In a few days, Auckland hosts Pasifika! and ASB Polyfest, celebrating our Island culture. But, as Suzanne McFadden shows, things were not always so rosy.

They would strike in the dead of night at Auckland's affluent heart.

Armed with powerful spotlights and loud hailers, the Polynesian Panthers - incensed by the police's dawn raids on Pacific Island families in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn searching for overstayers - joined other anti-racism groups to give politicians a taste of their own medicine in the 1970s.

One of the original Panthers, pioneering reggae musician Tigi Ness, remembers the night they went to the home of Bill Birch, then a senior figure in Robert Muldoon's National government. National had inherited the raids from the Labour government but stepped them up in frequency and intensity.

"We were calling out on loudhailers at three o'clock in the morning: 'Bill Birch, come out with your passports now!'" Ness says.

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"We were highly incensed. They did that in South Africa to black people with the apartheid system, they did that in America to black people, they did that all over the world to coloured people. Now they were doing it to us."

The dawn raids began in 1974 when the Labour government, faced with an economic downturn, clamped down on people overstaying their working visas. Samoans and Tongans - welcomed into New Zealand with open arms in the 1950s and 60s to relieve a huge labour shortage - were the main targets.

Police with dogs burst into homes at dawn; Pacific people were randomly stopped in the street. A study a decade later showed Polynesians had made up only a third of overstayers but more than 80 per cent of all prosecutions for overstaying.

The distressing and divisive raids ended in the late 1970s but they damaged the relationship between Pacific Islanders and New Zealand, tarnishing its image of a rich, multicultural society.

But despite those dramatic days, and nights, Auckland today is the undisputed Polynesian capital of the world - with almost 195,000 people identifying themselves with a Pacific ethnicity. The city has an irrepressible Pacific identity that could not be ignored and which has been steadily embraced.

Ness - the "father of reggae" in New Zealand and also father of hiphop legend Che Fu - was born in central Auckland in 1955, not long after his parents came from Niue to the "Land of Temptations".

Entire Niuean villages left their atoll, fleeing tropical cyclones and seeking a more modern life in New Zealand. Today there are 1600 people in Niue, and almost 24,000 here.

He wasn't alone. In 1945 there were just 2200 Pacific Islanders living in New Zealand; with the post-war industrial boom, New Zealand looked to the Pacific for workers. People from the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau - as New Zealand citizens - had freedom of entry.

Samoa had strong links with New Zealand, having been under its administration since the start of World War I, when New Zealand troops seized control of the German radio transmitter tower in Apia and forced out the Germans. Looking for better opportunities for their children, Samoans began arriving in Auckland in earnest in the 1950s.

The Tongan community was slower to move, most coming in the 1970s as unskilled workers on temporary permits.

Most found homes in Parnell, Newton, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn - in derelict villas and worker's cottages where no one wanted to live. It wasn't easy settling into the city way of life but they clung to sports, music, family and their faith.

Churches became like villages for the new immigrants. In 1947, New Zealand's first Pacific Islands church was built in Newton - the Pacific Islanders' Congregational Church (PICC) was home to a blend of Samoans, Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans.

Now rebuilt, the church in Edinburgh St still serves as an important gathering-place. The church is near a corner of Karangahape Rd - another popular meeting point, especially on late-night shopping Thursdays.

When the inner suburbs were gentrified, many Polynesian families were forced to the city's outer suburbs of Mangere, Otara, Henderson, Te Atatu and Glen Innes; new Pacific communities grew.

Today, the weekend markets at Otara and Avondale have the same magnetism K Rd once had.

Tigi Ness calls himself a "Traffic Islander" - raised by a Niuean mother who spoke little English and educated in a large city in the New Zealand way. He excelled at primary school but was expelled as a sixth former from Mt Albert Grammar for refusing to get his afro-style hair cut. A year later, Ness joined the fledgling Polynesian Panthers movement.

They were based on the Black Panthers, who fought racism and oppression in the US. The Auckland-based Panthers organised rent strikes for those paying big rents for shoddy housing around Ponsonby, Newton and Parnell.

Pacific groups kept their culture alive in language nests and pre-schools.
Pacific groups kept their culture alive in language nests and pre-schools.

"Landlords were profiteering off Pacific Island people and poor white people in rat-infested houses, taps that didn't work, toilets that didn't flush," Ness said at an Auckland Museum Smart Talk panel discussion.

Dressed in black leather and berets, the Panthers saw themselves as revolutionaries.

They tried to shy away fromviolence, instead promoting Polynesian culture and human rights, wanting to make a better life for Pacific people trying to fit into their new communities.

They set up homework centres and distributed legal rights pamphlets. Ness was appointed the Polynesian Panthers' "Minister of Culture" and immediately set up a library.

There were sit-ins, demonstration marches and protests, standing side-by-side with Maori nationalist movements, like Nga Tamatoa, at Bastion Pt, Waitangi and the Springbok tour protests in 1981.

Ness was arrested and jailed for nine months for his involvement with the Patu Squad that confronted police outside Eden Park.

But he found a "less aggressive way" to reach out to Pacific people - through music with his reggae band Unity Pacific.

For today's Pacific generations, Tigi Ness says "the struggle is the same" but his advice is to embrace who they are.

"You must go back and find out your roots, and bring them back here and make it a better place," he says.

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Polyfest booming 40 years after 'one-off' event

Dancers from McAuley High School put on an impressive display at the Polyfest at Manukau Sports Bowl.
Dancers from McAuley High School put on an impressive display at the Polyfest at Manukau Sports Bowl.

In 1976 two sixth-form students at Hillary College in Otara challenged to three other Auckland schools to a performance competition - a celebration of their different cultures.

It was small but a big success - the competition, held on a makeshift stage on Hillary's sports field, was won by Mangere College. Boaz Raela, one of those organisers, thought it was just a one-off.

Yet in 10 days' time, the 40th ASB Polyfest will feature more than 60 schools in a four-day festival - with around 10,000 students performing on six stages before an audience of up to 100,000. It's become the largest Pacific Island cultural performance festival in the world - and a symbol of the growing diversity of Auckland, the largest Pacific city on the globe.

The event's original purpose was to maintain dance and other traditions among young Polynesian and Maori. This year's festival at the Manukau Sports Bowl will feature Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island, Niuean and Maori performances, as well as a diversity stage with cultural groups from Fiji, Tokelau, China, Korea and India.

"The whole idea is students coming together, enjoying one's culture and appreciating other cultures These [festivals] are the sorts of things that unite us," Cook Island-born Raela said, when he returned to the festival three decades later, tutoring Takapuna Grammar School's Maori performance group.

Next weekend is the 23rd birthday of the first Pasifika Festival - which calls itself the biggest celebration of Pacific Island culture and heritage in the world.

It began in 1992 when the South Pacific Island Nations Development Association joined forces with the Auckland City Council to put on a festival aimed at bringing the city's Pacific communities closer. Within a decade, the crowds at Western Springs Park had swelled to 50,000; last year over 80,000 people wandered between 10 authentic Pacific Island "villages" and 11 performance stages.