On 14 September 1975, fifty marchers left Te Hāpua in the far north of Aotearoa New Zealand for the 1000 km walk to Parliament Buildings in Wellington. The hīkoi (march) was organised to raise awareness about the catastrophic loss of Māori land rights since colonisation. Led by 79-year-old Dame Whina Cooper, the hīkoi grew in strength as local people joined in along the way. About 5000 marchers arrived at Parliament on 13 October, where they presented a petition signed by 60,000 people to Prime Minister Bill Rowling.
I was nine years old when this photograph of Dame Whina Cooper and her granddaughter setting off on the hīkoi was taken. I don’t remember the event and yet the picture is meaningful to me. It hangs on my office wall, and often captures my attention as I glance up from the computer. I’ve always thought this is because it encapsulates what I feel is most important in life: children. The next generation. Our future. But why this picture and this particular quote? Why does it resonate with me so much? I decided to investigate further …
Was it because of my roots? I am a Pākehā (non-Māori New Zealander), but I was born and bred in Rotorua, surrounded by Māori culture. My father, who was originally from Bluff in Southland, was highly regarded within the Māori community – so much so that when he died, the Māori community wanted him to lie on the local marae for his tangihanga (funeral). Grateful and moved, but caught up in the life-changing devastation of his sudden death, my mother declined. My memory is that the decision was completely understood and respected by the elders of the Māori community. I was fifteen, but I understood then (and even more so now) what an absolute privilege and honour it was to be asked. I often wonder what life would have been like if we had agreed to this. Knowing what I know now about death and dying I admire how the Māori culture openly acknowledges death and grief, making it a part of life.
Dame Whina was dedicated to racial harmony, telling an interviewer on her 98th birthday that her final wish was “to see our Māori people understand the two races in New Zealand will love . . . that’s what you want, that love between two people.”
The Māori people of Rotorua certainly showed love to our family. Two cultures, one love.
Does the photo resonate because it portrays a tender, yet strong and determined, woman, one to admire? During her time Dame Whina faced opposition from some, often within the Māori community. Some opposition stemmed from being female and her determination to take on what many saw as a man’s role. She herself said, “I should have been a boy because I love men’s conversation – I’m not interested in fashion and all that.” She once shut up a man who said women should not speak on the marae, saying, “All men . . . the King, the Governor, the big chiefs . . . they all come out of a woman. Without women they wouldn’t even be alive.” She was strong, determined and brave. Yes, admirable.
Or does the picture resonate because I have worked in the area of child health for many years? I’ve always considered those early years so important for health and wellbeing outcomes, a view for which there is now much supportive evidence.
Dame Whina Cooper said:
Take care of our children. Take care of what they hear, take care of what they see, take care of what they feel.”
In 2018, would Dame Whina be proud of our nation’s care of our children? What value is placed on children and child health? Are all children, whatever their background, valued and prioritised or are they something to contend with? Are empathy and kindness displayed towards them? Are they given time and consideration?
We have a lot not to be proud of. We have children living in economically impoverished homes, bereft of physical needs, and we have children from rich to poor whose lives are impoverished by a lack of love and protection.
We also have a lot to be proud of. I keep meeting kind, bright, thoughtful, funny and empathetic teenagers. They’re also naturally self-absorbed, opinionated, phone- and selfies-obsessed, and at times uncommunicative! But I have every faith some of these teenagers have the mana to become a ‘Whaea o te Motu’ (Mother of the Nation). Let us see them, hear them and listen to them.
I don’t think of myself as ‘political’, but I believe in people. I believe in kindness and empathy. I believe in helping others, especially those in need. I believe in trying to lead by example. I believe in listening to and protecting our young, so they have every opportunity to develop into people who are willing to do the same for the next generation.
Now I look at this picture and understand why it resonates so much with me. It illuminates a significant part of our nation’s history. It signifies the importance of culture, generations and caring for our children. It represents my values. This is why it resonates. For me, this picture paints a thousand words.
Rachel Sayers is a Registered Nurse with a Master of Health Sciences. She is a researcher in the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Dunedin School of Medicine and a Lecturer at the Nursing School, Otago Polytechnic. Her father, Jack Doyle, was a graduate of Otago Medical School and a General Practitioner in Rotorua.
Read the Independent UK’s obituary for Dame Whina Cooper (1895-1994) here