When Whina Cooper became first president of the Maori Women's Welfare League in 1951, there were many who asked the question: Who is Whina Cooper?
Today there are few Maoris, particularly Maori women, who could not answer that question.
Though for years prior to 1951 Mrs Cooper had worked vigorously on Maori welfare projects her efforts had to that time been mainly concentrated in her native Hokianga area. Since 1951, however, she has become a national figure.
It was a long, hard road of achievement that took Mrs Cooper to the honoured position she now holds. Though she is of a high-born family there was a stage in her life when, as a married woman with a young family, she had no material possessions and lived in a nikau whare at remote Te Karaka, on the Hokianga river.
Though it is as Dominion President of the Maori Women's Welfare League she has become widest known some of the other positions she has held give her a claim to special mention as a national figure. Two posts in particular—President of the Panguru Branch of Federated Farmers (not women's division), and of the North Hokianga Rugby Union—mark her out as the forceful, enterprising woman she is. No other New Zealand woman, as far as is known, has held similar positions. Inquiries were once made overseas to try and trace any women holding down similar offices and none could be found. It may be, therefore,
Mrs Cooper is a tremendous personality with few, if any, inhibitions and an “afraid of no one” complex.
Of the many qualities which have brought her to the top the most conspicuous are those that single her out as a fighter—a fiery, hard hitting one too. She will not hesitate to demand when she judges that to be the most effective tactic, no matter how high or mighty be the person of whom she is demanding. She will relentlessly pursue her case till she gets satisfaction—there is no retreat. But she knows too that there are times when silence and meekness are golden. Her dynamic personality has been a wonderful asset, particularly in recent years when she has been one of the foremost in establishing and guiding the Maori Women's Welfare League.
Since the league's first conference in 1951 hers has been the responsibility for “selling” the league to the people. She has done this remarkably well. It is under her leadership that the league has become the successful and effictive body that it is.
Indivisible from the “personality” side of her however, is her clear, really tidy mindedness. She grasps in an instance the ramifications of a situation and quickly makes the approprate decisions.
Mrs Cooper has dominated many positions where one would expect to find a man at the helm. If this is her destiny then perhaps we can see the beginning of it at the time of her birth when she was baptised with the name Joseph.
At birth it was thought she was going to die, so in great haste in the darkness her father baptised her, Joseph, thinking his child a boy. That
was on December 9, 1895, at Te Karaka on the Hokianga river. Later, to make the name conform to the child, the name was changed to Josephine. From this came the contraction by which she is nationally known, Whina. Sometimes nowdays because of her extensive welfare work she is known as Awhina (help, befriend).
Mrs Cooper's father was the well-known Te Rarawa chief, Heremia Te Wake, of Panguru (Hokianga) where his word was law. Her mother was Kore, who, though a woman of Te Rarawa, had Taranaki connections.
Her principal tribal affiliation therefore is Te Rarawa; Ngati Manawa is her sub tribe.
Mrs Cooper's formal education was slender and of interest now not so much because of the effect it had on her but because of the man who financed it—Timi Kara (Sir James Carroll).
The little Te Wake girl had been attending the Panguru Maori school when her father approached Timi Kara for aid to get his daughter a good education. Timi's answer was: “Yes, she will be our girl too.”
So the young Maori girl from the Hokianga backblocks was sent to St. Joseph's (Catholic) College, Napier.
She was not, however, academically inclined and her school record is notable for the amount of mischief crowded into it more than the amount of study, though she did work quite hard.
Once, out of sheer devilment to impress the others with her gameness she jumped off the highest diving board available, but lacking the knowledge of how to make such a jump successfully, was sick for many days after.
She had no secondary education, finishing school with the attainment of her primary school proficiency.
Some years after leaving school she contemplated becoming a nun and went to Napier on holiday with the idea of furthering that ambition while there, but changed her mind and went home. She is to this day, however, a leading lay catholic.
After she returned home from Napier, she married, notwithstanding some tribal opposition, Richard Gilbert, a Whangarei Maori. The newlyweds lived with Whina's father and worked on his farm.
Following her father's death came probably the leanest period of her life—a period which she now recalls with pride because of the achievements across the intervening years.
With the settling up of her father's affairs the young couple returned to Whina's birthplace at Te Karaka and there built a nikau whare where the family, which included two children, lived. Those were hard, though in retrospect, somewhat glorious days of poverty, privation and struggle. The nikau whare was a grim shelter compared to her father's house. She recalls a pathetic incident now which typifies the plight of the family at that time.
One day, returning from gum digging, they found that the family pig had broken through the nikau walls of their whare and had torn their only sack of flour to pieces, spreading the flour over some sand. The flour had to be salvaged and was used for bread. Mrs Cooper feels she can till taste the sand.
But through hard work and good management the family began to prosper. Eventually they brought the fine house where they had lived with Whina's father. Later they brought a general store in Panguru.
Mrs Cooper was in that shop for 18 years and she feels it was a good university to her. For in those years she became familiar with most of the problems facing her people as well as gaining an intimate knowledge of the people.
She began to feel that her being well off while many others in the community were not, gave her little, if any pleasure. From that realisation she began her mission of helping others.
About that time Sir Apirana was starting the land development schemes. Here then was the very outlet she was wishing for.
Before development started in the north Whina went with the northerners to Rotorua where Sir Apirana showed them what was being done in Maori land development. In the evenings he used to ask them about what they had seen. He really examined them. Whina, being a woman could not of course, speak on the Arawa maraes to give her opinion but when the party was at the station at Rotorua, leaving for home, Sir Apirana asked her opinion. Her answer: “Give us the help (money) and we'll beat you.”
Two weeks later she got a wire to say Sir Apirana was coming to the Hokianga. There he met all the people at Panguru and explained that he had come to take them up on Whina's boast. He told the people he had come with the “man in charge of the money bag.” How much did Panguru want?
So land development began in the Hokianga. And the work went with a swing. Mrs Cooper still regards “the Old Man” with affection—really hero worship. She worked on his schemes, listend eagerly for his advice, took in all.
She knew the Hokianga lands intimately, consequently she acted, in a way, as Sir Apirana surveyor. In Panguru a gang of 80 did community farm work, from one farm to the next—clearing, fencing, drainage.
Mrs Cooper really feels she made good her Rotorua boast: “Give us the help and we'll beat you”—because the people did so much more work than was demanded in the contracts. It was course for their own benefit.
They were great days, she recalls. “Working together we were so happy. There was a thrilling community spirit.”
After this period, in association with her farming she took up breeding pedigree cows.
This was in fulfilment of a long-held ambition to raise the standard of cows in the area. But
she found the country not really suited to that type of breeding. She bred pigs also, getting a good beginning in the form of a sow and boar from Princess Te Puea. At that time she also had a timber mill of her own.
During the development era her husband had died and she had later married William Cooper, a Maori from Hawke's Bay.
When the war began she turned her immense energies to patriotic work being in charge of that work in the Panguru area.
But their were other activities too. Mrs Cooper fondly remembers the great hui at Waitangi in 1940, when the whare runanga was officially opened. According to custom no woman could cross the threshold of the house till the priest had carried out the te kawanga rites of consecration or removal of tapu. The honour of being first woman to cross the threshold fell to Whina.
During the war Mrs Cooper formed a Maori basketball association covering the Hokianga area. It was after the war that she became president of the Federated Farmers Branch and the Northern Hokianga Rugby Union. Both these organisations had pakeha members, the Rugby Union having more pakeha than Maori members.
For the past few years Mrs Cooper has lived in Auckland where she has taken a leading part in looking after the welfare of the Maori community.
Many pakehas too look to her for help and join the trek to the teko teko fronted homestead at 1 Cockburn Street to unburden their worries.
Pakeha as well as Maori organisations have come to recognise her qualities. Her organising ability in particular has earned high praise from Auckland civic leaders. The crowning ceremony to a Queen Carnival which raised £2,900 for a hostel fund was hailed by Sir John Allum, a former mayor, as the greatest spectacle of the kind, he had seen.
But the greatest commendation Mrs Cooper has had was when the Queen invested her with the M.B.E. during the Royal tour.
Mrs Cooper's work since she became league president is better known than her early work though perhaps not yet fully appreciated. But the league has gone on from strength to strength.
Not the least of the league's qualities is that of fighter for the advancement of Maori womanhood. Its champion is always Whina, who has fought and won so many battles in the cause of Maori progress; she who from the nikau whare has risen to the most honoured public position for a woman in Maoridom today.