Dr Hope Tupara, the new president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, with her 21 predecessors behind her, starting with Whina Cooper, in 1951. (Photo: MWWL/Tia Takarangi)

Let’s meet the new president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, Dr Hope Tupara. As you’ll see in this kōrero with Dale, she has come into this role after a commitment to nursing and especially midwifery.

But, when you glance at this list of her 21 League predecessors, you may recognise that the presidents have come from a range of backgrounds. Here they are, beginning with Whina Cooper when the organisation got under way nearly 71 years ago. (See also Aroha Harris’s piece in this issue for an account of the League’s history.)

Whina Cooper (1951–1957). Miria Logan (1957–1960). Maata Hirini (1960–1964). Ruiha Sage (1964–1968). Miria Karauria (1968–1971). Hine Potaka (1971–1973). Mira Szaszy (1973–1977). Elisabeth Murchie (1977–1980). Violet Pou (1980–1983). Maraea Te Kawa (1983). Georgina Kirby (1983–1987). June Mariu (1987–1990). Aroha Reriti-Crofts (1990–1993). Areta Koopu (1993–1996)Druia Barrett (1996–1999)Jaquie Te Kani (1999–2002)Kitty Bennett (2002–2005)Linda Grennell (2005–2008)Meagan Joe (2008–2011)Kataraina O’Brien (2011–2014)Prue Kapua (2014–2022).


Kia ora, Hope. I understand that you started off as Hope Harawira.

Yes. That’s true. I wondered why I was called Hope. According to my mother, Dad (Tamaki Harawira) liked the name Hope because he hoped for me to have a good life.

My mum is Cairo Harawira (nee Pohatu). She was brought up by her grandfather, Tutekawa Wyllie in Muriwai, Gisborne — the same whānau as Tu (Tutekawa) Wyllie the ex-All Black, who you might know of, who is Mum’s first cousin. 

My parents met as teenagers in Wellington, and they were married at Dad’s marae, Maungatapu, in Tauranga. They lived in Wellington city initially, and later our whānau was fortunate to get a new house in Wainuiomata, one of the new suburban developments of Māori Affairs. I would’ve been four when we went to Wainui, and my siblings and I spent most of our childhood there. 

I went to mainstream schools, including Wainuiomata College where we had a lot of Māori teachers. Hemi McGregor (Ngāti Raukawa) was our principal — and we had John Clarke, Derek Asher and Moana Jackson, to name a few. 

I have happy memories of Wainui, because there were a lot of Māori whānau. All the parents knew one another, they knew our whakapapa, and they were strong advocates for us. 

Our parents took us back to their kāinga often, so I was fortunate to know my maternal great-grandmother, Takotohiwi Bartlett. I knew my grandparents, too: Mataiata Pohatu raua ko Rata (nee Wyllie) in Gisborne, and Taare Ririnui and Hone Harawira in Tauranga. 

They were all native speakers, and I can still remember what they sounded like, what they looked like, what they wore, and what they smelt like. I can still remember my nanny Takotohiwi pulling up water from her well. Those were such happy times. 

It was much later on that I discovered I have a biological grandfather on my dad’s side with Tai Tokerau whakapapa.

After you left school, you went on to do significant study. Can you tell us about that and the decision to go to university? Were you the first in the family to do so?

I didn’t go to university straight away. I met my husband, Willy, and fell in love instead. That’s how I ended up in Levin where he grew up.

When I got there, I decided I needed to get a job. So, I wrote to the newspaper and got a cadetship as a journalist at the Levin Chronicle. After two years, I thought: “This is not really my cup of tea.” So, I went to work for my father-in-law who was managing a hosiery factory. I did quality control for him. 

But that didn’t appeal to me, either. So, I applied to do nursing and I started the training at Whitireia Polytechnic, because I had my daughter by then. 

My parents were running the Family Home at Cannons Creek, in Porirua, and I thought that, if I went to Whitireia, I could leave my baby with them during the day, go and study, and then come home in the evening. And that’s what happened. 

But then my father died, and I came back to Levin and finished off my training at Manawatū Polytechnic. I wanted to be a midwife, so I did the advanced diploma through Wellington Polytechnic. I ended up with two diplomas, because they weren’t degree courses back then.

I was probably always going to carry on studying because I have an inquisitive nature. I enrolled in the Master of Mātauranga Māori course at Te Wānanga o Raukawa and, at the same time, did the Master of Midwifery at Victoria University.

Why that happened was that the midwifery programme at Victoria didn’t really accommodate Māori midwifery students. But I was able to cross-credit papers from the Year 1 Mātauranga Māori master’s course to the midwifery one. I talked to the two kaihautu of both programmes, Charles Royal and Alison Dixon, and they agreed to that arrangement on the basis of the programmes having equal academic status.  

Mātauranga Māori is interwoven with the western practices of midwifery, isn’t it? But how did that pan out for you? Did the combination of the two areas of study deliver what you hoped it would?

As soon as I was exposed to the health system as a student nurse, I started noticing prejudice towards us as Māori. That came out in conversations among other health professionals. For example, sitting in an office in a hospital and hearing Pākehā staff talk critically about whānau in the medical wards. 

I recall as a student nurse telling a Pākehā nurse that I didn’t think what she’d said was very professional. I could see my own whānau in those whānau she was criticising. That’s when I started to notice how the system wasn’t geared for our own people. 

When I became a midwife, I wanted to work in the community, but there were no Māori midwives for me to work with. I found later that our people had our own midwives. They didn’t call themselves midwives. Birthing was a skill that was passed from one person to another. It wasn’t regulated, and it wasn’t professionalised. But it was highly skilled all the same.

We had a law change in New Zealand which enabled midwives to have their own autonomy without a doctor. After that legislation, a lot of experienced Pākehā midwives in the hospital moved out into the community. So, when I became a midwife, I decided I wanted to be with them in the community. 

I was fortunate to work with Pākehā midwives who’d been matrons and were all experienced and much older than me. They were working with a lot of Māori women, and so my first exposure to our birthing tikanga being revitalised was when I was alongside those Pākehā midwives who were my mentors. 

What it came down to was having confidence in women and confidence in whānau being able to support their own women. 

You speak about wāhine and their whānau wanting to have a more Māori experience at birthing time rather than the sterile environment of the hospital? Are you talking about home births here? 

Yes. The hospital environment has a place, but it shouldn’t be normalised for all births. 

What would you say about a changing desire to incorporate more Māori concepts into the way that we birth?

We’ve had the medicalisation of childbirth in this country. It’s come with all the western practices and philosophies that were imported into our country. And what it’s created is a sense that other people need to help you to have your own baby, because you can’t do it on your own. 

What it has done is create a sense of fear about childbirth. But knowledge of the body’s processes help manage fear, and my Pākehā mentors did a lot of home births, so I became confident and comfortable with home births myself. 

For any women, including Māori women, it’s invigorating to do what feels natural, but you need to know what the natural processes are. It provides a sense of achievement for women, and it gives them confidence in themselves because birth is a physiological process. Women can become unwell, and we have a maternity system to support when that happens, provided the system works for them culturally too. 

Where are we at with midwifery and Māori today?

Māori still make up a low percentage of the midwifery workforce. The midwifery workforce is like other health workforces — we’re in a time where our workforces are ageing. We’re not replacing retiring midwives fast enough. We’re not adapting our workforce systems to accommodate our existing workforce.  

But we also haven’t adapted the profession to meet the needs of Māori going into midwifery. I co-wrote a research report that found that, for 10 years, the percentage of Māori midwives didn’t increase significantly, which is a sad indictment of where we are at. 

That becomes significant because, if there’s a lack of Māori midwives, we won’t move into leadership roles in hospitals and the community. Or into education roles or regulation roles. It’s the presence of Māori across the whole sector that will help to change it. 

What would be an issue that dissuades people from becoming midwives? Is it that, if things go wrong, you can be held accountable? Is that off-putting for some who’d love to help in the birthing experience but who fear that legal processes could put them in the firing line?

If people get the right education and the right support, they can get through fine. We should expect a high standard from all our health professionals, including Māori, and they should be able to provide a top-notch service to everybody. 

Fear of litigation certainly does come with the territory, but, if you do a good job, if you’re ethical, if you ensure that whānau have all the information and are participating in decisions, that prevents you getting into trouble.

But we do have some issues in our education system. Midwifery training is a demanding programme and if you’re going to be a midwife in the community, it’s often 24/7. We haven’t really been 24/7 health professionals for that long in our history. Over time, we need to adjust the way we practise so that it’s sustainable.  

Have you got some thoughts to share about the Māori Health Authority?

As Māori, we’ve been underfunded and underserved for a very, very long time. Although the new authority is not exactly a co-governance arrangement, at least it’s a step in the right direction. The more that we’re in charge of our own destiny, the closer we get to the ideal of being Te Tiriti partners. 

Which brings us to the Māori Women’s Welfare League. Congratulations on becoming president, Hope. Where does this stem from? When did you start going to Māori Women’s Welfare League events?

It started with a League scholarship when I was at Manawatū Polytechnic as a nursing student. One of the tutors there told me about the scholarships, and I was lucky to get one.

Then, in Levin, another Māori midwife and friend, Pauline Gray, told me about a League meeting, because her mother-in-law, Nellie Matakatea, was a member of a local branch. I went to that meeting with Pauline, and then we went to our first conference, in Gisborne in 1995. We were impressed with the League’s combination of community work and political advocacy for our people. 

As midwives working in the hospital system, we were witnessing and facing prejudice towards Māori and in accessing health services. 

The League was really uplifting for us because we got to understand that we weren’t alone. We got to hear of other women and how they managed to work through problems — and to hear from the leadership in the League about dealing with the health system and the education system, and about policies and legislation that affected the types of services that whānau need and could access. 

(Photo: MWWL/Tia Takarangi)

Did the decision to stand for the presidency come from the prompting of colleagues and friends who thought you were the right fit?

I’d been the president of Ikaroa region of the League for five years, and a number of the members in Ikaroa and in Tairawhiti, asked me to consider standing for the presidency. I knew that was a big mahi, so it took me a little while to come round. 

The Māori Women’s Welfare League stands as a bastion for our desire for tino rangatiratanga. It has stood the test of time. What are your thoughts about the role of the League in 2022 and heading forward?

Everyone is trying to think about solutions for housing, health, employment and income — and those are issues for the League as well.

We also need to think about succession and about ensuring that we’re laying the foundation for whatever our rangatahi need for their future.

In practical terms, we’re improving literacy around things like using accountancy software, taking minutes and those kinds of things. Even just getting our kuia adapting to Zoom hui. Although Covid has had a lot of negatives, it’s forced us to reset. Achieving equality for our people is the ultimate goal. Kotahitanga is our challenge. 

I’m looking forward to seeing how the league advances under your watch. We’ve been talking a lot about work, but not about things you love. What do you like to do outside of work?

I love baking. That’s something I do in my spare time. I love listening to our own kōrero, particularly on TV and the radio. I love listening to our people talk about our politics and the kaupapa that are of interest to us.

What about your kids? What are they doing now?

I’ve got one daughter, Justine, who works in management, and four mokopuna — Tamaki, Te Whiu, Rongoueroa, and our whāngai, Presley. They all live in Wellington.  

Who’s at home with you and your husband Willy?

Just Willy and my mum, and our two kuri, Milo and Ely. They’re both Löwchens and brothers from different litters. I got our kuri when our grandsons were babies so they could get used to animals and not fearful of them, and because animals help children learn compassion.   

Let’s give your husband a plug. What do you love about him?

He’s very mechanically-minded and a good organiser. So, if we want anything organised especially for large gatherings, he’s the person. And if we want any car fixed, he’s the person. He’s taught my daughter, all our mokopuna and anyone else’s kids how to service their own cars. And if something mechanical breaks down and he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll go on Google and figure out how to fix it.

And he supports me in whatever I do. He doesn’t necessarily understand what I do, but he supports me all the time.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2022

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