Jason Momoa performs haka at the world premiere of Aquaman at the TCL Chinese theatre in Hollywood. Image: Getty

Once were gardeners, lovers, poets… and warriors

With actor Jason Momoa putting his problematic interpretation of haka on the world stage during the press tour for Aquaman, Tina Ngata revisits some of the myths and misunderstandings about Māori as a ‘warrior race’.

“The notion of a warrior gene as a scientific fact is actually based on the history of a scientific and cultural lie and that is the notion of a warrior race. The warrior race suggests that there are certain races of people who were born to fight, to be violent and to kill. It was described most graphically by one of the first English writers about our country who had never actually visited here but in 1830 wrote that “the land is inhabited by a savage, bloody warrior race with vengeance and war as the precious lifeblood of an ancestor, bequeathed from savage father to savage son.”

Where did that image come from? Where did the novelist Alan Duff get the idea of naming his novel Once Were Warriors, when a clear and actually objective analysis of our society would have shown that the book could more properly have been called Once Were Gardeners, Once Were Poets, Once Were Singers, and if you’re from Kahungunu, Once and Always Were Lovers.”

Next year will be 10 years since Moana Jackson’s pivotal ‘Once Were Gardeners’ lecture. I found myself going back to it this week, for healing. In this lecture, Moana, in his calm, factual, and grippingly clear manner, lays out the means by which we as Māori have come to be cast as violent brutes. First by explorers, and then by anthropologists and researchers, and then by media. He outlines how the state agencies, and in particular the justice and corrections systems, absorb and utilise these notions about our people – resulting in higher incarcerations – and how we too internalise these suggestions, resulting in more hurt across our communities, in our relationships, and within our households.

Sadly, ‘Once Were Gardeners’ is as relevant as ever. We are still largely portrayed in mono-dimensional stereotypes as violent, brutish, and irresponsible – even in movies made by Māori. We are depicted as poor parents, and poor partners who struggle to function healthily in modern society; as untrustworthy and prone to addiction. While Moana points out that early descriptions of us as savage warriors were offered by explorers to hide their failure to complete given tasks, it’s also really important to remember the role that these portrayals have played in maintaining colonial domination over indigenous peoples. Colonisation does not uphold itself voluntarily. Like any structure, with time, if neglected, it will begin to crumble. The myth of the violent, brutish, immature, dependent warrior race is one such tool, used to hold up the structure of colonisation. It does this by legitimising the need for a parent state to oversee us, correct us, and dominate us. The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a genetic disposition towards warfare and violence. There is no “warrior gene”. Conflict was, as with all peoples, just one dimension of our complex reality.

We are not a warrior race.

We are, and always have been, a race of voyagers, scientists, gardeners, lovers, poets, composers, philosophers, artists, orators, mathematicians, dancers, astronomers, builders and healers. We were peacemakers and keepers as much as warriors – and in many cases more so. The trope of the savage indigenous man is one that is capitalised upon by media and state in a way that is harmful and diminishing. In this sense, I have a concern about our representation in Hollywood, which resurfaced when I came across the recent haka performed by Jason Momoa at the premiere of Aquaman – and hence my search this week for the medicine that is ‘Once Were Gardeners’. I’m not that worried (as I hear others are) about the relative quality of what was performed. What I am concerned about is the hypermasculinity being placed around our culture, through Hollywood, and at the hands of Polynesian men. I am concerned with this continued fascination of media with us as a ‘warrior race’.

We are not a warrior race.

In 2015, after being signed for Aquaman, Jason Momoa offered the following on how haka made him feel: “When I did the haka, I went in and it was so fuckin’ awesome and gnarly, and they didn’t know that shit was going to happen. They didn’t even have a camera rolling, so they asked me to come back in and do it again. I did a nicer version the second time, because the first time my heart was pounding out of my chest and I was thinking kill, kill KILL! My adrenaline was out of control and I just called down to my ancestors and was ready to rape and pillage and defend the village. Then, I had to test a love scene right after.”

Now, I have to say here that I think it’s troubling that anything would “make” someone feel like committing rape. But it is especially troubling that in this case Momoa is attributing that feeling to our haka. It leaves me wondering what Jason Momoa thinks he is channeling when he performed our haka earlier this week.

Plenty has been written already about the rape scenes in Game of Thrones and rape jokes that Momoa has made about them. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion. What is particularly concerning for me in this case is that Momoa has suggested he channeled our tīpuna Māori – not any other tīpuna, not even his own kupuna Māoli – in order to play these roles. This role of rapist and pillager. These roles, written by white men, about a brown, savage, warrior race.

We are not a warrior race.

I have seen instances when Jason Momoa has spoken with vulnerability and respect for women. But that has been severely undermined by him misaligning haka with rape. It feeds the colonial lie that we are savage brutes and creates a justification for the stripping of our rights. The mass portrayal of us as a “warrior race” is a fictitious oversimplification that, if we are not careful, will simply continue to feed dominant narratives which justify the removal of our children from our homes, and the hyper-incarceration of our people.

Worse still, this one-dimensional exploitation of us as tangata moana contributes to the ongoing colonisation of our people within our own minds. We internalise these ideas and absorb them into our identities. It harms our relationships. It harms wāhine. It harms children. It harms our whānau who do not neatly fit into colonial gender binaries of how a man or a woman should be.

This month of all months, with a national focus on violence towards women, is a time for us to be mindful of how our own words, our portrayals, our emphases, contribute to a culture of rape and violence against women. It is a time for listening to the concerns of wāhine, not speaking over or minimizing them. It is a time for considering how media portrayals create bias. It is a time for accountability, and honest discussions about how we can do better. While we call our justice system and media to account for double standards, it is also important for us to deeply consider for ourselves how, and why, we grant permission for some kinds of harmful speech, and not others.

I don’t say this to hate on Jason Momoa, I say it out of aroha for our wāhine, for our tamariki, for our ira wāhine and ira tāne whānau. I say it for our rangatahi, and I also say it for our tāne, for whom this warrior trope also does great injustice. That said, it would be timely, and meaningful, for Mamoa to retract his statements about haka making him feel like committing rape, and instead make a commitment to helping to dismantle misogynistic colonial representations of indigenous peoples.

If we turn the clock back a further 20 years before ‘Once Were Gardeners’, we get to Moana Jackson’s ‘He Whaipaanga Hou’ report on the criminal justice system and Māori. Sadly, after three decades not only have we made zero progress, but the incarceration rates for Māori have actually worsened. Moana was very clear – racism and cultural denigration are both a part of the wider causative factors at play. As the government prepares to shift itself into gear for dealing to violence against women, it must join us in acknowledging the role of state colonial violence upon whānau Māori, and actively and vocally resist the perpetuation of racist colonial stereotypes carried through the media and state agencies.

We are not a warrior race.


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