Ode to Tony Johns: Footprints on the sands of Tokelau
Keina muamua te hoa,
Kua iloga õ tulagãvae i te one
Go ahead my brother
Marks of your footprints
Are on the sands
Tony Johns grew up in Palmerston North, New Zealand in the 1950s. One of five brothers, they lived on the same street as an orphanage.
It wasn’t uncommon for Tony and some of his friends to be mistaken for orphans. While at other times, happily played compass redirecting good Samaritans with gifts and donations further down the road.
Their property was huge.
Big enough to put down a full-size cricket field. The brothers loved to play cricket. A game that set Tony apart – but not for his abilities according to older brother Ian’s testimony at the funeral service last month, 29 December, at Pipitea Marae.
“He stood out because he was a stickler for the rules,” recalled Ian with a smile. “The rest of us were a bit more flexible but not Tony. An LBW (leg before wicket) was an LBW no arguments.
“His strict adherence to fairness, some call it stubborn, was a trait that he would maintain for the rest of his life.”
He stood out when alive all 6’ 5” of him. By the same measure, he stood out in death. While for many at the service, Tony’s giant shoulders was where they once perched, gaining far sighted views of life to further their journeys while listening to sage advise from Tony’s pioneering Pacific work.
Paraphrasing Bernard of Chartres saying, made famous by Sir Isaac Newton five centuries later, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” Hana Tuisano recalled the Tony Johns effect on her life.
“Tony Johns (TJ) was one of my mentors that came into a particular season of my life – (my journey in academia & life in general) and blessed me every season thereafter.
“A very important advice he gave me – that I should never forget to also use my Tokelauan eyes. His insights derived from many years of working in the Pacific showed it was more than just work for TJ, it was an all consuming passion to serve the peoples of the Pacific.”
For a boy that grew up in the 1950s palagi world, his final rites conducted in traditional Polynesian custom testify to the transformation from where he came from to the Pacific islander he became. The final ode composed by an old friend from the atoll of Atafu, Kelihiano Kalolo eloquently delivered by Lehi Atoni; and melodies of Tokelau’s funeral chant, Vale o Pou, carrying him to his final journey, acknowledged his Pacific home in the heart of Tokelau.
BREAKING THE MOULD
In his life journey, Tony ended up breaking the palagi mould in one significant way.
Western researchers generally agree that “the geography of our childhood helps shape our understanding of the world. The place where we grow up is the starting point of our identity and perception, our first context for reality.
“That if we look at our identity from the vantage point of geography, our world is shaped by the feel, characteristics, and weather of a landscape. The contours and intricacies of our childhood landscapes influence our first assumptions about how the world looks and works.”
Tony became an exception to this observation.
One wonders what these Western researchers, if they were present at Tony’s funeral, were asked to postulate as to where they think Tony would have been born, what their answers would have been.
It is fair to say the majority would have staked reputations on claims Tony was born on a Pacific island, with the ocean as the dominant landscape. That he would have been raised in a society that valued collective community action, respect for the environment, elders and ancestors.
But then who could chastise researchers for their error? For Tony had graduated to become a Pacific islander, and one bestowed with the rare ‘master fisherman’ or tautai status by Tokelauan elders. He became far more than the palagi babe born and raised in a farming New Zealand town named after a former British Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, Third Viscount Palmerston.
A European-based landscape that started off as a small clearing in a forest called Papaioea in the mid-19th century on the Manawatu plains, bounded by the Manawatu River. He grew to his teens in a time when the sound of the train was a common feature as the railway trunk went right through the main town square. That was until 1959 when it shifted north of the city with the opening of the Milson Deviation.
But the changing characteristics of Palmerston North to becoming New Zealand’s seventh largest city was lost to the Johns family when they made the move to Wellington in 1965.
For then, 15-year old Tony, he would not have known it but that was the first small step to what would be a number of mighty leaps to the Pacific island countries of Niue, the Marshall Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu. And the New Zealand protectorate of Tokelau.
Places of unrivalled beauty and people that would change his life and perception of the world forever. Places where the ‘Polynesian orphan’ from Palmerston was taken in by the Pacific family as one of their own. A family that included him into their heritage, their spiritual way of life and he in turn became one and the same. Walking together, his footprints unrecognized on the sands amongst his Pacific kin.
A GIANT AMONGST LEGENDS
Tony was pre-destined to become one of the Pacific’s significant nation builders.
It probably explained why he responded to his calling with freedom and abandon, tossing his life into the cause of transitioning current and former colonies to fully fledged independent sovereign nations.
In those formative years, as Pacific colonies crawled out of the shadows of their administrating masters to the full glare of international nationhood – people like Tony were tasked with their transformation and transition to the modern globalized world.
He not only helped draft constitutions, he was also tasked with finding ways to integrate new administrative support networks to operationalize the democratic and parliamentary frameworks underpinning the constitutions of the newly independent nations.
These were daunting assignments. Leading new-born nations to walk the international stage with all the necessary working machinery to govern and navigate the global economic and social systems by themselves.
To be successful, Tony knew that rather than supplanting the Pacific’s communal framework and traditional governance system with the new ‘Western system’, he needed to find a way to mesh or marry the two.
It is fair to say that it was during this work that Tony discovered things, things so profound that it changed him forever. The same things he would have first encountered on a visit to the Kibbutz in Israel in the early 1970s. An experience that influenced him about the value of collective community action.
Tony’s working life revealed that the Israel experience was revived as he delved deeper into the psyche, philosophy, values, and way of life of Pacific islanders in search of how to harmonize the modern Western world with ancient Polynesia. It was a journey that brought him face-to-face with a way of life founded on a communal framework and traditional governance system that was more than 3,000 years old. In other words, a system 2,000 years older than the Westminster parliamentary system (first actioned in 1848 in Canada) and the democratic system birthed by the United States (when its constitution was adopted in 1788) that he was trying to transition Pacific countries and people into. A system that was more than a 1,000 years older than the current Western Civilization birthed in the 15th century.
It would have been this realization that not only drove Tony’s Pacific work, but transform the early Palmerston North landscape of his youth into the vast oceanic seascape of the Pacific ocean bejeweled by the necklace of Pacific islands and people who believe their divine commission as guardians of the ocean and equitable sharing of its resources.
It would have been this self-transformation to a new belief and value system that morphed Tony Johns into the Pacific islanders’ champion that he became.
“Two things dominated Tony’s life,” older brother Ian Johns admitted at Pipitea Marae.
“First, was his love of the Pacific and its peoples – that was his passion. Second was his strong belief in assisting communities and government with improving the lives of people.”
These dominant characteristics were the common threads in the many testimonials that showcased a man who sacrificed his life to Pacific communities. In New Zealand he played a significant role in the establishment of Ministry of the Pacific Islands Affairs, offered to mentor many Pacific public servants and community leaders, and continued lookout for ways to maintain and preserve their unique culture and languages.
This is etched throughout his New Zealand work that yielded the establishment of GELS/CEG (Department of Labour) programmes, establishing Pacific Business Trust (PBT), and the promotion of Pacific languages, in New Zealand and throughout the region.
While at a regional level, he will be remembered for helping draft the constitutions of Tokelau, Niue, the Marshall Islands, and as a commentator and advisor to other Pacific nation leaders.
AGAINST 3 TO 1 ODDS, TONY GOT THE JOB
In 1984, the Labour Government first appointed a Minister of Pacific Island Affairs (the Hon. Richard Prebble), and the following year, a Pacific Island Unit was established in the Department of Internal Affairs.
Tony was the successful applicant to head this unit. As the first-ever to hold this position, he also became the central hub, responsible for monitoring the implementation of policy and delivery of services for Pacific peoples in other government ministries and departments.
But how he actually got the job is a story worth telling, and also, quite possibly, the first time there was a Tokelauan influence in Tony’s life.
Current Advisor to the Tokelau Public Service Commissioner, Mr Aleki Silao revealed how Tony got the job in 1985, even though three of the four-member interview panel had opted for the only other shortlisted candidate – a Pacific islands community expert.
On the panel, two were from the Pacific Advisory Committee (PAC), Aleki and one other, a representative from the State Services Commission, and one from Internal Affairs.
On his way to the interview, the new Minister for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Prebble called Aleki into his office “and told me to make sure I pick the best director”.
“So I went to the interview and found the final two, one was a bureaucrat and the other a community expert. And the two could not be separated,” Aleki said at the funeral service.
“The State Services Commission representative was elected as our panel Chair. He started off by asking the two of us from the PAC to go first.
“My PAC mate went first. He preferred the community expert candidate.”
Continued Aleki, “I was then asked by our Chair to speak my mind. But before I was going to tell them my pick, I decided to play a Tokelau trick, so I said: ‘Oh, I haven’t made up my mind yet. I will hear you first.
“Well, the other two panelists were quite moved by the eloquence of my PAC colleague. So all three of them went for the community person.
“It was now my turn. And I remembered what Minister Prebble said. So I said to the panel, ‘If there’s a bun fight at the Cabinet committee, there’s limited funds and so forth, who would the minister call on for the best advise?
“I was keeping my eye on the States Services Commission chairman; and from what I saw, I knew I had him. He said, ‘Could we reconvene next week?’.
“We called the meeting the following week. It only lasted 5-minutes. Tony Johns was preferred.”
It was also destiny that Aleki, some 15 years later, then Tokelau Public Service Commissioner who ended up calling on Tony Johns to head the project, ‘Modern House of Tokelau’. It was this project that introduced Tony Johns to the people of Tokelau.
Of all the Pacific countries he worked with, Tokelau was dearest to him. And in turn, he was equally dear to Tokelau.
He learned much about the ‘Pacific reference’: that of one with the family, one with the environment, and one with ancestors from Tokelau. In the end, he was able to see and perceive the world equally, through Tokelauan eyes.
Neil Walters was the Administrator for Tokelau in the early 2000s. A statutory position that essentially makes him the ‘Head’ of Tokelau.
Mr Walters was the first to speak at Tony’s funeral service.
He recalled vividly one of his talks with Tony. It was during a difficult meeting with Tokelau elders in the early 2000s. His delightful description of one conversation they had at this juncture highlighted Tony’s impressive ‘Tokelauan eyesight’ at that time.
“I recall one particular incident in Tokelau during one particular difficult negotiation with the Council of Elders [when] it stalled,” recounted Mr Walters at Pipitea Marae.
“I said to Tony, ‘What’s the problem?’
“And Tony said to me, ‘Would you want to negotiate with someone who’s constantly shifting grounds, goes back on his word and is generally pretty difficult to deal with?’
“I said to Tony, ‘For heaven’s sake, no!’
“And Tony said, ‘Unfortunately, neither do the Tokelau Council of Elders!’”
Over the years, Tony’s Tokelauan eyes grew both in clarity and depth of knowledge.
One very lucky recipient from this reservoir of knowledge and wisdom is Hana Tuisano.
While friends and close associates detailed their memories of Tony at the service, Hana, in hushed tones told the writer about the difference of having Tony as mentor. That without him, she doubted she would have achieved the successes she’s had, nor a curated pathway to continue her journey neatly fenced by clarity and purpose.
“What TJ [Tony] saw in me was the potential and passion to work for my Tokelau people. And looking back now, I can see that by helping me, he was also continuing his service to the people of Tokelau who had taken him in as one of their own.”
She spoke glowingly about one incident when Tony used his Tokelau eyes to remind her of her heritage.
“At one point during my studies TJ reminded me of indigenous models and frameworks as I had become overwhelmingly, and naively, influenced by Western approaches and perspectives. This was aptly reflected in the way that TJ critiqued one of my leadership speech assignments and suggested that I start with a Tokelau alaga-kupu similar to that of a whakatauki (proverb) for Maori.
“I re-wrote my assignment and due to TJ’s insightful and knowledgeable advice I was graded an A+! It showed that TJ might have been born a palagi man, but had managed to learn and integrate himself so authentically into my indigenous world that he was able to truly see with Tokelauan eyes.”
When asked what Tokelauan proverb or saying would best describe Tony for her, she replied “Lauone hina hina o Tokelau. A fatele, composed by a school principal in Atafu, I think, in the 1960s.”
Lauone hina hina o Tokelau e, [The sands of Tokelau]
E hulugia e te mahina e fakatuha ki te penina [glimmering under the moonlight, beautiful as a pearl]
Ki lalo te moana e! [Deep in the moana]
Alaga-kupu are keys to non-Pacific islanders searching for the true meaning of the ‘Pacific reference’ – the essence of who Pacific islanders are, their soul, vision, values, ethics, philosophy and morals.
For in Polynesian oral culture knowledge on any subject, more often than not, are embodied in alaga kupu (meaning, “the road to knowledge, the road to whatever is through this word” – suggesting of the ‘right path’). It is a term used interchangeably with another term called muagagana which is significant as it speaks directly to the role of proverbs as ‘first principles’: mua meaning first; and gagana meaning language; ‘first’ also meaning ‘priority’ and by extension ‘right’. On this basis muagagana arguably is the basis for ‘right behavior’, its moral and ethical codes of conduct or standards.
Tony would have found and understood the ‘Pacific-reference’ which when added to previous experiences, he would have arrived at the true answer: “Pasifika culture is a way of living that privileges the dignity and sacredness of humans; their weaknesses and strengths; and their right to live in a manner and form within their customs, their rules, and laws that do justice to them and others as living beings, as creations and children of God”.
It transformed his life and perceptions of the world, allowing him to walk with his Pacific family not as an orphaned palagi but as one of them.
Tony Johns, a child of the Pacific, a guardian of the Ocean and lives that depend on its bounty and careful use.
A member of Tokelau’s master fisherman guild – Tautai – whose collective footprints, over time, shape the treasured sands of Tokelau deep in the moana.
ODE TO TONY JOHNS
By Kelihiano & Atene Kalolo | Translated by Loimata Iupati
Delivered by Lehi Tenise Atoni
29.12.17 | Pipitea Marae
Galogalo i tua o te Gagie
Ki te atu e fano galo ki vaha
Amutia ko manue lele oko
E moli alofa ki te loto
Heãloa te Hoãvaka
Na tautai, na tapapa
Na kalekale i gãtaifale o Tokelau
Na nofo mulivaka
Na taloa i mulivaka
Na hau ai lava
Na taloa i katea
Na hau lafalafa
Na hau i ama – Fotu
Na mauãtu õ!
Na tapiha te malae
Heãloa, kua toe tetela te kauo tolu!
Kua fakalanu i te vaihã
He mala hihi, e toe fotu te mãlama
Heãloa te tufuga!
Te mata o te malamala!
Na hako ai ia tau õ vaka
Vaka tafaga, vaka lualua
Kua fakamoe ia matãtoki
Ke fakatau e te lau o tufuga
Ka ko vaka na tã ke lelei
Na gutua, na tauala,
Na hao i vai malua
Õ nahe tanua i he kele!
Kae iênã ni kãpitilekamea!
Na he paepae fatua!
Iênã ni tifa e atufia
Auã he ilãmutu nae malu ai kita
Keina muamua te hoa,
Kua iloga õ tulagãvae i te one
O kae lago puka!
Molimoli ke oko!
Feiloaki i he ola!
Fotu mai mãlama
Alofaaga ma ia:
Atene ma Kelihiano Kalolo
Te Kau Hauatea,
Te Tupulaga o Atafu
Ma te kautautua o te Ofiha o te Taupulega
Disappearing behind the Gagie tree
Searching for the bonitos
As they disappear beyond the waves
How lucky are the flying birds
They send love from the heart
Oh my poor fishing companion
Who became a master fisherman
A tapapa in Tokelau
You had been in Tokelau waters
Occupying the esteemed tapapa stern seat
Catching bonito not only from the stern
But also from the starboard and port
Fotu! Cheers and celebrations by the people
Alas, the three strands of Tokelau are loose
But they are blessed by the holy water
The hook is snapped from the lure
Tomorrow is a new day
Alas, the Master builder
The Master of the Malamala
Carver of the Canoes
Tokelau outrigger, Palagi boat
Your adze is now at rest
And for the Lord to finish it!
Do not intern in the soil
But in the white pearly pebbles
Do not wall it with rocks and stones
But with rows of pearly shells
For he is a sister’s son
That sheltered me!
Go ahead my brother
Marks of your footprints
Are on the sands of Tokelau
Carry him forth
Take him Home
See you in the future
Come the new day
Greetings and Best wishes from:
Atene and Kelihiano Kalolo
Te Kau Hauatea,
Te Tupulaga o Atafu
Ma te kautautua o te ofiha o te Taupulega