Māori issues

Whina Cooper’s influence lives on in Ihumātao action

On a day when Dame Whina Cooper’s historical contributions to Māoridom were recognised, the Government received a reminder that one of her causes - preserving Māori land -  remains alive and well.

With a population of fewer than 500 people, Panguru is an unlikely place for about a third of Cabinet to spend the best part of a day.

But the crowd of politicians and public alike who flocked to the northern Hokianga township for the unveiling of a statue of Dame Whina Cooper was a sign of the respect she still holds, more than 25 years on from her death.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described her as a “shining light” to wahine around New Zealand, while Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters hailed her “true grit” and courage.

“Whina walked down to Wellington 45 years ago - today, Wellington has arrived here to honour her,” Māori-Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis said of the gathering at Waipuna Marae.

As Davis noted, the unveiling of Cooper’s statue comes 45 years after one of the Māori leader’s final acts in public life - the Māori land march of 1975, in which a hīkoi from the Far North to Wellington ended with 5000 people outside Parliament calling for an end to discriminatory laws that threatened Māori land.

The hīkoi did not suddenly solve all land claims, but it did make clear the power of Māori if they united with a clear message - in the case of the land march, “Not one more acre”.

Both the lack of resolution and the power of protest were fittingly given a contemporary showing, as a hīkoi calling for the Government to take action on Ihumātao walked over the hill and joined proceedings.

Among those who marched on Panguru was Wikatana Popata, once convicted of assault for shoving John Key at Waitangi but now an adviser to the Government after altering his approach to protest.

Ihumātao hīkoi participant Wikatana Popata said Dame Whina Cooper would have been happy with the group's actions. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

“She was a kuia of ours who fought, who hīkoied all the hīkois from the Cape to Wellington, and some of us activists are here today to support her and to support the ongoing struggle of tino rangatiratanga,” Popata said of Cooper.

And what would she have made of the hīkoi to demand action on Ihumātao?

“What she would have wanted was our generation to step up to the plate and take on a lot of these issues that are in front of our people, our mokopuna, so I reckon she would have been happy.”

Another protester, Grayson Goffe, aptly summed up the peaceful mood among those gathered.

“That’s our main purpose for being here: not to rouse or ruffle feathers, but rather to join in the korowai of rangimarie (peace) and the korowai of te ao Māori.”

But that did not stop a sense of discontent from spreading among the hīkoi when they were not allowed to walk onto the marae at the same time as Ardern’s delegation and manawhenua.

“There’s a lot of issues that need to be addressed and we’ve just seen that today: we had the hīkoi doing its own hīkoi, and then we had the Prime Minister and others on another hīkoi so you can definitely see that there’s still a bit of division and we need to unite,” Wikatana said.

Ihumātao was not alone, he added, mentioning “occupiers at Kaitaia Airport” as another case which should be addressed.

Of Ardern’s rhetorical question about what Cooper may have raised in a conversation with her, Goffe gave an unequivocal answer.

“The Prime Minister asked, what would Whina Cooper say to her? Well I think she’d say, ‘Get your behind to Ihumātao’.”

Ardern is showing no signs of an imminent trip or a resolution to talks, while she also managed to avoid an encounter with Ihumātao figurehead Pania Newton, who was at the statue unveiling and will also be at Waitangi commemorations - "I'm sure we will cross paths," she said - but she stood behind her Government’s approach to a politically and legally tricky situation.

The statue of Dame Whina Cooper. Photo: Sam Sachdeva 

“That’s an example of where we’ve been trying to find a resolution in a really complex situation that works for everybody. I’d like to think that’s the kind of work Dame Whina Cooper would like to see a government [doing]...

“if there was an easy answer we would have found it by now, but we’re working through it and we’re doing it with all parties at the table. I think that is an important approach, and a difference perhaps that we’re seeing in the way we’re trying to resolve the issue.”

That optimism was echoed by the protesters, even though they may have reasons to be wary.

“I’m from Taranaki, from Parihaka, we have very strong connections to Ihumātao,” Goffe said.

“Of course we align to rangimarie (peace), but indeed we align to optimism because the Government knows what is the right thing to do, and what we have seen is the people rally behind what’s right.”

In closing her tribute to Cooper, Ardern also balanced realism with the sense that more can, and will, be done.

“We brought Wellington here as an acknowledgement of the expectation Dame Whina had on us, an expectation you all must continue to have of us.

“I am here to acknowledge that we are not perfection, but as long as we have examples like her, there is hope for all of us.”

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