Kua hinga te tōtara i Te Waonui-a-Tāne
—The totara has fallen in the forest of Tāne
Rochelle Kupa (1963 – 2017), of Tuhoe and Tūwharetoa, was a class fighter, an educationalist, and a campaigner for Māori rights. After fighting an aggressive cancer for two years longer than what doctors predicted, Rochelle died on Wednesday, 22 March surrounded by whānau and friends. Rochelle joined the ISO in the last few years of her life in December 2015 when her cancer was already at a very advanced stage. Most of us would retreat from public life and spend what remaining time was left with whānau, but not Rochelle. She led a political life that would overwhelm the most healthy: she came to every meeting, every protest, every planning meeting of not just our own organisation but many others including Just Speak, No Pride in Prison, Pacific Panthers, and Legalise Marijuana. The last protest that she attended was in December 2016 outside the Russian embassy against the bombing of Syria.
Rochelle was a natural leader, and she quickly began to put herself forward for positions within the organisation at branch and national levels. In our last National Conference she was elected to the Appeals Committee – a newly formed committee that came out of discussions that Rochelle was pivotal in shaping and arguing for. Her document around Tikanga for the organisation was also adopted as part of our new Constitution at the same conference.
Here we publish a eulogy made at the service by her lifelong friend Leeanne Jensen-Daines.
Rochelle Gloria Wahanui Na was born 1st Oct, 1963 in Kawerau. A mill town at the height of its importance and a melting pot of people drawn to industry. It drew a beautiful young woman born Helen Yvonne Ruth Ward of English descent and Garry Rota Wahanui Na of Wairoa. His parents were Tuhoe of Ngāti Ruapani Iwi- Weri and Noni Wahanui.
Helen and Garry had 4 daughters at a time when money was good, living was good but bi-racial marriage was hard. Colonisation was real but not acknowledged and patriarchy with male privilege was also real and could be brutal. Rochelle was the eldest child. A daughter who was supposed to be a son. No sons meant that Roch was trained in her father’s love of martial arts. She was also a book worm academic from the beginning. A precocious child of the correct understanding of the word but part Maori and in those days it was the ‘but part Maori’ that could determine outcomes. She was of Tuhoe descent from a line of orators out of a tiny town called Tuai.
She was a fine orator, a raconteur both erudite, passionate and so, so funny. A word, a nostril flare or an eyebrow raise but it was mostly the Words. In the beginning was The Word – that was Roch. A girl who endured great hardship – not in the monetary sense when young, but physically, culturally and emotionally. It left scars, figured her mindset and created patterns that set her path for the rest of her life.
She lost her dad temporarily at a young age when her parents parted, she lost her mum to cancer when she was 12 years of age and she had been enduring and continued to endure years of abuse at the hand of a step-father.
She lived on the streets and survived it all by putting on the mantle of toughness. She was fit; hard on the outside but more importantly survived because she could talk – Wahanui – big mouth i.e. Orator. She was this up until the last 3 days of her life. She came back to Kawerau after having left the streets of Auckland and Wairoa at 16 years of age and she restarted at Kawerau College along with looking after her 3 sisters at their dad’s home in Kawerau. It was the meeting place for us all. Tea…tea…and did I mention tea…megalitres have been drunk over the years amidst a haze of smoke, always, until she gave up smoking finally a few years ago.
School was easy, she nailed it totally. I suggested she come to Palmy and Massey Uni where I was going. Get a Tu Tangata scholarship – sure it was for BBS but hey, she could do it. She applied, was accepted and off we went. We spent a lot of time together solving the World’s problems, discussing politics, International Relations and our love lives between assignments, the Fitz and the Awapuni pub – where we went just for dancing of course.
While she had a very liberating attitude to sex and life the one thing she was, was phenomenally loyal and exclusive in all of her dealings with those she loved. When you were in her circle she had your back and when she was in love with you, then, you had her heart. She went where her heart was taken. Every love story of hers ended in tears and upheaval except for the love story that was her ‘wee darlings’. Well there were tears and some upheavals but that was more about teenage hormones and being a parent.
She had a few people in her inner sanctum but her darlings Te Maanga, Tui Helen and Te Ata epitomised life to her. She was never going to fail at parenting, she would never abandon her babies. She would, with every fibre of her being, keep them young and innocent for as long as possible. She did that.
She loved Words – the sound of words, the structure of words and importantly, the Power of words. She used words to Protect, to Admonish, to Accuse and to Express her innermost self. This was driven by her childhood experiences and protecting her children from that therefore when she had she shared and what she had she looked after. No one else was going to know hardship, abuse, fear or feelings of powerlessness while she had the means to thwart it. Every opportunity within her abilities to grant she granted to her children and to those around her even if it meant she went without.
We had very different lives, different bases from which we were launched into the world. Her world was tough, so tough, but she never allowed it to define her or set her boundaries. Rochelle was not a statistic of anything because she made sure she overcame all those who wanted to stigmatise, identify or categorise her. She was her own woman; a woman identified woman – Strong, Powerful, Vulnerable and absolutely feminine.
She was a woman of Integrity. She loved Love and she was Love. Today we say goodbye to a woman who has stitched a large tapestry but left a thread lose. It is up to us to keep the loom active. We are here because we are her story as well. We need to be our authentic selves and own the Collective story. Her thread will then be carried on in a way that honours Rochelle and her line.
She is going to be missed by so many of us but let´s all remember that there are 3 darlings who have lost their mum. Rochelle hung on as long as she could. An aggressive lethal disease that was meant to take her within 3 months was held at arm’s length and controlled. She had 2.5 years instead because she had 3 gorgeous kids and Kellor who also fought that cancer, they enabled her to fight it and they supported her as she endured it.
We have your backs as mum had ours. We have your hearts as your mum had ours and we will take these next steps together- as you need us and when you need us. You are ‘our darlings’ now because her story is our story and your story is HER. Together we laugh, we cry and we remember.
Au Revoir beautiful Lady – go forth and Rock the Casbah down under the boardwalk by the sea.