‘Moana Jackson: Portrait of a Quiet Revolutionary’ was produced by Tawera & Black Pearl Productions, and funded by NZ On Air with support from E-Tangata and the NZ Herald. (Photo: Tawera Productions)

Moana Jackson was our Māori Yoda, writes Moana Maniapoto. He “defined what Māori have constantly felt, yet struggled to articulate. He brought clarity to our struggle and wisdom to our kitchen tables, influencing generations of policymakers and jurists alike.”

Here Moana writes about Moana Jackson and the making of Moana Jackson: Portrait of a Quiet Revolutionary, filmed over two years and completed weeks after Moana’s passing at his home in Waimana on March 31, 2022. 


Maybe we should have called it “Portrait of a Reluctant Revolutionary”.

Two years ago, I asked Moana Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou) if he would consider my partner Toby Mills and me making a documentary about him. He wasn’t exactly champing at the bit. Moana said he was “really whakamā about that kind of thing.”

He recalled that, some years ago, Dale Husband interviewed him for the Kōrero section of E-Tangata.

“Dale was really good,” Moana wrote. “But it did end up too ‘me-centred’ and I’m always uncomfortable with that.”

So, he knocked it on the head. That was Moana. He could prattle on forever about kaupapa, but when it came to himself, he’d clam up. For instance, the fact that he had cancer was something he didn’t want the world to know about.

“It won’t be an investigative piece, Uncle,” I assured him.

I called Moana “Uncle”. Out of habit — and respect. I’d married into the Jackson whānau. But morphing from in-law to outlaw (post-divorce) means diddly-squat in te ao Māori. Moana would sign off “Uncle” in emails and texts.

We joked about how people would sometimes mix us up.

I’d mention the handful of letters from prison inmates seeking the kind of legal advice which clearly suggested they had mistaken me for brainy Moana. And he chuckled about the time he was invited to speak at a Hato Pāora College prizegiving.

“I rang the school the night before just to check on the arrangements, and the principal said: ‘The boys are really excited.’

“And I couldn’t figure out why a hundred or so hormonally rampant Māori boys were excited that I was coming. And then I realised, when I got there, that they were expecting you and not me.”

I suspect Moana was embellishing somewhat.

Moana and Moana

Moana Jackson and Moana Maniapoto, in the lounge at Waimana, during the making of Portrait of a Quiet Revolutionary. (Photo: Tawera Productions)

But that aptitude for storytelling was only one of his special powers. It was the packaging that he wrapped around big ideas so they could land gently on unsuspecting others, even though they were heat-seeking missiles.

His dry wit and unassailable logic tucked inside personal tales had people convinced (momentarily at least) that, yes, Māori should be running the country. I nicknamed him “the Stealth Bomber”.

Ngahiwi Tomoana, Moana’s cousin, told us that some of their Kahungunu relatives called him the “Whispering Jesus” because of the calm and reasoned manner in which he delivered his revolutionary messages.

Moana was our Māori Yoda. Always available by text and phone, to impart wisdom, to debate and tease out ideas in a more nuanced way. It worked both ways. He’d ring even me on the odd occasion to test his own thoughts before he wrote an article or speech.

It’s odd hearing some politicians now demand “a national conversation around co- governance”, because a bunch of Māori (and some Pākehā) have been having that conversation forever — online these days as well as on marae, in boardrooms and bars, in thousands of hui. And the Jackson whānau have been in the thick of it for years.

Because Moana lived in Wellington, I’d had much more to do with his eldest brother Bob (my father-in-law), and their brother Syd, the charismatic union boss who got up people’s noses when he and his wife Deirdre Nehua visited Libya years ago.

I pulled out my “Syd card” to remind Moana that, years ago, his big bro reluctantly agreed to allow Toby and me to capture his life in our documentary Syd Jackson: Life & Times of a Fully Fledged Activist.

The Jackson brothers were all about The Kaupapa. So, once again I explained that a documentary was a perfect chance to lay it all out there. Nervously and somewhat reluctantly, Moana finally agreed.

And then he sent me lists.

“My life doesn’t make sense without certain experiences and mahi,” he’d add.

Long lists. Lists identifying who I should interview. Names, contact details and the reasons why. I suspect Moana was trying to factor himself out of the whole equation.

“It won’t be much chop if we make a doco about you,” I’d write “and you’re not actually in it.”

I was a wee bit worried. Documentary making is not only about making viewers think, it’s also about having them feel. Constitutional transformation isn’t exactly a feel-good, sexy phrase.

Then Covid hit.

And the debilitating cancer Moana was struck with saw him moved to Waimana to be cared for by his son Hatea and daughter-in-law Diane. Moana was also quietly supported by the “Māori Medical Mafia” — a collective of old friends who happened to be medical specialists and would “stare down the system” on his behalf.

“Hatea and Diane and their whānau are my world,” Moana wrote. “Diane is Tūhoe and a direct descendant of Rua. They have four children: Tirakahurangi, Matariki, Teurukaipo, and Hineaka who’s named after Mum.”

The turnoff to Waimana is marked by a colourful but fading sign, announcing a Christmas fair in the Nukuhou hall. The sign sits on a corner of State Highway 2, within te rohe pōtae o Tūhoe. We passed a film crew working on a movie based on Operation 8.

The village was much like Moana — quiet, calm and relaxing. It felt far removed from talk of the Westminster system and the United Nations. More a place where one of our greatest thinkers might take a breath as he was confronting what he called his “dance with cancer”.

Moana’s skin colour was slightly yellow, but I was surprised at how good he looked. His hair was still full and beautiful. He was neatly turned out as usual.

Toby and I mentioned that we’d just had brunch with Sir Michael Cullen and his wife Anne. We met Michael when we were producing The Negotiators, our series on Treaty settlements. Moana, alongside Margaret Mutu and David Williams, were our advisors.

Moana had a wee chuckle. He told us that, years ago, he was invited to a party for his brother Piripi’s 50th birthday. This was around about the time of the foreshore and seabed furore. It was a fancy-dress party and Piripi had told all the guests what they should wear. Moana was mystified as to why he was told to dress as the pope.

“Piripi suggested it would all become obvious on the night,” said Moana. “So, I bowled up in this elaborate papal gear just as Michael Cullen (whose wife worked at Piripi’s school) arrived as a poor country preacher, who I was then asked to bless!”

We set up our cameras in the lounge. Moana warned us he might be good to talk for only half an hour. I reassured him that we were in no rush and would stop-start whenever he felt like it. And off we went — traversing Te Tiriti, World War Two, rugby, prisons, mokopuna, and Matike Mai.

“In some ways, I think that constitutional mahi has had far greater effects than anything else I have tried to do,” he concluded.

I asked him if he felt he’d been repeating himself over the years.

“One of my heroes was an African-American slave who ran away and became an attorney, Frederick Douglass,” said Moana. “He also became a great orator as well as a great attorney and slavery abolitionist. And, in one of his many great speeches, he said that power never gives up of itself without a struggle. It never has, and it never will. And so that means that we have to just keep saying things.”

Afterwards, Moana pulled out a photo album and waved us down the hallway towards more photos of his mokopuna.

One of those I interviewed was Tirakahurangi (Tira). An ex-St Joe’s girl like me, Tira described how her doting Koro always stuck up for her, even when his friend, the formidable headmistress Dame Georgina Kingi, was on the warpath. When I asked Moana about that, it was clear that, when it came to justice and his moko, there was a line in the sand. End of story.

The morning after our interview, I woke up to an email from Moana, thanking me for my patience and apologising for needing to rest.

“I have thought a great deal about the kōrero and didn’t get much sleep last night. Partly that was unhappiness and dissatisfaction about what I said, but more importantly, what was left out because of where the interview went. In fact, I feel I ended up missing out some of the most important mahi and people I have been involved with.”

I rang him up.

“Uncle,” I said. “We’ll come back this morning if you are up to it.” He was and we did.

Moana was distressed he hadn’t namechecked Ngāneko Minhinnick. She began the long fight for New Zealand to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). So, we filmed a second interview in his kitchen. And after we finished, Moana and Toby sat down and watched The Crown.

He saw my raised eyebrow.

“My brother actually said I had to watch The Crown to reaffirm all my prejudices.”

I suspect it was his guilty pleasure.

Before we left, Moana gave me another list of people he wanted us to interview. He was big on lists — as some of us found out at his tangihanga.

We headed to Hastings to talk with his brothers Fred and Piripi who I hadn’t seen for years. They, and Ngahiwi Tomoana, were insightful and funny as hell. In Auckland, we spoke to his nephew Willie Jackson and to Moana’s sister-in-law Deirdre. And, of course, in Waimana I spoke with Hatea and Tira. From all of them, I learned about Moana the goofy dancer, the neat freak, the one nicknamed “Joe Blow” because he wouldn’t stop talking.

Along with the whānau, we spoke with lawyers and academics, students and protégés, friends and colleagues. We interviewed 20 people in between lockdowns, traffic lights, and filming other projects. Toby and I tried our best, but we couldn’t get everyone on our list.

Moana’s brothers Fred and Piripi, in Hastings. (Photo: Tawera Productions)

I kept Moana up with the play. Once in a while, I’d mention a quote of his that someone repeated during an interview.

“I don’t actually remember saying that incredibly bright-sounding thing but it’s nice to be recognised for it,” he would write. “It also kind of reminded me why I enjoy your programmes and the graceful, intelligent ways you address issues.”

That was Moana to a tee. Throwing the spotlight elsewhere. Always reaffirming, making you feel like you were at least being slightly useful.

In between interviews, Toby and I hunted high and low for archival footage of him. There isn’t much. Bits of him standing behind a lectern or in front of a powerpoint or reading a report.

Moana wasn’t a man who bathed in the media spotlight. He was a thinker, someone who worked his magic behind the scenes — in lecture theatres, Waitangi Tribunal hearings, boardrooms and courtrooms, in hui after hui. Annette Sykes described one of his weaknesses as the inability to say no.

Like many others, whenever I reached out to him, Moana came through. And after every meeting or speech, he’d whisper: “Was that okay?”

“Are you kidding?” I’d say.

But all of us called on him less and less for mahi, and more to see how he was bearing under the weight of living with limited time — understanding that, when it comes down to the wire, it really is about whānau.

And then, out of the blue, Moana would send messages that would tug at the heart.

“I really like having you as a friend and enjoy being your ‘uncle’. And it’s as a friend and uncle that I now write this email — the one I have always dreaded writing, I guess. However, I just wanted to let you know that things aren’t that great at the moment . . .”

On March 31, the day before his sister-in-law June Jackson’s burial, Moana Jackson died. It wasn’t a surprise, but it hit me hard, and I don’t claim to have been a bestie or as close to him as many others were.

I did make the list though, the one he put together for his own burial. I found out at his tangi that Moana had me down to sing.

To be honest, it’s been hard to revisit this documentary. To look at his face, hear him speak, watch him laugh. To understand that he is no longer with us. It’s surreal. Sometimes I’d reach for my phone to ask him how he is, tell him something, check in. And then I’d stop myself.

Moana defined what Māori have constantly felt, yet struggled to articulate. He brought clarity to our struggle and wisdom to our kitchen tables, influencing generations of policymakers and jurists alike. But he also made us feel that not only is it all right to be Māori — it’s also beautiful. He had so much faith in young people as champions of change.

Willie sensed a sadness about his uncle and put that down to unfinished business. Annette described emails written in the early hours of the morning by a man whose mind never stopped.

Moana was a man who lived with frustration. Change was coming too slowly. “Incrementalism is stasis,” he told me.

While he sometimes worked with those inside the system to try and effect change, Moana was never distracted from the big picture. And that’s the never-ending conundrum for many Māori. Where do we place ourselves? How can we transform the system when we are outnumbered at every turn? What do we do when our people have practical needs that require immediate addressing? How do we deal with the ongoing tension between incremental and transformative change?

Because Moana didn’t just challenge the Crown and Pākehā. He challenged Māori.

A disruptor, navigator, transformer and visionary, Moana always saw himself as part of the collective. He was deeply uncomfortable with his deification by others.

Because Moana was just a man. One with strengths and weaknesses, confidence and insecurities. A man who was never satisfied with himself and his own work. A lifelong neat freak dedicated to getting the Crown to tidy up its mess.

It’s because he was a son, brother, uncle, father, koro and friend that Moana Jackson was driven to become a quiet revolutionary.

Relaxing on the porch in Waimana, with Moana’s son Hatea. (Photo: Tawera Productions)

Much aroha to E-Tangata, NZ Herald and NZ On Air for supporting Tawera & Black Pearl Productions to make Moana Jackson: Portrait of A Quiet Revolutionary, and enable the conversation to continue.

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