To mark International Women’s Day on Thursday night, Newshub broadcast a montage of inspirational women to the tune of I Am Woman — and while women from around the world and Pākehā New Zealand women were included, Māori women were not. Nor were Samoan women.
The fact that Joan of Arc — a woman from 600 years ago who never set foot anywhere near the Pacific — made the cut, but Dame Whina Cooper did not, shows us that women of colour are yet to make it as leaders in the mainstream history of our region.
Why do we always seem to be looking overseas for our heroines and heroes when we have so many right here at home — in our family histories and in our hearts?
I spoke at an IWD18 event this week and the first person I paid tribute to was my grandmother and the women from my family and village, because whenever I think of women leaders, I can’t help but think of the Women’s Mau movement in Samoa.
Born when Samoa was under New Zealand administration, my nana Sieni was a small girl in 1929 when her papa, Migao, was killed by New Zealand military police — along with others who’d been on a peace march calling for human rights and independence.
They were unarmed when New Zealanders opened fire with machine guns. Her papa’s body was riddled with bullets. He’d died trying to shield someone else — the march leader and his paramount chief, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. Both men died along with several others. Many more were wounded.
That day — 28 December, 1929 — is known as "Black Saturday".
As the surviving men went into hiding, women took over the peaceful resistance movement and mobilised in defiance of the New Zealand authorities.
Our village was occupied by armed officers who used to raid our houses at night, terrorising our women and our children. The New Zealand Government’s dawn raids on Samoans did not begin in the 1970s. While I won’t go into any details, these raids on our homes were way, way worse.
Officials also banned food going in or out of our village in a bid to try to hunt down any men who they suspected to be hiding there.
So my nana’s mum and aunties would pretend they had to do their washing all day in the river by our ancestral home, but, of course, they weren’t there doing their washing.
The rest of Samoa knew the New Zealanders had imposed a food blockade on our village so they secretly sent food and supplies via fautasi canoes. My aunties would hide the food in the bundles of washing.
At the end of the day, the New Zealand policemen would inspect their washing baskets, poking into the clothes with their bayonets, but the women hid the food so well that they successfully smuggled the food into our village.
I remember laughing to myself when I read a police officer’s account of that time: he thought the women from our village were some of the cleanest natives he’d ever encountered, as they were always at the river washing.
The women of the Mau would protest publicly and peacefully in full view of their armed guards, even though these gatherings were banned. They would sing and dance. They would march to other villages and through Apia town.
My mum remembers as a young girl playing in front of the Mau house in our village as her aunties sang the same songs of resistance they’d sung when our village was occupied and their armed guards stood in front of them.
Her papa’s murder had a huge impact on my nana, and as a young girl, she decided to dedicate her life to saving lives. She studied to become a nurse and ended up as the head nurse at Samoa’s biggest hospital.
During her life, she trained hundreds of nurses and worked across the Pacific. She loved healing people and she loved nursing, working right up into her seventies. In fact, she was still working only months before she fell ill and passed away.
She was my nana, the kindest person I’ve ever met. Humble and shy, yet determined and brave.
To me, she will always be a heroine, someone who you won’t read about in history books, but whose everyday life was also extraordinary. Every one of us will have our own heroines in our families.
While I agree that women from far away deserve our attention and our respect, I hope this time next year when International Women’s Day comes around, that maybe Newshub could include some of our own women in their inspiration montage.
There are plenty who deserve to be there. Dame Whina Cooper would be a good start.
Christine Ammunson is a former journalist and press secretary. She’s the strategic communications expert behind the award-winning campaigns “That’s Us”, “Give Nothing to Racism”, and “Never Again/ E Kore Anō”, the call for an inquiry into the abuse of New Zealanders in state care. She lives in rural Wairarapa and works in Wellington.
The Mau movement
The Mau was a non-violent movement for Samoan independence from colonial rule. Although it had its beginnings during the German rule of Samoa (1900–1914), Mau resistance was at its height during New Zealand’s occupation of Samoa — which began in 1914 at the start of World War I when the Kiwis sailed in to Apia and took possession of “German Samoa” on behalf of the Brits.
The New Zealand colonial administration, headed by autocratic military men, was repressive and unpopular — and its incompetence was widely blamed for the catastrophic loss of Samoan lives during the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed 22 percent of Samoa’s population (compared to neighbouring American Samoa, where no lives were lost).
Anti-New Zealand feeling intensified after “Black Saturday” (28 December 1929) when New Zealand military police fired on unarmed Mau marchers who had gathered to welcome home two of their members from exile in New Zealand. Eleven Samoans were killed, including Mau leader and paramount chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, with many others wounded. A New Zealand constable was also beaten to death.
The Mau movement’s efforts eventually led to Samoa’s independence in 1962.