James Papali’i photographed at his home in Māngere. (Photo: Cornell Tukiri ©)

James Papali’i is used to helping people who’ve taken a few wrong turns. That’s his role as a social worker in South Auckland. But there’s more to him than his training and qualifications. He’s been part of the communities where he keeps lending a determined and skilful hand. And his support goes beyond his know-how in getting men and their families on track again. For more than 30 years, he’s been a leading figure in the waka ama revival and the Polynesian pride that flows from that.


Talofa, James. I wonder if you might paint a picture for us of your whānau. You have South Auckland connections, so I understand, but also a link to a famous Auckland city dance hall.

Yeah. Mum and Dad met at the Orange Hall in Newton. Dad (Tome Papali’i) had just come from Sāmoa, and Mum (Coralie Neil), who has an Irish whakapapa, came from Taumarunui.

We started off in Ōtara and, when I was eight, we moved to Māngere, and that’s where I and my three sisters Saniva, Donna and Ruth grew up.Dad helped build the first Māngere PIPC church in Buckland Road. He was an elder there. I went to pretty much all the schools in Māngere and ended up in Māngere College.

My dad came across in the 1950s when they were looking for workers to fill the factories, and there were attractive offers to become a New Zealand citizen. So, his family in Sapapali’i, Savai’i, raised money for his airfare and sent him here. He was only 25 or 26.

Later on, he brought his two younger brothers, Pilate and Siu, over. One went to Ōtara and the other went to America from New Zealand.

He ended up building two houses back in his home village, by sending remittances back to Sāmoa. It was kind of payback to that village for helping him to get here.

Tome and Coralie Papali’i in Māngere around 1972. Coralie is now 88. (Photo: supplied)

And he married Coralie, a Pālagi wāhine from Taumarunui. Those were the days when it wasn’t all straightforward for cross-cultural couples. Have you ever asked her what she fancied about the old man?

 She fancied Dad right back when he didn’t have much English. And she pretty much taught him the language. She’s a country girl and, yes, they faced a bit of racism when they’d try to rent a house.

She’d see a place first, and then Dad would come and the landlord would say: “Oh, no. Hang on, we’ve rented it to someone else.” Or they’d go together and they wouldn’t get the place. They experienced that sort of stuff in the early years.

But predominantly it was awesome growing up with Mum and Dad. When we were young kids, Mum disciplined us and was the boss. But the roles changed as we hit the teenage years. Dad took the role and Mum was the softy. Mum’s still alive now. She’s 88. Dad passed away in 2000.

They were still together when Dad passed away. They had an awesome relationship. It was good to grow up in that mixed culture.

What were your relations like with Mum’s whānau down in the King Country? Were they taken by surprise by this big brown fulla who was now part of the family?

They were pretty good. I remember the grandparents coming up and staying with us. They accepted Dad.

We didn’t have as much of a relationship with Mum’s side than we did with Dad’s, mainly because they were in Taumarunui and we’d see them only at a wedding and special occasions like that. Dad’s side were in Ōtara.

Ōtara was something of an experiment at the time. You’d have a Pākehā family in one state house, a Māori one next door, a PI one next door to that. It was a similar situation in Māngere. What did you make of that? 

There were a lot of Pākehā back then in the ‘70s when the state houses were being built. For instance, at Māngere Intermediate, there were probably more Pākehā than Pacific and Māori. At Māngere College, the mix was Māori, Pākehā and a smaller percentage of Pacific.

There was a big white flight in the 1980s and ‘90s, but there were a lot of Pākehā in my classes. Growing up with your Pākehā mates back then was nothing new, but it wouldn’t happen much now in Māngere or Ōtara or Manurewa.

The schools are a lot different these days. It’s like, “spot the Pākehā”. But that’s starting to reverse as the house prices keep going up. We’re starting to see more Pākehā come into Māngere, which is good.

With younger sister Ruth (left) and older sister Saniva, in Māngere in 1978. (Photo: supplied)

How was school for you, James? Because I know you went a little bit wayward, and you ran with the gangster guys there for a while. When was that?

That happened during the third and fourth forms when we were quite young. We actually formed the first gang in Māngere, and we called ourselves the Māngere Dogs. There was another gang called the Hellcats. And then the Black Saints.

Those three were all youth gangs. They were all my neighbours and bros that I grew up with.

But I had a strict dad, so I was living two lives. On Sundays, I’d be going to church, running the Bible class under my dad’s influence. And then I’d be sneaking out the window and going off with the bros.

So I ended up being a second-year fifth. I wouldn’t have gone back to school if it wasn’t for my dad saying: “You go back second year. You carry on your education.” And all the rest of the boys were leaving, going to work, patching up with the gangs back in the fifth and sixth form years.

I had friends in both Black Power and the Mongrel Mob. When I was going to university, I moved from Māngere to Morningside, but I’d go back on the weekends and catch up with them.

For them, it was like: “Nah, James. Go.” They understood. I wanted to be a lawyer and they were like: “We need you as a lawyer” and that sort of stuff. They didn’t stand in my way.

And my dad kept me at my schooling. If it wasn’t for his strict discipline and his encouragement, I probably would’ve left in the fifth form. But I ended up going through seventh form, spent a year working, and then went to university and got my degree. And after that, I started my social work career, and have been doing that ever since.

I loved varsity and meeting up with people like Hoturoa Kerr, John Tamihere, Donna Awatere, Wii Huata, Fuimaono Tuiasau, John Minto, Hilda and Hone Harawira. There was this whole generation of us going through, becoming aware of the racial issues and colonisation. All those sorts of things were just so new to us.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Auckland, 1984. (Photo: supplied)

There’s a perception that guys affiliated with gangs have a totally “fuck-the-world” attitude. But it sounds as though you had a different experience — and they were very supportive of you.

Yeah, they were. I’ve had a different life experience with them. What outsiders see as mobsters, I see as bros and the people I grew up with and could trust. It’s been a brotherhood relationship. Whenever I read about them in the media, I’m going: “That’s not them.”

A lot of the guys that I grew up with vowed to be patched members until death. And I can think of a few who have passed away with their patches. Whereas a lot of others have moved on. They’ve finished with the gangs and done well in other areas.

But we’re still connected by those lived experiences that we had together. The fights and whatever. The drinks, the parties, and the trips that we went on. All those things are part of who we were, and are.

The gangs back in those years were different from those now with P and the money. Stuff we didn’t get involved in.

Gangs are, in a sense, fringe dwellers in our communities. But is there a thread here? Some speak of struggling at school and banding together because of difficulties with literacy and numeracy — and that they were looking for a whānau that they didn’t have. What’s your take on why guys join up with gangs?

That’s pretty much how I see it. It was the neighbourhood where you grew up. And these are the guys you played with when you were young, and built huts with and that sort of stuff.

And then, as we got older, other influences became involved and some of the boys said: “Let’s start a gang.” And we drew stuff on the patches, and in our case it happened to be a dog. And we thought it was fun and that’s how we started.

Then, as you get older, the gang starts getting serious with other rival gangs, and so the game changes. But you know some of the other rival gangs because you went to school with them as well. You don’t want to fight them because they probably stayed at your house the week before.

I was always in that sort of conflict, and it was probably one of the influences that made me not patch up with any of them — and look instead at social work and being neutral.

So I wasn’t with either side. It was like: “Oh, that’s James. He’s the bro.” If there was any trouble, I could mediate, even back then. And I still have relationships with the leaders of a lot of those gangs.

And you’re right, a lot of the bros, when I look at them, didn’t even go past the third form. Education didn’t suit them. It didn’t fit what they were about.

James on his Harley-Davidson leading the TPPA protest in Auckland. (Photo: Nguyen van Tuan ©)

Most people think that gangs are a front for drug dealing and that the gangsters are profiting out of misery. What’s your take on modern-day gangs?

What we’re looking at now, that’s probably accurate, but it doesn’t mean they’re all into it. It would probably be the elite of the gangs.

I was over in Aussie with Chui Fou, who passed away the year before last. He ran the Black Power chapter over there. Most of them work in the mines and they’re actually not into the drug scene.

Part of their leadership through Chui was that, if they were into P or anything like that, they had to hand their patch in, because that’s not what they were about.

When Chui passed away, all the police came to his tangi. That’s a testament to Chui and the work his group had been doing in their community. They still run food for the homeless and provide help like that, through his partner.

But they’re an exception, and I’d accept that most of those gangs would be into selling drugs. That’s their lifestyle, with the Harleys and the other attractions.

You did your degree in social work, which points to a commitment to community right from the get-go. Why social work, and what’s been the highlight for you in that area of your life?

When I was going to varsity, my first direction was looking at law, but then I changed it to social work. Back in those days, there were hardly any Māori and Pacific social workers. So, yeah, I had my sights on that.

It was partly through my dad’s example. He worked in factories most of his life, and then he ended up running a trust so he could help other Sāmoans through the court system, like with translation. He was in that social work area as well.

But also, I’ve always had a passion for communities and community work. One of my biggest achievements was setting up the first cultural festival at Mt Smart Stadium in 1995. It was a summer festival that I organised with my mate Vincent Tarowa and some of the guys I grew up with. We all came together and did that.

Then there’s been all the work you’ve put into waka ama. That’s been a vehicle for many of our people to celebrate ourselves and to find our feet, even though it’s on the water. Tell us about waka ama.

Well, that came about when I was a social worker at Māngere and I’d just met my wife-to-be, Vanessa Batistich. In 1988, we went up to Pawarenga, where she’s from. They were just starting waka ama there, and we went out for a paddle and thought: “This is awesome. We should take this back to Māngere.” And that’s pretty much what we did.

I researched it and ended up starting the Manukau Outrigger Canoeing Club. We built two waka, then found that we didn’t know how to paddle or steer them. We had to get Vanessa’s mum and stepdad, Colleen and Jimi Pirini, to come from Pawarenga to teach us how.

When you do waka ama, you get a feeling of freedom and empowerment. And I put that down to our DNA. We had generations and generations of our ancestors as paddlers, but once they came to New Zealand, most of them stopped doing it.

My experience is that when I take Pākehā out, it takes a few sessions for them to get the concept, whereas when I take out Māori and Pacific paddlers, they get it straight away. It’s like they’ve done it for years. The DNA is in us. So when we start doing it, we’re reviving things that we already know. It belongs to us.

And there’s just so many other benefits to doing waka ama, like lifestyle and health. For instance, if smokers turn to paddling, they chuck away the smokes — and they lose weight.

Our youth and our kids at school just love it, too. They have fun, and they have something to be positive about it.

James at the front of his waka during the waka ama nationals this year. (Photo: supplied)

You’ve had international success at the world champs but you’ve also been the advocate and champion of the annual portage crossing from the Tāmaki Estuary to the Manukau. Celebrating the original 800-year-old Tainui portage. What’s it meant to you to be part of retracing the steps of yesteryear?

When our kaumātua, Tehere Moana, told us about the Tainui waka coming through here — coming though the Waitematā and crossing to the west coast — we were amazed. And that led to our idea of doing it with waka ama. Not that everyone was in favour.

But we checked it out and did the measurements and realised: “We can do this.” And look at it now — it’s in its 29th year.

And I’m just so honoured to be part of the rich history of this area, and being able to do something that can help our community, especially our youth, to understand our past. Also acknowledging the Tainui waka and Hoturoa and those first people who did it.

You’re part of that history, Dale. I remember in the early days you being our MC and just rarking up the crowd, and loving it. And it just carries on, mate.

Things got a bit sticky with your trust a while back, didn’t it? You got embroiled in some cases where your name was sullied a little bit, James. What was that all about and what would you say of it now?

That was a really low point in my life. Our trust, the Whare Nui Sports Trust, got funds which were earmarked to build an outrigger and waka clubhouse. I was the co-ordinator at the time, and managing that building project. And basically I was using some of those resources to pay my wages and to buy a new canoe that the trust needed. And I cut corners to get that done.

I messed up. I shouldn’t have taken shortcuts. I should have done everything by the book. And it went to court and I was found guilty of fraud. I expected to go to prison — and the prosecutor was recommending a prison term.

But then my community rallied around me. My longtime mate Willie Jackson, who I’ve known since we were at Māngere College, and the late Papali’itele Peter Fatialofa spoke for me in court. And these two bros, along with the Māngere community who showed up on that day, convinced Judge Blake not to send me to prison. So I was sentenced to 350 hours of community service.

That was 2006. I resigned from the building trust — and I was a lecturer back then, so I had to resign from that, too. I also resigned as a Manukau City councillor.

And I was thinking about leaving and going to Aussie because of the shame, but then I decided, no, I made a mistake. Accept what was given and just rebuild and start again.

And that’s pretty much what I did. I paid the money back, and I ended up working for Ian Anderson and Blue Dove. Ian owned a retirement village in Māngere and ran the hospital that’s now called the David Lange Care Home. I worked for him for five years, and then, thanks to Willie Jackson, I got the job at MUMA (Manukau Urban Māori Authority), where I’ve been for the last 10 years as a social worker.

So that was a big fall from grace and I couldn’t look people in the eye when I walked in my community. But I’ve learned from that. And I’m back on the trust and we’re in partnership with MUMA and our waka ama club and we’re just now re-establishing that building project and hoping to get that accomplished within the next couple of years.

James and fellow team members at the world waka ama championships in Rio, Brazil, 2014. (Photo: supplied)

Thanks for your honesty with that, bro. Because we’re allowed to make mistakes in life. I respect that you stayed on in the community that you love, and continued to do good work. You work with some of the most marginalised of our community. People falter, but you help them, as they come out of prison, to find their feet. It’s very significant mahi, James. And you’re exceptionally good at it.

How do you feel about guys who’ve done their time, come out of prison, can’t look people in the eye, can’t find a place to live, can’t find a job because of the mistakes that they’ve made in the past. What do you see in these fullas?

All through my social work career, all through my growing up, my attitude has always been not to judge anybody. For me, someone coming out of prison is just a bro. To me, a guy who’s finding it hard to stop violence within their family is just someone who needs a strategy to put him on a pathway.

It’s probably just me seeing myself. We all make mistakes, as I know. And it’s from here forward that we can make changes, if we don’t want to go backwards.

It’s about being upfront with the bros — and knowing that you can draw on your lived experience. And they can see that they can’t get away with bullshit. They can see that in your body language and in your eyes.

When guys want to change, they will change. They just need support. Many of them have been in a revolving door, going in and out, in and out. And nothing’s changed because they’ve had no strategies or tools to help them change.

Sometimes all it takes it is to give them some options — or listen to their story and their experiences and get their trust and build rapport with them.

That’s where the solutions are. For me, it’s building trust and relationship with the guys that I work with, and then offering options and being supportive.

James in early 2000 with his ex-wife Vanessa and their children, from left: Poutoa, Kalina, Jessie. (Photo: supplied)

We can’t condone guys whacking their missus. And sadly, some blokes are mirroring what they’ve seen in previous generations, but we have a responsibility to not turn our backs on them. As a community, though, we can’t accept their behaviour any more. But what can we do when we’re dealing with guys who say: “We don’t know any other way.”

What we need to do is show other ways without being judgmental. Show how they’re going to benefit and how their kids and partner can, too. And provide a picture of what the whānau can be with him as the dad and partner.

First, though, there has to be a discussion about the triggers: the drugs, the alcohol, the relationships. The groundwork needs to be sorted.

The partner has to be involved as well. When I work with men, maybe in the second or third or fourth session, I’ll get the partner in, so we can kōrero with her there, and listen to her side as well.

A good many of the triggers have to do with lack of resources. Poverty. And other things that are out of a person’s control. Frustrations. Unemployment. Alcohol. P and other drugs.

These can’t be just left out of the conversation. Everything has to be brought in. The kōrero is about all these things, but then the strategy is about how to move forward from this. Putting a plan in place with maybe some budgeting and mentoring.

So it’s a big, holistic approach, rather than just: “Bro, you’ve gotta stop hitting your wife.”

There are steps they’ve got to go through and processes they have to change. It’s about having somebody they can trust and relate to, who can assist with that new journey. And them understanding that they could have relapses and they can ring you, instead of their partner ringing the cops.

So then we can say: “Okay, come back in on Monday.” We’ll go back over the plan — and start again.

It’s not a case where one approach fixes everything. Every relationship is different and every plan is different and much of it is just listening to what they say. And some of the resourcing things, we can help with — even just getting the car fixed.

It sounds like there’s gotta be consistency. You’ve got to win trust but you also have to be there and be there and be there. But sadly, if you go to an MSD office or the like, you’ve got this bloke one week, another person the next week, and different case managers.

We have a WINZ person based on the marae at MUMA. We have our foodbank and other things based there, too. But I’m a believer in being in their whare. I hardly have anyone come into my office. I go to visit them so I can see their partner and the family and everything that goes around it. You just feel that there’s a better connection and more trust.

And you’re right. When they go to these other organisations, they’re chewed up. But these men need a consistent ally, someone they can fall back on.

Is there an example you could share with us where you feel that you’ve got all the stars aligned and you can see a distinct change in attitude among dad and mum and the kids?

One family always sticks out because they’d lost the children. Three children. He was on P and they were rock bottom.

It’s taken three years, but they’ve got all the children back now, and he’s working.

I would go to Child, Youth and Family and listen to all the shit they’d say about this guy. They had no belief that they’d ever have their childen back. But look at them now. They had faith in me and I had faith in him and her. I was saying: “You know, we can get those children back. We just have to start from here.”

Getting rid of the P, putting a plan in place and then following it through. Then seeing his confidence grow, and him saying: “I’m off P and I’ve been clean for a year.” Then getting their first kid back and then continuing that growth.

He’s one of the ones I talk about because they’ve got all their children back now. And we’re seeing their whole life turn around.

James, second from left, at the wedding of his daughter Serena (centre), who’s standing next to his mother Coralie. (Photo: supplied)

You need a degree to be an official social worker, but surely as community members, we all have an obligation to be social workers in a sense. To be mindful of the difficulties that people around us are facing. What would you say of the wider collective responsibility we all share?

That’s the thing. We do have responsibilities for each other, and that’s through how we live our lives and what we give back and how we bring up our children.

I’m blessed to have my children do well in their education. My eldest daughter, Serena, is finishing her law degree at Waikato University. My second daughter, Kalina, has graduated from Māori teachers’ college, Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa, in Mt Albert. She’s teaching te reo at Ngā Tapuwae Māngere. My son Poutoa is finishing his engineering degree this year, and Jessie’s a carpenter.

And then my two eldest boys, Andrew and Mario, are good fathers bringing up my moko. But I lost my third son Kelly Lawrence when he was 18 years old. He was killed in a youth fight on July 8, 2006. He was preparing to join the army, following in the footsteps of his other dad, who had brought him up.

I’m watching my mokos grow now — and feeling that all our youth and our community are our children, and that we’re all uncles and aunties to them. And if we have that feeling as a community, we can look after each other.

We all make mistakes. We fall and falter, but we get up and support each other and move forward again. I think that’s my kaupapa, my philosophy: Stay positive, support each other, accept your mistakes, and carry on. And don’t give up.


(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2021

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.