ĀteaSeptember 4, 2018

Whakawhiti te rā: New Zealand sport, haka and the Māori perspective


From an erratic flailing of limbs to the psychological powerhouse we know today, little is known about how haka developed into a steadfast tradition in New Zealand sport. Leonie Hayden talks to post-grad student Nikki Timu about how it all started and how Māori can shape its future. 

Kapa haka has always been important to Nikki Timu (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Ranginui). She lead Manurewa High School’s kapa haka group Te Ahikaaroa to Polyfest in 2004, and has been a passionate advocate since.

But it wasn’t until post-grad study after gaining a degree in sport management that the subject of haka in sport solidified as an academic interest – a natural intersection of her love of sport, education and kapa haka. In August she submitted her Masters thesis Haka in Sport: A kaupapa Māori perspective to the University of Otago.

Timu says her thesis topic was born from an interest in the flash mob haka that were erupting around the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

“At the same time as studying I was lecturing at Unitec and it came up as a topic in one of the first year courses. It was glaringly obvious the ignorance people had about the underlying meaning, purpose and aim of haka, and so I made it my area.”

Before Timu’s thesis there had been some research into the benefits of kapa haka – Professor Leonie Pihama, Dr Jillian Tipene and Herearoha Skipper produced a report for Te Matatini and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage in 2014 – but little had been done in the area of sports, and nothing from a kaupapa Māori perspective.

Timu used all Māori participants in her research – varying ages and genders, athletes, kapa haka exponents, educators and community leaders. “There’s been a bit of mahi around the commodification and intellectual property rights, but very much from a Pākehā point of view. [My work] preferences an indigenous worldview on the topic.”

Today the haka is entrenched in not only the All Blacks brand – the All Blacks, Black Ferns, Māori All Blacks and All Blacks Sevens all perform it – but in all our national sides, including soccer, basketball, wheelchair rugby, ice hockey, softball and even lacrosse. It serves to put athletes in a state of readiness – when done correctly, it focuses a player’s mind and helps to channel the appropriate energy for the task at hand. It also lays down a challenge to the opposition.

But one thing that’s not as well known is that the pre-rugby match haka tradition was initially introduced to entertain the crowds.

In 1888, the Natives – touted as an all-Māori rugby team but containing a handful of non-Māori players – set out on the now infamous tour of New Zealand, Australia, Egypt and the British Isles where they played a whopping 107 games. The team were asked to do a cultural performance before each match to help pay their way. “Instead of it being for the purposes of uniting a team or being a team identifier, it was done to defray the costs of the tour at the time,” explains Timu. “The team had done it in full attire, with piu piu and mats.”

“It wasn’t ‘Ka Mate’ at the time, the title of the haka is unknown. But in 1905 the first rendition of ‘Ka Mate’ was performed, and at that stage it was just a follow-on from what we’d initiated in 1888.”

Little is known about how, or why, this pre-match entertainment became a team-wide tradition. Timu thinks the popularity of the Pioneer Battalion in WWI and the Māori Battalion in WWII may have been an influence. But what we do know is that by the 1980s erratic takahia, sloppy wiriwiri and a final, flailing leap into the air had become the mainstay of All Blacks haka.

A terrifying display in Cardiff, 1973.

It wasn’t until Buck Shelford lead the All Blacks to the 1987 Rugby World Cup that the team began to re-examine what the haka meant and what it could achieve.

“[Shelford] had just had enough and said, ‘Well if we’re going to do it we’re gonna do it right.’ At that point he got kaumātua to come in and advisors to come in and hone what it meant to haka and why. So from then on we’re seeing some of the better performances.”

The subject of sports and haka hit the headlines in August when a new book by British journalist Peter Bills, The Jersey, featured former All Blacks Sir Colin Meads and Kees Meeuws criticising overuse of the haka.

Meeuws argued for limiting it to either home or away games, but not both.

The All Blacks perform ‘Kapa o Pango’ before the 2011 Rugby World Cup final against France.

The Black Ferns perform ‘Ko Uhia Mai’ at the 2017 Rugby World Cup semi-final against the USA.

Timu doesn’t believe the haka can ever be overdone because it’s “a very intrinsic, very personal thing.” It’s a sport unto itself, she reasons, but the skill and discipline required are often underestimated.

“You see that play out on the secondary school First XV rugby field more than the All Blacks rugby field – it’s where people aren’t used to channelling the energies of atua and tūpuna, which is what happens naturally when you engage in haka.

“If they’re not used to being trained and disciplined in that space, that’s when you get over-aroused and you get into fights, or you get completely overwhelmed and you cry.”

She says the way forward is training athletes how to haka in a way that is appropriate to the energy of the sport, and part of that is understanding the traits of the atua that are being called on.

“If we go back to Tūmatauenga, the atua or the deity of war, his attributes were really about controlled aggression, they weren’t about going completely over the top and losing your nut.”

“I had one participant talk about doing haka in basketball and how they would give it so much but would come off the court more fatigued than they went on the court… If you’re calling to Tūmatauenga, or if you’re calling to Hineahuone, or whoever you’re calling to, you’d better know the characteristics or the traits of that atua so you know how to channel that energy really well otherwise you’re totally going to lose it.”

All of which begs the fundamental question for Māori: should haka be used in sports at all?

“I asked that question of my participants. They’re all Māori, remember. Eighty percent said absolutely, we believe the haka should stay in the context of sport. Twenty percent said no, it’s completely out of context and we should leave haka where it belongs which is on the marae first and foremost. But then that would question our performances on stage in the kapa haka space, which spirals into a big conversation around whether the haka belongs there.

“My opinion is that it does so much for so many people in the sporting space that I would hate to see it no longer be there. But do I think it belongs? I think that is a question that needs to be hashed out over the table with only Māori, in various positions, to hash out the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are real risks associated with having haka in the sports space, for example appropriation, bastardisation, stigmatisation. We’ve gotta really find the balance between how much and how little we share because we need to be able to protect it.

“Haka’s been the pioneer in terms of sharing our culture with the world, and so it’s rendered all sorts of different responses and opinions and it’s also suffered from things like being in a gingerbread man advertisement for bakery of the year, in an Italian car ad with women doing it really terribly, in movies, etc. We have to keep asking – what is the new face of kaitiakitanga for our cultural customs and traditions today?”

Keep going!