27 Jul 2021

Sisterhood of the Raids: teine toa who led The Polynesian Panther Party

7:49 am on 27 July 2021

Mere Meanata-Montgomery was raised to be proud of her hafakasi Tongan-Māori roots.

The Dawn Raids' erasure of Pasifika identity from New Zealand encouraged internalised hate amongst some Pacific Islanders.

Polynesian Panthers Party sisters including Dr Melani Anae (Left) and Miriama Rauhihi Ness (centre).

Polynesian Panthers Party sisters including Dr Melani Anae (Left) and Miriama Rauhihi Ness (centre). Photo: facebook

Meanata-Montgomery joined the Polynesian Panther claw as a seventh-former, later founding the Panthers' Dunedin chapter. Her cousin Will 'Ilolahia was a founding member based out of Tāmaki Makaurau and encouraged her to join the movement.

News of her recruitment was difficult to swallow for an aunty she lived with.

"She wasn't quite the sort if woman that would stand up and say 'she's Tongan and you have to do this and you have to do that'," she said.

"She wouldn't acknowledge probably, didn't at that stage acknowledge there was something that I should be doing about it."

"It was better to keep quiet and do what the rest of the people did."

Others in her circles were pleased a social justice movement of the Panthers' kind was debuting in the deep south, whilst some Pākēha believed racism was only rife in Auckland.

That was far from the truth for Pasifika across the country and even those who remotely resembled Pacific heritage - terrorised by the Dawn Raids.

Mere Meanata-Montgomery in her years as a Otago University student.

Mere Meanata-Montgomery in her years as a Otago University student. Photo: Otago University

Those who were arrested often found themselves on Meanata-Montgomery's doorstep, as she provided legal aid services.

"They didn't know my phone number. I don't even know how half of them knew where I lived," she said.

"But I guess being brown and having an afro and being in a university era - you only had to look and see where I was."

The Legal Aid handbook created for the Polynesian Panthers by David Lange.

The Legal Aid handbook created for the Polynesian Panthers by David Lange. Photo: Melani Anae

Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith's Panther history is significantly shorter than most, inducted as an honorary member in 2018 for her award-winning middle fiction book and touring exhibition about the Dawn Raids.

It was only after My New Zealand Story: Dawn Raid was published that Smith's mother revealed the family's own links to the raids.

Pauline Smith's book Dawn Raid

Pauline Smith's book Dawn Raid Photo: Supplied

"The immigration people came to our house in Invercargill. And I don't remember it," she said.

"We were obviously at the table having dinner and someone came to the back door, and someone came to the front door - so clearly blocking the exits."

"And they were there for my father's immigration papers. So they'd wanted to check he was legit for being here."

Years later, Smith says racism is still rife in her home of Southland. She said racism certainly exists at a systemic level through education and health disparities, but also through the fact Pasifika are stuck in low-paying freezing works jobs.

"Yeah we still feel it," she said.

"I mean most people who I talk to are brown, who live in Invercargill or Southland - talk about feeling some sort of racism in their lifetime and that's people of all ages."

"So it's a very real thing, still."

Behind the Panthers was a strong relationship between its men and women members. It was one of feagaiga, which in the Samoan culture relates to a covenant held between brother and sister.

"We knew the boys, the brothers would have our backs during the hard times," said Lupematasila Misatauveve Melani Anae.

"Like the protests and things like that."

"And we'd have the brother's backs in terms of keeping them, because sometimes they'd try taking the aggressive way out of things."

Lupematasila Misatauveve remembers the days of delivering the West End newspaper to fund rent payments for the Panthers' office.

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Photo: Supplied

From petitioning door to door in Ponsonby, to holding sessions with rest home residents on why Pasifika weren't the bad guy. Running concerts and homework centres - she was there.

But she kept it all a secret.

She feared her widowed father would disown her for rebelling.

"It was hard for me to do this in secret," Lupematasila Misatauveve admitted.

"But I knew that I was doing the right thing and was on the side of rights in terms of the you know, the social injustices I felt and experienced all around the hood."

The sisterhood had her back. At the time, it comprised the likes of Meanata-Montogomery, Etta Gillon and the late Miriama Rauhihi Ness.

Rauhihi Ness died in March after a battle with cancer. The Ngāti Whakatere and Ngāti Taki Hiku descendant was the first paid member and only woman minister in the Polynesian Panther party.

She was married to fellow member, Tigilau Ness.

She is credited for initiating the Panthers' alliance with Māori rights movement, Ngā Tamatoa.

The sisterhood of the raids will watch on as the New Zealand Government formally apologises for the Dawn Raids - as one chapter closes and another opens, for the next generation of Pasifika women activists to forge their own legacy.

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