Newly honoured writer Witi Ihimaera says he wants to be a beacon to all New Zealanders by telling stories of their "tribe".

He is one of five people made a distinguished companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit - the equivalent of a knighthood - but said he was sharing the award with all New Zealanders.

"It is a tribute to the tribe - not just Maori but all of the people who live in this beautiful country," he told the Herald.


"I accept this honour so I can stand on the summit, like Sir Edmund Hillary, and act as a beacon."

Ihimaera, the first Maori to have a novel published, is an associate professor in Auckland University's English Department. One of his books, The Whale Rider, has been turned into an internationally successful film and taken its young star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, as far as the Oscars.

In a year rocked by the deaths of two of the country's greatest writers - Janet Frame and Michael King - Ihimaera acknowledged the academy of writers he belonged to.

"It is our job to tell the stories of the tribe, to add to the nation's narrative - the stories that can be told around the camp fires and they [Frame and King] did that."

Last month Ihimaera launched his new book, Whanau II, which he described as being a love letter to the great southern tribe of New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha.

"I belong to a proud tradition of Maori story-teller on one side and a great tradition of New Zealand writers going all the way back to Katherine Mansfield. It's a fabulous whakapapa [genealogy]."

Ihimaera, who also served overseas with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was a Burns Fellow at Otago University in 1975 and received a Writer's Fellowship at Victoria University in 1982. In 1993 he was the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton, France, and is a founder of the Maori Writers and Artists Society.

He has been a guest speaker at hui overseas on biculturalism, Maori sovereignty and New Zealand literature.