A recent confrontation on the sports field provoked renewed debate about whether the haka, a traditional Maori war dance, has any place on the rugby field.
It’s an argument that dates back to 1888 when the All Blacks, the New Zealand Rugby Union team, first performed the ka-mate ka-mate haka before an international rugby match.
A Fox Sports commentator, Greg Martin, said the haka gives the New Zealand team an “unfair physical advantage” over their opposition and New Zealand Herald writer Beatrice Sullivan said the haka appears to “promote violence“.
The haka came under scrutiny yet again after New Zealand’s junior rugby league team confronted the Australians at Mount Smart Stadium on October 18. As the Kiwis were performing the haka, the Aussies approached and quite literally got into their faces, making for a very heated, intense altercation.
The New Zealand Rugby League president Howie Tamati slammed the Aussie response to the traditional war dance and told Fairfax New Zealand the Aussies response to the haka was “provocative and disrespectful”.
But what does the traditional dance mean to the culture of New Zealand?
Dr Timoti Karetu, the Maori Language Commissioner of New Zealand and Maori performing arts expert, told The Newsroom of the haka’s history.
“Haka were always performed [by opposing sides] before going into battle… Its purpose was to instil fear in the enemy and to incite the performer to ever greater heights of performance,” he said.
“The haka is very much part of Aotearoa (New Zealand in Maori) culture hence its performance by the All Blacks in acknowledgement of that fact.
“The problem with teams opposing the All Blacks is they have no response, cultural or otherwise, and should they wish to counter the performance of the haka they should devise their own strategy rather than just bleating about the fact that the All Blacks have an advantage. The advantage, if there be one, is perceived rather than actual. The haka is not performed right in front of the opposition but at a respectable distance away. To do so right in the face of the opposition is to court disaster.”
Dr Karetu said those who doubt the haka’s importance to a sporting event featuring New Zealand teams may feel that way because they don’t understand its importance to the Maori culture.
“The haka, like the hula ma’i in Hawai’i, is an integral part of Maori culture which does not have to be defended,” he said. “Performed spontaneously at the welcome to guests, or in the farewells to the dead, it can be both exciting and moving just as it can be in the celebration of victory and life. The outside world is only familiar with the All Blacks performance but know nothing of its performance within its own Maori context.”
Dr Karetu dismisses concerns about the haka promoting violence or conferring some advantage to Kiwi teams.
“All contact sports engender violence. [It’s] not the haka. [That] is a lame rationalisation for the thuggery on the sports field… Critics may say what they wish but I doubt very much that it gives the New Zealand team an unfair physical advantage. However, it might just do so psychologically, which was its original purpose.
“If a team is good, strong and well trained, they will win despite the opposition performing a haka prior to the beginning of the game. The haka is again seen as the rationalisation for a lame duck performance.”
Australian sports commentators and experts contacted by The Newsroom were all for the haka; sports commentator Tim Gore said it adds “spectacle, tradition and feeling”, though he said “it must be real and sincere”.
There’s more to haka than the form usually seen on the sports field. Kapa haka is a form of line dance where Maori sing and dance to express and showcase their culture through song and dance. Kapa haka expert Kallie Manukau told The Newsroom that kapa haka is a way for her to express and celebrate her culture and tell stories through song and dance.
“Being in kapa haka for me also brings a sense of home within me [and] keeps me connected to home. Being with the group… it becomes a family where we are constantly learning our language and history and the way we Maori people did things even stretching back all the way to legends.”
She explained the origin of the word haka – “ha” means breath and “ka” means fire in the Maori tongue.
“The breath of fire is a form of intimidation and strength and to show the other side we are united and strong, just like the All Blacks do.”
The ka-mate ka-mate haka, now the signature dance of the All Blacks, was created in the early 19th century by Maori warrior chief Te Raupahara of the Ngāti Toa Rangatira iwi (tribe). Te Rauparaha, fleeing from an enemy iwi seeking retribution against him, took refuge with fellow warrior chief Te Rangikoaea. After the enemy iwi had gone by, Te Rauparaha emerged from his hiding spot and in celebration of his lucky escape, first performed the ka-mate ka-mate in front of Te Rangikoaea and his people.
Miss Manukau told The Newsroom: “[Kapa haka] lets us express how we feel, whether it be joy, anger, sadness. It is also a representation of where we come from within New Zealand in our iwis. Kapa haka keeps our culture alive. The language, the confidence it brings to our people, the knowledge and background of who we are, and a sense of belonging.
“Not everyone will understand the importance of kapa haka or the culture, which is okay but if we can make you enjoy watching a kapa haka performance or even make you feel the emotion we are portraying through the song or take you on a journey, then that within itself is rewarding.
“You don’t necessarily have to understand what we are saying or the importance behind it. Generally if you’re watching a kapa haka group at a show for the public, there is normally a person who will tell you what we are singing about to try to give a little understanding.” – Noah La’ulu
Top photo from Kiwi Flickr’s Flickr photostream.