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30 Nov 2020 17:56
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  •   Home > News > Sports > Rugby

    Beyond the All Blacks — the power and meaning of haka in New Zealand today

    Growing up, I thought haka was just for the boys. I thought it was just Ka Mate, the warrior dance used by the All Blacks. But after the Christchurch attacks, I saw it in a new light, and went searching for its meaning in New Zealand today.

    My impression of haka growing up was that it was just for the boys — and mostly just for Maori boys.

    I thought haka was just Ka Mate, a warrior dance used by the All Blacks for more than a century to taunt their opponents.

    But after the Christchurch terror attacks in 2019 triggered spontaneous haka performances in streets, parks and outside the Al Noor mosque, I saw it in a new light.

    I'm a Pakeha, or white, New Zealander who's lived in Australia for nearly two decades. I still cry watching the videos of Christchurch High School boys, many of whom are white, doing haka.

    They look more than menacing. They look upset. Shaken. Fiercely defending their land, people and values.

    They showed us haka for a different purpose than to win a rugby match: to grieve, to show support, to show resilience.

    It made me want to know more about what haka means for Aotearoa now, and what it's meant in the past.

    Hope, honour and defiance

    While COVID-19 meant I wasn't able to travel to meet the Christchurch teenagers in person for my Earshot documentary, I was still moved as I listened to them speak.

    The attacks unfolded only one kilometre from their school, and they told me how they were spurred to show the Muslim community "some love and defiance" through haka.

    Maori students Jackson De Thierry and Luca Mackenzie asked their teacher if they could go and perform haka a few days after the massacre.

    They did their school haka outside the mosque, then walked across Hagley Park to the hospital.

    "There were thousands of Muslim people outside," recalls Jackson, 18.

    "After we finished the haka, they all came up to us and were hugging us. They were all happy and just really thankful that we went down there to support them."

    Christchurch Boys High head Maori teacher Daniel Hapuku says more and more boys joined in, all in tears.

    "For a few fleeting moments we managed to bring some sunshine onto those very, very dark days and honour their fallen and what had happened, and honour the injured and honour them as people who were still standing there in defiance as well.

    Luca, 17, says as a young boy he just saw haka as a dance, but as he's grown that's changed.

    "I always loved watching the older men do it. I just wanted to get involved, jump in, because they always look so fierce, so strong, powerful," he said.

    "The haka has made me a better person, as it has been with me my whole life. Being a young boy on the marae, learning the ropes at the back. And it's really matured me, grown me as a person.

    "It has been a part of me on my path to manhood. I feel great pride and it makes me feel invincible when I'm doing it."

    I was curious to know how Maori feel about others doing haka. I spoke to a lot of Maori in New Zealand of all ages. The answer overwhelmingly was about integrity and intention.

    Jackson explains you don't have to be Maori to do haka.

    "You just need to understand what the haka means and what the values are and just give it your all, not mucking around, joking around about it, just doing it 100 per cent."

    But there are varying ideas among Maori about the nuances of haka and who should perform it in what context.

    Women and haka

    Former Black Ferns rugby world champion Melodie Robinson learned when she was younger that the Ka Mate haka wasn't popular with her iwi, or tribe, because it's about a famous Maori chief that used to cause harm to her people.

    Robinson is also critical of women and girls doing Ka Mate, the old All Blacks haka, especially if they perform the male actions.

    Different haka are written for different situations, and some haka are written with either men or women in mind. There are particular actions that are considered more masculine.

    "You know, the widened legs — and it's really aggressive. And it really shows masculinity," said Robinson, now the general manager of sports and events at TVNZ.

    "And when you poke your tongue out, that also has specific meanings as well. That's about vitality, expressing yourself. And it also means the penis.

    "Women did do the wide leg stance. But usually that was to show real disdain."

    Recently the All Blacks replaced Ka Mate with a haka called Kapa o Pango.

    Some Maori are fine with women and girls doing all haka, including Ka Mate, so long as they do different actions from men.

    But Robinson feels more comfortable sticking to haka written for women, such as Ko Uhia Mai, written specifically for the Black Ferns.

    "The Silver Fern actually has a female frond called nga mamaku. And this haka also refers to the three goddesses of Maori culture who are pretty much like Wonder Woman."

    A mock haka and an 'absolute pivot point' for Maori affairs

    Haka is one of the world's most recognisable Indigenous performances.

    And in New Zealand, at least, there seems to be a greater understanding and respect of haka.

    But it hasn't always been like this. Something happened with haka in the late 1970s that spearheaded a significant change for Maori and Pakeha relations.

    Katie Wolfe is a Maori film, TV and theatre director and actor. She tells a story about haka that has long been buried.

    She's spent years investigating this event from 1979.

    Engineering students at Auckland University had a decades-old graduation tradition of doing a mock haka. There had never been any Maori students in the faculty so it wasn't performed correctly.

    "They would dress up in raffia skirts, work boots. They would put things like ice cream containers on the head. They would draw on their bodies. Crude words and or fake Koru signs, which is the Maori motif. And they would generally rampage around the university," Wolfe said.

    The students were often drunk and would take their haka into lecture halls, pubs, the mayor's office and then stop traffic down the main drag of Queen Street.

    It became an annual tradition that Wolfe thinks started some time after World War One.

    "But during the 1950s to the late '70s, the haka had become more and more boisterous, more and bastardised, they changed the lyrics of the haka to be quite lewd."

    Maori inside and outside Auckland University tried for years to get the graduation stunt stopped until finally a group of Maori activists took the matter into their own hands.

    "They went into the very last rehearsal of the students' haka and an almighty brawl broke out. This brawl lasted three minutes," Wolfe said.

    "And the haka by the Auckland Engineering Department was never, ever performed again."

    Some newspaper reports from the time claim the activists went in with baseball bats and that some people wound up in hospital.

    Many of the protesters were arrested and convicted of charges including rioting.

    But their actions changed Maori affairs forever, Wolfe says.

    "I believe it was an absolute pivot point for the idea of how structural or institutional racism sits within New Zealand society," she said.

    "The incident actually sparked an inquest at the New Zealand Race Relations. And I guess was really the beginning of what we call the Maori Renaissance right through the '80s.

    "There was this whole sort of recognition that we need to really start readdressing what true partnership is under the Treaty of Waitangi."

    A new engineering building at Auckland University was opened in 2019.

    The current students were taught a new haka. They performed it with integrity to a group of dignitaries, including one of the Maori activists that had stormed the Haka Party Room 40 years ago.

    Wolfe's spoken to the engineering students and Maori activists who were in the room during the Haka Party fight. She's told the story in theatre, in a digital installation at the Auckland Museum and a film is on the cards.

    Embracing Maori culture

    In the decades since I was at school haka has become more prominent and accessible in New Zealand society.

    Several Maori I spoke to promoted the idea of their culture evolving. But perhaps the rest of New Zealand is also evolving to embrace and understand Maori traditions better.

    Sam Moss migrated from England in 2014 and started doing haka in 2016.

    "I actually thought maybe I wouldn't belong in the haka group just because I'm not from New Zealand, I'm not native to the country," he said.

    "But I instantly felt like I was a part of the group and it just made me feel like I was part of the Maori culture."

    As a Pakeha, even though I've never performed haka, just watching it makes me feel more connected to my home country.

    And after chatting to lots of Maori, I was left with a warm feeling around Maori culture's continued renaissance.

    I asked Wolfe if she thought the reasons Maori do haka now are similar to why Maori traditionally performed it in the past.

    "I believe, yes, that the cultural integrity of the haka is still very much firmly in place. Because it is a means of storytelling," she said.

    "The storytelling within haka now reflects a post-colonial era and also a modern era as well.

    "While still being entrenched in the pre-colonial traditions of Maori, it very much is also part and parcel of contemporary Maori life."

    You can listen to Sarah Allely's documentary on the meaning of haka today on ABC Radio National's Earshot podcast.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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