Wrapped up in kapa haka is generations of Māori history, knowledge, politics and culture. New research by Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga has started to quantify its contribution to Aotearoa.
Te Matatini festival is where the ground rumbles underfoot and the air becomes electric. It’s where voices reverberate through the atmosphere and make hairs on the back of one’s neck stand with the essential force of over 1,000 years of Māori history, resilience and determination.
Established in 1972, when Māori culture and language were in serious danger of permanent decline, the festival was created to be a vital vehicle for te reo Māori and Māori performing arts. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Te Matatini has exceeded those expectations and the biannual national event continues to flourish, attracting greater participation and a growing audience each year.
From confronting the Crown about land confiscation or marine reserves, to the plight of communities grappling with methamphetamine and suicide, to challenging Māori about the meaning of Tino Rangatiratanga, kapa haka has been a vehicle for political messaging and stimulating debate. And Te Matatini is the largest stage.
Over 1,800 competitors travel from around the country – and from across the Tasman, where Australia has its own regional competition – hungry to embody their ancestors’ spirits and represent their whakapapa. It involves months of intensive rehearsals, thousands of hours of singing and choreography fine-tuning movements from complex acrobatics and aerobics to the subtle flick of the wrist.
Hundreds of volunteers – the unsung heroes who keep the whole operation alive – spend hours supporting their team over weeks of intensive workshops at the marae or community hall. There’s admin, logistics, meal preparation, uniforms, and traditional kākahu.
Then there’s the tens of thousands of spectators who show up every day at Te Matatini. The most dedicated turn up at ridiculous hours in the morning to line up, and race to secure the best spot with tarpaulins and whāriki.
Paora Sharples (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou), veteran kapa haka performer, lecturer, academic and Māori performing arts advocate has performed at Te Matatini for over 30 years. He has been immersed in kapa haka since childhood, following his father Sir Pita Sharples who started the country’s first kura kaupapa Māori, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi and led senior haka group Te Roopu Manutaki for decades. That responsibility naturally passed down to Paora Sharples.
With a lifetime spent on stage and behind the scenes he has witnessed first-hand the power and potential kapa haka has in empowering Māori.
“Kapa haka plays a role in who we are as society here in New Zealand. It’s part of our history, it’s part of our present and all the things that are happening now,” says Sharples. “I’ve seen it enhance so many peoples’ lives in a Māori way. If you take the kapa haka out of someone, you might not recognise them.”
However, like many other institutions of Māori culture, the potential can only be realised through sustainable and equitable funding. And right now that’s not happening.
In this year’s budget Te Matatini received an additional $1m a year, taking its annual funding to $2.9m. This funding pales in comparison to the government’s investment in colonial arts institutions. Funding for the Royal New Zealand Ballet was allocated an additional $7.5m over the next four years, increasing its annual funding to $8.1m. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra got a bump of $3m, taking its funding to $19.7m per year.
The Te Matatini funding also comes with strings attached. The festival must have an in-person audience of 65,000 people and is required to reach a television audience of a million views.
Concerned kapa haka was continually under-appreciated and under-recognised, in 2019 Te Matatini approached Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence, to undertake research to unpack the value of kapa haka, not just to Maori but the nation. Collectively released in July, Ngā Hua a Te Matatini: The benefits of kapa haka to Aotearoa shows the vast value of kapa haka to Aotearoa, from economic contributions to health and educational outcomes, and as a vessel for the expression and regeneration of Māori culture.
“If we look back at colonisers, when they invaded countries one of the first things they did was try to take away the identity of a people so that they can assimilate themselves into the majority. They take the language, which we know about. The other thing they take is the arts,” says Carl Ross, CEO of Te Matatini.
“They take all the things that govern society from dance to tikanga, right through to medicine. One thing they haven’t been able to do is take kapa away, the essence of kapa and what it means to our people.”
Ross (Ngāpuhi, Te Uri Taniwha and Ngāti Rangi) has 30 years of haka experience as a performer and is a three-time national champion. Starting in 1981 with Te Rōpū Manutaki under the leadership of Sir Pita Sharples, he then moved across to Te Waka Huia in 1987.
As the incoming leader of Te Matatini in 2016, he challenged himself to secure sustainable funding for the festival. Launched in 2017, the 10-year strategic plan, Te Pītau Whakarei, is based on measuring and improving the health and wellbeing of Māori society through kapa haka.
“Te Matatini has never been funded like the other arts of tauiwi,” Ross says. “Te Matatini is not just a bi-annual festival. The social contribution that kapa haka makes to our people is much more, as a communal vehicle to wealth and health.”
For Paora Sharples the inequity is the result of a colonial government that is still coming to terms with the value of Māori culture and its place in Aotearoa.
“Before it will receive equitable funding, it needs to be recognised, appreciated and understood. Those areas need to be looked at in terms of empowering and teaching New Zealand society as a whole”, says Sharples, who is also Kaihautū Tikanga at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga.
Across six technical reports Ngā Hua a Te Matatini was designed to capture the value and benefits of kapa haka “to our present context and, importantly, future vision”. And in doing so the hope is there’s now a compelling body of evidence that supports investment and future development of kapa haka in Aotearoa.
“This was a way of creating bonafide evidence that points to all these ways in which kapa haka is valued, then taking that as a platform and moving forward. So much of our stuff is holistic, whereas in Pākehā the norm is to separate different aspects. We’ve been forced to break it up into parts, into health, reo, identity, to communicate the value” says Sharples.
When you put it all back together what the research found is that kapa haka is making a huge, holistic collective contribution to the lives of Māori in Aotearoa and the entire country.
Kapa haka has been a central part of life for Linda Waimarie Nikora, co-director Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and a professor of indigenous studies at the University of Auckland, who oversaw the Ngā Hua a Te Matatini project. She describes herself as “born with one hand in the air, the other foot tapping away. I’ve navigated my life through a number of kapa haka, from the East Coast, through to Tūhoe, through to Waikato,” she says.
For the Hine Rēhia Survey, Nikora led an investigation into kapa haka’s contribution to the respondents’ experience of Aotearoa. Surveying 243 participants, the work examined the qualitative aspects of kapa haka’s impact on people’s lives. The survey found kapa haka created access to te ao Māori that had significant cascading benefits for the participants’ identity and wellbeing. It made participants feel powerful, a distinct “contrast to the powerlessness Māori experience in so many other parts of society”, Nikora says.
“Kapa haka is a gateway concept: you open the door to kapa haka, you open the door to te ao Māori and that makes it hugely rich,” says Nikora.
Those gains were categorised into four domains by Nikora and her team in the Hine Te Rēhia research: Tūrangawaewae, Mātauranga, Ihiihi and Hauora.
The research showed kapa haka literally provided a stage to stand on that created tūrangawaewae for the participants identity and “precious opportunities to be completely and unashamedly Māori”. This was a powerful source of strength and belonging.
“If you just simply look at a team on a stage, you’ve got unity, you’ve got unison, you’ve got synchronicity. You’ve got all those things that speak to a sense of community, a sense of unity, a sense of the whakapapa, a sense of relatedness, and positionality for those things. And so when it comes to performance, and expression, it’s about the present, and the here and now and bringing those histories into the present, and performing those outwards,” says Nikora.
The survey found kapa haka also provided an accessible pathway to mātauranga Māori and deep learning via a uniquely Māori context. This is an essential opportunity to be immersed in a “supercharged” Māori learning environment that is largely inaccessible outside of spaces like kapa haka in broader Aotearoa.
“When you open the world on kapa haka, you open the world on te ao Māori and all the repositories that reside there in terms of mātauranga Māori. People leave the stage, but they don’t leave what they learn behind and that translates into other aspects of people’s lives. So it’s a really unique and intense pedagogy that education institutions fail to recognise in terms of its value,” says Nikora.
The opportunity for ihiihi provided by kapa haka is a rare forum in our mostly monocultural society to express and embrace the Māori world. The research found this expression provides a crucial space to celebrate the uniqueness and distinctiveness of te ao Māori. The benefits to hauora recognised the “outcomes that extend far beyond the individual, the team and the stage”.
“If we are silenced, then our humanity has diminished. So being able to express ourselves uniquely as Māori is about preserving our heritage, our existence and presence as Māori,” says Nikora.
When kapa haka performers take the stage they are representing generations of their iwi and hapu. And this connection shone through in the research which identified whakapapa, wairuatanga, whanaungatanga and ūkaipōtanga as key outcomes that form the foundation of Māori identity, that are empowered by kapa haka.
For many performers, being part of a kapa haka is a pathway into te ao Māori. It provides a point of access that reinforces their Māoritanga. For many groups, the main focus is building cultural connection and capacity within its members, leading to a sense of belonging and affirmation of identity. Kapa haka offers a Māori way of healing, which happens at the individual level as well as intergenerational.
“We’ve been through so much through colonisation, there are some healing processes that need to take place at different levels, even if we think we don’t need it. So much of our whānau are colonised and they don’t even know,” says Sharples.
Fifty years ago, when the first national kapa haka festival was held (then known as the Polynesian Festival), te reo Māori stood at the precipice of survival. Kapa haka has been a vital space for the revitalisation of te reo. The research revealed Te Matatini as an essential place where te reo is normalised, where it is celebrated and it sits at the centre of Māori cultural excellence. Surveys of the audience at Te Matatini 2019 found kapa haka engagement as providing active sites for Te Reo Māori revitalisation both during and beyond the festival.
“For those who are active users of te reo Māori this was a space to flourish and try using te reo Māori with those who were in attendance. They spoke about the wero that was in themselves. They wanted to go to Te Matatini to challenge themselves and see if they could participate in a space where te reo Māori was normalised,” says Dr Awanui Te Huia, senior lecturer in Te Kawa a Māui, who analysed the data.
The study also found people who attended Te Matatini were more likely to speak te reo to their friends and whānau and in their workplaces and daily lives. Creating language domains, spaces where te reo can be heard and practised, is one of the four pillars of language revitalisation. And whether that’s the school gym where kapa haka training takes place or the stage at Te Matatini, providing an arena for te reo to flourish is essential to its future.
Another key pillar of language revitalisation is status. That is, the perceived status of the language to those to whom it belongs. Kapa haka elevates the status of te reo through contemporary compositions and the power of Te Matatini cascades through te ao Māori. This phenomena can be observed through TikTok trends where young Māori singers perform covers of items performed at Te Matatini. This is the normalisation of an endangered language through song, coming from a kapa haka context.
“When we have kaupapa like Te Matatini it provides us with a space where we can celebrate our language, where our language is relevant, where we can use our language, in a way that feels cool, it feels useful,” says Te Huia.
When your identity is nurtured and your culture is valued, it’s not surprising that the benefits of kapa haka flow through to other parts of participants’ lives. Analysis of NCEA outcomes revealed the significant educational reward that kapa haka provides for young Māōri students at secondary school.
Māori Performing Arts was introduced as an NZQA subject at secondary schools in 2002 and on average has between 4,000 and 6,000 students studying kapa haka each year. Examining data from 2014-2019 for levels NCEA one, two and three, Māori students taking kapa haka as a subject consistently performed better than all other students, Māori and non-Māori.
“My part started with the relatively simple question of: what is the educational value of kapa haka?” says professor Megan Hall, who authored the report on Māori Performing Arts and Educational Outcomes with Linda Bowden.
“When we compared NCEA level one, two and three the Māori performing arts students outperformed all student groups, at every year, at every level (except level one, 2014). The pattern was very clear to us.”
However, while Māori performing arts students did better than all students at NCEA levels, Hall was concerned to find that these students weren’t gaining university entrance (UE) at the same rates as other students because kapa haka didn’t count as credits toward UE.
Without that UE accreditation, this education benefit Māori performing arts students were seeing was ending at secondary school. It turns out the researchers weren’t the only ones seeing these outcomes. In January 2021 the Ministry of Education launched a pilot programme, Te Ao Haka, across 31 schools where the Māori performing arts credits will count towards UE. The plan is to roll out Te Ao Haka nationally from 2023.
“This reminds us of the importance of reading the data. It wasn’t hard to get. The patterns were blindingly obvious,” says Hall. “We need to keep our eyes on it and that the pilot and the national roll out and the way it is being done is great quality in supporting our rangatahi.”
For Sharples, the educational opportunity of kapa haka goes beyond pen and paper and has a powerful opportunity to help all New Zealanders understand the history of the country better. As a lecturer at The University of Auckland, where he delivers papers on contemporary Māori performing arts. His stage one class has 120 students, 10-20 are Māori, the rest are non-Māori.
“The paper is a window of opportunity to learn about things Māori. I’m aware that maybe 80% of them might not do anything Māori ever again in their life. So this is it,” says Sharples.
Through the classes, he informs his students about Māori history, the migration across the Pacific and how kapa haka is an end product of over a thousand years of cultural evolution. He believes this cultural understanding creates an influential opportunity for contemporary recognition of the role of mātauranga Māori in the future of Aotearoa.
“Its roots are embedded deeply within traditional Māori society, in the way we spoke, the way we acted, the way we responded to each other and the world around us, our environment. That’s where kapa haka stems from,” says Sharples.
“It’s about informing them but empowering them in that way as well. Personally, I think kapa haka will be the best way we can teach us coming together as one country,” says Sharples.
However, for all the value, kapa haka remains severely under-resourced and poorly funded. Funding for Te Matatini has increased only fractionally relative to its impact and influence, says Ross. In 1998, government investment in kapa haka was $940,000. It increased to $1.248 million in the early 2000s, and has sat at $1.948 million since 2016.
“The government must address the inequities that Māori continue to face. Kapa haka is unique to Aotearoa. New Zealanders are recognised for kapa haka internationally and yet, here at home, we continue to be underfunded for the significant benefits kapa haka provides to our society,” says Ross.
The benefits revealed through Ngā Hua a Te Matatini only begin to scratch the surface of the potential kapa haka represents for Aotearoa, Sharples says. But until further investment is made and the value of kapa haka is acknowledged and appreciated that potential will go unrealised.
“There’s a need to fund that whole thing so that more can be done. Once people start appreciating it and understanding it, they’ll start valuing it and the funding will start to come, but there’s a lot of work to do,” says Sharples.
Having begun the process of measuring the power of kapa haka, Nikora has become aware of how superficial the mainstream understanding of kapa haka is and how much unharnessed power is being lost. She wants kapa haka to be an example of how the presence of te ao Māori can impact the everyday lives of Māori. She wants to see kapa haka crossover beyond the All Blacks, for Te Matatini to become an event international tourists travel to see. She wants kapa haka to become a place where all New Zealanders can start to understand each other better.
“Kapa haka provides that – not just as a stage and platform, but a whole community, a whole knowledge system, a history, politics that go with it, as well as relationships and relatedness,” says Nikora.
“The more that we can actually understand te ao Maori from all kinds of different starting points, of which kapa haka is just one, the better we all will be in terms of understanding its contribution to our lives in the here and now and in previous lives, and for the future.”