It is with sadness that the Pacific Cultures team at Te Papa acknowledges the recent passing of Mele Saiatua Lavulo. Saiatua was born in Tatakamotonga, Mu’a in Tonga in 1916. She had many achievements in her lifetime, and became an important figure in the history of the Tongan community in New Zealand. We had the privilege of meeting Saiatua in 2006-7. Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai (former Pacific Cultures curator) interviewed her for the exhibition Tangata o le Moana: the story of Pacific people in New Zealand, which is currently on at Te Papa.
In the interview, Saiatua talks about her experiences working with the Tongan community during the infamous ‘dawn raids’ of the 1970s. The dawn raids were part of a tough stance by the New Zealand government towards people who had overstayed temporary visas. The controversial campaign targeted Pacific Islanders, while turning a blind eye to overstayers of European or other descent. It involved raids on houses (often at dawn) and work places, along with random street checks. Migrants were subjected to racial discrimination and harassed and prosecuted for overstaying. Saiatua, her husband Tevita Kautau Lavulo, and lawyer and son in law Clive Edwards helped many Tongan overstayers with residency applications during this time. They provided crucial leadership and advice to the Tongan community in a time of crisis. In this short extract from her interview Saiatua recalls an incident during the ‘dawn raids’.
“When the Congregational Church of Tonga was being built (in Ponsonby) rumors were being circulated that people who were living there were overstayers. I will tell you of one instance when we had just finished work and we headed to our church, this was in 1978. Together with a family, who had already received their permit’s, we prepared food for the people who were building the church. While my husband, Tevita Kautau Lavulo, was blessing the food in an upstairs room of the large building next door to where the church was being built, two immigration officers turned up at the door. I stood up and went outside and downstairs with the immigration officers who explained that they had been informed by people that the house was full of overstayers. They told me that they can see that there is a prayer being said and I explained that we were in the middle of blessing the food we had prepared and that they were mistaken about the house being full of overstayers,there are no overstayers living in the building. I told them that we were just having a meal and that afterwards we would all leave the church. It was common during this time for people to tell on others, but regardless of this, there were many families that were blessed and ended up remaining here.”
Acknowledgement: My thanks to Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai for her assistance with this post.