New Zealand is far ahead on reparations for indigenous - Dame Areta Koopu

By Jessica Tyson

Dame Areta Koopu is proud to say New Zealand is leading the way when it comes to reparations to Māori compared with any other indigenous culture in the world.

Dame Areta, of Ngāti Porou, has held positions in many organisations that advocate for Māori including being the president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, a member of the Waitangi Tribunal and a Human Rights Commissioner.

“I always felt very proud of what we've been able to put into the world for such a small nation but I think we always punch way above our weights anyway,” Dame Areta says.

It was her role as the Māori Women’s Welfare League president from 1993 to 1996 that opened Dame Areta’s eyes to the struggles of other indigenous communities around the world.

She recalls being chosen by the New Zealand government to attend overseas delegations and being the only indigenous woman at the events. 

“The one thing that I learned was from the African women who always wanted you to go to their workshops because they wanted to know, 'How did you get to talk to your government? How did your government give you a tribunal to listen to you? How did you do it? What’s Māori got that we can’t do those things?' And so I was really educated by all of that.”

Attending overseas delegations also gave her insight into the struggles experienced by indigenous Hawai'ian, Kānaka Maoili, and indigenous Australians, Aborigines.

“[Indigenous Hawai’ian] weren't allowed to be Hawaiians. They had to be Americans. They were struggling to keep the culture in Hawaii because it had been so commercialised. In Australia, the Aborigine people were looking at us, and their treatment as we all know was far behind, and that's why they say New Zealand is so far ahead.”

One of Dame Areta’s most memorable experiences was visiting a conference organised by Sami, an indigenous people inhabiting the region of Sápmi which today encompasses Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. 

The conference focused on the issue of how the Sami people had lost generations when their children were taken at the age of two.

“They were all taken away and they all had to learn Russian. So they just couldn't speak Sami anymore, couldn't speak to each other. The meeting that we went to was the first time that the Russian Sami had had an opportunity to talk to the Finnish and the Norwegian Sami. That's earth-shattering. They were all fighting to become indigenous again.”

Dame Areta is passionate about te reo Māori revitalisation and has served with the Māori Education Trust and Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust. She’s proud of how far the reo has come especially with the establishment of Māori Television and Māori radio stations.

“We're of that generation where we knew we had lost it and we were beginning to say, ‘Look, it hasn't taken us long and we've lost our land. What are we going to do about it?’ We were starting to do things, things were happening. So watching it all come back, it's been exciting.”

In 2019 Koopu was knighted for services to Māori and the community. Being a nanny to her five mokopuna keeps Dame Areta busy these days. She says her grandchildren are proud of her for becoming a dame.

“There is certainly respect but it's good that I always feel comfortable when they can have a joke about it… They're very proud in a way that when you talk about the experiences you've had, they all go, ‘wow’.”

Dame Areta Koopu appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. The new series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.