Fightback sat down with educator and Pacific Panther Teanau Tuiono to discuss his experiences, and lessons, as a political activist.
How has your whakapapa factored into your political work?
I had a bicultural upbringing. On the one hand I’m a first generation pacific islander in Aotearoa: my family migrated here from the islands for work and educational opportunities. I am also tangata whenua from Ngāi Takato and Ngāpuhi with connections throughout the Tai Tokerau including Ngati Hine.
Within our own communities we are the norm. We have our languages and our cultures. But I am acutely aware that I am from two minorities. So I’m quite used to comparing the differences and similarities between the two cultural groups that I come from. Moving between them is something I’ve done my whole life. People who are both Pasifika and Māori will know what I am talking about. Navigating how you interact with the majority culture is something that you must learn as a minority. My grandfather would tell me stories about when he first came to NZ, and how tricky it was because he could not speak English well.
Sometimes when you are a minority you try and find the corners and the cracks to hide. It’s the whole idea of the Other, something Edward Said talks about. Othering in colonialism is habitual between marginalised peoples and colonisers. The Other is seen as inferior and in need of “educating or saving”. Colonisation seen through that lens is benign, as opposed to being incredibly violent to indigenous peoples. This is something that Gramsci also touches on when he talked about cultural hegemony.
What have you learnt from the experience of the Polynesian Panthers, and what is new about this project? Tell us about the Pacific Panthers.
The Polynesian Panthers are an inspiration, particularly for us NZ Born Pacific Islanders. Staunch Islanders with leathers and afros – standing up for our communities. I fucken love that shit. Their political activism, running of food co-ops and homework centres, advocating for tenants and promoting Pacific languages are things to continue to aspire too. I was a kid during the Springbok tour protests of 1981 and I lived in the inner city Auckland. The polynesian panthers were active in those protests in the patu squad challenging both the racism of the apartheid regime of south africa and the racist NZ muldoon government. In those days the inner city suburbs like Grey Lynn and Ponsonby was full of immigrants and minorities it was alive and bustling with diversity. These days it has gone completely to the dogs and is full of rich white yuppies sipping on $20 lattes. The Pacific Panthers came out of a fono we had out of Palmerston North it was to learn about the past struggles and look at how we can move at Pacific peoples in our activism.
The Polynesian Panthers drew inspiration from the Black Panthers in the US. How do you think the interface works between international inspiration and local adaptation?
I can’t speak for the Polynesian Panthers and I was a child during that time period. I imagine that they saw themselves in that struggle. Poor brown kids getting kicked around by the government – much as it is here. For myself most of my activism has come from meeting the people themselves either while travelling or being with them in their homelands and learning from them directly. I guess you can learn a lot of this stuff from books but you can’t pick up every nuance, the smell and feel of a place or the hospitality of people if you go there and meet them. The interface then is when you see yourself in each other’s struggles – not the appropriation of other people’s struggles – because that’s just going to piss someone off sooner or later, but rather a genuine recognition of mutual solidarity and respect.
You are a climate change activist. What is the intersection of ecological violence and colonial violence in the Pacific?
I don’t think there is an intersection as such – it’s the same bunch of wankers really. People may remember news headlines from last year that focused attention on Ioane Teitiota, a self-identified climate change refugee. Teitiota was imprisoned in Aotearoa, where he had sought refugee status after fleeing his home on Kiribati.
As a part of the Cook Islands diaspora living in Aotearoa I am acutely aware that the borders separating the Cook Islands from Kiribati are a part of New Zealand’s colonial history in the region. Teitiota’s ability to stay or not stay in the country is dependent upon who drew the colonial borders around our Pacific nations. The government ultimately deported Teitiota back to Kiribati. The question of movement of peoples is also a question of decolonisation. Our assertion of our whakapapa (that is our connections with each other) and the need to dismantle the borders and barriers that separate us. We need to understand why those colonial lines have been drawn and at the same time erase them.
Can you tell us about your time in Cuba? What did you learn during your visit?
This was 20 years ago so the memory is a bit fuzzy. I had just finished uni. I had been staying with First Nations people just North of Albuquerque. I made my way down to Texas and walked into Mexico. I remember crossing the border over the Rio Grande which was more concrete and barbwires than river – and there was a massive mural of Che Guevara painted facing the American side with some anti-imperialist slogan. I figured I was going the right way. I made my way down to Mexico City met up with Communist comrades from Aotearoa and we flew into Havana. At that time Cuba had just come out of the special period – the Berlin wall had fallen just 7 years or so before and with the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s dependant economy collapsed with the US embargo still in place since the revolution they had to be heavily self-reliant particularly with nothing coming in and out of the country in terms of imports and exports. I had a job one day straightening nails because they had to reuse them – no hardware store up the road where you could buy straight nails. They also had all these old classic cars still running on the roads – no one makes parts for them so every time something broke you had to find someway to fix it. The people I met were proud of who they were, hardworking. I learnt about their struggle, drank rum, and smoked cigars with all the other politicos I met there. They took us up to Sierra Maestra mountains where they based the revolution in its early years – the rich history of the place is something to be appreciated. One of the most interesting conversations I remember was with a Cuban diplomat, Miguel Alfonso Martinez, he heard that I was a Māori and was interested in the Treaty of Waitangi – all the way in the Caribbean and we were talking about Waitangi. Cool. He talked about ‘the old man’ Che Guevara. His boss when he was younger was Che Guevara. It was 2 years or less after NAFTA and the Zapatista uprising. He said the British used to talk a century or so ago about the ‘Freedom of the Seas’ and that’s because they had the biggest navy, same thing with trade. Those that push ‘Free Trade’ or advocate for some freedoms over other types of freedoms do so in line with their power interests.
I bumped into him years later in Geneva at a UN meeting. At the United Nations he was a founding member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. He wrote an influential document called the “Study on treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between states and indigenous populations.”
How does capitalism impact on Pacific communities?
Well when I lived in the Islands for a short time as a child – I went there after the Springbok Tour – it was an agricultural economy – plantations that sort of thing. We’d go to school and then work in gardens after the disaster that was the 4th NZ Labour Government – the relationship with agricultural goods disappeared. Suddenly the Cook Islands had to change into a tourist industry. The impact on our communities both here and back in the Islands are dictated by the whims of the white settler states of NZ and Australia. I hate that shit.