How do we reclaim the faith and continue the struggle of those who have gone before? Not just for ourselves, but for those who did not know Moana – though he surely had known them.
For Moana Jackson and Taunoa Kohere
In the early afternoon of Moana Jackson’s poroporoakī, I was on the train from Wellington to Porirua. I could not go to his tangihanga because sometimes the universe has other plans for us. Transmission Gully is finally open after decades of debate and resistance and toil, but that does not mean the way is unobstructed.
At Porirua, I wheeled my bike off the train and began riding south towards Keneperu, into a headwind of spirits whistling towards Kahungunu.
I knew where I was going, but not why.
As I rode, like everyone else, I contemplated the scale of our loss. Kua hinga te tōtara i te wao nui o Tāne. I wasn’t close to Moana personally. I didn’t study his work at university or attend his lectures. I was only 11 when his seminal work, He Whaipaanga Hou, was published in 1988. Between 2012 and 2015, while Moana and his entourage were travelling the length and breadth of the country talking to whānau and hapū and iwi, inviting all to imagine a new constitution based on He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, I was as far away from Aotearoa as you can possibly get, suspended inside an expat bubble in the United Arab Emirates.
Like many Māori, I have been the beneficiary of decades upon centuries of resistance, determination, faith, courage and sacrifice that I have not personally witnessed nor contributed to. When I came home in 2015, I floated into full-immersion reo studies, never fully appreciating then just how hard others had fought and laboured and toiled to make that moment possible for me. It’s only been in recent years as I’ve begun to lend my own voice and effort to the struggle for tino rangatiratanga that I have begun to comprehend the scale of this mahi. The vision and sheer cost and immeasurable value of it.
Above me, Transmission Gully ushered a steady stream of traffic onto its shimmering black arc headed for the distant horizon.
I cycled on.
Ignorance is not intentional. Not knowing – the erasure of history and the disconnection of our people from our own history and whakapapa – was deliberate. The tools of colonisation intentionally sought to ensure that our people would forget, that we would lie down, stop dreaming, cease telling our stories.
Moana, of course, could see this. He could describe it, with aroha and deep compassion:
“I think the history of colonisation damages the soul, most especially because it takes away a people’s faith in themselves – faith in our right to once again govern ourselves, to determine our own destinies, and to tell our own stories. In our case I think it was coupled with a fear-filled belief that it was safer for our people to be silent.” (Moana Jackson, personal communication, 2019)
These were the words I was holding in my mind when I pulled up opposite my brother’s old warehouse in Kenepuru, between the railway lines and industrial buildings, next to a shallow stream in the shadow of Transmission Gully.
The door was flung open wide, flooding the cavernous interior with light. I could just make out the workbench, the oven where he once cooked lasagna, the patch of floor where his drum kit used to sit. Time folded back on itself. I saw his shape move across the room.
I called out. I wanted to tell my brother to look out for Moana up there. I wanted to say, “Bro, I wish you’d known Moana while you were alive. I wish you’d known what he did for us.”
The door slammed. I stood for a moment, staring at it, thinking about Moana, thinking about faith, and about all the words that have ever been swallowed by silence.
A few years ago, Moana emailed me. Me! He introduced himself and requested permission to quote a couple of lines of my poetry in his latest research – a revision of He Whaipaanga Hou 30 years on. I checked and rechecked the sender address. My heart was pounding. It was legit.
Some have described Moana as gentle, probably because he was generous, kind and softly spoken. But others have pointed out that ngāwari is not the correct adjective to describe one whose intellect could strike and fell the most mighty of colonial institutions. I wonder about the kupu whakarite “he arero taiaha” – a person whose words are precise and sharp like the tip of a wooden taiaha: deadly.
As I read and listened to the hundreds of eulogies that began to flow from first light on that misty Thursday morning throughout the weekend, I could feel everyone holding their love for Moana alongside the simultaneous knowledge that whatever our loss as a community, he belonged first and foremost to his whānau, hapū and iwi. Inside that cumulative outpouring of grief and love, I saw very clearly that what I had experienced in those brief email exchanges with Moana was quintessentially him. Moana had an ability to treat everyone, even the unknowing, even those who’ve just showed up for the cause, with respect and interest and care. He made a person feel special.
I got back on my bike and cycled across the bridge and around to the front of the warehouse. I leaned my bike up against the wall and knocked gently. Just like the old days.
After a moment, the door cracked open. A blonde-haired guy wearing track pants and a plain t-shirt looked out at me. He lifted his chin and raised his eyebrows.
“My brother used to live here,” I blurted, saying his name. “Did you know him?”
The guy looked at me for a long second before shaking his head. But then his gaze softened and he opened the door fully and stood upright.
“Well, I did meet him. Just the once, on a job. But yeah, nah… I didn’t really know him.”
Before I could say anything else he shut the door.
There’s a storm outside
I hate breaking up, living, lying, sleeping
Hate waking up, living, sleeping, crying
Hate breaking bread, living, lying
In front of the unseen and unknown, I am confronted by shapes and colours
Makes me wonder who I am.
Is this all I am?
My brother wrote and shared these song lyrics with me years ago, one night over the phone when he was trying to convince me that we should start a rock band, him on drums, me on vocals. I wrote them down because I’m an archivist, or a masochist, or just the pōtiki who likes to take the piss.
I retrieve them now from the silence as a small act of resistance. My brother was one of those who lost faith. He lived on the margins, unknown and unremarkable beside a stream in the shadow of massive cranes and bulldozers. How do we reclaim the faith and continue the struggle of those who have gone before, not just for ourselves, but for those who did not know Moana, though he surely had known them?
In an unpublished letter to poets and artists who contributed to a single-print copy of a book especially for Moana in 2021, he responded with a gift of his own. A story we should never cease telling, mō āke tonu.
“The gift you have given me is part of our people’s long and often costly journey to tell our own stories once more and thus reclaim our faith in ourselves. They show that adaptation has never meant acquiescence and that the struggle to survive has never meant submission. I am most grateful for that.
So I have a story to tell too. You may have heard it before and it may have different meanings for each of you but it is part of who I am. Take it as my way of expressing my grateful thanks. And as Thomas King also said, when you’ve read it, it’s yours, so “do with it as you will.”
I grew up with what my koro used to call the stories in the land. Every rock, every hill and every bend in our river had a name and a story. Some were furrowed so deep in the land they seemed beyond understanding but they were always there if we cared to listen.
My best friend at high school was a whanaunga, Taunoa Kohere. His parents had sent him down from the Coast to attend Hastings Boys’ High School. At that time (and possibly more so now) rugby seemed to be more important than study, and to make the first XV was to enter a strange pantheon of hero-worship and worthiness. Because my dad had been an All Black I guess it was expected that I would join that pantheon and I must admit that at the time I got some sense of inflated self-importance from it.
Taunoa however was not interested. Instead he wrote poetry. He would see or hear or imagine something and then disappear to write. Often he would give me poems scribbled on pages ripped from his school books and say “Here, it’s yours.” At a time when most of us did not have the faith in ourselves to reach into the imagination as our tīpuna once did, he wrote and told his own stories into the mind and the land.
Sadly he died in an accident our first year at university. Had he lived he may well have become one of our great poets and helped ease the task of refinding our confidence and faith.
But one weekend while we were still at school my koro took us both across the land to tell us new old stories – of two taniwha resting beneath the land waiting to be woken by Rūaumoko; of a puna so clear it was like looking into a mirror. And when we came to fences that others had put up to mark the land they had taken he would climb over them as if they weren’t there, as if the dark oppressiveness of colonisation wasn’t there.
When we got home Taunoa disappeared and came back some time later with another piece of crumpled paper and another poem. “Here, it’s yours” he said – the first poem ever written for me.
“And the old man asked
What will you do
With the darkness
We should not forget
And the time
Beyond our dreams?
And the young boy
Touched a land
Filled with the telling
I will know.”
I’m not sure what I have come to know in the years since then except that there is still wisdom and wit and humour and faith in our stories however they are crafted. That one day we will again be self-determining in our own land and our mokopuna will have new stories to tell.
Your gift to me is part of that telling. It is part of the journey to the “time beyond our dreams” and there can perhaps be no greater taonga. Thank you.
Ngā mihi aroha,
Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.