Polynesian Panthers enlighten Tauranga students

Three original Polynesian Panthers Rev Alexander Toleafoa, Dr Melani Anae and Tigilau Ness at TGC. Photo: John Borren. Photo: John Borren.

“We need to know the truth about New Zealand history.”

These are the words of Tauranga Girls’ College Year 10 student Aaria Tuhakaraina after she and fellow students welcomed and listened to three original Polynesian Panthers talk to their school on Wednesday, May 15.

More than 50 years on the Polynesian Panthers forming in 1971 as teenagers, Tigilau Ness, Rev Alexander Toleafoa and Dr Melani Anae are now seeing what they stood for being realised in Aotearoa schools.

New curriculum

In 2023 Tauranga Girls’ College Social Science Department introduced and began teaching their students the new Aotearoa New Histories Curriculum.

TGC curriculum leader for social science and history teacher Emma Talbot says this curriculum is a significant shift for many kura/schools.

“We support and honour the teachings of Aotearoa histories and see them as an integral part of the learning for our students,” says Emma.

“We teach these from a historical and geographical perspective.”

The Polynesian Panthers emerged in the 1970s as a response to racism towards Pacific peoples.

As social activists, the Polynesian Panthers were particularly notable in their response to the ‘Dawn Raids’ – government-initiated crackdowns in Auckland against alleged overstayers from the Pacific Islands.

In Term 1 this year, TGC introduced a new unit for Year 10s – ‘The Dawn Raids’ –  after students developed interest when former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s publicly apologised to Pacific communities in 2021.

‘Part of it’ 

Seeing the Aotearoa New Histories Curriculum being taught in schools is “absolutely amazing,” says Polynesian Panther Tigilau Ness.

“In our time there was nothing like this.

"It was all monocultural English…very happy to be alive and be part of it.”

Polynesian Panther Dr Melani Anae says: “It’s taken us 50 years to see the fruits of what we stood for. What we fought for many years ago”. 

“We’re a very young population still and our generations behind us are picking up the stories,” says Polynesian Panther, Rev Alexander Toleafoa.

The trio were aged 15-16 when they led social activism against the Dawn Raids.

“I was surprised they were so young, it encourages me to stand up for our rights,” says Year 10 student Luisana Afungia.

Tauranga Girl’s College students and staff welcoming the Polynesia Panthers Rev Alexander Toleafoa, Dr Melani Anae and Tigilau Ness to the school on Wednesday, May 15. Photo: John Borren.

“We need to learn about what we can do if this happens again,” says Aaria.

“It's important to know this stuff. We live here. It’s our history,” says Year 10 student Jayda Nicholls.

Identity and empathy 

“[The curriculum] will give them a strong sense of identity and a relationship to our own stories that have been subsumed by the bigger narratives of the dominant group,” says Melani.

“They’ll just relate to it so much and hopefully it’ll teach them the importance of education, the importance of history, and the importance of having a Kiwi New Zealand identity that is diverse and covers all the ethnicities that make it up.”

Emma felt “quite emotional” to have the panthers speaking to the college’s students.

“We’re seeing the shift that we are making as a new generation who actually want to know this [history].

“They want to be informed. They want to learn empathy.

"I think that's the biggest thing for us.

"Get the story told and do it well, and as authentically as we can.

"We don’t all come from Pasifika backgrounds, but we share these stories.”

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