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date: 25 June 2024

Theater, Drama, Education, and Pasifika Youth in Aotearoa New Zealandfree

Theater, Drama, Education, and Pasifika Youth in Aotearoa New Zealandfree

  • Michelle JohanssonMichelle JohanssonAko Mātātupu: Teach First NZ


Pasifika people constitute a young, diverse, and growing portion of the population of Aotearoa New Zealand, with multiple cultural identities originating in the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu, Tahiti, and Kiribati. Pasifika people are also subject to both new and historical disparities in income, employment, education, housing, and health in comparison with other ethnic groups. Significantly, education in Aotearoa continues to fail Pasifika youth, reporting a persistent long brown tail of underachievement in standards-based assessment. Multiple government interventions have been implemented to address these increasing disparities, but these have been ineffective in achieving the widespread systemic change necessary for true equity.

Pasifika youth are regularly required to code-switch between Western colonial worldviews, systems, and structures and those of indigenous-Oceania. Theater in Aotearoa provides a powerful site in which to navigate these multiple cultural identities, advocate for societal change, and negotiate the heritage literacies associated with storytelling and the performing arts. South Auckland, in particular, is a crucible for nurturing young Pasifika creative artists interested in re-storying their world.


  • Education, Cultures, and Ethnicities
  • Educational Purposes and Ideals
  • Education and Society

Contested Terms

Kei aku nui, kei aku rahi, kua hui mai nei ki raro i te mana o te whare e tū nei, tēnā koutou katoa.

This article begins in Te Reo Māori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa New Zealand, offering thanks and greetings to the readers and acknowledging the digital space that houses this work. Although the article is titled “Theater, Drama, Education, and Pasifika Youth in Aotearoa New Zealand,” part of the work of this entry is to understand the contested nature of some, if not all, of these terms and to balance Western colonial worldviews with those of the Oceanian-indigenous people at the center of this subject matter. Aotearoa New Zealand is a bicultural nation, whose indigenous people (Māori) comprise 15% of the population of just over 5 million. This necessarily means that we are a country used to the connections and the tensions represented in the double-naming. For the purposes of this research, the term Aotearoa is henceforth used.

Aotearoa, located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, occupies the southernmost point of Oceania. Aotearoa-educated Samoan scholar Maualaivao Albert Wendt describes Oceania as

so vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature, Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope—if not to contain her—to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain.

(Wendt, 1982, p. 71)

Tongan scholar, Epeli Hau’ofa names Oceania “our sea of islands” in a rejection of the confining definitions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia as small islands in the South Seas. Instead, Hau’ofa (1994) offers a redefined universe, composed

not only [of] land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions. (p. 152)

Hau’ofa’s seminal article “Our Sea of Islands” has become the cornerstone text of the interdisciplinary field of Pacific Studies, and the understanding of Oceania therein has been adopted and adapted by Pasifika and non-Pasifika scholars alike, across disciplines.

Māori, as tangata whenua (people of the land) and the first people of Aotearoa, are variously included and excluded from definitions of Pasifika and Polynesia, and this is one of the tensions embroiled in the colonial history of this country, often creating a divide between Māori and Pasifika people. Despite this fact, Aotearoa is often seen as homogenous and multicultural because this vision of the country obscures its awkward history and privileges “the power holders without appearing to claim any privilege” (Greenwood & Wilson, 2006, p. 85). These powers and privileges have shaped Aotearoa and fundamentally determine how theater, drama, and education are experienced by Pasifika youth. Thus, this article, written from this hub for the people of Oceania—both tangata whenua and tagata o le moana (people of the sea)—acknowledges and honors the kinship of all peoples of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Often at odds with Western scholarship, indigenous ways of being determine that subject matter is inseparable from the author and that “the matter of which stories are told, who tells them, and how, has been an urgent and perennial concern in the decolonizing Pacific” (Looser, 2014, p. 13). Accordingly, it is important to establish that this article is written from the “inside out,” which “presumes neither the will to make rigid claims of ‘ethnic absolutism’ nor the blood-based arrogance of ‘cultural insiderism’” (Wilson, 1999, p. 2). The author is an Aotearoa-born Pasifika theater-maker and educator, working in the contested spaces of theater, drama, and education, where theory meets practice, in the heart of South Auckland.


The definition of Pasifika as promoted by the Ministry of Education in the Pasifika Education Plan 2009–2012 is used here. Pasifika is there defined as

a collective term used to refer to people of Pacific heritage or ancestry who have migrated or been born in Aotearoa New Zealand. Pasifika include recent migrants or first, second and subsequent generations of New Zealand born Pasifika men, women and children of single or mixed heritage.

It is important to acknowledge that the term Pasifika occupies a disputed space. It is not a term found the language of any individual Pacific Island, and the term is often used by government bodies for convenient homogenization. In 2018, the government changed its term of reference to “Pacific People,” perhaps to address these complaints; however, in current times, the term has been reclaimed by Pasifika scholars and education practitioners alike, both to acknowledge the kinship of Oceania and to harness the leverage afforded by membership in a larger collective. Additionally, as Samoan scholar Suaalii-Sauni comments, there is a “way in which the term brings alive to the senses the indigenous Polynesian languages of most of the people that make up the Pasifika group” (Suaalii-Sauni, 2017, pp. 162–163). It is arguable that this term has come to represent the unique experience of Aotearoa-born Pasifika peoples, and this is the key reason for its inclusion here.


The government of Aotearoa defines “youth” as young people between the ages of 12 and 24 (Ministry of Youth Development, 2010, p. 6); however, it is important to recognize that “‘adolescence’ is a Western category that is constructed from a specific period of physical and social maturation” (Lee, 2019, p. 2). For Pasifika peoples, “youth” is a category that is sometimes synonymous with “unmarried” and therefore may apply to people into their early 30s. At the other end of the spectrum, those under 16 or 18 years of age may still be considered children. The phenomenon of the wide age range of Pasifika youth may be witnessed at church events, where any single “youth group” might include parishioners from 12 to 30 years old. This research accepts that Pasifika youth may or may not fit into the government definition, and that, particularly in theater, this is largely self-determined.

Aotearoa as a Pacific Nation

The 2018 Census data report that there are 381,642 Pacific People in Aotearoa, which constitutes 7.4% of the total population of 5,144,494. With a median age of 23.4 years, compared to the median Pakeha age of 41.4 years, Pasifika people form a young and growing portion of the population. Currently, one child in 10 is of Pasifika heritage, but it is predicted that by 2051, this will rise to one in five (Statistics New Zealand and Ministry of Pacific Affairs, 2010, p. 8). In Auckland, often referred to as the largest Polynesian city in the world (Marsh, 2010, p. 3), one in four babies born is Pasifika.

The largest Pacific ethnic groups in Aotearoa include citizens from the three realm countries—the Cook Islands (80,532) and Niue (30,867), who are in free association with New Zealand, and Tokelau (8,676), which is a dependent territory of New Zealand. The other significant groups are Samoan (182,721), Tongan (82,389), and Fijian (19,722), as well as the Tuvaluan (4,653) and Society Islander and I-Kiribatian (3,225), whose populations are increasing (Ministry for Pacific Peoples, 2020).

The Pasifika population of Aotearoa has grown and changed over the last 75 years, from a largely immigrant population of just over 2000 in 1945, to a second, third, and fourth generation who are New Zealanders by birth (Salesa, 2017). Aotearoa-born Pasifika people compose more than 60% of the total Pasifika population, and increasing numbers of Pasifika people identify with more than one ethnic group.

Historically, Pasifika people have been migrating to Aotearoa since the mid-1940s, with a significant increase in numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawn by the promise of easy to access laboring work, migrants were lured to the “land of milk and honey,” in order to seek better lives for themselves, be able to send money back home to the islands, and build better foundations for their future children. By the 1970s, however, the labor shortage had dried up, and a shift in government in Aotearoa turned into a national blaming of Pasifika peoples for taking up jobs meant for now out-of-work Pakeha people and exhausting the government’s capacity to deliver social services to the population.

Police began to see Pacific peoples as a threat for three reasons. First was the false perception that they were taking New Zealanders’ jobs away from them. Secondly, the media took a stance of populist racism portraying Pacific peoples as a “big problem.” Thirdly, there was a misconception that they were violent, rapists, criminals of the most vicious kind.

Even though Pasifika people only made a small portion of immigrants, the terms overstayer and Islander began to be synonymous (Anae et al., 2015). Between 1974 and 1976, the rigorous policing and often violent enforcement of immigration policies spiked in a phenomenon labeled the Dawn Raids, so named for the targeted raids on Pasifika homes and families that would occur in the very early hours of the morning.

The injustice of the Dawn Raids gave rise to affirmative action groups, such as the Polynesian Panther Party (initially modeled on the Black Panthers of the United States and founded in 1971), who, 50 years later, continue to seek justice for Pasifika peoples.

[In 2021] the Polynesian Panther Party submitted a written request to the Government to apologise for the Dawn Raids. The Minister for Pacific Peoples directed the Ministry for Pacific Peoples to meet the Polynesian Panther Party as the first step of a comprehensive research process to support government decision-making. . . . The Government gave careful consideration to the request, and a Cabinet paper that proposed an apology be given to communities and individuals impacted by the Dawn Raids was considered by Cabinet and approved on 14 June 2021.

The Dawn Raids apology was delivered by the Prime Minister to representatives of the Pasifika community in an adapted ifoga process on Sunday, August 1, 2021.1 However, despite this admission by the government, Pasifika people in Aotearoa continue to live with the residual trauma of these events. Pasifika people are often made to feel as if they are taking up space that they are not entitled to. Stereotypes that position them as inferior, unintelligent, and negligent continue to have serious impacts and repercussions throughout society.

The legacy of this stereotyping since the 1970s is that Pacific peoples are still subject to racist abuse by governments, media, and the New Zealand public in general. Pacific youth are still being called “coconuts,” “black bastards” or “bloody islanders” in out streets, in our workplaces and in our schools.

The representation of Pasifika people in low-skilled, low-paid work remains disproportionate to the population. In the 1970s, Pasifika people flocked from their home countries to Aotearoa and took up jobs in factories, in the fruit fields, and in cleaning across industries; however, over 80,000 Pasifika peoples (42% of the working-age Pasifika population) continue to work in those low-skilled occupations (StatsNZ, 2018), prevented by systemic inequalities from fulfilling the dreams of their migrant ancestors.

In new sites of protest and reclamation, both the Polynesian Panthers and the Dawn Raids have become powerful and iconic subject matter in Pasifika theater, drama, and performing arts, with stories manifesting across the art forms, including an internationally successful music label called Dawn Raid Entertainment; multiple theater productions, plays, and songs with the Dawn Raids as the subject matter; and, most recently, a TV series called The Panthers (2021) whose story centers on the journey of one of the original Polynesian Panthers, Will ‘Ilolahia. In education, the new national curriculum is likely to include reference to the Dawn Raids, and the drama curriculum area will include options for an assessment based on this time in the history of Aotearoa.

Despite these movements toward a more diverse and inclusive Aotearoa, systemic inequalities continue to disproportionately impact Pasifika peoples. National statistics continue to position Pacific peoples in the lowest earning income bracket, earning 30% below the average weekly income for the nation. Pasifika people are also the most likely to suffer from chronic illness, and more than 40% of Pasifika people live in crowded housing (StatsNZ, 2018). Often missing from these conversations is recognition that social structures that are not built for large Pasifika families. The average three-bedroom home in Aotearoa is simply not built to house the multigenerational Tongan family. This often results in the young men of the family making their home in the garage (fale ka), which, in turn, results in cold winters and is a contributing factor to the ill health disproportionately suffered by Pasifika people. Homeownership aside, Pasifika people are seven times more likely to live in social housing than Pakeha (Salesa, 2017, p. 57) which results in availability issues, exacerbated by the current housing crisis. Housing availability contributes to school transience, and this has an ongoing cumulative effect on Pasifika families in the poverty cycle. Represented in all the negative statistics, this sense of being labeled “at risk” permeates all elements of society and government; however, there is no wholesale movement to address this. The risk of this failure of the system to cater to its Pacific learners is increasing as the youthful population increases.

It is now in all New Zealanders’ interest to want better for Pacific peoples. It is not a question of altruism, or of responding to the vagaries of political values and their expression. Rather, the size of the Pacific population is such that their success or failure has consequences for all New Zealanders.

(Salesa, 2017, pp. 28–29)

One of Salesa’s central arguments is that the future has already happened. This means that the young people who will enroll in our schools in 5 or 10 years’ time have already been born, and we have an education system (and wider systems) that have been built to fail them. At the time of writing this article, there are 77,730 school-age Pasifika people in Aotearoa, with a groundswell at age 13; however, if recent trends in education continue, only 34% of these Pasifika students will have the opportunity to attend university. This compares to 59% of their Pakeha counterparts. This inequity continues to have an ongoing and devastating impact on the future trajectory of Pasifika youth in Aotearoa.

Pasifika People and Education

Aotearoa prides itself on a world-class education system (Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment, 2020); however, formal achievement in standardized testing consistently places Pasifika people near the bottom of the education ladder, and Aotearoa continues to report a “long brown tail” of underachievement.

In May 2018, the Labor–New Zealand First coalition government hosted two national education summits to begin “Kōrero Mātauranga: the Education Conversation,” with the purpose of developing a 30-year strategic approach to education in New Zealand. In his opening speech, the minister of education acknowledged the “persistent inequities within our system for Māori and Pasifika.” He described an education system that “does not cater well either to those with educational disadvantages [emphasis added] or for the gifted and talented” and referred to the need for “the development of a strategy to raise achievement for Pasifika learners” (Hipkins, 2018a, “Education Today”). This identification of Pasifika as “educationally disadvantaged” surfaces the core problematic of the mismatch between the education system and Pasifika cultural capital, which, in turn, results in the otherization of Pasifika youth in schooling and beyond. Exacerbating this otherization is the systemic failure of all societal structures to recognize noncolonial understandings of success and the consequent perceived “failure” of many Pasifika youth in education (Beddoe & Keddell, 2016, p. 5; Woods & Jose, 2011, p. 41; Rimoni, 2017, p. 112; Rodriguez et al., 2015, p. 113). As aforementioned, this widespread systemic failure and dearth of culturally inclusive societal practices is not limited to education. At most data collection points, Pasifika people are playing a game of doubles and halves, where they are twice as likely to be represented in the negative statistic (ill health, unemployment, incarceration) and half as likely to be represented in the positive one (educational achievement, homeownership, income).

Dangerously, these inequalities are reflected in mental health when “only one quarter (25%) of Pacific peoples with a serious mental disorder access mental health services compared to more than half (58%) of the total New Zealand population” (Foliaki et al., 2006, p. 179), which means that “this pattern of ‘greater need’ compounded by the trend of being less likely to have this need met, is a disempowering combination that has become increasingly familiar in studies of the mental health of Pacific peoples in New Zealand” (Mila-Schaaf & Hudson, 2009, p. 10). In addition, mental health disorders among Pasifika peoples, particularly youth, are reported as high in comparison with the rest of the population, and there are rising concerns regarding Pasifika youth and suicidal behavior (Foliaki et al., 2006; McRobie & Agee, 2017; Tiatia, 2007; Tiatia-Seath et al., 2017). Sharp et al., writing on the “significance of culture, identity and language to wellbeing and educational success, including cultural pride and cultural belonging,” indicate the importance of identity and of “knowing your personal and collective identity, your history and geneology and understanding your place in Aotearoa, are considered attributes of what it is to be successful as well as being core enablers of success as a Pacific person” (Sharp et al., 2021, p. 61). There are significant correlations between success in education and in health and well-being. This is explored by example in later sections of this article.

There is ongoing concern that mainstream schools in Aotearoa remain “largely ‘Western’ cultural institutions, reflecting its British colonial history and traditions in curriculum, teacher education, classroom organisation and staffing patterns” and that in addition, “policies and practices were developed and continue to be developed within a framework of neo/colonialism and as a result continue to serve the interests of a mono-cultural elite” (Bishop et al., 2009, p. 735, as cited in Graham et al., 2010, p. 133). If the purpose of education and schooling is to reproduce society as it is and to continue to reflect the status quo, then Aotearoa does, indeed, have a world-class education system. However, there is work to be done if the true purpose of education is to be

deliberate and hopeful. It is learning we set out to make happen in the belief that people can “be more.”

informed, respectful, and wise. It is a process of inviting truth and possibility.

grounded in a desire that all may flourish and share in life. It is a cooperative and inclusive activity that looks to help people to live their lives as well as they can (Smith, 2021).

As more and more of Aotearoa’s youthful Pasifika population flood its schools, it becomes more and more urgent that the school system changes and adapts to suit their unique needs. Unless this revolution in school happens soon, another generation of Pasifika people will join their migrant ancestors in the low-skilled jobs for which current societal structures ensure they are predetermined.

Government Initiatives

Under Labor, the new Education and Training Act (2020) came into effect, including initiatives such as resuming work toward an Equity Index and continuing other workstreams that came from the 2018 Kōrero Mātauranga: Education Conversation. Significantly, the Action Plan for Pacific Education 2020–2030, a nationwide strategy, was co-designed with Pacific communities in 2018–2019. The Action Plan for Pacific Education (APPE) outlines a 10-year strategy, replacing the Pasfiika Education Plan 2013–2017, that includes key shifts and actions that incorporate partnering reciprocally with Pacific families and communities, addressing systemic racism, and developing a culturally competent teaching workforce. Drawing “on the resilience and creativity of our Pacific communities whose contribution to education and community life in Aotearoa New Zealand, along with their innovation and commitment to collective values and aspirations, are very real strengths” (Salesa, as cited in MoE, 2020, p. 4), the APPE is designed to shift teacher practice and inform school curriculum design; however, there is no push from the government away from the school structures themselves that are fundamentally colonial in design and purpose and fail to reflect Pasifika, or even Māori, ways of being in and with the world.

Another initiative implemented to address the “long brown tail” of underachievement for Pasifika youth is the MoE document Tapasā: Cultural Competencies Framework for Teachers of Pacific Learners (MoE, 2018a), which details competencies for teachers mandated by Matatū Aotearoa|Teaching Council. Tapasā acknowledges the importance of education to Pasifika families and communities and provides a framework embedded in Pasifika values, which schools and teachers must localize and adapt. The “tapasā” is represented as a compass; however, this English translation falls short of realizing the Samoan meaning of tapasā, which “extends beyond the finite and physical limitations of a compass where the tapasā serves as a guide or pathway in the malaga or journey” (MoE, 2018a, p. 5). At the center of the tapasā are Pasifika learners, families, communities, and Pacific values, identified as essential to Pacific Peoples: “respect, service, leadership, family, reciprocal relationships, inclusion, belonging, spirituality, and love” (Averill & Rimoni, 2019, pp. 551–552). The cultural competencies in the document are framed as “Ngā turu.” The “turu” is taken from the Cook Islands language, translated as “support, help or brace” (MoE, 2018b). These turu give prominence to “identities, languages and cultures,” “collaborative and respectful relationships and professional behaviours,” and “effective pedagogies for Pasifika learners” (MoE, 2018a, p. 8–9). The tapasā includes “strategies to enhance teachers’ culturally competence in relation to working with Pasifika learners, families, cultures, resources, and languages” (Averill & Rimoni, 2019, p. 552), and teachers in Aotearoa are required to hold up the three turu as they advance through their careers, demonstrating their mastery of the turu as they progress from student teacher to beginning teacher to experienced teacher and finally to education leaders. Both the APPE and Tapasā are part of the government’s strengths-based approach to addressing the needs of Pacific learners (Sharp et al., 2021, p. 60), which is a significant shift from prior strategies that were based on perceived deficits in Pacific peoples.

In late 2019, the MoE made the in-principle decision to move to an “Equity Index” to determine funding for schools. This will replace the decades-old (1989) “Tomorrows Schools” decile rating, which identifies low-income households in mesh blocks and uses this measurement to determine the level of bulk-funding individual schools receive. This already blunt tool has led to highly dangerous perceptions of schools whereby those schools serving poor communities have been deemed “bad schools” while those serving affluent neighbors are “good schools.” These perceptions have long influenced gentrification, urbanization, real estate, and real estate prices being pushed out of the affordability range of Pasifika people, which has, in turn, contributed to the housing crisis described earlier. The Equity Index (2021) is designed to more accurately allocate resources per capita. However, while the index can provide “valuable insights into the impact of disadvantage in early childhood education and schooling,” reasons for that disadvantage remain largely unaddressed. There is a danger that correlations that will be found between “poor,” “brown” and “underachieving” will become self-fulfilling prophecies, failing to consider the widespread systemic failure (and cycles) that have led to their existence in the first place.

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement for Pasifika Learners

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the national qualification for senior secondary school students in Aotearoa. Introduced in 2002, and just as the Proficiency and School Certificate before it, the NCEA was created in response to changing educational, economic, and social requirements (Adams et al., 2005). Within this standards-based assessment system, students no longer receive grades that allocate a percentage to their achievement in subjects. Instead, this assessment approach intends to break down required knowledge into smaller, more readily digested components that would give those who were traditionally disadvantaged, (such as Pasifika youth), a better chance to succeed academically (Adams et al., 2005; Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008). The NCEA was an assessment system designed with strong potential to allow Pasifika students to succeed.

In theory, NCEA has the potential to support achievement by all students in a manner culturally responsive to core values held by Pacific people and indigenous Māori. A standards-based assessment system such as NCEA can be a springboard for collective accomplishment and pride that neither overshadows individual accomplishments nor requires individuals to fail.

However, disproportionate levels of underachievement for Pasifika students in New Zealand persist. In the area of NCEA subject choice and university entrance levels, Madjar et al. (2009) report:

Continuing disparities in educational outcomes . . . particularly in relation to the UE qualification and enrolment in degree-level studies, indicate that the NCEA system is not fully achieving the desired improvements for all students. There is evidence that Māori and Pacific students (clustered in lower decile schools) tend to be enrolled in “alternative” versions of core subjects such as mathematics, and in other “applied” subjects made up mainly of unit rather than achievement standards. There is also evidence from current Starpath research that Māori and Pacific students tend to take fewer subjects and complete fewer credits from the approved list of subjects (necessary for achievement of the UE qualification) than other students. (p.11)

The NCEA has effectively abolished any national sense of curriculum (Fitzpatrick & Locke, 2008). The power of determining what students will learn and when now falls to the school and often the individual classroom teacher. Students have more power in deciding which standards they will attempt and which they can afford to omit from their course of learning. As Munro (2018) posits, “key criticisms include the fragmentation of student learning programmes as the student hunt for credits dominates courses rather than a coherent and planned programme that develops student learning skills for the present and future” (p. 16). Subjects do not have to be taught holistically and teachers and students are able to co-construct individual courses of instruction depending on the interests and abilities of the student or class. Initially, this seems empowering, but many new problems have arisen because of this system: Who will determine and ensure national “norms” for standards and subjects? Does every teacher in every school have the professional capacity to make judgments that are at the national standard? How will quality assurance occur across classes and schools around the country? Fitzpatrick and Locke (2008, p.88) describe this issue of quality assurance as problematic, “the reality is that there is simply no consistency between schools in terms of the kinds of tests students are sitting for individual standards, the conditions under which the testing occurs and the severity or leniency of the marking.” This is an ongoing concern that needs consideration when educators choose the content of what should be taught in the assessment of these standards to ensure cultural appropriateness and equity.

There have been many changes to the NCEA since its inception including the addition of “achieved with Merit” and “achieved with Excellence” endorsement across the three certificate levels and separately for individual subjects (New Zealand Qualifications Authority, n.d.). Additionally, an NCEA Change Package has emerged from the 2018 Kōrero Mātauranga: Education Conversation, with seven substantive changes to the qualifications, including the creation of fewer, larger standards in each subject; simplifying the overall structure of the NCEA; and fostering clearer pathways to future education or work. As argued earlier, however, these are changes and adjustments within the existing frames and will not, in and of themselves, render the schooling in Aotearoa fit for purpose for Pasifika youth.

Drama in Education

It has long been argued that Drama and the creative arts can function as powerful tools of agency for teachers and learners in Aotearoa, as avenues for democratic citizenship, and as connections to Freirean concepts of critical hope, or “hope founded on the critical imagination” (O’Connor & Anderson, 2015, p. 19). The discourse within theories of drama and semiotics shows that representation in drama can be a powerful way of developing identity and that the content of drama texts can be a potent way of affirming or refuting positive constructions of Pasifika identity. For an audience, drama has the potential to provide both a mirror in which they might see themselves and a window into the world beyond their own, and “as a lens through which young people view themselves, the world, and their place in the world, Drama and Drama texts can be a powerful means of affirming or undermining positive cultural identity and self-image” (Johansson, 2012, p. 69). Moreover, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall claims, “a person’s cultural identity is the foundation or groundwork on which every other aspect of their being is built. It is the cornerstone of what makes them who they are” (Rimoni, 2017, p. 113). Drama has inherent connections to the heritage literacies and oral traditions of Pasifika cultures.

In schools, drama can be an impactful vehicle for self-expression and culturally aligned success. However, the scope offered by the NCEA Drama often inhibits this potential for success, offering only a handful of plays written by Pasifika authors for study. The play scripts themselves then become problematic. Even though they are variously wise, playful, insightful, and wildly funny, because of their inclusion in programs of learning, they take on the weight of representation. This means that the very few Pasifika texts sanctioned for study in Aotearoa’s senior secondary schools necessarily serve as a forced mirror for Pasifika youth.

Nicholson (2009) argues that “theatre, when it meets education, often articulates deeply felt social aspirations as well as giving shape and form to the circumstances and difficulties faced by young people in the here-and-now” (p. 43). The issues that Pasifika students face in these Pasifika play scripts are many. They must firstly deal with the representation that is offered to them by the Pasifika playwrights—well-known and highly reputable members of the Pasifika community. These representations are complex versions of Pasifika people with an artistic purpose that is perhaps beyond the maturity of the average secondary student to understand. In Makerita Urale’s (2004) Frangipani Perfume, for example, Western representations of Pasifika women are challenged and subverted. In these plays, using the language of theater semiotics as an analytical tool, the characters become players in the sign systems of the stage, and they take on a weightier and wider significance that is larger than their role within the script. They symbolize Pasifika people as a whole and the immigration journey encompassing all the attached yearnings and dreams and desires. And yet, within the context of these scripts, these dreams are largely unrealized, and so our students are presented with and represented by these unrealized dreams and by this depressing, menial existence. They are embodied as a people riddled with problems, and there is not one exception to this rule within the plays studied. Not only are they asked to read these people—they are also then asked to become the characters with which they are presented. They are asked to embody the knowledge that confines them to these roles in their society—to be pitied and looked down on by their Pakeha counterparts. While there is no denying that an excellent teacher would be able to make magic with this content, too few of our teachers are equipped with the true cultural competence to strengthen Pasifika cultural identities through the process. Government efforts to increase this expertise through initiatives like the Creatives in Schools program are positive steps in the right direction. However, until there are more wholesale measures to increase cultural expertise in schools, instead of drama in education functioning as an emancipatory practice, it merely replicates existing societal structures and stereotypes.

Pasifika Theater in Aotearoa

Pasifika theater-makers in Aotearoa began to surface in the 1980s in the hubs of Auckland and Christchurch. Imbued with social activism and the migrant story, landmarks in this new genre were TAOtahi (Theatre Against Oppression) in 1981; Pacific Theatre Inc, established in 1987 and spearheaded by Justine Simei-Barton; and Pacific Underground, in Christchurch in 1993. Each of these companies began as a group of Pasifika youth, responding to the absence of their own stories on the stages of Aotearoa. For otherized cultural groups, such as Pasifika people, theater can serve as a rich vehicle for strengthening cultural identity.

The notion of cultural identity is of course a notorious one, affected as it is by colonial constructions, repression, remembrance and forgetting, and by a ‘bad press’ in the context of poststructuralist debates. Yet it has emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a new force against the background of migration and the experience of displacement.

In 2017, Pakeha theater academics Lisa Warrington and David O’Donnell (2017) documented significant contributors and contributions emerging between 1981 and 2016 in their book Floating Islanders: Pasifika Theatre in Aotearoa. Other significant works recording Pasifika theater are Diana Looser’s (2014) Remaking Pacific Pasts: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Theater from Oceania and the scholarship of Christopher Balme (2006), writing on Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas. However, there is still a significant paucity of both play publishing and in academic scholarship on theater, particularly by Pasifika playwrights and scholars.

Looser (2014) identifies subject matter and storylines prevalent in the early years of Pasifika theater in Aotearoa, describing “the challenges of adjusting to an alien, often sympathetic host culture; racism and stereotypes; various relationships with the homeland; conflicts between first-generation and later-generation migrants; and personal and communal identity” (p. 59). It can be argued that this subject matter continues to dominate Pasifika theater stories, with Pasifika theater-makers continuing to navigate and negotiate their identities on the stage. This creative meaning-making

has always been central to self-expression and cultural cohesion in Pasifika cultures. Community history is recorded in songs, dances and spoken poems and stories, not bound into books. Different people will take slightly different approaches to a story, modifying it for greater effect, so every story is the individual creation of its teller. (McWilliams, 2017, para. 2)

The most significant challenge and threat to Pasifika theater-makers are issues of funding. Pasifika productions regularly have large casts, conducive to nurturing a “village” way of working among cast and crew. While this Pasifika way of working fosters strong relationships in the production team and encourages large audiences, it is difficult to sustain economically. Practitioners describe the constant tension between balancing a strong cast in community theater with the need for artists to put food on the table for their equally large families. As Mullen et al. (2021) argue in their report on Creating Change through the creative arts, change in funding models is “needed to ensure all rangatahi in Aotearoa have stable, sustainable access to participatory arts and to opportunities to express themselves creatively in ways that are relevant to their lives and cultures” (p. 4).2

In 2020, a year dominated by COVID-19 and riddled with lockdowns, theater in Aotearoa survived. Of the 137 New Zealand plays listed by Playmarket, 16 of those were written, directed, and produced by Pasifika theater-makers (Amery, 2020, pp. 73–79). With the number of theater-makers, playwrights, and performers rising every year in alignment with the growing Pasifika population, it is safe to say that despite financial barriers, and stifling systemic inequalities, Pasifika theater in Aotearoa will continue to thrive against the odds, particularly in geographic areas with large Pasifika populations.

Pasifika Theater in South Auckland

South Auckland is an area that experiences significant inequality compared to the rest of Auckland city, which represents 30% of the population of Aotearoa. These disparities mean that people who live in South Auckland, home to a higher proportion of Māori and Pasifika people than the rest of the city, have, on average, much lower incomes and are affected far more by ill health, educational inequality, criminality, and poor housing (StatsNZ, 2018). Despite these hardships, theater in South Auckland is strong, and South Auckland is home to many Pasifika creative collectives and individuals working across the creative arts. These artists or collectives include established artists such as the Kila Kokonut Krew, Victor Rodgers, Tusiata Avia, Vela Manusaute, Pacific Sisters, and Pacific Underground. However, there is also a range of new and emerging artists making their mark in the theater including Ura Tabu, Sau e Siva, Odd Family, MMOS (Maggie Misa & OJ Solomona), and Brave. In addition, the performance poetry scene in South Auckland is strong, with Grace Taylor, Marina Alefosio, and the South Auckland Poet’s Collective at the vanguard of this movement.

Increasingly, individual artists are working across companies to create work, and the village of theater in South Auckland is growing, vibrantly and quickly, in response to the energies of the Pasifika youth who are at the heart of the stories. These cross-cultural artists are a testament to Te Punga Somerville’s observations in Once Were Pacific that make connections across the Oceanic imaginary, arguing that Māori and Pasifika people are stronger through the encounter:

We all belong to the Pacific, as brothers, sisters, and cousins, and it is significant that we are able to travel freely across the reef, physically and through the imaginations of our artists, and get to know one another again.

(cited in Somerville, 2012, p. 28)

The following three case studies emerge from the fertile creative grounds of South Auckland. Essentially community theater projects, the three projects resonate with values that might be termed as inherently Pasifika. The theater-makers involved consistently testify to the unity that is created in a theater village—“it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a show to raise a village” (Black Friars, 2015, personal correspondence). Each set of theater-makers recognizes the responsibility of creating self-sustaining ecosystems in which young artists are nurtured, each is committed to storytelling as a vital component of Pasifika identity, and each is determined to tell stories from the inside out.

Māngere Arts Centre—Growing a Village

The Māngere Arts Centre—Ngā Tohu o Uenuku, also known as “the MAC,” is the home of Polynesian Arts in South Auckland. The building is a multipurpose community arts center and houses the only publicly available, purpose-built theater in South Auckland. The Auckland Council website states that “the center is the home of Māori and Pacific visual and performing arts in Auckland” and that is “showcases the diversity and quality of arts, crafts and cultural activities that underpin the unique character of Māngere and Ōtāhuhu.” (Auckland Council, 2022, para. 1 & 3).

The MAC was specifically designed to meet the needs of the culturally diverse and vibrant Māngere community. The purpose-built complex nurtures and presents the diversity of arts, crafts and cultural activities that underpin the unique character of Māngere’s 60,000 people. MAC is an Auckland Council venue that opened on September 3, 2010, driven by the need for an arts hub in South Auckland. Prior to its construction, the venues commonly used by performing arts were Otara Music and Arts Centre, Metro theatre (Māngere), and Spotlight Theatre (Papatoetoe). Visual artists were limited to Fresh Gallery (Otara) and the Papakura Art Gallery. Given its commitment to Māori and Pasifika Arts and Artists, and the demographics of its immediate location, it might be possible to make the claim that the MAC is the hub of Polynesian Arts in Auckland, and therefore—given the demographics of Auckland—Aotearoa.

The MAC is committed to its community. Several years ago, the not-for-profit organization Affirming Works moved into the building and run one of their two community cafes complimentary to the theater and art gallery. The MAC is very much part of the community of South Auckland, and particularly Māngere Town Centre. It stands apart from the Auckland Theatre scene as a whole not only because of its isolated location but also because of the community and kaupapa which underpin and inform its running. The theater director, Alison Quigan, is an experienced actor, director, dramaturg, producer, and theater manager. She and her staff are devoted to the communities of Māngere, South Auckland, and Pasifika theater.

Since 2013, Quigan has partnered with Samoan actor, choreographer, and director, Troy Tuua to create the Māngere Arts Centre annual “kids show.” As of 2019, the pair have an impressive body of work behind them, including multiple national accolades and awards. Their playbills include the following:

2014Pollyhood in Mumuland

2015The Lolly Witch of Mumuland

2016Pigs on the Run

2017Mirror Mirror

2018The Wizard of Ōtahuhu


The six shows to date have drawn 3,772 participants to the work, up to 90% of these falling in the category of Pasifika youth. More than this, the productions have been witnessed by more than 18,000 audience members from the South Auckland community and beyond.

Apart from the 2014 show, each of the play scripts was written by Quigan, Tuua, and a small writing team for the specific cast and crew of each year. The theater projects relied heavily on a mentoring relationship, whereby leaders were grown from within the project and nurtured to take up new and more challenging roles across the years.

The production team work to build a village. Tuua particularly speaks about the importance of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem through this work and the joy of seeing the very youngest among the cast rise to the challenge of performing professional theater (Tuua, August 30, 2021, personal communication). Quigan and Tuua (2018) demonstrate Pasifika values in their work, describing a commitment to the relational spaces between the production team, cast, and crew. This relational space is described in Pasifika cultures as the va, which is “not strictly physical space but also describes the intricacies of human interaction and negotiation of space both internal, external and in the transactional space of the fluid ‘in-between’” (Iosefo, 2016, p. 190). Both Tuua and Quigan argue for the importance of creating safe and courageous spaces for creative work. Tuua acknowledges that as Pasifika and “as youth, you don’t think you have the power—you’re taught to follow” (personal communication, August 30, 2021) and says that his own theater company—Sau e Siva—emerged through his own experience in making the kids shows. Both artists argue for the critical need to tell their own stories. Quigan says vehemently, “I used to say, we have to tell our own stories because if we don’t, no one else will. Now I say, we have to tell our own stories before someone else does it badly” (personal communication, August 30, 2021).

The MAC kids’ shows have been an incredibly fertile ground in which to grow and nurture Pasifka youth in theater. Alumni of the productions are now seen in national movies and television, in highly paid advertising campaigns, and, increasingly, in returning to the theater to make their own new and original work. In these ways, this project has nurtured a village of Pasifika theater-makers to continue telling stories that are vital to their worldviews and ways of being. The theater that they create continues to be locally relevant and globally powerful.

Joshua Iosefo-Williams and Odd Daphne—Theater as “Heart Work”

Joshua Iosefo-Williams is a young Pasifika playwright, filmmaker, director, and scholar. He is the founder of the collective “Odd Family” working from South Auckland in a theater of hope and healing, dubbed “heart work.” Odd Family’s landmark debut production, Odd Daphne, has been met with critical acclaim and enormous interest from the education community because of its raw truth, potential for healing, and courageous confrontation of mental health on the stage.

Odd Daphne is an original community stage play supported by The Mental Health Foundation that challenges traditional Pacific attitudes towards mental wellness. It gives insight into depression within a contemporary Pacific context.

Specifically, the story looks at alofa/love and its varying cultural and generational attitudes. It also looks at representation of the LGBTQI community within a Pacific and rugby culture framework. It showcases the amalgamation of the Japanese/Asian Pop Culture community and Pacific youth culture reflecting the complexities of Pacific identity and how that affects mental wellness.

This piece of theatre does not aim to quickly “fix” this problem but hopes to encourage the Pacific community to start having these conversations safely and to raise awareness to services and tools that are available. (J. Iosefo, n.d., para. 3)

Detailing Iosefo-Williams own journey with mental health and coming out as a Pasifika gay young man, Odd Daphne has had two highly successful seasons at MAC, each attended by sell-out crowds and accompanied by mental health training for the audience.

As a new director, Iosefo-Williams brought his skills in conflict resolution and project management into the theater space with a “people first” philosophy informing all aspects of production—“safety was paramount, along with honouring the work and especially keeping the young people safe” (Becht, personal communication, August 30, 2021). From these strengths, the production company that brought Odd Daphne to life have become the “Odd Family,” a new collective, linked by their heart work and deeply committed to healing and hope. Iosefo-Williams’s mother, Fetaui, also a Pasifika scholar disclosed in an interview that

vulnerability is so difficult, but when it is worth saving a life for and when we read the stats for youth suicide and when we read what they are associated with and most of them are around sexuality and that's heart-breaking . . . if our family didn't necessarily know the tools of how to go through this, it makes me wonder and makes me think how many other families, Pasifika families, families from south Auckland may not know what mental health is, what it means to be well, you know what it means to look after your mental wellbeing.

(Hopgood, 2020, para. 10)

Heavily influenced by his experience with his family, and wishing to honor his aunty Fadi in particular, Iosefo-Williams places at the center of his heart work, this commitment:

Today we come together as a Pasifika family who have created a life for ourselves on this land, the land of our cousins.

To the east of us we are surrounded by our ocean, the highway that our genius ancestors traversed. We come together because we are duty bound at heart.

To ensure . . .

That our children are given the best possible chance

To be prepared

For life in this ever-changing world.

This is not their privilege, it is their right.

It is their right to learn in their schools about their amazing wayfinding ancestors and their core values.

It is their right to have a solid foundation

of their stories to hold them steady and true in the changing world.

(as cited in F. Iosefo, 2020, p. 38)

Akin to the work of the MAC kids show, Iosefo-Williams creates a village in his work, with a hope that the work will always remain honest and truthful, and that the Odd Family will nurture the next generation of theater-makers to continue the heart work that has begun.

Southside Rise—Only the Hood Can Heal the Hood

Southside Rise was a leadership project designed to grow young Polycultural Pasifika leaders for South Auckland.3 The project was launched in 2016 by the Black Friars Theatre Company and situated within activist traditions of performance, growing young people to fill the roles of “leader” and “warrior” fighting for widespread attitudinal and structural change.

The South Auckland–based theater troupe the Black Friars was formed in 2006 from a desire to challenge the dominant stereotypes surrounding Pasifika people and to “keep talented young brown people off the street and on the stage.” The Black Friars have created several highly acclaimed productions of Shakespearean plays, true to Shakespeare’s language, but infused with Pasifika language, music, and dance. The Black Friars are equally committed to telling new stories from their South Auckland community and creating spaces for Pasifika youth to do the same—“through such connection and collaboration, creative practice is kept vital by being refreshed with new talent, ideas and enthusiasm” (McWilliams, 2017, para. 6).

As aforementioned, the South Auckland community is an area of high deprivation and low socioeconomic status—one in two children in South Auckland lives in poverty and is subject to stigma and stereotypes that paint South Auckland youth as both endangered and dangerous. South Auckland is consistently misrepresented in media and public discourse, depicted in association with gangs, violence, crime, and poverty. It is this prevailing narrative told of the Southside and held in the social imaginary of Aotearoa New Zealand that the Southside Rise project challenges. In 2019, the third and final year of the project, Southside Rise involved over 100 students, predominantly Pasifika in their ethnic makeup, from the 17 secondary schools in South Auckland that serve low socioeconomic communities. While there are many educational initiatives working in schools to change the status quo, often founded on the best intentions, they seem to be based on a perceived deficit in Pasifika peoples. The Southside Rise project was determined to play to their strengths.

We wanted to build a greater recognition of Pasifika literacies. If literacy is the way we communicate who we are and how we live in, and with, the world, then we (the Pasifika community) do that through dance and song. We don’t do that by sitting at a desk and writing an essay. That’s not how our heritage is carried. Our literacies are embodied, rather than written on paper. We wanted those qualities to be acknowledged. The very first line of the show is “Our stories are carried in bodies and bloodlines.” That’s been true since the beginning.

(Johansson, as cited in McWilliams, 2017, para. 4)

Between 2016 and 2019, the Black Friars tracked progress and success with Southside Rise primarily through talanoa (talking story). Three full-length productions were created over this time:

Southside Rise (2017) written by Michelle Johansson, Denyce Su’a and Lauie Tofa; directed by Denyce Su’a and Lauie Tofa

Heads Held High (2018) written by Denyce Su’a with Helen Tuitavake, Michelle Johansson, Billy Revell, Gabriel Faatau’uu-Satiu, Manu Vaea, Levi Horne & Patrick Alesana from stories collected in the schools of South Auckland.; directed by Denyce Su’a, Lauie Tofa and Siosaia Folau

Revolution (2019) written by Marina Alefosio, Gabe Faatauuu, Bayley Johansson, Michelle Johansson, Viola Johansson, Billy Revell-Sio, Denyce Su’a, To’asavili Telea, and Rewa Worley from stories collected in the schools of South Auckland; directed by Carmel-Maria Savaiinaea and Michelle Johansson; music direction by Siosaia Folau

Of the 100-plus student leaders involved in 2019, 100% had

participated in the story of their neighborhood,

expressed themselves through the performing arts,

networked with each other and grown supportive relationships for finishing high school and beginning tertiary studies,

been mentored by experienced practitioners from their own neighborhood, and

grown their understanding of leadership (particularly Pasifika models of leadership).

Students involved in the project had multiple audiences with a wide range of people in power, including local politicians and more than 200 school principals. In addition, many of the students involved were able to achieve academic credit through participation and those who chose to write on Southside Rise in their external school examinations have achieved 100% examination pass rates, contributing to their university entrance scores.

In 2021, the Black Friars have begun to see the long-term impact wrought by the project, as young Pasifika budding engineers, performers, councilors, politicians, teachers, nurses, and social workers continue to testify to the many ways in which the Southside Rise experience has contributed to their success and influenced their understanding of leadership.


The Pasifika population of Aotearoa is young, diverse, and growing. Pasifika youth are disproportionately disadvantaged and underserved in education, health, housing, income, and employment. They remain the inheritors of historical injustice and ongoing racist practices with roots in the Dawn Raids of the 1970s. However, despite multiple, relatively unsuccessful initiatives from government departments, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples describes a commitment to meaningfully fostering Pasifika self-determination.

This recognises Pacific communities as the owners of Pacific wellbeing and culture. This approach sees Pacific peoples taking leadership roles in decisions that affect their lives and in the design and delivery of services to Pacific communities. This requires collaboration with the wider community and government and realising that Pacific community aspirations are not just about transactions, programmes or funding.

The theater provides a powerful site for working in culturally sustaining and transformational ways. Pasifika youth working in theater consistently demonstrate their willingness to work “inside out,”

to be impure, working at the borders, risking mixture, outreach, and invention; . . . to be creatively perplexed, upside down, out of whack, reversible, expressing the inside wholeness of self and community in outside masks and distant mirrors, in signs that baffle and menace as much as they reveal.

It is perhaps in these creative and courageous spaces of healing and hope that societal change might be possible, and in which Pasifika youth might be part of a movement toward a fair and just Aotearoa.


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  • 1. In Samoan—“ceremonial request for forgiveness made by an offender and his kinsman to those injured” and comes from the word ifo that literally means to bow down and, among other specific usages, to “make a formal apology”.

  • 2. Young people.

  • 3. The term “polycultural” is used by Dr Karlo Mila-Schaaf to refer to cultural capital where the term “polycultural capital . . . is coined to describe a theoretical construct which describes the potential advantage Pacific second generation (New Zealand born) may experience from on-going exposure to culturally distinctive social spaces” (Mila-Schaaf, 2010).