Moana Jackson at the Imagining Decolonisation event, Unity Books, Wellington, in May 2021. (Photo Unity Books)

No one was more inspiring or had a greater influence over so many people for the greater good than Moana Jackson, writes Catherine Delahunty. (Moana died in Waimana on March 31.) 


The first time I heard Moana Jackson speak was 30 years ago in the public library in Wellington. He painted a picture which has always stayed with me. He described culture as a whare with foundations critical to its survival.

I could see it in my mind. The strong wooden blocks holding up the house: language, land, lore/tikanga, education, health, spirituality, technology. When he described the colonisers’ attack on the foundations of the Maōri whare, I could see it — chopping, burning, eating away at the base of the house.

Then he talked about the restoration of the foundations. The hard work of the rebuild and the determination of his people who were working for their survival as Māori, block by block. He left us with a question, phrased politely and expressed firmly: “When are you going to get out of the way?” 

The first time I met him in person was in Ōtautahi in 1999, at a conference  organised by the Campaign Against Foreign Control Aotearoa. We were both giving speeches alongside other activists from Aotearoa and overseas. 

I sat down in a chair in the hall next to a stranger and then I realised that the stranger was Moana Jackson. I was frozen with fan girl admiration. But soon we were discussing a paper by a German theorist on how colonial fantasies of empty lands and empty barbaric minds were used to justify colonisation. After that, from time to time, I was lucky enough to become one of the wide circle whom he encouraged to work for the kaupapa of Te Tiriti.

The power in Moana’s public speaking lay partly in the many stories he told that we don’t forget. 

We remember the one he told about the rangatira of his hapū, a wahine, who was going to sign Te Tiriti, but the British refused to let a wahine sign. Moana smiled and said that it was a source of pride for him that the hapū walked away as one. We remember that story when we teach Te Tiriti.

We remember the stories about his mokopuna. He told those tales in a loving manner, delighting in their insights and reminding us that children are a taonga in their freedom and freshness. Every story had a sharp edge and a message to us all about the importance of imagining the world we wish to create — and supporting its creation. He encouraged us to see the honouring of Te Tiriti as an act of imagination.

One of my favourite stories was about one of his tiny mokopuna packing her lunch and setting off on her bike to “find the future” — and her asking the little Pākehā boy who wanted to go with her: “Can you keep up?” 

When he said “treaties are not settled, they are honoured”, he blew the whole Crown agenda into pieces. “Full and final settlement” is a phrase forced into all Treaty settlements, but as treaties can’t be settled, the phrase is irrelevant. 

The Crown didn’t appreciate Moana because he looked beyond their tactics of appeasing racist New Zealand, and focused instead on the actual meaning of a treaty between sovereign nations. 

Parliament is full of lawyers but, sadly, has no one with a legal mind of his quality. 

When the Helen Clark Government attacked the customary rights of tangata whenua to the foreshore and seabed, Moana was one of the key leaders who used his talents and knowledge to support the huge resistance from tangata whenua across ngā motu. 

I was lucky enough to be on the hīkoi starting from Te Tairawhiti. That was led by Mereana Pitman, Ngahiwi Tomoana, and Moana — and in their safe and resolute hands, we followed their people down to parliament. 

After the battle, Moana had some serious health issues which he referred to not as a heart attack but as a “foreshore attack”. And he grieved over the government giving encouragement to the racists because he knew what the consequences would be for Māori.  

As you may recall, Helen Clark refused to meet the hikoi, but that same week, she welcomed to parliament a novelty sheep called Shrek. Somehow, that episode, that display of priorities, seemed an apt symbol of this colonising culture.  

Moana was always generous to anyone who was making an effort to honour Te Tiriti. He told me the Greens had shown integrity when they stood on the steps of Parliament Buildings to welcome the hikoi with their “Honour Te Tiriti” banner. 

He was therefore willing to talk with us about constitutional transformation. When he spoke with the Green caucus, he displayed a knowledge of European constitutional law that was far greater than anyone in the room. 

He was way ahead of us in practice as well. His international work, from Bougainville to Bolivia, from international Indigenous legal panels to the UN Committee on UNDRIP, changed the world. Any political muttering about monarchy versus republic felt juvenile and irrelevant in the face of his commitment to a far greater transformation for Aotearoa.

I’ve noticed through my years in politics that being articulate and passionate can sway some people. And many of us can be articulate and passionate. But Moana was at a different level in his ability to reach people. I won’t use the word “mana” because it’s outside my range of understanding. But he had a presence which made many of us want to share his vision of a better way of living here.

Perhaps his greatest gift and challenge to tangata Tiriti was to require us to be honest about the situation and to be willing to change. He made us understand that Māori being able to live as Māori in their own country was essential for peace and justice — and that we must face up to how we were preventing this from happening. 

He has given us a work to do in response to Matike Mai, not the least of which is making use of our imaginations to design our part in a framework based on Te Tiriti. 

And if not now, when?  

It wasn’t just what he said, or how he challenged us. It was how he was able to pierce through the excuses, stereotypes, lies and brutality, and offer a vision that was collectively shaped through hui after hui and listening keenly to his people. 

There was nothing glib in his speeches about justice and the racist prison system. There was nothing shallow about his respect for the wāhine he worked with on this and other kaupapa. He always had time for groups like ”Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga” and for the Pākehā Te Tiriti networks because he saw their commitment to change. 

Many of us Pākehā Te Tiriti educators working in our communities have carried the questions he asked and we have repeated the inspiring stories he told in our efforts to educate our people about our situation in Aotearoa. We hold these questions to our hearts. And Moana’s answers, too. 

I was unwell and missed his tangi but I watched it online. It was history being made and history being honoured by those to whom he belonged. It inspired me to read and watch many more of his speeches on so many kaupapa and feel grateful for his life and for the people he has inspired.  

I have never met a more inspiring person with a greater influence over so many of us for the good. Let’s hope that we can now be worthy of his generous challenges to us. 

His statement that courage and bravery are just the deep breath taken before starting something difficult is one of many truths he has left us.

For the beneficiaries of colonisation, it will take a different kind of courage from the bravery of the tangata whenua who are still the victims of that colonial abuse. 

But those deep breaths must be taken.  


Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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