Cooper, Whina (1895–1994)

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Cooper, Whina (1895–1994)

Maori leader and Mother of the People, beloved by both Maoris and whites, who was prominent in native land rights in New Zealand, active in other reform movements, and became Dame Whina Cooper toward the end of her life. Name variations: Mrs. Richard Gilbert; Mrs. William Cooper. Pronunciation: SEE-nah KOO-per. Born Josephine Te Wake on the shores of Hokianga Harbor, New Zealand, on December 9, 1895; died in Panguru on March 26, 1994; daughter of Heremia Te Wake, chief of the Hokianga tribes, and Kare Pauro; attended St. Joseph's School for Maori Girls; married Richard Gilbert, in 1916; married William Cooper, in 1940; children: (first marriage) four; (second marriage) two.

Became a prominent businesswoman, owning several farms and stores; became active in land reform plan instituted by Sir Apirana Ngata (1929); elected first woman president of a New Zealand rugby association (1947); founded the Maori Women's Welfare League (1951); led a 700-mile march to preserve Maori land (1975); honored as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her services to the Maori people (1979); raised to the rank of Dame of the British Empire (DBE, 1981).

During the 1940s, New Zealanders often saw a boat, truck, or bus filled with children on their way to a rugby game. They were coached by a feisty Maori woman who frequently challenged the referees' decisions with: "I'm not satisfied with your interpretation of the rules. That's not how we see them." In fact, Whina Cooper was not above taking disagreements off the playing field and into the meeting hall; the entire North Hokianga Rugby Union once met to review her objections. In 1946, she became president of the Hokianga Rugby Union, the first woman to hold a position previously occupied exclusively by men. Though rugby is a tough, physical game, she was not averse to instructing children in its play. Her life, after all, reflected her attitude on the field. In addition to rugby, Cooper enjoyed hockey, netball, table tennis, fishing, and was a keen shot. Known first among the Maoris as the Mother of the People, she was also a farmer, a postal clerk, and owner of several businesses. During her long life, she would not only lead the Maoris, she would become a leader among all New Zealanders.

Whina Te Wake was born on December 9, 1895, in a tiny Maori settlement on the shores of Hokianga Harbor. Her father was Heremia Te Wake, a chief of the Hokianga tribes, and a devout Catholic. Whina was a child of his second family. A widower with grown children, Heremia was 57 when he married a young girl of 15 named Kare Pauro . When Whina was born, the women delivering her thought she was a still-born boy. Grabbing the limp infant, Heremia began to put holy water on her, saying, "I baptize you Joseph," at which point the newborn began to scream. When her sex was discovered, the name was changed to Josephine, although she would always be called Whina, a Maori abbreviation of the name. When Whina was two, her younger sister Heretute Te Wake was born, completing the family.

Whina's upbringing reflected the cross fertilization then occurring between Europeans and Maoris. A member of the Catholic Church, she grew up accustomed to European housing, clothes, and utensils, but she was also at home with her Maori heritage, able to fish and hunt with the best. During her early years, Whina walked six miles each day to attend school. There, Maori children were allowed to speak only English and were punished severely for speaking their own language. Whina was a quick student, and her father relied on his daughter's literacy. She read the newspaper to him daily, and in return he taught her Maori chants, tribal traditions, and traditional medicines and remedies. When Whina was nine, the family moved to Whakarapa, and the journey to school was less distant. There she loved fishing and the canoe races that were often held.

As a chief, Heremia frequently associated with members of the government. While with Sir James Carroll, the Maori minister of Native Affairs, Heremia expressed his wish to send his daughter to boarding school but feared that he could not afford the expense. Heremia's attitude was somewhat unusual. Maori women were not necessarily considered equal with men, but he

had a high regard for Whina, clearly favoring her over her older stepbrothers.

When Whina reached the age of 12, Carroll arranged for her to enter St. Joseph's Maori Girls' College at Napier. At the end of her long journey to Napier, she encountered more people gathered in one place than she had ever seen in her life. An excellent student, she quickly adjusted to life at the convent school. She learned to play hockey, basketball, and tennis, and to swim. St. Joseph's introduced Cooper to European life, giving her an understanding of this culture that would later prove invaluable.

Cooper finished school at 18, and her father arranged a marriage for her with an older chief. When she refused the marriage, her father accepted her decision, and for the next few years she held various jobs. Teaching school at Pawarenga, clerking in a local store, and serving as housekeeper for the local parish priests, she showed her willingness to try her hand at almost anything. During her tenure as parish housekeeper, she became extremely close to Father Kreijmborg, and for a time entertained thoughts of entering a convent. Close association with the Catholic hierarchy was important to Cooper spiritually throughout her life.

Men come out of [women], all men, never mind who they are, the King, the Governor, the big chiefs—everybody. They all come out of a woman. Without women they wouldn't even be alive.

—Whina Cooper

In 1916, Whina met and married a young Maori surveyor named Richard Gilbert, who was considered a "good catch." The couple settled on her father's farm, where the first of their four children was soon born. Two years later, they began to endure a series of setbacks. Whina contracted the flu during the great worldwide influenza epidemic. That same year, her father died at the age of 80, and Whina felt the loss as a great blow. Soon, she was shocked to discover that the farm and house she and Gilbert had assumed they would inherit would actually go to Heremia's sons by his first marriage, because he had never changed his will. There was already a rift in the family, as the stepbrothers had long resented the favored treatment they felt Whina and her sister had received, and now the Gilberts and their young children found themselves without a home or source of income. The family moved from the spacious farmhouse into a small shack, and Whina began to dig for gum, used in preparation of paint, varnish, and linoleum, to earn a living.

Whina had continued to maintain close contact with Father Kreijmborg. When the priest, who came from a wealthy family, received an inheritance, he wanted to use it to help individuals among the Maori. It was natural, therefore, that Whina and Richard Gilbert were among the first to whom he offered aid with a small loan. Whina was willing to accept the money only after the priest convinced her that taking out a loan and paying it back could actually benefit others. She used the money to buy back her father's farm from her brothers, and it was soon a profitable enterprise; when Father Kreijmborg made her another loan to buy a local store, she turned the venture into a similar success. Over the next few years, through investments in a number of farms and businesses, Whina's grasp of finances, imports, and the importance of buying in bulk led to prosperity beyond her dreams.

As the daughter of an important chief, Whina fell naturally into the role of leadership. She founded a branch of the Farmers' Union and became its first president in an effort to improve the quality of livestock and seed used on Maori farms. She then built a health clinic and brought in Dr. George McCall Smith, an eccentric Scot and excellent physician, who established a unique health service that he intended to use as a blueprint for a national system of health care. Whina also built a Parish Hall for tribal meetings, which she came increasingly to dominate. As men showed resentment and began to challenge her authority, she would remind them that all men were born of women, and therefore it was natural for them to make important decisions. During this time, her many community efforts began to include coaching the local rugby team.

In 1928, Whina discovered that her sister Heretute had become romantically involved with her husband. Not long after, she experienced another loss when Father Kreijmborg was killed in an auto accident. She then had to challenge an attempt by the church to confiscate her properties by proving she had long since paid back her loans. She also began the work of repairing her marriage.

In 1929, new opportunities began to open up for the Maoris when Sir Apirana Ngata became minister of Native Affairs. Ngata proposed a land-reform program for his people that would allow Maoris to develop land into farms and produce wool and dairy products. Not surprisingly, the new minister was drawn to the dynamic and successful businesswoman from the northern provinces to help him in instituting the program, and Whina was soon deeply enmeshed in organizing meetings for Ngata to present the plan to the Maoris.

Barely nine months after the scheme was implemented in Whina's district, Ngata returned with other members of Parliament to see what had been accomplished. The group was amazed by all that had been done with little outside funding. The Auckland Star reported:

A full ceremonial reception was given the official party on arrival at Panguru, where 5,000 out of 7,000 acres are under development. This is the biggest scheme of its kind among the Nagapuhi property. It carries 1,400 head of cattle and comprises 50 units. The expenditure to date is £7,500. Its development has reached a high standard, due largely to the unbounded enthusiasm of Mrs. R. Gilbert, who is almost on speaking terms with every batten in the high grade fences that subdivide holdings.

From this point forward, Whina's name was known throughout New Zealand.

Tragedy followed triumph in 1934, when the government fell and Ngata was no longer in power. That same year, Richard Gilbert, who had always supported his wife's ventures, grew ill, and surgery revealed extensive cancer. During her involvement with the land development program, Whina had met William Cooper, who had been Maori representative to the 1926 Royal Commission investigating confiscation of Maori land. Although William was married, the couple became involved, and, at the time of Gilbert's death in March 1935, Whina was seven months pregnant with Cooper's child. William divorced his wife and moved in with Whina. Her behavior, straying so far from the precepts of her church, was at odds with Whina's ardent Catholicism and profoundly shocked the Maoris. She left Panguru for seven years and set up a home with Cooper outside Whangarei. The couple eventually had two children and were married in the church after William succeeded in having his first marriage annulled.

In 1940, at age 45, Whina Cooper was asked to organize a national celebration commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waiangi, in which the Maoris had ceded their native sovereignty of New Zealand in return for the protection of British law. Back in her element, Whina arranged for a carved meeting house to be constructed, met with government officials, and arbitrated disputes. Not long after, when New Zealand was drawn into World War II, she and her husband returned to Panguru, where they gradually became immersed in local affairs and were active in parish activities, rugby, and the war effort.

In 1947, Whina Cooper made New Zealand history when she was elected the first woman president of a rugby union branch. Her inspection of the union books uncovered the fact that Maoris had to underwrite many of their expenses, while the whites did not, and led to a policy change so that the union's money was shared by everyone. When nuns were brought to the area to establish a school, the Cooper family gave up their farmhouse and lived for a while in a barn in order to assist in the project.

In 1949, Whina Cooper's husband William died suddenly of a heart attack, another terrible blow. By 1951, she had decided to move to Auckland so that her children would have better educational opportunities. Since the end of World War II, increasing numbers of Maoris were leaving rural New Zealand for better jobs in the city, where they often faced discrimination in housing and employment. In Auckland, Cooper found slums inhabited by a vast number of underpaid Maoris from throughout New Zealand. There she also became a friend of Bishop James Liston who had never closely associated with Maoris before and distrusted them. Influenced by his friendship with Cooper, the bishop became committed to offering a special Catholic ministry to urban Maoris.

The urban ministry became one of a number of new areas into which Cooper invested her energies. In September 1951, after attending a conference of welfare committees, she became the representative for its 300 delegates, who organized to found the Maori Women's Welfare League to promote the general health and well being of women and children. Soon she was president of the organization, traveling around the country to assess conditions in Maori communities. It was in the urban areas that she discovered the most shocking evidence of substandard dwellings and overcrowding. When bureaucrats of the Department of Maori Affairs maintained that no one ever requested housing, Cooper went to Parliament and received permission to document the need for Maori housing in Auckland. Using volunteers, she conducted a street-by-street survey compiled in a massive report that finally resulted in the building of adequate housing. Through Cooper, the league became the first Maori organization to speak with a national voice about issues of racial and legal discrimination, health and child care.

In 1957, at age 61, Cooper retired as president of the Maori Women's Welfare League. Always an active church member, she now threw her energies behind building a church center in Auckland. A Dutch priest, Father van Enckevort, was in charge of such a project, which he had been unable to get underway, and gave Cooper permission to raise money for it while he made a brief visit home to Holland. When he returned, Cooper had already raised £500 and more was to follow. She organized concerts, raffles, dances, games, bring-and-buys, and other fundraisers. Her Queen Carnivals, in particular, became famous, in which various groups entered a female contestant who did not win on the basis of beauty but on how much money her sponsors raised for the Catholic Center. In two years, Cooper raised £44,000, and in 1966 the Auckland Catholic Maori Center was finally built, with a plaque installed in the foyer declaring, "This place is the fruits of the efforts of the people, and of their Mother, Whina Cooper."

By this time, Cooper's works were being acknowledged beyond the boundaries of New Zealand. For her efforts on behalf of the Maoris, she was awarded the rank of Member of the British Empire. In 1974, at age 79, she was elderly, frail, and sometimes tired, when she was given the rank of Commander of the British Empire, but her contribution to public life was still not ended. When the Maoris ceded New Zealand to the British, 2.5 million acres of land had been set aside for them, but over time, much of it was being seized by the whites under one pretext or another. In March 1975, Cooper attended a Maori meeting where she listened with increasing concern to stories of the disappearance of their lands. Following her suggestion to stage a march on Parliament, young Maoris organized under Cooper's leadership over the next few months. On September 14, 1975, with her three-year-old granddaughter at her side, Cooper took her place at the head of a 700-mile march that would take 30 days. The 5,000 marchers moved from one Maori community to the next, gathering 60,000 signatures demanding the return of their land. Many marveled at the presence of Whina Cooper, now 80 years old, and the demonstration ultimately made her a heroine of many environmentalists as well as the Maoris.

Throughout the next 18 years, Whina Cooper remained active. In 1982, she moved back to Panmure, to be near her children. At this point, her extended family numbered some 130. Having lived simply throughout her life, she could move easily from a large farmhouse to a barn, and she dwelled quite happily in a small trailer before moving to a house.

In 1981, in recognition of her many contributions, she had attained the British government's highest rank of honor as a Dame of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knight, and was known henceforth as Dame Whina Cooper. In 1986, she enjoyed observing the return of Halley's Comet, which she had watched in May 1910 as a student at St. Joseph's Maori School.

Born a poor child of illiterate parents, Whina Cooper nevertheless had many assets from the moment of her birth. Her proud Maori heritage, strong family, intelligence, and enthusiasm took her from a small village to the halls of Parliament. She raised a large family, founded prosperous businesses, organized sports teams, and created national organizations that addressed the issues of poverty, the environment, gender and racial equality, and quality of life. When she died, on March 26, 1994, at age 98, in Panguru, she was returned to the earth beneath the mountains of Panguru and Papata, where she sleeps with her ancestors.


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"Dame Whina Cooper," in The New York Times. Tuesday, March 29, 1994, p. A 13.

"Dame Whina Cooper," in The Times [London]. March 30, 1994, p. 21.

King, Michael. Whina: A Biography of Whina Cooper. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.

——. Maori: A Photographic and Social History. Auckland, NZ: Heinemann, 1984.

McLauchlan, Gorden, ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Auckland, NZ: David Bateman, 1989.

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Sinclair, Keith, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand. Auckland, NZ: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Cooper, Whina (1895–1994)

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