On February 3, a memorial to Whina Cooper was unveiled in Panguru, in the Hokianga. Tainui Stephens was among those who went to honour the indomitable woman who led the historic 1975 Land March.
The first time I met Whina Cooper, her charisma hit me like a bus. This was the ’80s. She was in her 90s. I was in my 20s.
It was at a hui at Te Puea marae, Māngere, where all eyes and ears were on her as she delivered her whaikōrero from her wheelchair. That it was a woman speaking was an issue, but then again not. Because this was Whina. Her long and lofty reputation preceded her and drew you close, out of respect.
Whether in Māori or English, she was fluent and funny. She acted out her activist message in character, according to her whim. Her timing was impeccable and the bon mots rolled trippingly off her tongue. Then, with shrewd relish and clutching ancient fingers, she concluded:
Ka haere au ki Pōneke, ki te mirimiri i ngā raho o te Kāwanatanga.
(I go to Wellington to fondle the government’s testicles.)
That brought the house down. The oratory of the moment lodged into my heart. Everyone knew that she understood more than anyone the weight of each of those irreverent words.
Afterwards, when we met, I could feel her dark, deep-set eyes scan me as we pressed noses. Up close, she was sweet and solicitous. And, clearly, very, very smart.
As a young man, I enjoyed being with the elders of my own northern Māori world. I was hungry for their beliefs, and for the way they would articulate them in classic Māori, or eloquent English. Whina Cooper used her oratory and her charisma to rattle the unwise and battle the status quo of a nation still in denial about the Treaty. She did it for most of the 20th century.
A few weeks ago, on February 3, those who knew Whina, or appreciated who she was, gathered in Panguru, Hokianga, to unveil a memorial in honour of her words and actions.
The single road into town was clogged with locals and visitors. A hīkoi that had started in the Far North and was heading to Waitangi, came via Panguru, bearing their flags laden with history and tears. They were a new generation of young citizens whose native hearts were beating to the memory of Kahurangi Whina Cooper.
As I consider what she did in her era, I’m proud when I see the faces of my peers. We were all teenagers at the time of the 1975 Land March. It was the second big event of the decade that turned some of us into activists in our own lives. The first was Hana Jackson and Ngā Tamatoa’s 1972 petition for the Māori language. The third was Joe Hawke and Ngāti Whātua’s occupation of their own Bastion Point land in 1978.
As young people, we left the 1970s forever changed by what we had learned about our language, our land, and our tribal sovereignty. We wanted it all back. We went to Wellington often to demand it.
But this February day, Wellington had come to Panguru. Jacinda Ardern, the PM, was happily present, along with her partner Clarke Gayford and their daughter Neve Te Aroha. Her retinue of fellow Māori parliamentarians were, for the most part, northerners — their surnames (Peters, Jones, Davis, and Hēnare) reminding us of families who’ve contributed greatly over decades to the lives of the Tai Tokerau tribes.
As ever in the forum of the people, a place was found for everyone to speak, or at least be represented. There was a stunning array of wonderful orators who never got a look in. No one cared, because it wasn’t about us, it was about Whina. The glorious day offered a delicious soundtrack of speech and song, lessons and laughter, in generous measure.
For several decades, Whina’s astute brand of leadership had been shaped by the traditions of her elders and powered by her own mighty self-confidence.
Whina was born in Te Karaka in northern Hokianga on December 9, 1895. Her father, Heremia Te Wake, was a leader of Ngāti Manawa and Te Kaitutae hapū of Te Rarawa and the son of an Amerian whaler. He was also a catechist in the Catholic church — to which she remained faithful throughout her life. Heremia provided Whina’s Māori and religious education, stimulating her early interest in genealogy and history. She could recite her tribal genealogy all the way back to Kupe.
Clever, strong-willed, and tenacious, Whina haunted Māori and Pākehā bastions of male power with neither fear, nor any likelihood of being ignored.
Her catchcry of “Not one acre more” ignited the modern Māori land rights movement. The 1975 Land March started at the very tip of the tail of Māui’s fish, in Te Hāpua. For one month, the 80-year-old Whina led the marchers for a thousand kilometres. They stayed at 25 marae as they ascended all the way to the head of that fish, the seat of Pākehā political power.
This indigenous land rights movement known as Te Roopu o Te Matakite started with 50 marchers and ended up with 5,000 assembling on the forecourt of Parliament. A 60,000-signature Memorial Of Rights was presented. It was a demand for justice that had a profound impact on New Zealand’s emerging nationhood.
The history of Māori shows that social progress comes only after mobilisation. Collective effort occurs only where there is hope. Hope is an act of love. And, for Māori, that love is shaped by our relationship to the land, our environment, and one another.
But it was the moment when Whina and her mokopuna Irene started the march along the dusty northern road which provided the inspiration for the new monument.
When the time came to unveil the memorial, her son Hōhepa pressed the button that started the slow emergence of the statue on its tall plinth. Time then stood still as the Māori Psalm For The Dead soared above us all. This exquisite hymn of harmonious statement and response is one of my favourites. I go howly bags right away. It never fails to conjure up, for me, long-lost faces and aching feelings for the dearly departed.
And so, the statue was revealed in its place, among the people, with the bittersweet aroha of our memories.
For some, naturally, memory only goes back so far. Outside of Tai Tokerau, I come across a startling number of people under 30 who don’t know of Whina Cooper. Or they only know of the iconic photo. They may be familiar with the story of Pania Newton and Ihumātao but know little, too little, of those who came before. The expected new school history curriculum must fix that.
Whina was 98 when she died in 1994. The indomitable spirit of a frail old lady who was never frail resides in the Nahareta cemetery beneath her beloved Panguru mountain. Whina Cooper’s spirit also lies with the veterans of the momentous Land March and is born again in new generations of Māori activists. This iconic Kiwi earth mother dubbed Te Whaea o te Motu (Mother of the Nation) continues to speak. In death, as in life, she will be listened to.
In the discussions around the marae, I heard Whina’s main concern repeated many times. It’s a simple one:
Herea te tangata ki te whenua!
(Bind the people to the land!)
This is what makes us tangata whenua. This is what opens us to the truths of nature. This is us.
I’m in my 60s now and still collecting the uttered wisdoms of the old people. I left the gathering at Waipuna with more of Whina’s oratory carved upon my heart.
Take care of our children
Take care of what they hear
Take care of what they see
Take care of what they feel
For how the children grow
So will be the shape of Aotearoa.
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