Uncle Sam Jackson, a Taranaki kaumātua, died on Friday in Wellington. With his passing, Taranaki whānui in Wellington, Taranaki, Picton, Otago and further afield (such as here across the ditch in Te Ao Moemoea), have lost a cultural, spiritual and political leader of great skill, warmth, charm and gentleness. Our loss is New Zealand’s loss too.
Uncle Sam personified manaakitanga (hospitality) and his whaikārero (oratory) enhanced thousands of occasions in the capital city and in Taranaki. With the support of his wife Aunty June, Uncle Sam blessed buildings, books and statues, he led memorial services on Anzac Day, he welcomed overseas guests and he spoke before the Waitangi Tribunal. These are just a few of the things I know about. There are so many more.
For many years, Uncle Sam acted as the orator for Sir Ngatata Love, the former head of the Port Nicholson Settlement Trust. He performed this challenging role with skill, humility and grace.
In the Māori world, Uncle Sam’s presence added dignity to every occasion. He spoke exquisite Māori: simple, poetic and direct. Like Ruakere Hond, Uncle Sam had the gift of making himself understood, even to listeners like me with limited knowledge of te reo. For example, in mid-2012, I heard Uncle Sam give a blistering summing up before a Waitangi Tribunal hearing. In many regards, the hearing was a terrible event. The Port Nicholson Settlement Trust was trying to stop the impending Ngāti Toa Treaty settlement, claiming that the package breached promises the Crown had made – via Office of Treaty Settlements negotiators – with our own negotiators.
Many of the people sitting on the Ngāti Toa side of the room were, in fact, our relatives. The Treaty settlements process has “fixed” many relationships that were once fluid. It has frozen time, hardened feelings.
Yet although Uncle Sam was visibly angry, he was still able to speak with softness and warmth. He explained that we were honouring the memory of our Taranaki tupuna (ancestors), many of whom had lived just a few hundred metres away from the Tribunal building at Te Aro pa on Taranaki Street. We had no choice but to be there, Uncle Sam explained.
My parents visited Uncle Sam as he lay at Pipitea Marae yesterday. I was unable to be there but I decided I could honour his memory by writing this post. I am so grateful to Uncle Sam for his skill and manaakitanga and I want to thank him, in particular, for two things.
In December 2009, Uncle Sam blessed “the first copy” of my book, The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget (Huia) so it would be safe to send out into the world. More significantly, though, Uncle Sam was the kaumātua at the whakatau (welcome) that opened the Wallace whānau reunion at Hutt Park Stop Out soccer club-rooms in January 2011. Our reunion was for the descendants of Taare Warahi (Charles Wallace). Wallace was the son of bloke from Birmingham (William Ellerslie Wallace) who arrived in Te Whananui-a-Tara in 1840 on the Glenbervie and soon married one of the best looking women on shore, the so called “belle of Te Aro Pa” – Arapera Rongouaroa Parai.
About 150 people came from around New Zealand and Australia. One of my sisters even flew home from Canada to attend, with a six-year-old in tow. It was an amazing weekend. The party on Saturday night was a stand out. Let’s just say I have a very talented bunch of relatives, two of whom look a lot like the guys from the Kings of Leon and they can also play the guitar and sing. We had a nightclub quality sound system, thanks to cousin Paul, a long-time promoter, and we were entertained by kapa haka, juggling, folk singing, break-dancing and the under-ten set’s lip-syncing and dancing along to Hannah Montana’s Pop It Lock It Polka Dot It.
This photograph was taken that Friday evening and it captures something of Uncle Sam’s incredible warmth. He loved people. He knew what to say to make an occasion special. He always behaved correctly. Generosity was his tikanga. He was profoundly hospitable.
At the reunion, Uncle Sam’s mihi was in Māori but he also made a few remarks in English. “Look at all your relatives here together,” he said to the dozens of mokopuna (grandchildren) who were listening. “Imagine if your relatives’ relatives were here too and their relatives and soon the football fields behind us would be full and all those people would be related to you!”
We’re all connected, aren’t we Uncle Sam? We can gather each other in, if we wish, can’t we Uncle Sam? Your words were your embrace. My deepest condolences and aroha to Aunty June and the whānau.
“He toa taumata rau”