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Polynesian Panthers visit Wellington


An event organised by the combined Schools of Pacific Studies, Te Kawa a Maaui, International Relations and Political Science saw a good crowd arrive at the New Kirk 303 lecture theatre around 5.30pm on Friday 14th May.

The speakers and audience were welcomed by staff of Pacific Studies, then Will Ilolahia opened the talks with a moving discourse on his background in the polynesian suburbs of Auckland in the 1970’s - Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Kingsland and Newton were in those days full of recent migrants who had come to fill the need for working-class labour in the 50’s and 60’s.

Ilolahia calls himself a ‘Tiwi’ - kiwi-born Tongan - and took us right back to 16 June ‘71, when the Polynesian Panthers were born out of a collection of university students and teenage workers who met at parties in Ponsonby, and saw a need for something to create a better future for themselves than just gangs and factory work. There were many gangs operating in those days - the Nigs, Stormtroopers, Wehrmacht, and the inimitable Mighty Mongrel Mob, all fighting to recruit the teenagers into their ‘patches’. Polynesian Panthers was a response to the gang violence, which pitted Tongan vs Samoan, Nuiean, Tokelauan, Fijian and Maaori, and the induction into crime-based lifestyle, leading to rolling incarceration of polynesian youth and men.

The Polynesian Panthers developed a lot of direct activist support that is still in existence today - one of their first great coups was to get young Auckland lawyer David Lange to assist in producing a ‘know your rights’ pamphlet, which was given away on the streets in South Auckland. The formal provision of Legal Aid to defendants in Court has grown from this initiative, also with the help of Civil Rights lawyers. This was during the period in NZ history where merely ‘walking while brown’ in the central city could attract the attention of the NZ Police, and harrassment of polynesian youth was regular and severe. Later initiatives included a monthly visitors bus run to Paremoremo Prison, to support brother’s who had been locked up under many and various charges, and youth groups set up through the colleges around South Auckland with high proportions of polynesian students.

The final official Polynesian Panthers outing was as part of the Patu Squad during the ‘81 Springbok Tour protests, during which Ilolahia was arrested for ‘doing a tongan tackle to six racists’, which resulted in a conviction and time inside Paremoremo, where he completed a BA in anthropology and sociology, then returned to Tonga after his release.
Tigilau Ness took up the story next, talking about his expulsion form Mount Albert Grammar School for continuing to wear his Affro hairstyle, and being met at the gates by Tim Shadbolt and anti-racism campaigners with megaphones, yelling “This is bullshit!”, for which Shadbolt was later charged with offensive language in a public place (recounted in his book “Bullshit and Jellybeans”). Tigi went on to become an integral part of the Polynesian Panthers crew, eventually marrying another Panther, Ama Rauhihi. His background is Nuiean, hers is Maaori, but both were part of the cohesive polynesian unit that made up the Panthers during the seventies and beyond.

He spoke specifically about the Dawn Raids of the 70’s - when government immigration policy shifted focus to ‘capture’ illegal immigrants (mainly Tongan and Samoan, whose countires were no longer NZ protectorates as were Nuie, Tokelau and Cook Islands/Rarotonga), whilst ignoring visa overstayers who’d come from the UK, South Africa or the USA. Pacific Island communities in Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Kingsland and Newton were raided by Police and immigration officers any time from 3am to 6am, demanding the residents come out and show their passports. The Panthers were instrumental in closing down this policy, by ‘dawn-raiding’ the home of an MP resident in Pakuranga - the Minister for Immigration - “Bill Birch, come out with your passport and identify yourself” - then driving off as he stood in his doorway, flooded by car headlights. There were a few others before the raids were dropped.

Another campaign which had a measure of lasting success was to establish the Tenants Aid Brigade, or TAB, which fought racist landlords providing sub-standard housing. The Tenancy Tribunal we have today is a direct result of this grassroots advocacy. They also got a council property set up as a community house for teenagers to use as a homework and study centre, at a time when many pacific island parents were mystified by the concept of study outside of school. The house provided a space with desks, and a quiet study environment for teenagers to gather in after school, resulting in a wave of PI students flowing through Auckland University.

Finally, Miriama Rauhihi-Ness spoke, giving a mihi to all present and those who had gone before amongst the activist networks, particularly mentioning Hana and Syd Jackson, and Whina Cooper as mentors who guided the young Polynesian Panthers. She spoke of her upbringing in the 1950’s, when maaoritanga and te reo were matters to be ashamed of, and teachers actively discouraged maaori pupils from exercising their culture. Her introduction to the Panthers came when she was a young fashion industry worker, during a workplace dispute over payment for designs done by the younger staff. Within a very short time, she was the Polynesian Panther’s ‘minister of culture’, and then a full-time community worker. During this time, they joined with the land Hikoi led by Whina Cooper, and offered support to Ngati Whatua during the Bastion Point occupations, leading on to the Springbok Tour protests in 1981 and forged working associations with Nga Tamatoa, the maaori radical group founded at Auckland University, as well as CARE and HART, liberal political groups opposed to apartheid and racism.

The current mission of the Polynesian Panthers is to get a documentary film made of their history, to which aim t-shirts and copies of the 35th anniversary publication were being sold. “Polynesian Panthers” edited by Melanie Anae, Lautofa Iuli and Leilani Burgoyne, was published in 2006 by Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd. Any inquiries about purchasing copies of this excellent social history may be made via


T-shirt query.

Any idea where the t-shirts are available from? Thanks for the great write up.



Sorry, Ryan, I don't have a contact for those, but perhaps you could enquire through the Pasifika Studies school at VUW -  here's their home page -


The event listed contact Robbie Shilliam (PSIR) robbie.shilliam(at) so that might be a good place to start.

Kia ora Anarkaytie, thanks

Kia ora Anarkaytie, thanks for the great write up of this amazing event. There is now a Welly representative of Polynesian Panthers with regards to buying the t-shirts to fund the film. Just drop me a line and i'll pass you onto them.


ngā mihi

Robbie Shilliam

thanks for the detailed

thanks for the detailed write-up - great for us geographically isolated to learn as well.