Whina Cooper was unquestionably the most extraordinary Maori woman of the the century. Born in 1895 on the mud floor of a cookhouse in the Hokianga region of New Zealand's far north that remains one of the country's poorest today, she acquired enough mana (authority, prestige and influence) to be given by her people the title 'Whaea O Te Motu' (Mother of the Nation). Yet, as her biographer Michael King noted: 'No Maori leader has attracted more public praise from Pakeha (European) people and more public criticism from sectors of Maoridom than Whina.'
The reasons are not hard to fathom. She defied convention and Maori tradition from an early age, eschewing games with other children to listen to tribal elders debating ownership of land. Favoured over his sons by her father, Heremia Te Wake, who early recognised her intelligence and leadership qualities, and helped by the Maori Minister of Native Affairs Sir James Carroll, who financed her through college from the age of 12, she soon developed what the Maoris call ihi - a quality of authority which inspires awe.
Maori women in those days - and in some tribes even today - were not expected to speak publicly on the marae, the courtyard of the meeting house which is the centre of tribal life. Such was her mana, however, that at the age of 18 when a European farmer tried to reclaim Maori-owned mudflats in her village she was invited to offer her views. She did so, came up with an acceptable opinion and went on to organise her first protest action for her people. It succeeded.
She achieved nationwide fame seven decades later, in her 80th year when, crippled with arthritis, she led 5,000 people on a 700-mile march from her Northland home to Parliament in Wellington, to highlight the fact that Europeans had seized all but 2.5 million acres of New Zealand's 66 million acres of land in 135 years of British colonisation. It did not achieve the return of any land, but as King writes: 'The march itself had succeeded in unifying Maori opinion on land issues to an extent never seen before, and it created and released a flood of Pakeha goodwill towards Maori causes.'
Sadly, while focusing Maori attention on land claims it divided opinion on what to do about them. Many young Maoris, impatient for results, favoured more aggressive action and established a makeshift camp on the steps of Parliament in defiance of her orders. Their resulting arrest aggravated differences between the conservative approach of Cooper, who devoted her life to creating harmony between the races and finding peaceful solutions to differences, and the more militant forces of Maoridom.
These differences came to the fore when in 1981 when she was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire (following appointment as MBE in 1953 and CBE in 1974). Some Maoris, claiming she had sold out her heritage to the Pakeha system, tried to disrupt the investiture ceremony. Only the second Maori to receive the award (after the Maori Queen in 1968), she said: 'They didn't understand that I'd have more power when I'd been invested, more power to fight for them and for all the Maori people against the government.' Fight she did. When she was 87, the New Zealand Women's Weekly reported: 'The sound of Whina Cooper's determined voice on the phone can still make a civil servant's heart shrink.'
Much of the Maori opposition to her stemmed from her sex and her determination to take on what many Maori saw as a man's role. She said herself: 'I should have been a boy because I love men's conversation - I'm not interested in fashion and all that.' She once shut up a man who said women should not speak on the marae, saying: 'All men . . . the King, the Governor, the big chiefs . . . they all come out of a woman. Without women they wouldn't even be alive.'
She demonstrated that she was as good as any man, working over the years as a gum digger, teacher, shopkeeper, cattle and pig breeder and a leader of Maori land development in the Hokianga.
Once dubbed the 'Amazon excavator' for her drain-digging abilities, she was a crack rifle shot, a rugby coach and, in 1947, the first woman president of a New Zealand provincial rugby union branch. She was also an expert in Maori herbal remedies, a healer and founding president of the Maori Women's Welfare League, which helped thousands of Maori families survive the mass movement from the countryside to the cities in the 1950s.
She was twice married - both times to Maoris, despite their European names - and twice widowed, and had six children. A staunch Roman Catholic, she caused a scandal when she moved in with her second husband, who was married at the time, after her first died. 'Look here, dear,' she told his wife, 'your husband seems to suit me for the work I'm doing. I am longing for someone to help our people.' They lived together for six years before marrying in 1941.
Dedicated to racial harmony until the end, Cooper told an interviewer on her 98th birthday that her last wish was, 'Before I close my eyes, to see our Maori people understand the two races in New Zealand will love . . . that's what you want, that love between two people.'Reuse content