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Pacific Women's Organisations

1954 –

This essay written by Jacqueline Leckie was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1954 – 1993

An old Samoan proverb, 'E au le inailau a fafine ae le inailau a tane', [1] exemplifies the achievements of the many Pacific women's organisations in New Zealand. This entry outlines their broad features up to 1993, but is an incomplete picture of their tremendous number and diversity. They were functional, addressing religious, health, welfare, employment, craft, educational and recreational needs, and also reflected the rich array of cultures and languages from the different Island groups. Women's groups formed with a specific purpose often embraced a wider range of activities. They sometimes included men, although in practice 'the energy is women'. [2] They ranged from formally incorporated organisations to more loosely organised networks which changed their activities as particular projects arose.

The focus of Pacific women's groups changed as the demography of the growing Pacific communities in New Zealand altered. Initially, women's church fellowships and sports teams helped to fulfil social and religious needs for predominantly single female migrants. During the 1940s and 1950s, Cook Islands women migrated to New Zealand as domestic workers. By the 1950s many Pacific Islands women, including a small number of Samoan and Niuean women, worked in factories or in hospitals. Family migration became more common during this period and, from the mid 1960s, included Tokelauans. The church groups were prominent in assisting the new arrivals; but after the large-scale migration here of Pacific peoples during the late 1960s and early 1970s, other organisations, including women's groups, were set up to help new arrivals. A later wave of Tongan migration during the 1970s resulted in several new women's groups which dealt with community problems. Another wave of migrants from the South Pacific came from Fiji, in the aftermath of the 1987 military coups.

Women's organisations responded to new needs emanating from the growth of Pacific communities, and the increasing number of elderly Pacific people and people born in New Zealand but of Pacific descent. [3] By 1993 this had resulted in groups focusing on preschool Pacific Islands language education, health, violence and sexual abuse, crafts and the social needs of older women.

Women's church fellowships

The oldest and most numerous of Pacific women's organisations were the women's church fellowships. These played an important role for women from societies where the church was dominant in fulfilling a wide range of social as well as spiritual needs.

Pacific women have been described as 'the backbone of the church'. [4] Protestant Christian missionaries in the Pacific Islands encouraged the wives of church leaders to establish auxiliary associations for women, to cater to the needs of the village pastor and raise funds for the church. These leaders tended to be among the better educated women in their communities. The importance attached to the ministers' wives in organising women in the church continued among most of the Pacific groups in New Zealand. However, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose unpaid ministers also had to have regular employment, the wives of prominent church leaders were usually given less demanding church responsibilities in order to protect their family life. The responsibility for leading the women's groups thus fell on other female members. Within Roman Catholic parishes, nuns filled this organisational role.

The Pacific Islanders' Presbyterian Church (PIPC) gave rise to the oldest Pacific women's fellowship in New Zealand. Called the Pacific Islanders' Congregational Church (PICC) until 1969, the church was open to all Pacific peoples, although in practice the main groups were Samoans, Niueans, Tokelauans and Cook Islanders. The latter group, initially mostly women, comprised the majority of the first members, who from the early 1940s attended the Beresford Street Congregational Church in Auckland. A women's fellowship became possible after Tangi Teaia, wife of the Reverend Tariu Teaia, arrived. The Auckland women's fellowship began in 1954, with Mrs Challis, wife of a former missionary to the Cook Islands, as president and Mrs Edmonds as vice-president; representatives from the different island groups were on the committee. By 1947 a Wellington branch of the PICC and an Auckland Niuean group were established. The church provided a vital social link for single women immigrants: Anna Carlson, a Cook Islands domestic worker at Auckland Hospital during the late 1940s, described it as 'their organisation, their support . . . the only place where they could meet'. [5]

Other PICC women's fellowships developed as churches emerged in new areas where Pacific Islanders settled; in 1966, for example, Faalua Masina, wife of the first Pacific minister in Porirua, encouraged women's fellowships for the different language groups within the church.

Changes and divisions within church structures led to several different women's fellowships forming, some taking much of their direction from church bodies in the Pacific Islands. One example was the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (CCCS), which separated from the PICC in 1962. Another women's fellowship which was closely integrated into an international structure was the Relief Society within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 'Wards' (parishes) catering to Pacific peoples operated in New Zealand from the late 1970s. Although their Relief Societies followed the same structure, direction and courses as those in other countries, meetings could be conducted in the vernacular language, and programmes were organised to reflect the particular needs of immigrants or a Pacific ethnic group.

Other ethnically based churches in New Zealand included the Samoan Methodist Church, the Wesley Fijian Church, the Tongan Wesley Church, the Cook Islands Christian Church and the Tokelauan Christian Church. In the main centres, most of the major Christian denominations had separate churches or services for the respective Island groups. All had some form of women's fellowship, generally following the same patterns. [6] Fellowships held separate prayer meetings and choir practices for women, usually both on specified Sundays of the month and during the week. Until the mid 1950s, the small size of the Pacific population meant that combined meetings were held in English. These periodically continued within the PICC, but the different language groups eventually formed their own women's fellowships. Many Pacific Islands churches also held separate meetings for younger women. By the 1990s, a trend in some churches was for the women to lead a service in their vernacular language for the whole parish, rather than for women only. It has been suggested that this was to allow Pacific women, especially those in paid employment, more time with their families on Sundays.

A major role of most women's fellowships was fundraising for specific projects for the church. Within the CCCS, the Fa'amati or series of meetings were held during March, when the women organised projects to meet the needs of the minister. They might be asked to renovate the minister's home or to raise money towards purchasing a car for the minister; they also raised money to support the church in Samoa, and to meet the material needs of the parish, ranging from cutlery and crockery to a computer network, and the needs of the wider ethnic community. The latter involved donating money or goods for hurricane relief, or, closer to home, collecting food and clothes for the needy in their communities. Although men could also be involved in such activities, women frequently contributed most of the energy or organised their own programmes. One of the most active welfare programmes, which did not cater only for Pacific peoples, was that of the Dorcas Society of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Pacific women's fellowships also visited the sick, the intellectually handicapped, the elderly, and sometimes prisoners. One key role was providing practical, social and spiritual assistance to new immigrants, offering them advice and support in dealing with housing, educational, health and social welfare problems. Some fellowships organised visits to members' homes to make sure that certain material and hygiene standards were maintained, or to help with home decoration. From the late 1980s, many fellowships tackled health and community programmes, such as the prevention of cervical cancer and heart disease. Often the fellowships provided considerable support with life-cycle ceremonies, such as those related to birth or death, although this depended upon how tightly knit the community was, and the role of individual churches within it.

From the 1980s, an increasing number of social groups for older women were organised through the Pacific Islands churches. For example, at the PIPC in Newtown, Wellington, a small group of older, retired Cook Islands women met weekly for lunch, prayers, Bible study and craft activities. Sometimes younger, employed women and their children joined them later in the day.

Sports teams

Religious needs were not the only priority of Pacific immigrant women, who developed sports teams along with church fellowships. The oldest and the most successful were the PICC netball teams. [7] The Auckland team began in 1950 and the Wellington team in 1953, drawing mainly on Cook Islands women employed in domestic service in hospitals or hotels. Fortunately the PICC in Newtown was close to Wellington Hospital. Women in private domestic service, however, found it difficult to make time for netball practice or games. The PICC minister arranged games between teams from Auckland and Wellington. Over the years the strong Cook Islands contingent was joined by Samoan and other Pacific women.

Pacific church basketball team
Pacific Islanders' Congregational Church basketball team, Wellington 1954. Standing from left: E. Nickel, L. Kapeli, A. Leung Wai, Tala Lau Young (later Cleverley). Seated: N. Wichman, T.M. Tupuola (vice-captain), E.E. Hoeflich, A. Schmidt, Elaine Uluave (later Annandale).

By 1993 most of the Pacific communities in New Zealand had sports groups, some of which were integrated into regional or national sports federations. From its foundation in 1949, women were very active in the Cook Islands Sports Federation, both in sports teams, which later included softball, touch rugby and cricket, and in competitive cultural groups.

Specific community groups

Other Pacific women's organisations included the Fono a Tama'itai Samoa (Samoan Council of Women), the oldest women's organisation within a Pacific community in New Zealand. It was founded in 1973 by 66 women with the aim of presenting a united voice for Samoan women in New Zealand, in order to approach local bodies and government about the growing number of problems facing Samoans in the early 1970s, such as discrimination in immigration, housing and employment. The Auckland-based organisation tended to attract better educated women of high status within Samoan custom. Meetings were conducted with formality and although the group was small, it was ‘influential in maintaining an image of Samoan womanhood against which the way one acts, sits, stands, talks and moves is under constant appraisal'. [8] The broader lobbying role of the council was limited, possibly because of the prominent role PACIFICA subsequently took in representing Pacific women within New Zealand. The council raised money for hurricane relief, Samoan independence anniversary celebrations and the Pacific Islands Polynesian Education Fund Scholarship. Council members also visited and provided interpreting services for hospital patients from Samoa.

A less formal structure operated within two smaller Tongan women's groups which dealt more directly with community issues. In Auckland Lita Foliaki founded Heilala, a Tongan women's group incorporated in 1989. It focused on grass-roots education and welfare programmes, such as two Tongan preschools, homework support for Tongan students, co-working with social workers and a Tongan community radio programme. Heilala was independent of the churches, and involved mainly younger women, many of them university graduates. Its constitution stressed a democratic structure, so that decisions were made on the basis of ability, rather than on deference to age or rank. In Wellington, another small Tongan women's group, Langa Fonua – 'A Fefine Tonga, was founded in 1987. It included prominent Tongan women from the churches and aimed to represent the needs of Tongans at the official level – most of its founders held key positions within government services. It also focused on education, health, immigration, accommodation and other welfare issues, particularly with new immigrants.

In the late 1980s, Roman Catholic nuns became active in establishing Pacific women's groups independent of the Catholic Women's League. For example, in 1989 nuns in Porirua set up a Tongan women's group, Kautaha Sailoame, to provide support for Tongan women settling in New Zealand and help them to retain their culture. The group also organised craft activities and was a means through which community and health programmes were implemented.

As Pacific communities grew, so did the number of small groups catering for women from various backgrounds. Some were founded by women active in their church or in PACIFICA. The groups' activities ranged from craftwork to raising women's awareness of wider issues affecting them, such as health. Because many were formed for a specific project, these women's groups were often short-lived, unless there was an existing structure such as a church congregation, or an ongoing popular activity such as sports or weaving. In late 1991 some women from the Hutt Tongan Women's Group raised money to send a container of household appliances and linen to Tonga, in exchange for handcrafts made by a women's group there. Another type of group popular with some Pacific women, especially Samoans and Tongans, was a savings group, where members made a monthly contribution which could not usually be withdrawn until the end of the year, allowing them to accumulate money to buy household goods and gifts. Sometimes these activities could become competitive, as members inspected each other's household purchases. Some women's groups also held house and garden competitions.

Craft groups

Craft activities were important in many of the women's religious and secular groups, although the type and popularity of activity varied between Island communities. Within the Pacific Islands, crafts introduced by missionaries were adapted to local patterns and preferences. Women's groups in the Islands and in New Zealand met for sewing, needlework, knitting and crochet. Many of the items they made had a utilitarian purpose, but certain forms were more decorative and symbolic. Intricate, colourful, embroidered and appliquéd pillowcases (afi uiuga), made by groups of Niuean and Cook Islands women, were displayed and gifted in ceremonies such as hair cutting, weddings and funerals. For many years Cook Islands women's groups in New Zealand made tivaevae—elaborately pieced, appliquéd and embroidered bedspreads, incorporating natural and mythical designs such as flowers, leaves, butterflies or mermaids. As tivaevae were often made by a group for a particular project, the social organisation of production was important, with the ta'unga or design expert playing a vital role.

Niuean, Tokelauan, Tongan, Fijian and some Samoan women also formed groups for the more traditional craft of weaving. By 1970, Sister Veronica had organised a group of older Tokelauan women weavers in Porirua, and from the mid 1970s, Niuean women in Wellington ran their own weaving group. In Auckland, Matafetu Smith co-ordinated several groups of women from different villages in Niue. Niuean women also comprised a group within Aotearoa Moana Nui A Kiwa Weavers, formed in 1983. Through exchanging knowledge with Māori weavers, Niuean weavers solved some of their problems in obtaining weaving materials. Baskets, mats and hats were the most common items made by such groups, and sometimes provided income in addition to having practical and gift purposes. Tongan women's weaving groups also made elaborate belts for wearing to church.

PASCIFICA women showing traditional weaving and bags
Members of PACIFICA making tivaevae and weaving bags, September 1988. From left to right: Jasmine Underhill, He Tanginoa, Vaine Ngaro, Elaine Annandale, Erana Tiraa, and Titera Marsters.

Craft groups played an important social role, and were a means through which grandmothers and mothers transmitted their craft skills, language and songs to younger women and children. The groups also generated other activities. For example, the impetus for a Tokelauan preschool came from Fatupaepae, a group of Tokelauan women in the Hutt Valley who met weekly from 1987 for weaving and other craft activities. Another example was Mumuafi, a women's weaving group founded in 1987 for older Niuean women in Auckland. Besides their craft activities, the women organised a preschool, collected food parcels for the needy, visited the sick and elderly and, in conjunction with government agencies, offered school holiday programmes for young people. Craft groups were therefore yet another means through which community programmes were implemented.

Language nests

In 1973, after deciding that kindergartens and play centres in Tokoroa were not meeting the cultural needs of their children, a group of Samoan and Cook Islands mothers established Lemali Tamaita a Samoa, believed to be the first Pacific preschool in New Zealand. The number of Pacific language nests mushroomed from only fourteen in 1987 to 147 in 1990, catering to around 3000 children. The majority were Samoan, but by 1993 all the other Island groups had established early childhood language nests. Women volunteers provided most of the teaching and organised fundraising. [9]

While the growth of Te Kohanga Reo since the early 1980s and the subsequent state promotion of preschool language learning helped to facilitate such ventures, impetus also came from within Pacific communities. Within most Pacific churches, the minister's wife traditionally took responsibility for organising the Sunday school; this often included preschool education within the parish. Early childhood education was also encouraged by churches in Samoa from the late 1960s. Some of the key women in the language nest movement were ministers' wives who were concerned at the loss of Pacific languages among the New Zealand born. For example, Iole Tagoilelagi in Auckland and Fereni Eti in Wellington, both CCCS ministers' wives, were driving forces behind the establishment of A'oga Amata (Samoan language nests). Plans to establish an A'oga Amata in Wellington began in 1974, but it did not eventuate until July 1985, after the new Congregational Church of Samoa had been built. Like most language nests, it began as a part-time playcentre, but subsequently offered full-time childcare and preschool education, plus training in education and human development for the mothers.

Language nests could use church premises and involve church leaders, but did not need to be directly administered through the church. Some, such as Te Punanga O Te Reo Kuki Airani (Cook Islands Language Nest) in Wellington, first licensed in 1987, acquired private premises. Most language nests were not licensed, and depended upon training, support and advice from the Ministry of Education. Women from PACIFICA provided the other major impetus for establishing language nests, working closely with the Early Childhood Development Unit.

Pacific language nests were based on the principles of cultural and spiritual values, the learning and maintenance of Pacific languages, and an awareness and understanding of child development; they also aimed to provide social and personal support to women and their families. From the late 1980s, national bodies for the various Pacific language groups were established, with women occupying almost all the key positions. [10]

Health and welfare groups

By the 1980s a core of younger, predominantly New Zealand born Pacific women began to recognise the need for organisations within their own communities focusing on health and physical and sexual abuse, of which there was growing awareness. Carmel Peteru sketched the development of the national co-ordinating body, the Pacific Islands Women's Project (PIWP). While PIWP focused mainly on family violence and sexual abuse, several of its member groups were concerned with preventative health projects for Pacific women. For example, the Auckland Central Pacific Islands Women's Health Project (founded 1985) tackled heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases and cervical cancer screening; but its broader aims were to empower Pacific women through an understanding of their health and general welfare. The approach was holistic: 'For our vision to be achieved, we take into account the cultural, spiritual, physical, emotional, economical and political dynamics.' [11] From 1990, the project concentrated on working directly on family violence.

Pacific nurses' associations

From the late 1980s, government funding enabled Pacific women's health groups to pay a few key workers, but most relied predominantly on volunteers who were not medical professionals. Pacific health professionals were, however, involved in community welfare, through activities developed partly by organisations such as the Combined Pacific Islands Nurses' Group, the Manawatu Pacific Islands Nurses' Group, and ethnically based organisations for Samoan, Niuean and Cook Islands nurses. These groups were formalised in 1988, as a result of meetings set up by the Departments of Health and Education and the Ministry of Pacific Islands Affairs, in response to lobbying by Pacific nurses.

The largest group, the Samoan Nurses' Association of New Zealand, developed from meetings of Samoan-trained nurses during the mid to late 1960s. These became branches of the central nursing body in Samoa, the Western Samoan Registered Nurses' Association, the first forming in Wellington in 1970, followed by Christchurch (1975) and Auckland (1976). The branches amalgamated to form the Samoan Nurses' Association in October 1988. Its primary purpose was to lobby for the registration of Samoan nurses, trained in Samoa by New Zealand registered nurses, who had emigrated to New Zealand. But in the 1990s the association had become increasingly concerned with changes in health services, especially their effects on Pacific peoples.

Pacific nurses' associations also responded to the social and practical needs of Pacific immigrants within an occupational category. In the close relationship it developed with the New Zealand Nurses' Association and the New Zealand Nurses' Union, the Samoan Nurses' Association aimed to present the perspective of Pacific nurses and patients. Its members also worked with PACIFICA and other Pacific community groups, serving as interpreters, communicating patient rights, implementing cervical screening programmes, and representing Pacific peoples on various committees and working groups associated with the Auckland Area Health Board and Auckland School of Medicine.

The tremendous number and diversity of Pacific women's groups within New Zealand reflects not only the size of the Pacific population, but also the enthusiasm of Pacific women in forming associations for both short-term and long-term programmes. Many were organised through ethnic communities; however, PACIFICA and the Pacific women's health groups attempted to bring women from different Island communities together, not only to provide mutual support, but also to tackle issues which they considered to need addressing within their communities.

Jacqueline Leckie

1994 – 2018

Pacific women’s groups and organisations continued to grow in number, diversity and purpose. Established and emergent groups and organisations broadened their focus and reach. Both formal and informal groups had the same intention: serving Pacific women, families and communities in New Zealand and enhancing their dignity. Their efforts paved the way for Pacific women to continue to unite together to do this in a wide range of ways.

Pacific women’s church fellowships

Church groups remained an integral feature of Pacific women’s lives, with their members continuing to play a central role in providing care and support to their church families and within their wider communities. The oldest Pacific women’s fellowship, established through the Pacific Islands Presbyterian Church (PIPC), continued to thrive. By 2018, a total of 19 Pacific parishes were operating under the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, each with their own Pacific and/or island-specific women’s fellowship groups. For example, the PIPC Newton parish in Auckland offered church services for different language groups within the church, namely Samoan, Cook Island and Niuean. Each service had its own associated women’s fellowship group. [12] The Niuean Women’s group had over 200 members; apart from their monthly fellowship meetings, they also organised and facilitated a range of community services, such as home and hospital visits to the sick and elderly, as well organising church and community activities and events. [13]

In 1998, the Pacific Island Synod was established and recognised as the Pacific strand of the Presbyterian Church. It included island-specific women’s groups, uniting them across the different parishes – for example, the Niuean Association of Presbyterian Women and the Mafutaga a Tina (Samoan women’s fellowship group). The various women’s groups promoted fellowship among Pacific women across the different parishes, as well as providing parish and community services. For instance, the Niuean Association of Presbyterian Women organised the annual Niue Fono Motu conference. [14]

Women’s fellowship groups remained widespread among other denominations. For example, by 2018 the Ekalesia Faapotopotoga Kerisiano Samoa (EFKS) Porirua Church Mafutaga a Tina group, established in 1968, had been thriving for 50 years. Starting out as a small group offering support to church families, it had broadened its scope and was running a Home Economics program that included fabric painting, arts and crafts, sewing and weaving. It also ran successful fitness and faamalosi tino (exercise programs) twice a week, and promoted healthy living and lifestyle changes through interactive educational programmes. [15]

Pacific language nests

Similarly, the number and scope of Pacific language nests grew significantly from 1994 on. A growing number of language nests continued to be run through church ministries. For example, PIPC Aoga Amata in Newtown, Wellington was established in 1993. Like other language nests that emerged out of church activities, the PIPC Aoga Amata started out as a small playgroup primarily organised by women for women in the church; but over time, with increasing interest from church and community members, the PIPC church purchased a neighbouring property and established a fully licensed Early Childhood Education (ECE) facility. Another example, the Pacific Island Church Aoga Amata in Avondale, Auckland, was established in 2010. [16] Additionally, an increasing number of language nests operating as fully licensed facilities were established as incorporated societies. For example, Faavae Mautu Aoga Amata, set up in 1997, was operating on the grounds of May Road School. [17]

Irrespective of whether language nests were established through church trusts or by Pacific women and families as incorporated societies, they typically grew out of small informal playgroups for children into fully licensed ECE facilities. By 2008, there were 117 fully licensed Pacific-based ECE facilities in New Zealand, catering to 3717 children. Of these, 70 were Samoan-based, 22 Tongan, 15 Cook Island, four Niuean, four Tokelauan, one Tuvaluan and one Fijian. [18]

The majority of language nests were located in Auckland. However, from 1994 on, a growing number of language nests were established in smaller towns and cities with growing Pacific populations. For example, Malamalama Moni Aoga Amata in Palmerston North was established in 1993 as part of the Congregational Church of Samoa (EFKS). Mapusaga Aoga Amata in Christchurch, established in 1989, became fully licensed in 1997. As the statistics show, a majority continued to be Samoan-based, but by 2018 new groups were emerging out of the other island groups across the country. For example, Te Kohanga Reo o Te Tonga o Hoterini, in Thames, and Lalanga Moui Tongan Early Childhood Centre, established in 2002 in Palmerston North, were both Tongan language nests.

Health and welfare organisations

Health and welfare groups also continued to grow. For example, the Pacific Islands Women’s Refuge (PIWR), established in 1989, continued to provide culturally appropriate and responsive services and support to Pacific women and children. These included a 24 hour crisis intervention service, emergency accommodation, advocacy, support, counselling, community education programmes and pastoral care for women and children. The Pacific Islands Women’s Health Project (PIWHP) continued its work on family and sexual violence.

By 2018, the number of Island-specific nurses’ organisations had grown to include the Fijian Nurses Association of New Zealand and Tongan Nurses Association of New Zealand. Despite the first official meeting of the Tongan Nurses Association taking place in 1984, convened by well-respected Tongan community leader Dr Leopino Foliaki, this group was not officially incorporated until 2000. As with the original objectives of the Samoan Nurses Association in 1988, a key aim of the Tongan Nurses Association was to assist nurses who had trained and worked in Tonga to enter the nursing profession in New Zealand. Other objectives included promoting the nursing profession as a career for Tongans, encouraging the use of the Tongan language and culture among Tongan nurses, lobbying on behalf of Tongans and Tongan nurses on health-related policy issues, promoting culturally sensitive health care practices, and fostering the relationship with other nurses’ associations. [19]

The local Samoan Nurses Association continued to act as an advocacy group on issues that related specifically to Samoan nurses in New Zealand. The association’s focus broadened considerably over the years 1994–2018, coming to include actively participating in legislative processes, promoting the educational development of Samoan nurses, liaising with the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, New Zealand Nursing Council, and other ethnic-specific nurses’ associations, promoting primary health care issues affecting the delivery of health care services to Samoan communities, maintaining social and cultural support for Samoan nurses, and offering them collegial and professional support. [20]

In addition to ethnic-specific nurses’ associations, the Pan Pacific Nurses Association (PPNA) was incorporated in 2015 as a professional association for Pacific nurses across New Zealand and the Pacific. The PPNA emerged out of a growing number of Pacific nurses connecting through post-graduate studies, with the desire and intention of working together to improve Pacific health outcomes through an emphasis on applied knowledge, experience and relationships. The key objectives of PPNA included strengthening the collective voice of Pacific nurses in New Zealand and encouraging Pacific nurses into active leadership roles in the health sector. [21]

Arts and crafts groups

By 2018, Pacific arts and crafts groups had grown in number and popularity within Pacific and mainstream communities in New Zealand. In 2012, the arts and crafts group Fafine Niutao I Aotearoa was established in Auckland by a small group of Tuvalu women from the Niutao Island in Tuvalu. By 2018, there were over 100 women involved in the group, with a core group of elder members meeting weekly to weave and crochet. The group also hosted and ran free workshops, giving demonstrations of Tuvalu weaving practices and explaining the cultural significance of such practices, while also working with participants to develop their weaving skills. [23]

An arts-based group with a much longer history was Pacific Sisters, an art collective made up of Māori and Pacific artists, performers, jewellers, fashion designers and musicians. Founding members included Selina Forsyth, Suzanne Tamaki, Niwhai Tupaea, and later Ani O’Neill, Lisa Reihana, Feeonaa Wall, Rosanna Raymond and Jaunnie Illolahia, Favaux Valepo, Jeanine Clarkin, Henry Ah-Foo Taripo, Feeonaa Wall, Bethany Edmunds, Selina Haami, Ema Lyon, Sofia Tekela-Smith, Lisa Reihana and others. Members had diverse backgrounds in film, production, fashion, costuming, and visual and performing arts, and were also culturally diverse, with members from Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and New Zealand. 

The group formed in 1992 after a series of successful collaborations, including fashion shows and events in warehouses and nightclubs. Much of their work was new and innovative, drawing on their different backgrounds they combined contemporary expression with traditional forms of Pacific art. As a collective, Pacific Sisters celebrated Māori and Pacific women and indigenous identities. They emerged as an arts-based activist group because they actively sought to challenge negative perceptions and stereotypes associated with Pacific and Māori women and communities, by making Māori and Pacific visible in positive and empowering ways in mainstream media. In 1994 they had their first formal feature show at the Auckland Art Gallery.

From 1994, they staged a series of performances and exhibitions in New Zealand and elsewhere across the Pacific. In 2011, after a decade-long break, Pacific Sisters reunited for a showcase put together by Rosanna Raymond, Ani O’Neill and Suzanne Tamaki. In 2018, Te Papa’s Pacific Art Curator, Nina Tonga, with one of the founding members, Rosanna Raymond, put together an exhibition called Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists that acknowledged the role of Pacific Sisters in creating a space, voice and presence for Māori and Pacific people and art in New Zealand. [24]

All of these immensely varied women’s groups and organisations demonstrated the commitment of Pacific women to their cultures, their people and their communities.

Moeata Keil


[1] According to Schoeffel, 1977, p. 13, this roughly translates as 'The women will get there but the men won't,' referring to the success of contemporary women's committees in Western Samoa.

[2] Carmel Peteru, interview, February 1992.

[3] The 1991 census recorded 134,031 people of sole Pacific descent in New Zealand, including 67,923 women and girls.

[4] lole Tagoilelagi, interview, February 1992.

[5] Anna Carlson, interview, February 1992.

[6] Pacific women were also involved in existing church fellowships such as the Association of Presbyterian Women, the Methodist Women's Fellowship and the Catholic Women's League.

[7] In 1991 the PIPC Wellington team won New Zealand's premier netball contest, the Bendon competition.

[8] Neich and Park, 1988, p. 4.

[9] Government grants became available in 1990 to help pay for supervisors, transportation, and food costs.

[10] These included PIECA (Pacific Islands Early Childhood Association of Aotearoa), established in 1990; the Samoan national preschool body, A'oga Amata Aotearoa Association; SAASIA (Sosaiete A'oga Amata i Aotearoa or the National Body of Samoan Preschools), founded in 1988; the national body for Cook Islands language nests, Te Punanga Te Reo Kuki Airani O Aotearoa; and the national Tongan language nests organisation, Kaha'u 'O Tonga. Similar bodies for Niueans and Tokelauans were the Kautaha A'oga Niue and the Ofaga O Te Gagana Tokelau.

[11] Pefi Kingi (ed), Pacific Islands Women's Project, PIWP, Auckland, 1990, p. 8.

[12] New Pacific Island Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Retrieved from:

[13] Niuean Women’s Group secretary Sina Vemoa, interviewed August 2018

[14] Pacific Island Synod Report. Retrieved from:

[15] Mafutaga a Tina. Retrieved from:

[16] Henga Amosa, interviewed August 2008.

[17] Jan Taouma, interviewed September 2018.

[18] StatsNZ. Education and Pacific Peoples in New Zealand. Retrieved from:

[19] Pacific Nursing Section. Retrieved from:

[20] Pacific Nursing Section.

 [21] Pan Pacific Nurses Association. Retrieved from:

[22] Arieta Fa’apesolo, Pan Pacific Nurses Association secretary, correspondence, September, 2018

[23] Fafine Niu I Aotearoa – Tuvalu Art-making Workshop. Retrieved from:

[24] See Fisher, G., ‘Shining a light on the Pacific Sisters’ Artistic Legacy,’ Viva, 7 March 2018. Retrieved from:; Tongarewa, P.,  Pacific Sisters, Tautai: Guiding Pacific Arts [n.d.] Retrieved from:; Gordon-Smith, I. ‘From the Margins to the Mainstream: Pacific Sisters at Te Papa’, The Pantograph Punch,  18 April 2018. Retrieved from:

Unpublished sources

Interviews with Toesulu Brown, Lita Foliaki, Mollie Huka, Kill Jefferson, Odille Maeataanoa, Iole Tagoilelagi, Auckland; Felila A'fele, Susana Lemesio, Sister Heleni Petelo, Meliami Saafi, Rita Utipo, Hutt Valley; Valeti Finau, Mrs Tofilau, Jasmin Underhill, Le'utu Vaovasa, Porirua; Mangila Annandale, Anna Carlson, Fereni Ete, Reva Fergusson and other Cook Islands women, Mrs Lagi, Lumu'ava Le'aupepe-Vito, Ma Motearoa, Carmel Peter u, Meli Ranfurly, Moka Sipeli, Lilian Solofa, Tufaina Taupe, Kalisi Viliamu, Ma Motearoa, Miriama Singer, Mina Teki'i, Lani Wells, Wellington; Tasi Lemalu, Dunedin.

Nokise, Vili Fekterika, 'A History of the Pacific Islanders' Congregational Church in New Zealand, 1943–1969', MTh thesis, University of Otago, 1978

Taule'ale'ausumai, F.J., 'The Word Made Flesh', Dissertation in Pastoral Theology, University of Otago, 1990

Published sources

Broadsheet, No. 109, May 1983, p. 24

Burgess, Feauai Amosa, 'Starting With the Samoan Language: The A'oga Amata in Newtown', New Settlers and Multicultural Education Issues, Vol. 5 No. 1, 1988, pp. 24–26

Burgess, Feauai Amosa, 'Caring For the Children: The Samoan Child Care Access Training Course in Newtown', New Settlers and Multicultural Education Issues, Vol. 5 No. 2, 1988, pp. 16–18

Duncan, Betty K., 'Christianity: Pacific Islands Traditions', in Peter Donovan (ed.), Religions of New Zealanders, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1990, pp. 128–141

Falconer, Malcolm, 'Performance: Niue Tradition', NZ Listener, 12 November 1988, p. 67

Islands Business, Vol. 18 No. 3, March 1992, pp. 64–65

Neich, Sene and Julie Park, The Place of Alcohol in the Lives of Some Samoan Women in Auckland, Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland, 1988

Ongley, Patrick, 'Pacific Islands Migration and the New Zealand Labour Market', in Paul Spoonley, David Pearson and Cluny Macpherson (eds), Nga Take: Ethnic Relations and Racism in Aotearoa/ New Zealand, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1991, pp. 17-36

Pollock, Nancy, 'PACIFICA: An Organisation of Pacific Islands Mothers in New Zealand', in The Politics of Evolving Cultures in the Pacific Islands, Institute for Policy Studies, Brigham Young University, Honolulu, 1982

Rongokea, Lynnsay, Tivaevae: Portraits of Cook Islands Quilting, Daphne Brasell Associates, Wellington, 1992

Schoeffel, Penelope, 'The Origin and Development of Women's Associations in Western Samoa: 1830-1977', Journal of Pacific Studies, Vol. 3, 1977, pp. 1-22

Scott, Dick, Years of the Pooh Bah: A Cook Islands History, Cook Islands Trading Company/Hodder & Stoughton, Rarotonga/Auckland, 1991

Sheehan, Bernie, 'Fighting to Retain Their Heritage', New Zealand Woman's Weekly, 26 March 1990, pp. 46–77