Indigenous wisdoms, knowledge and role models matter for gifted Indigenous students


Melinda Webber, PhD

Associate Professor, Faculty of Education and Social Work
University of Auckland
New Zealand




Toi tū te kupu, toi tū te mana, toi tū te whenua

This Māori proverb encourages people to hold fast to their culture, arguing that without language, mana (a positive sense of identity and influence), and connection to land the essence of being Māori ceases. It proposes that we cannot stand tall in the world unless we know who we are, how we are connected to others, and what our purpose in the world is. It emphasises the integral nature of cultural pride, identity and aspiration.


It is said that Indigenous students cannot ‘be well’ unless they feel connected to others in their past, present and future selves (Barnhart, 2005; Webber & O’Connor, 2019). So, if we want to implement healthful approaches to increase cultural efficacy, pride and aspiration, and consequently accelerate gifted Indigenous student potential and wellbeing – we need initiatives that acknowledge and speak to the lofty aspirations, goals and rich histories of Indigenous peoples. Tailoring educational programmes to emphasise the relevance of Indigenous languages, cultures and identities – as well as the rich history of Indigenous scientific endeavor - to gifted students’ future selves could be an important remedy to the continuing failure of many gifted education programmes to identify and serve gifted Indigenous students.


The academic engagement of gifted Indigenous students in school contexts is dependent on a number of factors (Riley, Webber & Sylva, 2018; Webber, 2019):

  • the skills, background knowledge, and resources available to students, families, and teachers
  • the students’ psychosocial attributes, including how they are identified and identify as belonging to, or in, educational settings; and
  • how the educational setting makes space, and provides support and opportunities for the students to engage, contribute, persist and ultimately thrive.


This sense of belonging and invitation to an educational space is particularly important for gifted Indigenous students’ engagement with, and willingness to persist in, educational settings. In this sense, educational engagement can be said to be a function of developing both a school-based social identity and a gifted identity. And yet, other important social identities such as Indigenous identity do not vanish when students enter schools. Therefore, an important question is how academic or school identities, necessary for educational engagement, intersect with Indigenous identities to support or constrain gifted student educational engagement, persistence, and achievement?


My research has shown that gifted Indigenous students want to participate in educational contexts that include their ways of knowing in the curriculum and hold Indigenous people up as role models of success and academic excellence (Webber, Riley, Sylva & Scobie-Jennings, 2018). Gifted Indigenous students have told me how important it is that they 1) see themselves on the walls of the classroom, 2) have access to school books that validate who they are, 3) are able to learn about Indigenous knowledge systems and their rich histories, 4) learn about gifted individuals/groups who look and sound like them, and 5) have teachers who themselves express a desire to learn from and alongside the communities they serve. In essence, gifted Indigenous students must come to know that they descend from a long lineage of academic excellence, and believe that giftedness is not the sole domain of the ‘other’.


As our world becomes more diverse – a deep understanding of one’s cultural identity is going to become increasingly important – for everyone. Knowing who you are, what your cultural values are, what gifts you have to offer, and how your gifts might help you to achieve your hopes and dreams for the future, can increase feelings of cultural pride, purpose, aspiration, and ambition. All children deserve to know about, and feel pride in their genealogy and family histories. When a family sits together to tell stories about where their ancestors come from, why they travelled or remained in a particular place, and who in their family achieved great deeds – children develop a sense of belonging and connectedness to their culture. When they learn about the courageous deeds (big or small) of their ancestors they come to know that they too can be brave and tenacious. This is particularly important for gifted Indigenous and other minority students who do not see themselves reflected in the educational setting. We must ensure gifted Indigenous students believe that being well and achieving academic excellence are a key part of being Indigenous and a way to enact their Indigenous identity and connectedness to others.

If gifted Indigenous students view achievement as part of being Indigenous and believe that their teachers expect them to do well, they are more likely to persist in challenging learning tasks with increased effort and tenacity. Gifted Indigenous students must believe that they can and will achieve their potential because they are Indigenous – not despite being Indigenous. It is important for their motivation, progress and success but it is also important for their wellbeing.




Barnhardt, R. (2005). Indigenous knowledge systems and Alaska Native ways of knowing. Anthropology & education quarterly, 36(1), 8–23.

Webber, M., & O’Connor, K. (2019). A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: Using Whakapapa as a Pedagogical Tool in Education. Genealogy, 3(3), 41-56.

Webber M. (2019). The Development of Mana: Five Optimal Conditions for Gifted Māori Student Success. In: Smith S. (eds) Handbook of Giftedness and Talent Development in the Asia-Pacific. Springer International Handbooks of Education. Springer, Singapore

Webber, M., Riley, T., Sylva, K., & Scobie-Jennings, E. (2018). The Ruamano project: Raising expectations, realising community aspirations and recognising gifted potential in Māori boys. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education.

Riley, T., Webber, M. & Sylva, K. (2018). Real Engagement in Active Problem Solving for Māori Boys: A Case Study in a New Zealand Secondary School. Gifted and Talented International.


About Dr Melinda Webber

Dr Melinda Webber (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and a former Fulbright/Nga Pae o te Maramatanga Scholar.  She has published widely on the nature of Māori identity. Melinda's research examines the ways race, ethnicity, culture and identity impact the lives of young people, particularly Māori students. She has particular interest in Maori conceptions of giftedness and gifted young Maori.   In 2019, Melinda delivered a Keynote presentation at the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children Conference in Nashville: Unleashing Indigenous Potential: The Purpose, Power and Promise of Gifted Education.





Posted as part of the 2020 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

The views and opinions expressed in the Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of NZCGE, their staff, and/or any/all contributors to Gifted Awareness Week.

Indigenous wisdoms, knowledge and role models matter for gifted Indigenous students

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