).

"I've been so busy with the tribunal and the 'water report' that I haven't had a lot of time to think about this award," he said.

"But it is an honour. I was thinking about a proverb from Wharehuia Milroy - that 'language contains the trophies of the past and the weapons for its future'."