October 26, 2015

The Rugby Haka Debate

Attacks on Māori tikanga and taonga routinely place Pākehā who wish and work for a Tiriti-based future for this country in an invidious position. The targets of the assault are not ours and we rarely have the knowledge and spiritual connection to them that would support a direct defence. At the same time we know that there must be a vocal opposition to the attack because, as our Pākehā lore has it, silence means consent. An example of such attacks was provided by a Listener editorial that questioned the rightness of All Blacks performing a haka before international matches. The following was my attempt to challenge the thinking and claims behind the editorial.

AllBlacksHakaphotograph sourced from www.listener.co.nz

I was deeply disappointed by Pride and posturing (Oct 3 Editorial).  It was a strange piece of writing that gave voice to commentators who have command of English and a longstanding dislike of the All Black haka at the start of internationals. The English have been doing this sniping for generations yet you referenced them as if they were disinterested authorities deserving of our attention. Those commentators whether named or represented collectively come from the same population who shouted Swing Low Sweet Chariot to drown out the Fijian cibi before the first match of this World Cup.

You also spoke as if the All Blacks performed their haka by rote, going through the motions. That may have been true for some teams prior to 2004. In that year the All Blacks looked seriously at what they were doing and decided they needed to perform with passion and an informed awareness of why the haka was done. The visit the whole 2015 World Cup squad made to Ngati Toa (kaitiaki of Ka Mate, Ka Mate) to enable more understanding of and commitment to the ritual was a recent instance of that commitment.  It is very likely that the teams from Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, who also begin their matches with a challenge, marking their respect for their opponents, also work to ensure the players are invested in their performance.

Underlying the entire editorial were the voices of the early European visitors who labelled haka indiscriminately as ‘war dance’, something they found intimidating, entertaining, and irritating, often all at the same time. By only using that label they helped obscure the existence of diverse haka that include those performed by women. Had more New Zealanders had the opportunity to understand tikanga Māori and to speak te reo we would could make informed choices of the most apt haka collectively to celebrate, to express grief, or to express anger. Despite such limitations, the Evers-Swindell twins found the most moving part of winning Olympic gold was having their teammates perform the haka for them.

Raymond Nairn


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