Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Dame Whina Cooper

Whina Cooper Twenty years ago today, a 98-year old woman died in Panguru, New Zealand. Whina Cooper was born Whina Te Wake, daughter of the Maori leader Heremia Te Wake - though this didn't exactly make her a princess. She was born on the mud floor of a cookhouse, and though she was recognised for her intelligence and leadership skills from an early age, she still spent a great deal of her life working as a shopkeeper, a teacher, a gum digger, and a farmer. Maori aristocracy don't seem to enjoy the same kind of privilege as their British counterparts.

Her father favoured her before his sons, realising that she was something special. Sadly, this kind of attitude was all too rare. Maori women were usually expected to keep quiet when dealing with important matters - but she refused to be silenced. They were also supposed to marry whoever they were told to marry - but she made her own choice. She annoyed a lot of people, though her father protected her from the anger of the community. She endured hardship once he was gone, despite having proved her worth at the age of sixteen, in a protest against a white farmer who was trying to claim Maori land. She was too radical for some, in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Her greatest fame came in 1975, at the age of eighty, when she led five thousand people on a seven hundred mile march to Wellington to protest the seizing of Maori land over the last 135 years of European occupation. It didn't make any immediate difference, but the sight of an elderly, arthritic woman making herself heard helped to radicalise a younger generation of Maori activists. Yet when she accepted accolades from the establishment, such as her knighthood in 1981, she was castigated by some of these younger people for what they saw as a willingness to appease the domination of European colonists. She was too conservative for some, in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

She carried on all the same. As far as she was concerned, accepting awards just made her job easier. Civil servants couldn't refuse her calls when she was a Dame Commander of the British Empire (no matter how much they wished they could avoid the earache). This was useful when working for social causes, something she'd been doing for decades. She founded the Maori Women's Welfare League in 1951, which helped support people during the mass migration into cities. Her goals were anything but separatist, or violent. She was looking for racial harmony, not racial strife. Her last wish was that the two peoples of New Zealand learn to live together and love one another.

She was given many, many honours during her lifetime. But among all the honours bestowed on her in the name of the British Empire, there was one that was purely Maori: Te Whaea o te Motu - Mother of the Nation.

Here's a profile on her from New Zealand TV: