Whina Cooper was born Hōhepine (Josephine) Te Wake at Te Karaka in northern Hokianga on 9 December 1895. Her father was Heremia Te Wake, a leader of Ngāti Manawa and Te Kaitutae hapu of Te Rarawa and the son of an American whaler. Her mother, Kare Pauro Kawatihi, was of Te Rarawa and Taranaki descent. Whina was the first child of her father’s second marriage. Another daughter, Heretute, was born in 1897, and there were four half-brothers and three half-sisters from Heremia’s first family.
Growing up at Te Karaka and, from 1904, the adjacent settlement of Whakarapa, Whina was profoundly influenced by her father’s roles as community leader and catechist for the Catholic church, which had been established in the district since 1838. She received her Māori and religious education from Heremia, and showed an early interest in history and genealogy. Whina’s precociousness combined with her vivacity led her father to treat her as his favourite child and successor, which created stress within the extended family.
From about the age of seven Whina attended Whakarapa Native School, initially walking the six miles between Te Karaka and Whakarapa village. In 1907, with financial help from her father’s friend, Native Minister James Carroll, she went to St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College in Napier for secondary education. There she learnt to keep records and accounts and conduct correspondence, took recitation, cooking and sewing, and played sport. Back in Whakarapa in 1911 she refused her father’s request to enter an arranged marriage with the widowed leader of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tūreiti Te Heuheu Tūkino V. She chose instead to work in the local co-operative store, where she displayed a gift for organisation.
In 1913 Whina was appointed trainee teacher at the Pawarenga Native School on the south shore of Whāngāpē Harbour. She was one of three staff and the only one who was Māori. Her performance was praised but she became frustrated because parents sent their children to school by rotation and because she was frequently needed at home to help with community affairs. She resigned in 1914 and the following year became housekeeper at the Catholic presbytery in Rāwene. She remained there nearly two years.
Soon after Whina left teaching, a dispute arose over the leasing of mudflats at Whakarapa to a Pākehā farmer, Bob Holland. He and his sons began to drain the estuarine swamp in preparation for sowing grass and grazing cattle. Māori used this area to gather seafood when it was inundated and raced horses there when it dried out. While Heremia sought to challenge the lease through Parliament and the court system, Whina, then aged 18, led a party of younger adults who filled in drains as fast as the Hollands dug them. The police were eventually called and the Māori protesters charged with trespass, but by that time intervention by the Northern Māori MPs Peter Buck and (his successor) Tau Hēnare had resulted in the Marine Department’s withdrawing the lease.
Late in 1916 Whina moved back to her parents’ home and resumed work in the co-operative store. Soon afterwards she was drawn to a survey chainman working for the Native Land Court, Richard Gilbert, of Te Waiariki of Ngāti Wai from Ngunguru. Whina decided that with his good looks, physical strength and practical skills he would make exactly the kind of husband she needed. On 10 May 1917, telling nobody at Whakarapa but her parents, she took Gilbert to Rāwene and persuaded Father Charles Kreymborg to marry them. The marriage was witnessed by Richard’s brother Moses. When news of the wedding spread, the fact that it had been engineered without community discussion marginalised Whina in Whakarapa and added to her estrangement from her siblings.
Whina and Gilbert lived at her parents’ house, worked in the garden there and milked Heremia’s cows. So long as her parents lived, Whina was insulated from family and community disapproval. However, her mother died in June, and in November the following year Heremia succumbed to the influenza epidemic. Because he had failed to make a new will after his second marriage, her brothers evicted the Gilberts from the family home. They moved to family land at Te Karaka. All they took with them was their newly born daughter Carla Te Morehu, the clothes they were wearing, and a pig. They built a nīkau whare and attempted to live off the land and from the sea. Their second child, Gerard, was born there in 1919. Richard Gilbert became a timber worker at Tapuwae, returning home at weekends with money and food. Whina reworked kauri gumfields around Te Karaka.
The Gilberts were rescued from these harsh circumstances in 1920. Kreymborg, now parish priest at Whakarapa, had inherited family money. Concerned about community divisions following Heremia’s death and admiring Whina’s capacity for leadership, he offered to lend the Gilberts sufficient money to buy Heremia’s home and farm from her brothers and to purchase the village store. They would repay the loans from the combined incomes from the farm and shop. The Gilberts accepted the priest’s offer and Whina returned to Whakarapa.
As Kreymborg had anticipated, Whina demonstrated a flair for business. She bought goods in bulk from the United Kingdom and was able to increase the profit margin on sales. She exported kauri gum and Jew’s ear fungus (Auricularia polytricha) and acquired a launch and a truck. She worked long hours and within three years had paid off the loan to Kreymborg, built a new shop and storeroom in Whakarapa, added a post office to the business, and opened branches at Waihou and Mitimiti. In 1923 she called a public meeting that resulted in the name Whakarapa being changed to Panguru, to distinguish it from Whakapara south of Whāngārei. Richard Gilbert meanwhile ran the farm and continued work in the bush. Eventually the Gilberts were able to buy a second farm at Tautehere, replace their dairy herds and build new milking sheds. They bred pedigree Jersey cattle and won prizes for their calves. Whina founded and became first president of a Panguru branch of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union.
Whina quickly resumed a leading role in church and community activities. She trained a women’s committee to organise hui, tangihanga and fund-raising, and to offer hospitality to clergy and other visitors. They worked closely with the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who had opened a school and convent in the village. Frustrated by conventions that discouraged women from speaking on marae, Whina opened her own community centre next to the shop and called it the Parish Hall, so that it would not seem to usurp the functions of traditional marae. She built a clinic alongside the store, where patients could be seen by doctors and nurses as part of Dr G. M. Smith’s Hokianga health service. For recreation Whina played hockey, and coached rugby and basketball.
By the early 1930s Whina Gilbert’s position as Māori leader of the northern Hokianga was unchallenged. Scholars and public officials with an interest in the region stayed with her as a matter of course, among them Peter Buck, Tau Hēnare, Judge F. O. V. Acheson, Professor Horace Belshaw of Auckland University College, Dr Ivan Sutherland of Victoria University College, and Johannes Andersen of the Alexander Turnbull Library.
Legislation put before Parliament by Native Minister Sir Apirana Ngata in 1929 enabled Māori for the first time to borrow public funds to clear, drain, grass and fence land. A system of title consolidation allowed families to concentrate their interests in single blocks, which could then be developed as farms that would support whānau units. When he was looking for regional leaders to implement his programme for Māori land development, it was inevitable that Ngata should see Whina as one of the figures vital to the success of his strategies. He invited her to attend a national hui at Whakarewarewa in June 1932. The purpose of the hui was to explain to a cross-section of Māori leaders how the schemes could work and take them on a tour of those already operating around Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty.
Whina was favourably impressed by the schemes, and by Ngata himself, whom she saw as both a visionary and a highly practical man with considerable knowledge of farming. She invited Ngata and his officials to visit Hokianga in August 1932 to explain the programme in detail to her people and to organise the distribution of funds. This hui was held at Whina’s Parish Hall. It resulted in Hokianga being divided into 11 development schemes taking in 98,000 acres, of which 7,000 were in Panguru, Waihou and Motutī. Whina became official supervisor for the Panguru and Waihou schemes and unofficial adviser for nine others. Nine months later Ngata returned to Panguru with Prime Minister George Forbes, Māori leaders and members of the Hokianga County Council. A journalist noted that Whina was ‘the driving force’ at Panguru. Another report identified her as the ‘amazon excavator’. This was the first time she was noticed by the national press.
The man Ngata appointed senior land consolidation officer for the Tai Tokerau district, William Turakiuta Cooper of Ngāti Kahungunu, was, like Ngata, erudite in his knowledge of Māori culture and of farming. He had been Māori representative on the 1927 royal commission that investigated the confiscations of Māori land in the nineteenth century. As the northern Hokianga development schemes made rapid progress, largely as a result of Whina’s use of the ohu, or working-bee, model, she and Cooper consulted frequently and their relationship became a courtship. This coincided with a decline in Richard Gilbert’s health as a consequence of cancer.
When Gilbert died in March 1935 Whina was pregnant to Cooper. She announced this at a hui in Panguru and said that they intended to marry as soon as Cooper was able to obtain a divorce. The community reaction was one of shock and anger. Whina was not only challenging the customs of a Māori rural community, but she was doing so as a pillar of the Catholic church. Consequently, Whina withdrew with Cooper and her three children to Kamo, where they raised a family of four more children. Cooper later had his first marriage annulled and converted to Catholicism. They eventually married on 21 February 1941 at Ōtīria, the same day Cooper’s divorce was granted.
Even in exile from home and tribe Whina remained prominent in Māori activities. She organised catering for the opening of the meeting house at Waitangi in February 1940 and crossed the threshold first in the tapu removal ceremony. She and Bill arranged the renovation of Te Porowini meeting house at Taumārere. During the Second World War she threw herself into fund-raising for the Māori War Effort Organisation, arranging hāngī on race days and auctions of flax kits with delicacies, known as basket socials. Whina established close relationships with the minister in charge, Paraire Paikea, and with Te Puea Hērangi.
After their marriage Whina and Bill returned to Panguru. She gradually resumed a role as community leader, though with less support than she had enjoyed previously. Her attempt to organise the building of a carved meeting house in Panguru ended in rancour. Many of the dairy farms that had grown out of Ngata’s development schemes were proving uneconomic and Whina was unable to stop people walking off land they had cleared and grassed 10 years earlier. Her own farms continued to prosper, however, and she and Bill bought a further one at Tautoro. To help heal relations with the church, Whina Cooper donated six acres of land for a new convent and school, which opened in 1950. She was secretary and trustee of the Panguru Tribal Executive Committee from 1946 to 1952.
Whina continued to attract intermittent attention as a Tai Tokerau leader. She welcomed home members of the Māori Battalion at Te Kotahitanga marae at Kaikohe in February 1946. In April 1947 she became (as far as is known) the first woman elected president of a rugby union branch. In 1949 she took part in meetings of the royal commission as to surplus lands, but in August that year her life again changed direction sharply when Bill Cooper died suddenly from a heart attack. Feeling less able to deal with controversies that still surrounded her as a family and community leader, she decided to leave Hokianga. Her own children and grandchildren had become part of the movement of rural Māori into the cities. Her younger children needed secondary education. Whina decided to join the urban migration. Within a year she had sold some land and made most of the rest over to nephews. By the middle of 1951 she was established in a new home in Grey Lynn, Auckland.
Almost at once she found a new role as a pan-Māori rather than tribal leader. At the inaugural conference of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in Wellington in September 1951, Whina was elected foundation president. Her first task was to stump the country to establish local and regional branches. This gave full rein to her substantial powers of oratory and persuasion, and she accomplished the mission with triumphant success. She and her executive then turned their attention to devising programmes to improve the circumstances of Māori women and children and to liaising with local and national government and other women’s organisations.
One of the league’s first initiatives, instigated by Whina, was a survey of Māori housing in Auckland. This revealed that many immigrants from rural areas were crowded into insanitary dwellings and led the Auckland City Council and the Department of Māori Affairs to demolish slums and provide a higher quota of state and council houses for Māori tenants. The league also addressed education, crime and instances of racial discrimination in housing, employment and the health service. As the first national Māori organisation, its submissions were taken seriously by politicians and government departments. Whina established especially close relationships with National’s minister of Māori affairs, Ernest Corbett, and the leader of the opposition and Labour spokesman on Māori affairs, Walter Nash. As the public face of the league, Whina became the best-known Māori woman in the country, a frequent subject for newspaper stories and features. She was appointed an MBE in 1953.
By 1956 the league had more than 300 branches, 88 district councils and over 4,000 members. Some of those members were now voicing reservations about Whina’s growing inclination to act without consulting her executive and her assumption that she would remain president for life. The following year she was persuaded to step down and the annual conference rewarded her with the title Te Whaea o te Motu (Mother of the Nation).
Now in her late 60s, she stood for the Northern Māori electorate in 1963 as an independent but came sixth, receiving 257 votes to Matiu Rata’s 3,090. She raised funds for an Auckland urban marae, and for a Catholic Māori centre in the city, Te Ūnga Waka, which opened in March 1966. In 1968 she organised a Waitangi Day pageant at Carlaw Park to educate Māori and Pākehā about the significance of the treaty. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, her health declined. Appointed a CBE in 1974, she told the Auckland Star that her public life was over.
It was not. In 1975 a coalition of groups formed Te Rōpū o te Matakite to combat further alienation of Māori land. They asked Whina to lead them. She accepted and proposed a march from Te Hāpua in the far north to Parliament in Wellington, to dramatise Māori determination to retain their land and culture, and to galvanise Māori and Pākehā support. Thus was born the Māori land march, which took place in September and October of that year. Whina, now in her 80th year, was not only a visible part of Māori history again: she appeared to be at the helm. For the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who witnessed the march on the roads or on television, its most inspiring feature was the wizened woman who headed it with such panache and articulated its objectives in a cracked but firm voice.
The climax came when Whina led around 5,000 marchers into Parliament grounds on 13 October. She presented a memorial of rights from 200 Māori elders and a petition supporting the objectives of the march signed by 60,000 people to the prime minister, Bill Rowling. The aftermath was less decisive. Against Whina’s wishes, some 60 marchers remained at Parliament for the next two months as a tent embassy. Also, the submissions that Te Matakite made to parliamentary select committees were undercut by the group’s fragmentation into competing factions. The conduct of the march itself, however, had been an eloquent tribute to Whina’s energy and mana and a potent symbol of the Māori cultural renaissance which gathered momentum in the years that followed.
The imprint Whina made on the national consciousness in 1975 persisted for the remainder of her life. As she continued to preside over Waitangi Day commemorations and conferences of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, the press identified her as Mother of the Nation (a title later given to all foundation members of the league). She was made a DBE in 1981 and a member of the Order of New Zealand in 1991. She reached her widest audience when she spoke at the opening of the 14th Commonwealth Games in Auckland in January 1990. Her message then was one she repeated constantly in the last years of her life: ‘Let us all remember that the Treaty was signed so that we could all live as one nation in Aotearoa’.
Whina’s view of leadership was conditioned by the examples of her childhood mentors. She was never entirely comfortable in the Māori world of the late twentieth century, where leadership had come to reside in group decision-making, and where projects had to be patiently researched, documented and budgeted. She preferred to lead from the front and to rely on the inspiration of the moment to carry the day. This approach served her well for most of her life, but was a source of stress within Te Rarawa and at Panguru in her later years.
Whina Cooper had returned to Hokianga in 1983. She died there on 26 March 1994, under Panguru mountain in whose shadow she had been born 98 years before. The many thousands of people who attended her tangihanga and funeral, and the more than a million who watched its live television coverage, were evidence that the nation as a whole felt bereaved.