As it was when Jacinda was in charge, it’s a given that Māori politicians should hold a good share of the powerful positions in this Labour government. For instance, three are in the cabinet’s top 10: Kelvin Davis, Willie Jackson and Kiritapu Allan — and Nanaia Mahuta and Peeni Henare aren’t far off.
It’s been a different story in local politics though. Māori mayors and councillors have been a rarity. But, in last year’s local body elections, there was progress. Now there’s Tania Tapsell in Rotorua, Tory Whanau in Wellington, and Faylene Tunui in Kawerau authorised to wear the mayoral regalia. And, up in Kaikohe, which is the HQ for the Far North council, it’s Mayor Moko Tepania who now has that authority too.
They aren’t the first Māori mayors. Back in the 1960s, Percy Marunui Murphy in Murupara and Ralph Love in Petone were mayors. And there’ve been Derek Fox (Wairoa), Georgina Beyer (Carterton), Ron Mark (Carterton), and Mike Tana (Porirua) who’ve had the top jobs in their towns as well.
Here’s Dale Husband getting to know Moko Tepania.
Congratulations, man. How are you finding the step up from councillor to mayor?
I definitely wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of requests I’d get from people. I need more than one of me, to be honest. I wasn’t prepared for that.
Over the past three years I’ve been a councillor while still working full-time at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Kaikohe — and that was crazy busy. But the mayoralty is something else again because you want to be available to everyone.
Now that you’re in the forum of mayors, it’s clear that, at 32, you’re much younger than most of the others. Have you sensed any unease about your youthfulness? Has there been any ageism?
Oh no. Not at all. People have been pretty accepting — and some like the novelty of having a mayor who’s so young.
In the course of the election campaign, and even now, I probably get way more respect from the generations older than me. It’s more like my own peers who are saying: “Man, do you think you’re old enough to be doing this?”
It’s the older ones who are complimentary about me getting in there. They’ve been saying: “We’ve needed a younger and a more enthusiastic voice in these spaces.” So that’s been heartening-as.
Well, good luck to you and to our whānau Māori in the north who are very proud to be part of electing a Māori mayor. You’ve got a lot to offer, and it’s especially pleasing that you’ve come out of an environment that values our reo. But let’s pause for a moment to check on how you’ve come by the name of Moko.
That’s a name that comes from me being the eldest grandchild and great grandchild on both sides of my family. My legal name is actually Darryl, but I’ve never been called that.
My father, Darryl Sr, was raised by his grandmother Mere Kahle. And Dad asked his nan to name me. He thought I’d get this 10-letter Māori name, or something like that. But, at birth, I was the only moko. So Moko was my name — and when she finally named me Darryl after Dad, that just didn’t catch on. So I’ve always been Moko.
Beautiful. My oldest moko is 13, and I’ve been calling him Moko all his life. So I can see how it works. How many in your family?
I have three siblings. I have a sister, Marie-Chanel, who’s 28. We had a younger brother, Kaweka, who passed away when he was six months and I was 17. And we’ve got a 13-year-old brother, Xavier, as well.
Me and my sister grew up in Hikurangi. But my little brother was born and grew up in Australia for 10 years.
Okay. And your whakapapa lines?
On Dad’s side we’re from Waihapa Marae, so we’re Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa. And, on Mum’s side, we’re from Mātihetihe Marae from Mitimiti, so we’re Te Rarawa on her side.
Kia ora. Did your mum and dad raise you in kōhanga?
No. I went through English medium education. Both Mum and Dad are Catholic, so Mum went to St Joseph’s and then Pompallier College in Whangārei. And Dad went to Hato Hōhepa te Kāmura in Waitāruke and then on to boarding school at Hato Pētera College in Auckland.
I went to St Francis Xavier School and then Pompallier College in Whangārei. But I picked up te reo in high school where I took it as a subject.
Mum and Dad can understand te reo and speak a little bit. But, at Pompallier, we had compulsory te reo and French in Form One and Two and then I picked Māori throughout high school. Also I did a BA in te reo Māori at Waikato uni.
Kia ora! That sounds like a strong commitment to Māori issues. But I imagine you had support. Who stands out in that regard?
Definitely my parents, first and foremost. My dad grew up with my nana and like 13 cousins in a one-bedroom house but went on to tech and became a civil engineer. My mum also grew up in a very modest financial environment.
Her dad was on the railways and she has five siblings. But she became a case manager for Work and Income New Zealand and ended up as the WINZ operations manager for Northland.
As kids, we learned that, if you want something, you work hard for it. You won’t get it on a plate in this life. You’ve gotta be hardworking.
My nan, Wero Kāmira, is a first-language speaker who grew up in Mitimiti until she was 13 when her family shifted to Tikipunga during the urban migration movement. And I was lucky enough to be learning reo grammar at school and then practising at home with her.
She really instilled in not just me but in all of my cousins as well that you should “know who you are and know where you’re from”.
And I was lucky because when I started learning te reo at high school, she stopped speaking English at home. And that immersion was really helpful for my language learning.
At Waikato uni, I finished with a Bachelor of Teaching (Secondary) and a BA in te reo and anthropology.
It was our whānau who pushed us, pushed me into these spaces, made sure that I worked hard, learned hard and studied hard.
The logic was that, if you do that, you’re set up for life — and then you can help others too.
You were always going to be a teacher?
Oh, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. We went through five different teachers at Pompallier. There was a shortage one year when we didn’t even have a kaiako. So I did the course by correspondence. And I was like: “Oh heck. Maybe I should be a teacher and make sure there’s someone else there to pass on the language.”
So, around about seventh form, I thought I’d be a kaiako. Then I chose Waikato University because it was the closest uni to home that wasn’t Auckland — because Auckland’s too crazy.
And so you got your teaching ticket?
Yeah. And once I finished that, I went back to Pompallier, to my old school, and taught there for four years. I was very comfortable there with the teachers who’d taught me.
And then, six years ago, I moved from Pompallier to Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Kaikohe, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The kura kaupapa system is such a beautiful, culturally ingrained way of teaching and learning that I don’t think I could ever go back to a kura auraki (English medium school), if I ever went back into education. I just couldn’t do that.
Just over three years ago, the local government elections came around and I sort of put my hand up, not thinking I’d make it on to the council. And I was really surprised to make it as one of the elected councillors.
Then the elections came around again late last year. And I got told that I had to run for mayor. So that’s where I am today.
It’s a great story, but let’s focus for a moment on the kura kaupapa. It’s still relatively new, but what makes it stand out for you?
Oh, it’s that you’re learning in Māori as a Māori. It’s an approach that nurtures young Māori. That’s what I love about it.
And it’s a flexible learning environment, where the approach on any particular day may be determined by the maramataka — and what may be especially relevant that day.
Also, what I love about te kura kaupapa Māori is that we have collaborative learning spaces.
I was pretty sceptical of them at the start. Probably for the first six months at the kura. And I was wondering: “How does this even work?” But then there were the 100 percent pass rates across NCEA Levels 1, 2, 3 and university entrance. And, well, you can’t argue with those, can you?
But did you find it tough-going?
Well, you do have to put a lot into your work at a kura. It’s not an easy career. But it is rewarding to see that you can be shaping the life of a young person for the better.
The reality, though, is that learning isn’t just an occupation for the young. I believe that everyone’s a lifelong learner — you’re never going to reach a pinnacle where you stop learning.
For instance, I’ve been learning te reo Māori since I was 13 and I’m incredibly proud that, last year, I passed the translators and interpreters exam. That was hard, but it’s great to be able to say: “Wow. Look what I’ve got to show for that work.”
That doesn’t mean that I’m now an expert — or that, every single day, I’m not still learning something new in te reo Māori. But it’s a sign of progress.
In kura, we encourage our tamariki and rangatahi to stand and introduce themselves. But that can be a foreign concept for many Pākehā kids who are shy in that public speaking space.
You come across as an accomplished speaker and I have no doubt that, when you stand to kōrero in our Māori settings, you do so with confidence. Is it a skill that’s valuable for the mahi you’re doing now?
Absolutely. It’s a core skill. In te ao Māori, you need to be competent in sharing your whakapapa and in relating to others by explaining who you are and where you’re from.
Obviously you can credit teachers, and whānau too, for the progress you’ve made and for a number of your achievements. But perhaps there are books that have been helpful and influential. Films too.
Well, I love reading — so do my karani and my mum. In fact, Mum won a prize for reading every single book in the Pompallier College library (or something like that).
But I honestly couldn’t pinpoint any particular book. I was just one of those kids growing up who loved to consume information through reading. My whānau nickname has been “Moko-pedia”. That’s because I have so much random content knowledge. I also have a good memory. Almost a photographic memory.
One day it’s gonna come in handy if I’m ever on one of those quiz shows and there’s like a million-dollar question and I happen to know the answer because I read about it in some book or magazine when I was eight years old.
But no, I’ve never had any particular book stick out. I love fiction but I don’t have much time to read for leisure anymore. Being a fast reader comes in handy though, with the amount of content we have to consume, with the agenda and this and that in the council.
Mate, have we lost you to education, do you think? I mean you’re already a mayor? What’s next? The prime minister’s job?
Oh no. I didn’t have any aspirations to become mayor. I’d set myself Matariki weekend as the deadline to make a decision, and then I went back home to Mum and Dad’s to talk it through. But, in those discussions, I realised that I only had selfish reasons for not putting my hat in the ring for the mayoralty.
So I put my hand up for the job and ended up winning. And yeah, that’s my major focus right now.
I’m also doing my master’s degree in education. Last year, I was on study leave and I’m now doing my dissertation. I have to finish that by May.
Teaching is one of those careers that you can do almost to the day you die. So I don’t think that I’m lost to education. I have a passion for teaching, and I hope to mix that with local government, as I have for the past three years.
I’ve set myself a goal, over these three years, of visiting every single one of the 88 schools in the Far North. I think there’s a benefit in ensuring that there are connections between the schools and the council because, ultimately, all the rangatahi across the north are gonna be the ones to come through and take up the mantles and responsibilities that we’re holding now.
We want them to be enthusiastic about it — and, although we’ll do our best while we’re in the job, we want them to do even better. So, if I can spark that while I’m here, that’s something I want to do.
We’re witnessing an evolution, aren’t we? We still have our challenges, but we Māori are living through a very dynamic period — and you being the first Māori mayor of the Far North is a source of great pride for those who’ve supported you.
You’re not the only Māori mayor from last year’s elections either. And we’re also witnessing something of a changing of the guard with the Māori wards.
How satisfying is it to be living at a time when we’re achieving significant change? We still have a long way to go but we’re moving forward positively. Your thoughts on that, please, Moko?
Oh big, big time. The tide has changed and one of the signs is that the other side is lashing out because it’s feeling threatened.
There’s the growth of te reo Māori culture, and now we have Matariki recognised as a formal holiday.
And over Waitangi weekend, the Treaty grounds had every colour you could imagine among the people who make up New Zealand’s population now. It was a commemoration and a celebration as well. I didn’t see any whānau there without a smile from ear to ear.
While we have an incredibly long way to go, we’re going in the right direction, even if it’s sometimes two steps forward, one step back.
And we can reflect on what Tā James Henare once said: “Kua tawhiti kē tō haerenga mai kia kaua e haere tonu, ka nui rawa ō mahi kia kaua e mahi tonu.” (We’ve gone too far not to go further. We’ve done too much not to do more.)
The last two weeks has been an especially tough time for many whānau, and I imagine you’ve had your hands full helping Far North whānau deal with the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle. How has it been?
We’ve been so fortunate in the Far North to not see devastation on a scale that those across the East Coast and Hawke’s Bay have. But while the impact was minimal for some in our district, others are going to be feeling the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle for a long time yet — and I want to make sure that we’re supporting these whānau as best we can.
There’s certainly a lot to learn from as we move into the recovery phase. One of the challenges for our response here was being able to get to those in need — the extended communication blackouts and the distances between our settlements have made it that much harder to support everyone.
But I’ve seen incredible resilience across our communities. Some of our whānau face almost two weeks without power, others have been left homeless.
For me, the highlights have most definitely been seeing the selflessness and manaakitanga of our communities. Marae across the Far North, kura, town halls, neighbours and whānau all opened their doors to those in need. And the national and international support has been incredible too.
Now that you’re wearing the mayoral chains, I imagine that you need to keep yourself fit and fresh and enthused about your mahi.
Well, I’m a huge advocate for maintaining one’s own personal health. That’s physical, spiritual, social and mental. I’ve been doing CrossFit for two or three years now. It keeps me sane. And I love getting up in the morning and doing an hour-long workout that wrecks me.
It’s a strain with the council work and still being full-time at the kura. That can amount to sometimes working an 80-hour week, and I’m aware that, if I don’t look after myself 100 percent, then I’m not going to be able to deliver for the 72,600 people who have the Far North as their home.
You planning a family?
No, no family yet. I’ve been so busy over the past three years and now I’ve signed myself up to a three-year marriage with the Far North. That’s probably why I’ve got so much time. So no, I don’t have a wife yet or any tamariki that I’m aware of.
That actually helps because it means I don’t have to feel guilty about neglecting whānau or anything like that for the time being. But I definitely do want to have kids. Can’t wait for the day that I do and, meantime, I’ll wait and see when the good Lord gives me that blessing as well.
It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Moko. I know you’ve got the people behind you as well as a lot of positivity in your heart. All the best with your mahi, and thanks for sharing so much with me.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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