The Polynesian Panther Party, which celebrates its 45th anniversary on June 16, was an activist group led by young, New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders who’d been raised in Auckland’s inner-city suburbs — among them, Will ‘Ilolahia, who was the Panthers’ chairman for its first five years.
He talks to Dale about the turbulent times that gave birth to the Panthers, and the path that led him there.
Will, let’s start with your story, mate. Can you tell us about your folks, your background, where you grew up?
I’m a New Zealand-born Tongan. Born here in the ’50s. My dad was the butler for the governor-general, so I was born in the middle of Tāmaki Makaurau, in central Auckland.
In the ’60s, I was part of a bunch of Tongans who were sent over to England to be schooled to become English-Tongans. Didn’t last long in England, so came back here to continue school at Mt Albert Grammar. I was a prefect. Played league and basketball. Made the New Zealand secondary schools basketball team back in 1970, but because of injuries, I didn’t play. Then I went to Auckland University. Graduated with a double major in sociology and anthropology.
I completed my BA in Ohura Prison, in Taranaki, while serving the full six months sentence for assault causing grievous bodily harm. I got into a fight with six racists at a party. I went there to pick up my wife — it was a work party and she was the only Polynesian there — and they wouldn’t let me enter. Called me “nigger”, “bunga”. It got ugly.
During that time, I was part of the Polynesian Panthers. I grew up with a lot of first generation New Zealand-born Islanders, and Māori who came up from the country.
We were involved in a little group called the Niggs, short for Niggers, which developed into the Polynesian Panthers once we realised the issues that we were facing was more than just street politics.
Did I hear that right? Your dad was a butler to the governor-general? Tell us more about your parents and where they’re from.
My dad’s name is Molimea ‘Ilolahia. He was from Masilamea in Tongatapu.
My mother’s name is Lusitania Naufahu. Her first cousin is the grandfather of Rene and Joe Naufahu, the actors. My mum is from Kolonga and Nuku’alofa in Tongatapu. And, also, we’re descendants of ‘Ulukalala, which is the royal family. We’re related to the royal family by marriage also. I’m third cousin to the present queen.
Because my mother was of noble heritage, she couldn’t marry my dad in Tonga because he was a commoner and a widower, and the marriage would have been annulled. That’s the reason I was born here.
The way it went was that my dad was making moves on my mother. He was working in the British High Commission, in Nuku’alofa, as a houseboy, when the governor-general (Cyril Newall, governor-general from 1941–46) came to Tonga on one of his regular visits. And the British High Com persuaded Newall to talk to Queen Salote, who was the reigning monarch at that time. The idea was for my dad to come over here and train as a butler and then return to the royal family at the end of that time.
But, also, the British High Com had explained to Newall that the other reason for getting my dad to come to New Zealand was so that he was able to marry my mother. So that’s how it happened.
And he continued on working as a butler for governors-general until the early ’80s.
How did your mum and dad feel about your activities with the Polynesian Panthers?
My Panther days caused a bit of a ruckus with my parents. I always remember my dad questioning me when I was involved with Bastion Point: “Why for you get involved in that, my son? You’re not a Māori.”
And when I explained the situation of Ngāti Whātua, Dad just couldn’t believe that the inherited land for Ngāti Whatua was taken off them. Because us Tongans inherit land by right. Three weeks after that talk, Dad sent up six truckloads of kai from all the Tongan churches to support the Bastion Point protesters.
In the Panther days, we had a lot of non-support from our parents because they were very appreciative that they were able to come to Aotearoa and get work. And because of the traditional Polynesian humbleness, they questioned our right to stand up and protest. And we explained to them that we had a right because we were New Zealand-born.
That’s a beautiful story. You mentioned a trip to England. Can you tell us more about that?
In the ’60s, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, the son of Queen Salote, was given a lot of scholarships and opportunities for Tongans to travel overseas to learn, and I was part of a batch of about five that got sent to England to pick up that offer. That included the king’s son who became King George V. He was more English than the English. He’s the one who had the London cab as his royal limousine. He stayed there and went right through to Sandhurst.
But, I suppose being brought up in New Zealand and the green, green grass of home, the cold weather and Coronation Street-type housing just didn’t cut it with me.
During my time in England, I had close friendships. I had a friend from Trinidad, George Washington, who was our neighbour in London. That was my first experience of racism when I noticed how this young guy from Trinidad was picked on when we went to school. I was about 10, 11 years old. Ironically, I was romanticised as the South Sea Islander while my brother from the Carribean was given the hard yakka.
When I came back to New Zealand, I went to Mt Albert Grammar and also picked up the Black Panther book, Seize The Time, the story of the Black Panther Party written by Bobby Seale, the chairman of the Black Panthers. And I started to realise that what was happening to George Washington in England was actually happening to me here in Aotearoa.
It was a time of global change. Were you conscious when you got involved with the Black Panthers about the civil rights push in the United States and how marginalised black people were globally? And what sort of impact do you think the civil rights movement of the States had on Pasifika politics and, indeed, New Zealand?
It definitely had an impact on us. That’s why we set up the Polynesian Panthers. We read about what the Black Panthers were going through and then realised that, apart from the constitutional right of carrying a gun, it was very similar.
So we actually adapted their programme for our work here in Aotearoa. And that’s how we set up the Polynesian Panthers. And it was at a time, when, globally, young people were starting to speak out.
There was also the Vietnam War and we were very involved in that area because of the fact that, out of the 36 Kiwis that were killed in Vietnam, 24 were Māori or Pacific Island. My brother was an SAS member. He was caught up in that conflict, so it brought it to my own home how some of our people were getting used to fight in a war that we felt wasn’t our war. It was part of American imperialism.
So that’s my experience that’s moulded me to be the person that I think I am today. We have the term that, once you’re a Panther, you’re always a Panther. And so, I just don’t like when I hear or see things where people are getting abused or discriminated against and that’s why I was involved at Bastion Point and also the Springboks Tour of ‘81. To the extent that, after the Springboks Tour, I was put on trial.
I was facing 24 charges of inciting a riot, 12 of assault to cause grievous bodily harm. I was facing 10 years in jail if I was found guilty. In the court, it was pointed out that I was one of the organisers of the Patu squad. And if you remember from the footage of the Patu squad, we were the ones that took on the police, the Red Squad.
In my trial, it was brought out that of the 36 members of the Red Squad, 24 were permanently injured after our battle. They couldn’t go back to work. It was lucky that none of us died. I was identified as instrumental in recruiting street gangs. It was probably the first time you had members of the Black Power, King Cobra, Mongrel Mob and all the other street gangs, united, to take on the police in the Red Squad.
If it wasn’t for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was flown over by HART (Halt All Racist Tours) appearing as a star witness, I’m not quite sure whether I’d still be alive today. I got found not guilty (along with nine other Patu defendants, including Hone Harawira).
And when I was coming out of the courthouse, the Red Squad guys there told me that they’d come after me, so I decided to self-exile myself. I went and lived in Tonga, and that’s where I started with the late George Mann, the first national rugby league team in Tonga. And later, in 1988, I was hired by the International Rugby League Board to help set up the local club competition.
It’s time for us to acknowledge those in that movement, the Polynesian Panthers. One of its major roles was to help people to get on their feet. Who are some of the names we should note, all these years later, for being part of that movement and perhaps, in their own way, contributing to social change in Aotearoa. Give us some names from yesteryear.
Our Minister of Culture and Fine Arts was Tigilau Ness, who’s a musician now and father of Che Fu. Che’s mother Miriama Rauhihi from Foxton — she was our full-time worker. Melani Anae, she’s a senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at Auckland University. Reverend Wayne Toleafoa, who became the Navy chaplain. His brother Alec Toleafoa who is also a reverend. Scribe’s dad, John Luafutu, he was a member of our prison chapter. Fuimaono Norman Tuiasau worked with the Papua New Guinea legal service and also with the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs. Zac Wallace, the actor. He was a member of our Paremoremo Prison chapter. After he came out of prison he took on the role of Te Wheke in Utu. There was quite a few of us that was there and quite a few of them have passed away.
Ngā Tamatoa surfaced at the same time. Obvious parallels?
Yes, and we actually, from our side of the street, we always looked at them like our academics. We ended up doing a lot of their street activities. Like petitioning for te reo — we helped to get our communities to sign. A lot of our members were involved in quite a few Māori issues because we thought that, to get better rights for Pacific Islanders, we needed to first get rights for tangata whenua. So, for example, the security on the (1975) Land March, were actually mostly Panthers.
There was a lot of collaboration with Ngā Tamatoa. We were a part of the He Taua attack on the engineers at Auckland University that got that particular situation solved.
Dawn Raids. How unjust were they and how did you as Pasifika men and women feel about the awful treatment meted out to your own during that uncomfortable period of New Zealand’s history?
The Dawn Raids happened in ‘76. By that time, we were already five years in existence. This year, on June 16, is our 45th anniversary. Back in ’76, a lot of our community members and our own members were picked on for being so-called overstayers.
We always emphasised the fact that, pre-European, Pacific people had travelled back and forth to Aotearoa. We share the story of Kupe and Māui in our pepeha. And so, we didn’t feel it was correct to call us overstayers. So we got challenged by our community to get something solved.
One of the reasons we called ourselves Panthers was the definition of the black panther. As a cat, it never attacks unless it’s forced to — for survival, in self-defence. But, when it does attack, it wipes out its aggressor. Absolutely and completely.
So the analogy we used in regards to the Dawn Raids was, we saw that our community was attacked by the Immigration people. The immigration issue was used by the National Party as an election tactic to get more votes, by blaming us Pacific Islanders as the overstayers.
So we had a big hui, and on the one hand, there were members who wanted to go and have a big scrap with the police. And on the other hand, those that wanted to just send in petitions and all that. But the decision that was made, suggested by one of our Panther youth leaders, Henry Nee Nee, was that we dawn-raid the ministers. So we dawn-raided the ministers. And three weeks later there were no more raids. We kept our kaupapa in regard to the Black Panther. So we wiped out our aggressor completely.
I’m pleased that you touch on the stories of Kupe and Māui. We know now that Māori and Pasifika are indisputably, genetically linked. That our stories are intertwined. Back in the day, it would be fair to say that many Māori felt that Pasifika people were on the other side — it was Us and Them. But nowadays, it’s not so much like that. What differences have you noted as we acknowledge each other perhaps more respectfully than we have in the past? And as that shared heritage is acknowledged by both Pasifika and Māori?
That was one of the reasons we called ourselves Polynesians, Dale, because at that time there was a lot of friction between Māori and Pacific. Mainly Māori believed the old “divide-and-rule” tactics used by the colonial power — that we were coming over here to take their jobs and that kind of stuff. And, unfortunately, our Pacific people believed that Māori were lazy and didn’t seize the opportunity because they had all this land and it had come to nothing.
So, our work in the Polynesian Panthers was to bridge that understanding. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit more interest in Māori. Also, when I went back to Tonga, when I was self-exiled, I spent two years studying under the cultural advisor to Queen Salote. He taught me about my whakapapa, and he took me back to 2000 BC.
And he talked about the times when Kupe travelled to Aotearoa, and the history back in the islands. We have the same story of Kupe chasing a wheke, an octopus. Our story from Tonga was that Kupe was a member of the royal ariki and he had to leave the islands because he was becoming too burdensome on the people.
That understanding that we’re all the same is probably why I spent a lot of time trying to educate my own people about Māori. That we are whānaunga. And I always used to say, in trying to explain the situation, that I felt the only difference between Māori and Pacific Islanders was Māori came over here by waka. Us Islanders waited for Pākehā to get us a jet ‘cause it was far easier.
What do you make of challenging comments made by Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, the sportsman that’s come out saying that we’re being denied our own history, that it’s been a cultural genocide that’s resulted in us — our young people — not growing up with the majesty or grandeur of our history? We’re the greatest navigators the Pacific has ever seen. We were sophisticated scientists, agriculturalists and the like. But a lot of the richness of that history has been denied us so therefore we don’t have the pride in our history that we should.
Yeah, just recently, the New Zealand government dismissed the petition done by tamariki to have the land wars explained fully in the curriculum. And again, that’s just the way the system uses divide and rule to conquer us.
And this is the same thing that’s happened with us in the Pacific. Some of us knew our history because we’ve been able to get the kōrero from our elders that’s been passed down word-for-word. But, unfortunately, a lot of the urban Pasifika people are denied that knowledge.
And you only have to go to university or pick up a book by Captain Cook who says that he was quite shocked by the way the waka or vaka were so massive and were able to travel so quickly around the Pacific. We administered an area in the Pacific that is a third of the world. So that took a lot of knowledge and expertise. We have a history that actually stands up in the world.
What are you anticipating from this coming together of the Pasifika people and Māori? What thoughts about our collective futures from you, Will?
Well, it’s even more enforced now in regard to our bloodlines. For example, I’m Tongan, and more than 60 percent of Pacific Islanders in Aotearoa are New Zealand-born. A growing number of those New Zealand-born are part-Māori. So what I can say is, at the moment, we’re more intertwined now than we were ever before. We all whakapapa back to Hawaiki.
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