Being made a dame is an outstanding achievement but for Areta Koopu it is in achievement for everybody who has come before her and behind her.

"I'm am absolutely flattered and flabbergasted really.

"As a Māori I always knew it was never about me - it was always about we, so I accept it on behalf of my people."

Today Koopu (Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngāti Kahu), is the only Māori woman to be made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Māori and the community.

Advertisement

She has had more than 30 years' experience in social services, in paid and voluntary capacities and she is firm in the idea it was never about her.

"We should always remember there is someone coming behind us," Koopu said.

"Make sure the rope behind you is there so that others can grab onto it."

Being the National President of the Māori Women's Welfare League from 1993 until 1996 and a Human Rights Commissioner from 1996 until 2001 would keep anyone busy but Koopu has also been a member of the Waitangi Tribunal, the New Zealand Māori Council, a trustee of the Māori Education Trust and Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board.

She said her journey began in the 1950s when she watched her mother baking cakes and getting excited about issues for Māori woman when part of the Māori Women's Welfare League.

Areta Koopu is now a dame, but says her family is her greatest achievement. Photo / Michael Craig
Areta Koopu is now a dame, but says her family is her greatest achievement. Photo / Michael Craig

"Would you believe they are the same issues now - like welfare and homelessness?"

Working through the ranks for an organisation with the potential of women at the heart, it is easy to see how Koopu embodies this now with every word she speaks being one of aroha.

Koopu began life in Rotorua in the 1960s when her husband moved for work and said, "we built a home like everybody does and we had our family there".

Her good friend Mary Irvine enticed her into marriage guidance where she worked for more than 20 years.

"It was a two-year training period that I found so enlightening and it helped me with my own marriage as well as my children."

Years later Koopu had five children and now mokopuna to add to her ever-growing family.

"I suppose I have to say this [dame] is my greatest achievement but among all of that, I always felt having a family and seeing them grow up to be contributing citizen was."

Reflecting on te ao Māori as it stands today, Koopu loves the abundance of reo, which didn't exist when she was growing up.

"My mokopuna have all gone through kōhanga reo. It made our hearts as grandparents just sing."

She remembers in 1971 listening to a school board arguing about teaching Māori in schools and to this day cannot understand why it is not compulsory.

"I remember saying to them, 'the minute you get off this island everybody speaks two if not three languages with no difficulty'.

"I think it's our right."