The All Blacks' Haka: It's Complicated

It's easy to get caught up in watching the New Zealand rugby team's thrilling haka without considering it as a complex cultural text.

by James Wilt
Nov 5 2015, 8:35pm

Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Another Rugby World Cup is over, and the New Zealand All Blacks took home the trophy. Meanwhile, another dozen explainers about the team's haka are now merrily bouncing around cyberspace.

Name a media outlet—CNN, Slate, the Huffington Post, and, yes, even VICE Sports—and it most likely published at least a few hundred words during the 44-day tournament about "Ka Mate," a haka written by Māori leader Te Rauparaha in 1820 and performed by New Zealand's national rugby team since 1900 or so; how it only represents one of a countless number of haka and how it was recently replaced by "Kapa o Pango"; and how New Zealanders view both as national anthems of sorts.

READ MORE: Talking Rugby and the Haka with Maori Cultural Expert Inia Maxwell

While it's true that the All Blacks' stunningly choreographed haka are thrilling to watch, and that such a representation of indigenous culture is fairly unique in sports, these articles often fail to acknowledge how complicated and controversial the All Blacks' ritual can be, especially when presented in a hyper-capitalist setting of modern sports.

"That kind of thing glosses over New Zealand's colonial history and also glosses over the fraught history between Māori and the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU)," said Brendan Hokowhitu, dean of the faculty of native studies at the University of Alberta and an expert on Māori critical theory and representation.

Māori people have been intimately involved in rugby league since the inauguration of the New Zealand Natives, in 1888. Teams weren't overtly selected based on race for another three decades: in 1921, a South African reporter overtly expressed his anger that "coloured men" on the New Zealand Māori team were being supported by white fans. Until that point, it seemed the team was fairly well integrated, with far more Māori than Pākehā—or New Zealanders of European descent—on the team. Exceptional players such as Joe Warbrick and George Nēpia were subsequently stonewalled from play. Unfortunately, for decades after, the NZRU continued to accommodate requests from apartheid South Africa and didn't include Māori players on the national team, a policy that inspired the protest group Halt All Racist Tours in 1969.

The All Blacks' haka before a test match against South Africa this year. Photo by Nic Bothma/EPA

The union's continued engagement with South Africa, seen as tacit support of apartheid, also led to the heavily protested 1981 Springbok Tour. The NZRU didn't formally apologize to the Maori players who were left off the team until 2010. Hokowhitu says that the NZRU "has done nothing to help understand" such a history. Others have called racism "rugby's dirty secret." Some may argue that sports and politics are two separate worlds, but that is the same sort of rationale former prime minister Robert Muldoon used when he refused to get involved in the 1981 South Africa debacle.

Yet for many people, as stated in a recent Atlantic piece, "the All Blacks' rendition of the haka is indeed a superb act of nationalism, but also a heartening example of postcolonial cohesion." Steve Jackson, a sports sociologist at the University of Otago and co-author of 2013's The Contested Terrain of the New Zealand All Blacks, argues that the haka instead represents an "idealized version" of racial unity between Māori and Pākehā.

While the Māori arguably emerged from the colonial era better than most of the world's indigenous groups, with relatively large amounts of political and economic power in New Zealand, their communities are still plagued by social issues such as child poverty, unemployment, and substance abuse at disproportionate rates to the general population. They face higher cancer rates, ongoing racial discrimination, and are threatened with the loss of their language. The divisions that remain between the groups can be seen in incidents as recent as 2004's foreshore and seabed controversy, or the New Zealand government voting against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

New Zealand perform the haka before the Rugby World Cup final. Photo by Andy Rain/EPA

"Is there anything else that would show that kind of unity in terms of some place where Māori, Pākehā get together?" Jackson asked. "[The haka]'s the place right now, for better or for worse."

That's the thing: the haka is a very complex cultural text. The NZRU features a breezy 800-word description on its website about the origin of the haka. But nowhere does it mention, for instance, that "Ka Mate" is reviled by the Ngāi Tahu, a large tribe in Southern New Zealand, as it was composed by a chief whose army decimated their ancestors. Or that in early 2009, Ngāti Toa—a North Island tribe whose chief wrote "Ka Mate" in the early 19th century—received intellectual property rights from the New Zealand government after years of fighting for such rights. Hokowhitu, in his most recent published work on haka, points out the original version of "Ka Mate" also featured a striking woman-centric narrative that has been erased, writing, "Connotations of feminine power and protection in 'Ka Mate' illustrate the immense disparity between how it is popularly conceived and its original epistemology."

Things get even more complicated when you add in corporate interests, which has been the point of the whole exercise since the purchase of the NZRU by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited in the mid-90s. Now the rugby union exists to make a lot of money for investors and advertisers, period, and the haka has become a tool to exploit for capital gain. Shades-of-grey histories about neocolonialism, on the other hand, don't help to boost such efforts. In 2006, Adidas and the NZRU distributed a poster titled "Bonded in Blood" that featured a picture of the All Blacks performing its haka in a jungle and literally included DNA of all 39 players integrated in the ink—maybe the most overt erasure of distinct ancestry ever to be made available in poster form.

Adidas is by far the worst offender, but many other multinationals (Rexona, Beats by Dr. Dre, Heineken) have hopped on the bandwagon without repercussion. It's very easy to point to such examples. Same goes for the many instances of misappropriation, such as the University of Arizona's football team, which started performing an abbreviated haka in 2009 and, despite criticism from Māori leaders for years, only decided to stop last month. Earlier this year, Byron Kelleher, a long-time All Blacks scrum-half, opened a pub called Haka Corner in France, which Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell decried as "unacceptable," saying, "The social statistics around Māori and drinking are not good and this is not appropriate."

The Māori people continue to reassert their ownership of the haka at national contests, school festivals, and small rugby tournaments. While Hokowhitu and Jackson both believe that the All Blacks' haka will remain controversial, they say that the team's sensitivities to the issues surrounding it have evolved and improved over the years. Jackson noted that the All Blacks' commissioning their own original haka, called "Kapa o Pango," in 2005 was "the way to go," as it detaches the on-field ritual from past atrocities and contested rights.

As a Pākehā kid myself, growing up in Southern New Zealand, I realized none of the nuance. Maybe I missed that particular history unit, or maybe discourse in the country drastically improved since I left over a decade ago. After moving to Canada, though, it was the haka more than anything else that bound me to the national team and ostensibly the country itself. (That and Lord of the Rings, obviously.) For a long time, I assumed that the All Blacks' haka was an indisputable positive—that international exposure for Māori culture raised awareness, not issues. Only more recently did I realize that I was wearing Māori culture like a problematic Halloween costume, reaping an identity without the burden of lingering colonial trauma such as educational discrimination and high incarceration rates. Of course, I can't speak for any Pākehā but myself, but I suspect I'm not the only one.

Still, last week, when I watched the All Blacks perform "Ka Mate" in front of the Webb Ellis Cup after their decisive 34-17 victory over Australia in the final of the Rugby World Cup, I couldn't help but get the chills.