When the subject is the Polynesian Panthers, Dr Melani Anae, a senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, doesn’t have to depend on academic research. In her teenage days in the 1970s, in Grey Lynn, she was one of them. And she and her colleagues from those times have kept holding the Panther line in fighting for a fair go for Aotearoa’s Pasifika communities, as she explains here to Dale.
Talofa, Melani. I wonder if we could start this kōrero with you telling us about your family and how you came to make your home in Auckland.
My father, Sila Afaue Liliva, came from the village of Sama’i in Falelatai. And his mother carried the Seumanutafa bloodline from Apia village. There’s also a connection with the Tamasese family from Vaimoso. That’s through my great-aunt, Alaisala, the wife of Tamasese Lealofi III, the Mau leader who was shot and killed by the New Zealand police during a peaceful demonstration in Apia in 1929.
My mum was born Lucy Kelsall. She was from the village of Si’umu and Lalovaea. Her great grandfather was Sāmoa’s first English magistrate. I carry the matai title Lupematasila, from my dad’s village in Falelatai — and also the title of Misatauveve from my mother’s village of Si’umu.
The New Zealand connection came about when my dad’s mum (Grandma Annie to us) set up home in Fiji and then migrated to Auckland in the late 1940s. Once she had established her home in Newton, she sent for my dad who was living in Sāmoa.
My mum came later. In those days, there were no direct planes from Sāmoa, and no direct boats either. And Whenuapai was the international airport. So that’s where Mum arrived with four of my older brothers and sisters when Dad called for her to come and join him in Auckland in the early 1950s. He’d secured a job at a paper-bag factory on Richmond Road in Grey Lynn.
On that migration flight to Whenuapai, when Mum had four kids in tow, it was Reverend Leuatea Sio who gave her a hand. He became one of the founding ministers of the Newton PIC Church in Grey Lynn — and that church was the first Pacific ethnic church to be established in New Zealand.
It was in Edinburgh Street, in between the Pink Pussycat and the Pleasure Chest on K Road. That was the red-light district. So back in the day, you’d see some odd scenes there, like the Sunday school girls all dressed up in white and frilly dresses, waiting for their bus outside these striptease clubs.
How was it that you ended up being called Melani, rather than having a Sāmoan name?
There used to be the little picture theatre on the corner of Ponsonby Road and Great North Road — the Avon theatre. And Mum and Dad saw a French movie there. The star of the movie was Melanie (with a French accent) and they quite liked the sound of that — although with the Sāmoan accent, it doesn’t sound quite the same. But that’s how I got my name.
You mentioned the shooting by New Zealand police, nearly 100 years ago of Tamasese Lealofi III at a peaceful pro-independence demonstration. And not just him, but eight others too. There must’ve been an aftermath of sadness and resentment, too. And perhaps some reluctance among Sāmoans ever to migrate to this country.
As he was dying, Tamasese said: “My blood has been spilt for Samoa. I am proud to give it. Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in peace. If I die, peace must be maintained at any price.”
But yes, the resentment has been long lasting, despite Helen Clark’s apology in 2002. And it’s interesting that, when the elders talked about the German colonisers and then, after World War One, the New Zealand administration, they had more respect for the German colonisers. That’s because they came from the German aristocracy, whereas the New Zealand administrators who came to Sāmoa were just military men.
They had more respect for the German set-up because of our chiefly system and the respect that went with it. So yes, the feeling of resentment has been very, very strong.
In Aotearoa we’re aware of the influential matai system. And there’s still some pride in the sophisticated, pre-European political structures within Māori societies. But they’ve been pushed aside to make way for the Westminster system. Do you think this country is missing out on all of that Polynesian heritage and experience in politics by allowing ourselves to be dictated to by the one imported western system?
Totally. And that’s the cause of some of the political strife that we’re experiencing in Sāmoa right now. In Sāmoa, we refer to the Sāmoans who are born and live overseas as transnational Sāmoans, or Sāmoans i fafo.
In some ways, Sāmoans i fafo are more Sāmoan than the Sāmoans born and living in Sāmoa. That’s because Sāmoa’s been so heavily influenced by modernisation trends and the attitudes and systems coming from the west and infiltrating the homeland.
But then you have us Sāmoans outside of Sāmoa who value and hang on to the vestiges of our Pacific culture and indigenous knowledge. People say we also romanticise and magnify. But, at the same time, even though we’re doing that, we are holding on tightly to the values.
The problem that we’re experiencing is grappling with who we are as Sāmoans, and with the forces of colonisation, Christianity, and capitalism which have us in their grip. Those of us who are i fafo know more of the west, and the European theories and social processes. We can see what’s happening in Sāmoa.
But we are the ones who are keeping Sāmoa afloat. Those of us outside have our ties to our indigenous values. But it’s not just emotional ties — it’s acting on those ties with cashflows, too. The cash that goes back to Sāmoa is not only in remittances.
When you read about Sāmoa’s economy, all you’ll hear is that we are providing the remittances. But it’s much more than that. We’re providing the tourist dollars. Who do you think the tourists are that go back to Sāmoa? It’s us. From America. From Australia. From the metropoles. So that’s another cashflow.
Then the third cashflow which is gaining prominence is the saofa’i. Those are the title bestowal ceremonies. For example, when I got my title, there were 42 of us and we had to pay thousands of Sāmoan tala each. You can see what that can add up to. And those title bestowals are happening every week.
Actually, Covid has put a stop to it, which is worrying because the cashflow is being stymied because of the border controls. But, overall, the cashflow has been helping Sāmoa to develop a happy, healthy society.
We, however, are ignored, devalued and regarded as “not Sāmoan enough” to have any say in what is happening back home. Those of us who are i fafo are ignored by the prime minister and the government who are intent on just dealing with Sāmoans in Sāmoa.
One aspect of colonisation is the colonising of the mind — and the feeling that the traditional, indigenous ways are not as worthy as what comes from the west. Do you think that Pacific Island cultures still have some way to go to rid of “the west knows best” attitude?
On the surface of things, in New Zealand, the Pacific culture is acknowledged and celebrated. For instance, you have the Pasifika festival at Western Springs, and you have the ASB festival.
But it’s only a surface recognition. Fifty years ago, Pacific Islanders were at the bottom of the heap of all demographic indices in New Zealand. Like justice and education. And today, 50 years later, even though our cultures have been accepted as part of the New Zealand way of life, we’re still at the bottom of the heap.
The colonisation of the mind is such a strong force — and our work as academics is to try and change these attitudes. Not only in the coloniser but also by helping the colonised to excavate our indigenous references and our values which have remained intact despite the onslaught of western culture.
That’s been my work since becoming a Polynesian Panther all those years ago. It’s what I call conscientising. My academic supervisor always used to say: “Melani. That’s not a word.”
But to me it’s the only word to describe the process. It’s shining a light on people’s mindsets. It’s making them aware of their attitudes, and then changing those mindsets. And we can do that here in New Zealand with racism. We can. We’ve gone farther along that road than any other country in the world, in knowing what the problem is and how to deal with it.
We still have a long way to go. But it’s exciting being here in Aotearoa. It’s a world-leading place to be at the moment.
Melani, you’re part of an incredible surge for change. When we look at the array of Pasifika academic successes, we can all see that something positive has been going on, even though we still have major challenges. What’s been the best thing to happen to PIs, do you think, in the last 50 years in New Zealand?
It’s to do with us as the first generation of New Zealand-born PIs forging a new identity in Aotearoa. The Polynesian Panthers helped Pacific people and communities to become political and to have agency in trying to survive in a new land.
It’s also to do with knowing who you are. Knowing your roots, your history, your ancestors. Knowing your gafa, your whakapapa. It’s something that’s been taken from a lot of our kids. But that’s been changing.
I’m proud of my students who’ve come through my courses at university and who have become Pacific Studies teachers out in the schools. And it’s those teachers who are transforming the minds of our kids.
For instance, they’re asking former Polynesian Panthers to come and give talks about our experiences back in the day. And the changes in those kids are phenomenal. It’s giving them an interest in learning again because they can relate to us and to our experiences.
Another element is the relationship between Pasifika and Māori — and the growing acceptance of our shared genealogy and whakapapa. Linguistic connections too. How is that relationship proceeding?
Well, there’s a long history there. When I went to school back in the 1960s, we were all thrown together. There were no Māori or Pacific clubs at school. They were Polynesian clubs. We all joined the Polynesian clubs and that’s where we learned about our situations. Māori and Pacific. There was a lot of mixing and intermarriage back then, because we all just grew up together.
But then in the ‘70s, with the Māori renaissance and the fight for tino rangitiratanga, we started operating in different spaces — and that blurred our whakapapa ties and the reality of us all being Polynesians.
Back in our Panther days, we always recognised tangata whenua as the sovereign nation of Aotearoa.
Sometimes when I got on the paepae at a marae, the speakers would call us tuakana. Or teina. And that was good because the old people know that our connections are still strong, and that, through the centuries, we all became Polynesians.
There’s some debate, isn’t there, about the terms Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia?
Yes. And that goes back to when the Pacific was “discovered”, and to the cartography, the mapmaking, by westerners. They named and labelled and separated. But when you look at Epeli Hauofa’s paper Our Sea of Islands, you realise that the sea wasn’t providing boundaries and separating us. It was actually joining us together. And it wasn’t until we were “discovered” that we were separated into those culture areas.
It’s true that we do have different cultural societies in the three areas but, as science progresses, we can see that there’s a fuzziness in those boundaries. For example, some scholars regard Fiji as more Polynesian than Melanesian because Fijians have a chiefly system like in Sāmoa and Tonga — not a “big man” political system like in other Melanesian nations. That’s how we know that there was a strong connection between Fiji, Sāmoa, and Tonga, before the colonising.
Recently, the hot topic has been racism and discrimination in academic institutions. Has that been your experience over the years?
There’s an article written by Sereana Naepi called “Why isn’t my professor Pasifika?” She goes into the eight universities and looks at the academic appointments there. And, yes, we’ve got a long way to go, despite the advances. There’s not many at professor level — I think we’ve got two Pacific professors in the whole of New Zealand.
When we go to the schools, we ask them what has changed and what hasn’t. And the fact that we’re still at the bottom of the heap in demographic indices shows that, as long as racism is around, those stats will always be there. That’s the thing that hasn’t changed.
I’m inclined to look on you still as a Polynesian Panther even though you’re an academic and a writer, because you’re still fighting for change. Just with different tools these days.
Well, funny you should say that because I’ve just written a book called The Platform: The Radical Legacy of the Polynesian Panthers, published by Bridget Williams Books. It’s being launched this month. It’s my story as a Polynesian Panther. But I also deal with the platform that’s driven me and other Panthers in whatever career we’ve gone on.
And I explain how we synthesised our seven point platform to three main points. The first one is: Peaceful activism against racism, whereas, back in the day it was “annihilate racism”.
The second point is: Celebrate Mana Pasifika. I call that Pacific empowerment. Knowing your roots and celebrating your ethnicity.
And then the third point is: Educate to liberate.
It’s the platform that drove us then and which drives us now to deal with the injustices that we’re living through. And we’re trying to help our young people to break through the boundaries that the coloniser has put around them.
The strongest form of protest is to be successful. And, in The Platform, I focus on that. For me it’s an interesting question. Was it was my radical activism in my teens which has made my academic programme a success? Or was it my Sāmoan roots and my values?
I have a feeling that it’s my being a New Zealand-born Sāmoan and the cultural values of my parents which has driven me to the successes that I’ve achieved.
The Panthers have an Educate to Liberate programme that’s been going for 10 years. People may say: “Oh, the Polynesian Panthers, they disbanded 50 years ago.” But we haven’t. We became rejuvenated in the early 2000s when I wrote the first book. And then there were documentaries made — and a reprint of the book.
So we’ve been active still with our Educate to Liberate programme. And we have spoken to thousands of students. And the ones who are benefiting from this are not only our own Pacific and Māori kids. It’s the Pālagi kids as well. They’re learning about racism and how to break down those barriers.
So there’s revolution among our young kids. And that’s changing the mindset of the new generation. And hopefully, it’ll make the country a better place for all of us — and maybe those demographic indices will change for good.
Ka pai. What else do you find time for?
I tramp. It’s good for the mind. Good for the spirit. Good for the wairua to be out there among our ancestors of this land.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Next week, we’ll run an extract from Melani’s new book, The Platform: The Radical Legacy of the Polynesian Panthers, published by BWB, and due to be launched on October 23.
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