Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids

The new Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum provides a mandate for teachers to explore the exercise of power and the impacts of colonisation on all aspects of society.

History associated with the dawn raids and the Polynesian Panther Party allows teachers and students to understand these big ideas and it is a history that is becoming increasingly popular. With this in mind, and with 2021 being the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Polynesian Panther Party, it seemed like a good idea to sit down with Claire Dixon from Wellington East Girls’ College. Claire is an experienced teacher who has been teaching this history for many years.

Interview: Claire Dixon

Why do you choose to teach about the Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids?

Because a lot of my students are Māori and Pasifika and most have a scant understanding of their own history. In my course I have the opportunity to raise their awareness about this history. And every year a student is connected to it – but they don’t know they’re connected to it before the course. For instance, a student might have a relative who was involved in the Panther Party or who experienced this discrimination. So there’s something cool there – it’s empowering for the students. There’s also accessible and engaging resources and imagery about this history, and these resources are growing all the time. Also, if their parents are newly arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand the kids go and can talk to them about it. This history can also be integrated with other learning areas, especially English or Art History, where you can look at Pasifika artists like Lana Lopesi as well as poetry, etc. This can result in students working to create things like static images.

Why do you choose ‘the formation of the Polynesian Panthers’ as an event rather than the dawn raids?

What I like about choosing the formation of the Polynesian Panthers as an event is that one of the causes is the idea of black power, which is incredibly relevant now in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. With black power comes the idea of self-determination.

With respect to NCEA, the definition of the event is easier with the formation of the Polynesian Panthers than it is with the dawn raids. Then you can look at the Panthers’ response to the dawn raids as one of the consequences of their formation.

One of the significant causes for the formation of the Polynesian Panthers that we look at is racism and discrimination. The other is the ideology of black power. Consequences include their fight against the dawn raids and the amazing community programmes they introduced, including involvement with Māori land protests and the Springbok Tour. Legacy is generally a more complicated idea. But the idea of a call for an apology is a relevant concept that brings it into the present – and back to them personally.

How do you introduce this history to get students interested?

The idea of black power. I tend to begin by showing them a whole series of images like the black power image and the Black Panther Party. I will get them thinking about what they see and what they think is happening. Some will say ‘gangs!’ The images then move from the Black Panthers to the Polynesian Panthers and it’s interesting to see whether they notice we’ve changed country. I also bring in the Black Lives Matter movement and we think about the themes that connect them and the idea of continuity over time and what they’re fighting for. The students can relate to that. I also tend to start with unpacking key concepts like discrimination, black power and self-determination, and use word-based/concept mapping activities like: what do these look like, how can we define them, what do they lead to, etc. We watch the Polynesian Panther documentary together and work out what the causes and consequences are together. If they’re doing their research (.1 Assessment) on the Panthers, this helps them.

How do students respond to this history?

Three of my Islamic students this year can make connections because they understand the racism. Pākehā students understand the idea of injustice and find that it’s a story worth knowing. And part of me thinks – it’s time you learnt some Pacific history. It is empowering when students make links to their relatives who were part of the movement and/or the history of Pacific migration. And it often sparks discussion about when they themselves arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand and they can share their own experiences. This ultimately opens up ideas around their identity.

Whakapapa me te Whanaungatanga

Because Claire teaches this topic with a senior History class in preparation for an NCEA assessment, her unit is structured around the historical relationship between cause and consequence. This topic would be appropriate to teach to a younger age group, as it relates to the Whakapapa me te Whanaungatanga strand in the draft Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum.

Years 7–8

Identity: Different stereotypes of a ‘New Zealand’ identity have been purposefully constructed at different times to define who is included and who is excluded

Years 9–10

Migration and mobility: Aotearoa New Zealand has a history of selective and discriminatory practices to control migration, with little negotiation with Māori as tangata whenua. Nineteenth-century immigration schemes were designed to create a British colony and consequently shifted the balance of power from Māori to settlers. Immigration policy has been used to exclude some peoples and to restrict conditions for entry and citizenship.

Dawn raid novel

Scholastic NZ

Cover of Dawn raid by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith.

For Years 7–10, beginning with images, focusing on key individuals, and reading Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith’s novel, Dawn raid (Scholastic New Zealand, 2018) as a class would be one way to attract student interest.

The Civics and Citizenship Education Teaching and Learning Guide has an exemplar on ways to teach about the dawn raids. See pages 26–30. 

Historical significance: the five Rs

Another approach to take when analysing the history of an event like the formation of the Polynesian Panther Party is to use Christine Counsell’s criteria for historical significance. Counsell employs a memory aid of five R’s that can help students determine how significant an event is. It is important not to introduce all these criteria in one go, and with younger students it might be appropriate to only choose one (perhaps Resulting in change). Before introducing one or more of Counsell’s criteria, it is best to get students thinking and sharing their own ideas about what criteria they think make something historically significant.

Polynesian Panthers mural


The Whakaako Kia Whakaora / Educate to Liberate Polynesian Panthers mural in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland).


The Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids have been remembered, particularly in the homes and communities of Pasifika people. Lately, and through the efforts of people like Melani Anae and Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith, this history is being surfaced and remembered more widely. As Josiah Tualamali’I points out, universities, churches and Pacific youth clubs helped spread the story, but the Polynesian Panthers have been the driver. ‘More of the story’s being told online and … the exhibition that the Panthers have been going around Aotearoa with and the books they’ve been writing is a huge part of that.’ The Whakaako kia Whakaora / Educate to liberate website is a case in point and it offers a visual representation of this history. The recent call from members of the Polynesian Panthers for the government to apologise for the dawn raids adds to a growing sense that this history needs to be told and reconciled.


This category of historical significance is linked with Remembered – the more something is remarked upon, the more it tends to be remembered. Melani Anae has written extensively on this history, and Pauline Smith’s engaging young adult novel packages it in a medium that is likely to expose it to a younger audience.

Remarkable can also be interpreted as how astonishing the event was. Clearly the formation of the Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids both fulfil this criterion. The Polynesian Panther members were incredibly young, they formed chapters throughout Aotearoa (and in Sydney), and they demonstrated leadership and style that brought people together from a range of Pacific nations. Not only that, most students today find it remarkable that the government issued the police with powers to enter homes at dawn or stop people in the street and ask for identification.

Resulting in change

This category can be linked to the consequences/impacts of an event. In the case of the formation of the Polynesian Panthers, there were many short-term impacts that resulted in change. Ultimately the party sought to change the reality for Polynesian people in Aotearoa – to challenge and end discrimination and to empower themselves to improve their situation. Community programmes were a part of this – and many of the programmes they introduced are now commonplace. They also had a vast network with other groups such as the Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) and Ngā Tamatoa. Members of the Polynesian Panthers were also involved in the Springbok Tour protests. A long-term consequence of the Polynesian Panthers is increased public recognition of the place of Pasifika culture in Aotearoa New Zealand. The dawn raids ‘touched the core of many Polynesian people and questioned their place in New Zealand.’ Racism still exists, and any study of historical change is also a study of historical continuity – what did not change.


This category of historical significance asks students to connect an event/history with experiences, beliefs or situations across time and space. Students can find this difficult, as it relies on broader historical knowledge. However, it is a powerful category for teachers to draw out as it encourages connections. At the time of the dawn raids, some groups compared the New Zealand police tactics to those used in Nazi Germany, as well as the apartheid policies that controlled the movements of black and coloured South Africans by requiring them to carry passbooks. As Claire Dixon comments, the creation of the Polynesian Panthers was inspired by the formation of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, in 1966. The Polynesian Panthers leaned heavily on US ideas and literature.

It would also be possible to make connections between the treatment of Polynesian people in the 1970s and that of Chinese people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the imposition of a Poll Tax and other laws that discriminated on the basis of ethnicity. This history can also be connected to the poor administration of Western Samoa by New Zealand in the early 20th century, which highlights a longer history of discrimination towards people in the Pacific by New Zealand governments.


The history of the Polynesian Panthers illustrates, among other things, what can be accomplished by a small group of young dedicated individuals. The dawn raids reveal the extent of racism and discrimination that existed in the 1970s and it exemplifies how immigration has been used as a political tool by governments. This history also demonstrates the international reach of the Black Panthers, who also influenced Ngā Tamatoa and indigenous rights groups in Australia.

Ricky Prebble, Educator–Historian

Tales of significance

A fun and engaging way of teaching historical significance to history students is through telling tales of significance.

Further information

Documentaries, podcasts, radio documentaries


Non-fiction books, chapters and theses

  • Melani Anae, The platform: the radical legacy of the Polynesian Panthers, Bridget Williams Books, 2020, https://www.bwb.co.nz/books/platform/
  • ‘All power to the people’, chapter by Melani Anae in Tangata o le moana, Te Papa Press, 2012
  • Melani Anae, with Lautofa (Ta) Iuli and Leilani Tamu (eds.), Polynesian Panthers: Pacific protest and affirmative action in Aotearoa New Zealand 1971–1981, Huia Publishers, Wellington, 2015
  • Sharon Alice Liava’a, ‘Dawn raids: when Pacific Islanders were forced to go “home”’, dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the degree of Master of Arts in History, University of Auckland, 1998
  • James Mitchell, ‘Immigration and national identity in 1970s New Zealand’, PhD thesis, University of Otago, 2003: https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10523/371/MitchellJames2003PhD.pdf?sequence=5
  • Nina Tonga, ‘The single object: the wood planks that hid Polynesian students from the police’, 2019/2020, connected to the Objectspace exhibition: https://www.objectspace.org.nz/journal/the-single-object-the-wood-planks-that-hid/

Fiction books

  • Dawn raid, by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith. The book, told through the eyes of 13-year-old Sofia, won best first book in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018.
  • Mandy Hager, Protest! shaping Aoteoroa,  to be published by OneTree House in June 2021. This book has a chapter on the dawn raids: https://www.onetree-house.com/product-page/protest-shaping-aotearoa

Drama, TV, Plays

Art, exhibitions, creative works

News articles

Dawn raids:

Dawn raids apology:

Polynesian Panthers:


  • Dawn raid (2021) received $1,727,048 from the NZFC in feature film production investment (the film is primarily focused on the music label, rather than the historical events).
  • Emory Douglas, the former Minister of Culture in the USA Black Panther Party, delivered a public lecture at the University of Canterbury on 22 September 2009: http://www.physicsroom.org.nz/events/emory-douglas-and-the-art-of-revolution
How to cite this page

'Teaching about the Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/contexts-activities/teaching-polynesian-panthers-dawn-raids, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Jun-2023

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