Prue Kapua (centre), the outgoing president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, with fellow League members. (Photo supplied)

Prue Kapua, the outgoing president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, Te Rōpu Wāhine Māori Toki i te Ora, was interviewed by Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q + A — and they reflected on the organisation’s legacy.

Jack began by observing that Māori are special, that Te Tiriti o Waitangi guarantees that special status, and that that status still isn’t being recognised. He also noted that the MMWL was launched by Dame Whina Cooper in 1951, and in more than seven decades since then, Prue has been the longest-serving president.


Prue: It’s good to have an end. It’s good to have new people coming into the role. It’s always hard to leave something that you feel quite passionate about, but I think the time’s right. I think it’s good to introduce people who will bring great skills into the role.

But there’s always unfinished business and there are always things you wish you’d kind of just completed before you left. But hei aha, that’s the way it goes.

Jack: What would be top of the list? 

I think probably some of the government agencies that we would’ve liked to have had a slightly more formalised relationship with. Corrections is one. I think there’s a lot of work we could do to hopefully help some of our wāhine in prison, coming out of prison, with the transition. Perhaps to put pressure on to stop women being incarcerated for crimes that nobody should be incarcerated for.

I think it’s 70 years since the rōpū was founded. Why is it still relevant today?

I think it’s probably still relevant because of the collective will of gathering wāhine Māori together. That’s what worked in 1951. It was the fact that there’s a voice. We’re all still part of our hapū, of our iwi, and involved with issues within our own community, but we come together as a group of women. 

And I think that the issues, unfortunately, probably haven’t changed in 70 years. The issues were about whānau, the issues were about our tamariki — and we’re still having those issues today. Justice, education — they were all part of our constitution back then, and they still are now.

What progress have you seen?

Within this period of time, I guess some of the things we’ve achieved have been formalising those arrangements. So we have an MOU with the police, and that’s about them recognising that they need the community to address some of the issues that they’re facing. And so we’ve had that in place. 

We have a strategic partnership with Oranga Tamariki. It was a little hard to come by, because at one stage, Oranga Tamariki believed they should only have strategic partnerships with iwi. So we’ve had to convince them that a Māori organisation is able to achieve certain things. It’s not an either-or. 

Jack (voice-over): The rōpū, or group, has worked in myriad different areas over the decades, advocating for better health, education and wellbeing outcomes for Māori. In 2011, before Prue Kapua took over, it was the subject of a High Court case after Destiny Church co-founder Hannah Tamaki challenged for the leadership. Tamaki was found to have stacked the League with her supporters, and their votes were suspended. But the controversy isn’t forgotten.

At times, in recent years, there’s been some dissent and division within the rōpū. Has that been damaging for the League?

I don’t think so. I think that when you have a membership organisation of around 3,000 people, you’ll get people who have different agendas or see things from a different perspective. I think we have, as a league, had different issues that, over the years, have brought us to the forefront. Even when I came into this role, people said: “Oh, so did you run against Hannah Tamaki?” And that had happened years earlier. 

So, you know, the way that we’re portrayed by virtue of these glitches that we have. People don’t see all of the other stuff that’s happening. The most important thing is that people can still be doing the work they do in their communities. It always worried me that having that public attention on those areas undermined the work that many of our women were doing in the communities, and I think that’s a damage. It’s something, though, that you get as a Māori organisation, irrespective.

There are so many wāhine who struggle and who are thought of as less than their male counterparts due to being a Māori and due to being a wahine. This needs to stop, and the Crown needs to realise the implications. 

Jack (voice-over): In recent months, the Waitangi Tribunal has considered the Mana Wāhine kaupapa. It’s more than 25 years since the League first sought to bring the claim.

We have to be really clear from our perspective, from Te Rōpū Wāhine Māori Toko i te Ora, the perspective was about Crown action. 

It was about the fact that, at the time, Dame Mira Szászy had been the person that both the League and iwi at the time wanted to go on to Te Ohu Kaimoana, the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission. The Minister of Fisheries at the time decided against that [because] of his view of how Māori would react to a woman being in that role. And that was what precipitated the claim from our point of view. 

I think the fact that we’ve waited all this time has meant that we’ve continued to go through a period of time where the questions [remain] about why our voice isn’t heard on the many numbers of groups that are established. We’ve had governments whose only dealings with Māori have been with particular organisations all the way from the New Zealand Māori Council, through to iwi chairs, iwi leaders forums and so on. 

So the fact that we’ve existed since 1951 hasn’t meant that the government has always put us at the forefront when they’ve looked to consult or seek advice. And I think waiting all this time for that to be heard has been pretty frustrating. We’ve had moments where we’ve been listened to, but lots of moments when we haven’t. 

Jack (voice-over): Prue Kapua is someone who thinks deeply about the legal and constitutional status of Māori. In a legal career spanning more than three decades, she has keenly focused on Treaty issues, land law and resource management. 

I wondered if I could ask you a little bit about your own background. Nō hea koe — where you’re from?

Nō Rotorua. Ko wai au? Ko te uri o Ngāti Whakaue me Ngāti Kahungunu. So I grew up in Rotorua. My birth mother was from Kahungunu. My parents in Rotorua — my father was Te Arawa and Ngāti Whakaue. And that’s where I was born and grew up and went to school. 

Because you were whāngai? You were adopted? 

I was adopted, yes. 

I wondered how growing up with adopted parents — a Pākehā mother and a Māori father — how that affected your identity as a Māori person.

I think, probably, growing up in Rotorua, which is a significant area for Māori, and with a surname like Tamatekapua — there wasn’t ever really an issue about your identity. 

My mother, though, was involved (when I was at school at Rotorua Girls’) with what is now called kapa haka, and what we then called the “Māori club” at school. So, I mean, it’s a sign of an era, really.

I have a brother and sister and all three of us were adopted. Māori children were relatively easily adopted. I’m not going to say in which years those were, but we were relatively easily able to be placed with families because, you know, there were quite a few of us at that time. 

Jack (voice-over): Today, the status of Māori in Aotearoa is not universally agreed upon. The ACT party wants a referendum on the interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. Meanwhile, the renaissance of te reo Māori and New Zealand history being taught in schools coincides with an intense debate over the role of Māori co-governance. 

What do you think is the status of Māori in Aotearoa today? 

I don’t think that, as a country, we have properly recognised the status of Māori. And I think that has been an oversight throughout. I think, unless you understand that Māori are tangata whenua, unless you understand that we have Te Tiriti o Waitangi as a foundational document, people tend to compartmentalise Māori into a minority group that sits with a whole lot of other minority groups. 

So, yep, I think we have recognition by virtue of aspects around the reo. You know, those things that happened in the ’80s, the movements that have occurred that have resulted in what looks like progress. 

But it’s pretty slow progress when we’re still, today, having the same kinds of arguments about issues. About why you don’t have, on a water utility governance body, Māori represented when it’s all about Te Tiriti. It’s all about ownership, to use a Pākehā term. It’s probably not how we’d look at it from our point of view, but the fact of the relationship that we have with water, why would you not embrace Māori representation? 

And the fact that we still have the platform provided for people to challenge that means that we do have a society that hasn’t grown enough to recognise that we are not a minority, that we are not one of a number of groups, that we have a particular status by virtue of being mana whenua.

What might recognition of that status look like?

As the League, we endorsed a bill that was aimed at recognising in our Constitution Act that Māori are the first peoples of this country. And that was to align with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I kind of think if you put that into a statute, then some people will get that. 

But I think the way that we have to do it, really, is to get into acknowledging that we have to do these things for ourselves. We have to determine when we talk about rangatiratanga, we have to talk about self-determination. We have to acknowledge that for it to occur, it has to be through us, on our terms. It doesn’t get dictated by the Crown. It doesn’t get dictated by appointed groups or anointed groups that get together to decide how that would be carried out. 

And, I mean, we can do that — and it probably goes back to the Mana Wāhine claim as well — if we start looking at who we appoint and put on these different bodies, and are part of the decision-making, and that it’s not done by the Crown.

Jack (voice-over): This September, Te Rōpū Wāhine Māori Toko i te Ora will mark its 71st anniversary, making it the longest-running Māori organisation in existence. 

Will there come a day when the Welfare League will no longer be necessary? 

No, I don’t think there will come a day [when that happens]. Because even if we can affect many of the changes and we can look at having community, group, iwi, hapū involvement in the decision-making, in the allocation of resources and everything else, I think we’ll still need to come together collectively. 

I think the benefit you get out of that is being able to work through issues, matters, solutions that can be done as a whole, because everybody brings their own perspectives. There isn’t just a Māori perspective. There’s something that becomes a Māori solution, brought together by a number of perspectives that are part of that collective decision-making. 

Prue Kapua was interviewed by Jack Tame on Q + A on July 31. This is an edited transcript of their kōrero.

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