Dame Areta Koopu: Māori Women’s Welfare League, New Zealand Order of Merit

Dame Areta Koopu: Māori Women’s Welfare League, New Zealand Order of Merit

By |2019-11-14T03:31:35+00:00November 7th, 2019|Business & Economy, Community, Interviews, New Zealand, Women of Impact|
As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.

In June, 2019, New Zealand named Areta Koopu Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Dame Areta Koopu was previously a member of the New Zealand Māori Council, National President of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and a Human Rights Commissioner.

BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG


Congratulations on your recent appointment!  What needed to happen for you to get to where you are?

I suppose because I am an indigenous woman, we always seem to be on the back foot. And so, as an organization for Māori women, I found it interesting that women were all across the spectrum. One of the things we really needed to do, and our organization certainly did it, was to be able to contact each other, to be in constant contact.

We have the Māori Women’s Welfare League. We are still going after 67 years. 

If you were a president, like I had been, we formed the Māori Women’s Development Inc. That was to help our people get into business. It meant a bit of education. It meant quite a lot of mentoring. Because we are always the highest negative statistics in everything around social welfare, it meant, what is the thing that is going to change it?

And we found that it was contact. It was being able to share your tribal backgrounds. It was being able to show the usual things. You needed a lot of empathy with some of those women, who were the first time being allowed to go on a holiday. And many of them felt staying in a motel was fancy.

What I enjoyed about the women was being able to listen. I suppose listening to women and having some empathy with them allows them to feel change might be possible. 

It really just starts from a conversation? 

Yes, and the government at the moment is looking at why we have such a high rate of beating our children or beating our women. What they will not do, of course, is tackle the family. My belief is, if you change the parents, they will fix up their own children.

But if you take the children off them, like we do, they spend their whole time in care running away, trying to get back home, even as bad as it was. What we were always saying: what is the system saying?

Another thing we found: by giving all of our ideas and ideologies to the government, they thought they could carry it out. Somehow, it did not work. For 30, 40 years, we have been doing the same thing and it is not working. So we are now at the point of saying to them, I think we should do it ourselves.

In little areas, people are beginning to create their own ability to work with their families and ask the government to help them by giving them the money. 

Give me an example of that. I mean, what in the past would be giving out a hint for the government to solve? And where do you see the community taking leadership and solving its own challenges?

We are very much at the beginning. We are just beginning to say, this is what we think we should do. We have had successive patents and programs.We can look at where they have nearly gotten us there, but then they have come up short. Government policies do not allow them to go all the way to trust us.

I think it is a very deep-seated problem from colonization. We have got quite a long way to go.

It is really challenging, right? If you look at the government, there is an election every four years. Then there is a new group of people. How do you carry out a long-term vision? 

The [elected officials] only have three years. The first two years, they try  to do something. Then they are totally in election mode.

But a lot of us are not in politics. You have to walk alongside them. We find politicians are getting younger, and therefore they have less history and less corporate understanding. You go back to square one with some of them.

We really have to be careful. Our teams have to have people that can carry on with the programs.

Apart from obviously listening and taking back the power to drive change in your own community, what are some of the ingredients that are needed to impact cultural, social, and economic issues?

A lot of us are saying, is this the society we want for our people? That they are drugged out of their brains, and therefore are having all of these children who are already affected by the drugs that they took while carrying them?

History tells us that we were really quite smart. Most of us have mixed with the indigenous world who value the way Māori live in New Zealand. It behooves us to go back and pick up those patterns rather than the modern day drugged out sort of a person. 

I think globally we are actually coming to a point where we are looking at indigenous populations of different countries, and are up in arms about how now we collectively move forward. 

Yes.

The issue is a global question mark, right? What is your vision on how to heal not only the indigenous community, but how we collectively help each other move forward?

Because we are only 600,000 as a Māori population, we are not very big. Even the entire population of New Zealand is about 5 million. We are kind of a goldfish bowl community.

What we are saying is that whatever we can fix for ourselves will be good for everybody in New Zealand. The catch phrase for the government really is, what is good for Māori, it is good for all of us.

Give me an example of what happened that had an effect on the current situation.

Historically, we were a trading people. When they [West Europeans] came in, they came with the notion that we were savages. We were natives simply because we fought with each other. Like the British did not fight each other?

Not only the educated people came to New Zealand at that time. Australia was taken by a lot of prisoners. In New Zealand, we were settled by a lot of traders, sailors. I think the idea was that we would be the workers.

That kind of a notion has gone through generations, for 200 years.

We were not allowed our own language. We were not allowed our traditions. They thought by 1910 we would have all died out. 

Over time, we have been allowed to reestablish our gathering places where we meet. We have been allowed to reestablish our language, which is flourishing. You will find children who come through with the language, have learned about our world and our history. They have a different view of the world in front of them.

Would you say, you are hopeful?

Absolutely, absolutely.

But of course, you always have part of your population. I do not even think it is 10% that are drugged, that are thieves, that are in prison. They keep saying half the population is in jail. What they really should say is we are half the population of those in prison, meaning everybody.

It always makes it sound like half of Māoris are in jail.

The current government, while they are sympathetic at the moment, they are still patronizing. A lot of it is unconscious.

You can see it, but they can not. You have to be careful how you wake it up in them. 

It comes through education and understanding behavior and language, having listening skills.

You have said that your parents pushed education. They were very influenced by Māori statesman Sir Āpirana Ngata? What do you remember from a time growing up with his children?

He had lots of vision for us. He was one of our first lawyers; education was everything to him. From education, you get health. My mother was a health fanatic. There are seven in my family, and we are all still alive. Three of us are 80 and older. That did not happen in the Māori community for a long time.

The land we own in New Zealand is Māori land; it is inherited land from my grandfather. We have cows and sheep.

The families make up the Hapu and all of the Hapus make up the tribe. You might get 100,000 people in one tribe. 

Sir Āpirana Ngata MP had ideas of how the future might look. In the early days, he asked my grandfather, for instance, and his cohorts to combine the farms. Our farms were too small—we were not going to survive. If we were to hold onto Māori land, then that was the way to do it and it has proven so.

That is how we have survived as a tribe.

His philosophy was: with your hands, look at the things of the colonizers. With your head, keep the things that are Māori. With your heart, give in to God. 

Those are the wonderful philosophies we grew up with. 

What do you remember growing up in that time? What was that like?

We always thought about it as hard work. Because there were no supermarkets, the food we grew was the food we ate. We had a half-acre with the farmers. We also had three quarters of an acre in Gisborne town. 

My mother bought a fairly big property in town. My father was not from the same area as my mother.  His family was poor and they were looking for work. A lot of them hopped on the boats and came around New Zealand. My grandfather hired him because he was really good with animals. 

My grandfather told my father, I hired you for the animals, not to court my daughter.  [Laughs.]

 My father did not seem to be around enough in my life. He was 51 when he died of a heart attack.

He made us get out of bed, and we were in the sea and had a swim. We would play  a game of tennis before breakfast. Then we went to school, and you were not going to leave school until you were 18—so get on with it.

Was that very unusual for girls—fathers pushing their girls to play sports and go to school?

I don’t think so; we always had a dual role. Nothing can start until the woman makes the first call for people to come onto your home, and then the men speak. I think men have learned a lot from colonizers, and that is where the mistreatment of women came. 

I was on some of the tribunals. We went to the places where the tribe hide the women and children so that the British soldiers could not kill them.

Our songs also tell us that women and children were very special, because without them you do not have a race.

I was a Human Rights Commissioner. We had to start a women’s refuge in Auckland for the Asian women coming to New Zealand.hey were being beaten and burned. I was so shocked to read that in some Eastern cultures, some women, even at work, if they did  something wrong, men would whack them. 

What is next for you? I know bringing back the Māori language has been a big focus for you. What else are you working on? 

I think encouraging women to work for themselves. We run a few education programs. They have ideas, but they have no idea how to go about it.

How do you keep a budget? Even when women get their loans, we have professional mentors coming in to look after them to make sure that they can survive in business for one year. 

Two weeks ago, we had our business awards in one of our cities here. We called the first one last year. A lot of the women did not want to enter. A lot of them did not think they were good enough, and many of  them did not want to take a day off work!

We realized there had to be another program that says do not live in your business!

This year’s winner is a young woman fashion designer.

What is her name?

Kiri

Nathan?

 Yes!

We interviewed her as well!

[Laughter.]

When you look at the businesses of the women you mentor, do you see an overriding industry that they are in, like food or apparel? 

They are in all of those. Because we still have sort of a rural farming community, there are women who will go out and buy cows when they are little. They feed them for 15, 16 weeks. Then the farmer buys them back for triple the price he sold them for.

But they like to buy those cows because they have been hand-reared. The women mix up the food and they know what nutrition to give them. That is a really successful business.

We have a lot of people experimenting with bringing back Māori natural medicines. Other women are making makeup from natural products 

It is as we revert to the authentic way of being.

When the British came, they brought a treaty with them and we signed it because we liked what it said. It said we were going to remain who we were. We were going to be able to hold our customs and our language. It was all lies.

The British themselves even say, every time they wrote a treaty, they broke it the next day.

But because, at that time, we were the majority and they were the minority, we got away with it. We have always had the treaty to fall back on that says, you came here and we would be partners.

The Crown always recognizes it. When the royals come out here, they acknowledge that we are partners.

If you  look at the time when there was a British governor here, Queen Victoria told him they were not to annihilate the indigenous people.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the act with Marion’s Welfare League was to re-establish our kindergartens in our language, Te Kōhanga Reo. In the early ‘80s, we got the first Māori language schools in Wellington. 

We were practicing, and we were pushing. Suddenly, the prime minister said, okay, we will give you a go. Then he changed his mind, but it was too late. We had it ready to go, and it was already set up. 

Unless we get in and fix our own theories up, it is not going to change. 

Give me a few words that describe your journey.

I think privileged. I have had an ordinary upbringing, like most people, but as an adult I have had lots of opportunities offered to me.

At one of the summits I went to in New York, African women asked, how did you get your government to listen to you?

How come you even get to talk to your government? What is this Treaty you have? How was a  tribunal established just to listen to your stories?

We are only a population of 5 million.

But it is not really about the numbers. If you can not get to the government because you are going to be killed, maybe you have to find another way. 

I think a lot of countries do not want to look at other countries as examples, because they always think their country is unique. They feel things that work elsewhere do not  apply just because they are a larger country. Somehow the laws of physics do not apply to their country. 

Let us borrow smart ideas and see if it works. 

I am quite happy to copycat! [Laughs.]

We have had successive governments make a lot of legislation just for them. It was not made to cover us. They have always found themselves backtracking. They go uh-oh that does not work. We forgot about Māoris!

So they have to call us in, and then we have to tell them their own story.

I think all this centers around educating the groups of people that hold power, right?

What are we going to say when our children look back, or our grandchildren look back? Already they are saying to us, we get some settlements through the Waitangi Tribunal. The Waitangi Tribunal is a body that listens to grievances by the Crown against Māori.

They make findings, and then they tell the Crown.

That makes a difference, because you can at least talk about what you think happened at that time. Our history has been told to us, and we might not have all the facts. But when the government goes and does its own research, they often find what we know.

The government decided that because they kept forgetting about us and made poor resolutions. When we settle, the amount they give you back is about 1% of what they took. Just because they say they can.

 I feel like there is a shift happening.

That is true. Otherwise, what have we all lived for if we do not make some changes?

Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8, 2019.

impactmania’s Women of Impact program received a U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.

For more information: [email protected]

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