I never met the mother of the nation.
That was the name given to Dame Whina Cooper: Te Whaea o te Motu. I never met her, but her mana was such — is such — that her presence cannot be avoided. Especially in Hokianga.
When I travelled around that harbour of dreams in 2009, I visited places where she had slept, walked, worked and protested. Places like Te Karaka, her birthplace. There’s very little at Te Karaka today: a few houses and sheds, a wharf, a strip of beach reserve where I pitched my tent next to the mangroves.
But there are deep memories here. One is the night that Whina’s father, Heremia Te Wake, swam across the harbour from Onoke to Te Karaka after escaping from Mt Eden jail, where he had been imprisoned for a crime he had not committed. He swam the 1500-metre stretch in darkness with an injured ankle.
This, too, is the beach where Whina caught mohimohi (sprats) using scrim wall-lining as a net, frying up the fish for breakfast. At night, her father, a catechist in the Catholic church, would blow out the candle in the whare and listen to her recite her tribal genealogy, all the way back to Kupe, correcting her if she stumbled over a hard-to-pronounce ancestor. She fell asleep with the names of the tūpuna echoing in her mind.
Later, as a young wife and mother, she returned to Te Karaka. Again she lived in a nīkau whare, cooked over an open fire, washed the family’s clothes in a creek and dug kauri gum to supplement her husband’s wages as a bushman. Those years of hardship developed the vein of tenacity that became strikingly evident to the nation in 1975, when, at the age of 80, the arthritic kuia led the famous hīkoi from Te Hapua to Wellington to protest the continuing seizure of Māori land.
I once asked the late Pā Henare Tate, of Motuti — one of Dame Whina’s grand-nephews — what was the source of her gift of leadership. It was whakapapa, he said. She knew other people’s lineages better than they did themselves. And not only that, she perceived the family traits that work their way in various permutations through the generations.
“She could recognise momo — the physical, moral and psychological characteristics that equip a person for their role in life,” Pā said. “She could say, ‘You do this’ and ‘You go over there and do that,’ and her intuition was usually right.” Like the coach of a rugby team, she had the ability to deploy her players to maximum advantage.
Whina was steeped in her people’s knowledge base. It was a foundation she built on for the best part of 90 years (she died in 1994 at the age of 98). That was the decisive factor, said Pā. She converted knowledge into conviction and conviction into action. It was the wellspring of her authority.
In the new Te Kōngahu museum at Waitangi, a theatre plays clips of Dame Whina speaking during the land march. The mana, the ihi, the wehi are unmistakeable. Hers was a life of quality, inspiring awe.
Contemporary celebrations of Mother’s Day can tend to be fluffy, gushy and sentimental, with teary-eyed renditions of “A Mother as Lovely as You.” It is well to remember a different kind of mother, a tough, uncompromising mother who understood the power of protest and the political fray. A mother like Whina, Te Whaea o te Motu.