This year marks the 50th anniversary of Te Matatini, our foremost celebration of kapa haka excellence. Although its popularity has grown rapidly in recent years, professor Linda Waimarie Nikora says Aotearoa is yet to fully appreciate kapa haka’s importance and value.
We live our lives as Māori in the face of a dominant majority.
Constant scrutiny and pressure from the majority are always with us. There are only rare moments when we’re able to live as Māori, in the fullness of our own world — as we ourselves have determined we would like to.
Te Matatini is one of those rare moments.
It’s our opportunity to be completely and unashamedly Māori. We can pūkana and no one is looking sideways at us. We can karanga or hongi and no one is confused or looking down their nose at us. And we can do these things as part of a group where, collectively, we feel pride and a real sense of our own power.
When Māori first started performing kapa haka on the national stage in the 1970s, we were confronted with the prospect that te reo and tikanga were in serious decline.
As Te Rita Papesch, a scholar and kapa haka performer, has written, urbanisation and cultural oppression had made it increasingly difficult to carry out the most basic rituals and communal activities that informed and sustained our identity as tangata whenua. Our ability to perform pōwhiri, for example, seemed to be slipping away as each member of the older generations passed.
It was thought, Te Rita Papesch writes, that we could sustain our ways of being Māori by moving the performances related to our cultural identity off the marae. That we could create a frame within which the key components of ritual could be performed theatrically, and the whole thing staged as a competition bringing together Māori from all over Aotearoa.
The explosive extravaganza of Te Matatini we see today is the result of that deliberate pursuit of survival. The popularity of Māori performing arts in this century is no accident.
I myself grew up with a poi in one hand, singing, as I held my nappy up with the other hand. I know, without doubt, that when you open the door of kapa haka, you walk right into the Māori world. Our language, our history, our politics, our cosmology and origin stories, our physiology, our wellbeing — every facet of our culture — is up there on the stage.
When we perform kapa haka, we are performing te ao Māori into existence.
Every time I watch a kapa haka event, whether it’s our babies in Te Mokotini, or at Home of Hakaon Whakaata Māori, I’m looking to learn what sort of world our people are choosing to bring into existence. Tūhoe will do it in a certain way. Ngāti Porou, Te Whānau-ā- Apanui, and other rōpu, will do it in another way, and draw on different traditions and histories.
Māori understand this generative power of kapa haka. We don’t need to be informed about its value. But broader New Zealand society — the decision makers, the policy makers, the funders, the school principals, the workplaces — still need a better understanding of kapa haka beyond its use as clip-on entertainment at public and corporate events.
If you’ve been to regionals or nationals at Te Matatini, then you’ll know that the audience is Māori. It’s very much a case of “spot the Pākehā”. And that says a lot about the extent to which the nation values kapa haka outside of the All Blacks performing haka at the beginning of a rugby match.
One indicator of mainstream New Zealand’s superficial understanding of kapa haka is the inequity of its funding. There’s an issue in Aotearoa with underfunding the arts generally. But there’s another level of underfunding when you compare Te Matatini to other arts. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, for instance, receives $16.3 million each year, and the Royal New Zealand Ballet $5.4 million. This compares to $1.9m annually for Te Matatini.
So, a group of us researchers set out to really understand the value of kapa haka to the nation, and to try to articulate that to the broader population. That was our challenge.
We found positive impacts on Māori health, the economy, the educational success of students who actively participate in kapa haka, and on the revitalisation of te reo Māori.
One of the most meaningful things to me was gaining an understanding of the profound impact of kapa haka on the daily lives of our performers. So many people we spoke to said it made them feel powerful. It’s such a contrast to the powerlessness Māori experience in many other areas of our society.
One thing we found is that kapa haka creates a mobile, transferable tūrangawaewae. Our performers talk about their tū, their stand. The stage is a place for them to stand with pride, and to enjoy a sense of belonging, community, affirmation and identity.
We found that kapa haka gives access to mātauranga Māori. As Te Kahautu Maxwell reminds us, mātauranga is not something in a can that you can buy from the shop. It’s not something packaged. It’s something that must be searched for and found.
Kapa haka provides that pathway. Look, for example, at the job of the kaitito, the composers. They have to travel far into our history, politics, and aspirations. To get a composition on to the stage, they have to undertake deep learning through a uniquely Māori context and teaching method.
Another aspect of value is the way in which our kapa learn. The performers all have jobs and kids and busy lives. So their approach to the huge package of learning required for a full kapa haka performance is to create a whānau or hapū setting. There’s a sense of: “We’re all in this together, we’ve got to look after each other, we’ve got to help each other.”
Compare that approach to learning at school or university. There, the message is: “It’s up to you.” Students are told they have to learn things by themselves, they have to sit the exam by themselves. Yes, there may be group exercises and some group study, but, at the end of the day, the learning is on their individual shoulders.
It’s a very different approach. It doesn’t surprise me that many of our kids at university feel very alone, and very lonely. Whereas kapa haka enables learning through aroha, manaakitanga and whānaungatanga — all those good and positive things about being Māori.
Ihiihi — performance or expression — is another critical component of kapa haka.
There’s an enduring need for the powerful, creative, and distinctive expressions afforded by kapa haka to bring the Māori world into existence against the backdrop of a largely monocultural society.
Our expressions are not savage, ugly, or vulgar. Our expressions embrace everything that we are as humans and give us the power to communicate using a much wider spectrum of possibilities. Even silence has meaning.
Without a doubt, kapa haka is a strenuous workout and great for wellbeing. But it’s not just another exercise programme. It’s a way of life, in tune with history, and it grows wellness within and between people.
Even the simple act of breathing. If you go back to the root of wellness in the Māori world, you end up at te hā, the breath. Hā ki roto, hā ki waho — breathe in, breathe out. In kapa haka, there are a thousand different ways of doing that. The physical and mental benefits that kapa haka bring are invaluable and extend far beyond the stage.
And we found that all these things — tūrangawaewae, mātauranga, ihiihi, and hauora — don’t come to fruition without performers also seeking an understanding that we’re part of something much bigger: our ecology and our taiao.
Kapa haka opens these really huge doorways into knowledge and benefits for our people.
So, behind the hype and glamour of Te Matatini performances are very serious te ao Māori learning endeavours that demand deep understanding of histories and heritage. And also creative imagination. Time, discipline and commitment. Connectedness, relationality, and awareness of oneself and others. Physical dexterity, fitness and wellness. Mental toughness and resilience.
And, of course, a critical competency in te reo Māori.
Yet, kapa haka has historically been treated by the New Zealand education system mainly as an extracurricular activity – rather than a critical knowledge and learning context that employs culturally responsive teaching. Kapa haka for our school kids has only just made it on to the NZQA unit standards credited towards University Entrance.
I keep coming back to the fact that our performers are powerful. Imagine if we were to harness that power and cross it over to mainstream. What would be our success then? Our employment rates? Our achievements?
We’ve got a hell of a lot further to go if we want to be able to say that kapa haka is truly flourishing. What I think we have now is a really strong foundation.
I will know that it’s truly flourishing when the sounds I hear in my environment change. When there’s Maōri music playing on the radio when I walk into a cafe or airport. Where people spontaneously draw on kapa haka in ordinary encounters. When the prime minister is someone who embodies kapa haka. When kids can play sport and use te reo without being vilified.
We still have some way to go.
I’d love to see more Pākehā and tourists and others from around the world attending Te Matatini. To see kapa haka influencing the way we teach within our schools. And for kapa haka to have funding equity with other culturally-significant arts.
Right now, we have this wonderful celebration of Te Matatini which happens for five days every second year. Even if we include the rehearsals and everything that goes with preparation, we’re still not up to 5 percent of our lives being lived as Māori, in the way that many of us would like.
The rest of the time, there’s still that constant pressure of racism, far-right kickback, general ignorance, and a lack of understanding.
The assertion we make through kapa haka is that we have the right to own our own bodies, relationships and lives.
Every performance where we’re able to do that is a precious moment.
As told to E-Tangata’s Connie Buchanan. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.