Nga mihi nui ki a koutou katoa, I am Tara. A mother to 3 beautiful children. They are who motivate me. They drive me to be the best that I can be, and why I attempt to ensure that all the role models that surround them are strong, powerful and kind.

Recently Disney has released a movie called ‘Moana’ and it will be released in New Zealand on Boxing Day. In this film ‘Moana’ sets sail in search of Maui, a legendary demigod, in the hope of saving her people.

For our little whānau, our cultures are embedded in the way that we uphold ourselves in the world. And because of that, the debates regarding the representation of characters in ‘Moana’ intrigued me. We need positive, strong Pacific role models for our children to look up to. Will this movie provide an opportunity for us to do that? My eldest especially soaks in his cultures until they ooze into his very soul. Being a Niuean/ Tongan boy from his dad’s side, he feels strongly connected especially to his Niuean Nan and worked hard for the first 6 years of his life to grow his beautiful frizzy hair for his Niuean hair cutting ceremony. Being Māori/ Chinese/ European as well from his mum’s side doesn’t faze this boy at all. He proudly told me this week that he wants to be one of the leaders calling in his school kapa haka rōpu this year “because I’m so powerful mum.” Yes you are son. Beyond your years.

So here I am. Watching this debate thrive online and in print, about the validity of this Disney Movie. Do we boycott or partake? Challenge or celebrate? I can see both sides of the argument and so thought, heck. Why should I decide, I asked my powerful son.

“Do you know who Māui is son?”

“Of course mum. Don’t you?”

Well I think I do. But maybe you could help me out here. Tell me about him.

“Oh he’s strong and cool looking and Māori and did some big things like fish up our island and beat the sun down.”

So, is there only one kind of Māui? Are there no others?

“Huh? Yea. The one in these books.” 

And off he went to get his favourite series from one of our favourite writers – Peter Gossage. It then dawned on me. He has no idea that there are different versions of these stories. He has only been exposed to one kind of Māui. So I told him that there are different kinds of Māui that each and every Pacific Island know of a ‘Māui’ – but that one island may see Māui as very different to another island. He didn’t believe me. Why would anyone want to see Māui as different to strong and intelligent? So, we made a decision together. We would research this character. See what we could find out and learn more.

We found books from a lot of the islands. Some of the books were short, some long. Some with a lot of pictures, others without any. The very first book we read, my son announced very loudly:

That’s not Māui!!”

“What? Yes it is.”

“No it’s not. Māui would never do that. That’s mean.” 

Well different cultures will have different stories my boy, that’s why we’re reading these – to find out.

“I don’t believe that story 

“You don’t have to. It’s up to you.”

With that he stormed out of the room, angry. Not angry at me. But at the mere thought that his role model that he had put on a pedestal, could possibly be anything different to anyone else.

That – is what it’s all about. The debate about the movie ‘Moana’ for me, is not about rights or power and control or true depictions. It’s about the impact that it may or may not have on the next generation of Māori and Pacific leaders. Who they look up to. How those role models hold themselves. What impact that has on how our future leaders will see who they should become.

My little whānau and I continued our research. We watched a play, we looked through children’s books, we read adult books and even chapter stories. We drew pictures. And we talked. Man did we talk. And, what we learnt, was that no one person, no one culture, no one grouping of people, see Māui to be the same person. Sometimes he was cheeky, sometimes mean. Sometimes the stories were scary, other times they were funny. Often they shared messages or warnings.

What I learnt myself, is that we need to help our children to learn how to identify their own role models, and more importantly the behaviours that their role models practice. We need them to understand that one person’s view or portrayal of a person or concept, could be different to our own. That is okay, and to hold true to our own beliefs as being right for you. If our children can understand that, then it won’t matter what characters come into their life as they are growing up, because their belief in themselves and in the behaviours that they know to be true and just, will hold them well into their adulthood.

We are going to watch the Disney Movie – ‘Moana’. And I have no doubt that we will enjoy it. My boys will talk about it, and I know that we will talk about it as a family. We’ll unpack a little about how the writers of the movie saw their version of Māui and maybe even their version of Pacific culture. How their Māui is different to our Māui and how they are similar as well. And maybe, through our talks, our boys will begin to understand that it is in our differences, that we are able to celebrate – just how wonderfully strong each of us are.


Tara Moala is a community development practitioner in a newly formed entity called Tautoko Rākau. She has worked alongside communities for over fifteen years and been a mother to three multi-cultural children for seven of those years. Her work focuses on strengthening and empowering community to develop and grow. Working and living in the community of Tāmaki, East Auckland keeps Tara on her toes with a regeneration programme working on a twenty year long transformation mission. Raising her children with her husband Sifa within that community brings plenty of challenges, which only strengthens her commitment to her work and to growing her children into community advocates for the future.