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Celebrating our Maori Leaders Whina Cooper

Whina Cooper was born Hohepine (Josephine) Te Wake at Te Karaka in northern Hokianga on 9 December 1895. Her father was Heremia Te Wake, a leader of Ngati 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 Maori 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 Maori 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 Ngati Tuwharetoa, Tureiti Te Heuheu Tukino 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 Whangape Harbour. She was one of three staff and the only one who was Maori. 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 Rawene. She remained there nearly two years.

Soon after Whina left teaching, a dispute arose over the leasing of mudflats at Whakarapa to a Pakeha farmer, Bob Holland. He and his sons began to drain the estuarine swamp in preparation for sowing grass and grazing cattle. Maori 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 Maori protesters charged with trespass, but by that time intervention by the Northern Maori MPs Peter Buck and (his successor) Tau Henare 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 Ngati 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 Rawene 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 nikau 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 Whangarei. 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 Maori 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 Henare, 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 Maori 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 whanau units. When he was looking for regional leaders to implement his programme for Maori 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 Maori 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 Motuti. 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, Maori 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 Ngati Kahungunu, was, like Ngata, erudite in his knowledge of Maori culture and of farming. He had been Maori representative on the 1927 royal commission that investigated the confiscations of Maori 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.

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