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 . . .
Read the full Biography here
King, M. Whina. Auckland, 1983