Recently I’ve been enjoying doing a bit of research into the history and role of the church in New Zealand. The impression I had was that the Kiwi church was dominated by large Pentecostal churches and Brethren communities engaged in political activism around conservative family values.
All of which is fine, but I’ve discovered the Christian church in New Zealand has a long and rich history of engagement in big issues like nation building, racial reconciliation, social activism and evangelism.
An Anglican missionary did the primary work in understanding the vocabulary and grammar of the Māori language. And another Anglican missionary translated the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s primary founding document, into that language, so it could be signed by Britain and over 500 tribal chiefs in 1840.
In a previous blog post I retold the story of that first man, the missionary, linguist and arms dealer, Thomas Kendall.
In another post I looked at the inspirational story of the Māori prophet, chief and Christian leader in passive resistance, Te Whiti.
In this, my third attempt to dip my toe into the Christian history of New Zealand, I want to focus on a woman to whom the title Mother of the Nation was bestowed — Whina Cooper.
Born Hōhepine Te Wake in 1895, Whina was raised in a devout Catholic family committed to social justice and Māori land rights. Her father Heremia Te Wake was a lay leader in the church and young Whina idolized him. He encouraged her passion for justice and her energy for activism.
The family was from Te Karaka, near Gisborne in the east of New Zealand’s North Island. Whina quickly assumed a leading role in both church and community activities there. She worked closely with the Sisters of St Joseph and the Sacred Heart to provide education to young women, and to promote women’s rights.
After the death of her second husband William Cooper in 1949, Whina decided to move to Auckland and involve herself in national activism. She helped found the Māori Women’s Welfare League, which worked on improving the conditions for Māori women, working on health, housing, education, and welfare.
At the age of 62, she stepped down as their president and the League rewarded her with the title Te Whaea o te Motu (“Mother of the Nation”). In 1974, when she was nearly 80 years old, she was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). That same year Whina told the Auckland Star that her public life was over.
If that was the end of Whina Cooper’s story it would be a great example of Catholic welfare work and social activism. But Whina Cooper’s finest moment was still coming.
In 1975, a coalition of groups formed Te Ropu o te Matakite to combat further alienation of Māori land. They needed to highlight the ongoing injustice of land confiscation, and so they reached out to the Mother of the Nation to lead them.
Whina proposed a land march, a 1000 kilometer (620 mile) protest walk from the tip of the North Island to the capital, Wellington. Furthermore, she proposed that she, an octogenarian, march at the head of the group.
Her slogan, “Not one more acre of Māori land” became a catch-cry for those struggling for land rights.
The march was a national event. It was reported this way:
“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 march took two months and at its peak attracted 5000 marchers.
Whina Cooper led them into Parliament grounds on 13 October, 1975, where she presented the prime minister with a memorial of rights from 200 Māori elders, and a petition supporting the objectives of the march signed by 60,000 people.
Interestingly, the protest fractured somewhat after the conclusion of the march, with different leaders proposing different ways to capitalize on Whina’s extraordinary achievement. The New Zealand Herald reported,
“The conduct of the march itself, however, had been an eloquent tribute to Whina’s energy and mana and a potent symbol of the Maori cultural renaissance which gathered momentum in the years that followed.”
Whina Cooper returned to Te Karaka, the home of her birth and her early faith and activism. She died there on 26 March 1994, under Panguru mountain in whose shadow she had been born 98 years before.
Many thousands of people attended her funeral, and more than a million watched it live on television.
Before she passed, she was asked to reflect on her role in the 1975 land march. She replied,
“Some people were wild at me. They said things like, ‘Oh that woman. She’s taking the part of a man.’ I thought to myself, I suppose they’re partly right. But I’ve never stopped the men doing anything. I’d been waiting for years for men to put the world to rights. And they hadn’t.
“Well, God gave me eyes to see, a head to think, a tongue to talk. Why not use them, why not share what I know? That’s what I kept thinking. That’s what kept me going.”