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All Blacks’ proud tradition of the haka insulted in Rugby World Cup

The All Blacks’ haka is culturally important for everyone in New Zealand. AAP/AFP pool/Phil Water

RUGBY WORLD CUP – When New Zealand’s All Blacks take on France in the final tonight, they will be proud to perform a haka. They’ve taken some criticism for it in the past, but, as André Brett of the University of Melbourne explains in the final part of our series, it’s of huge cultural importance.

After New Zealand bundled Australia out of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in a lopsided semi-final, I expected some sour grapes in the Australian media.

Initially, the response was quite measured and gracious – certainly more measured and gracious than the wailing and gnashing of teeth that would have occurred in New Zealand had the All Blacks lost.

Sour grapes

However, when the sour grapes were finally displayed by Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan, they were of a type I never expected, going far beyond this World Cup to attack one of New Zealand’s core rugby traditions, the haka.

It would be one thing if he had used the stock argument of Australian sports writers, that the All Blacks – especially Richie McCaw – cheated, a charge routinely levelled as if the Wallabies are squeaky clean. It would have also been fairly inconsequential if he had followed another well-worn path and blamed the referee, but perhaps he did not want to mimic New Zealand’s response to the All Blacks’ shock loss in the 2007 quarter-finals.

Neither of those would have merited a reply. But calling the haka into disrepute as having “no place in sport or sportsmanship”? Making veiled insinuations about Maori people and Maori history? Such charges must be addressed and discredited.

History of the haka

Sheehan clearly made no effort to research the haka’s history. The All Blacks perform two haka: the traditional Ka Mate dating back to the earliest All Blacks tours in the 1900s, and Kapa o Pango, first performed in 2005 and written especially for the All Blacks. It is Kapa o Pango that contains the violent motion Sheehan objects to: a throat-slitting motion at the end.

Both haka in fact have benign origins. Although haka are best known as war dances, they have many uses in Maori culture, including to welcome distinguished guests and to acknowledge significant occasions. Ka Mate has an extensive folk tradition in centuries of Maori culture, typically used as a peace-making song or a rallying cry.

It is best known for its appropriation by Te Rauparaha, a powerful Ngati Toa chief of the first half of the nineteenth century, after friendly chief Te Wharerangi protected him from enemies.

As an English translation shows, Te Rauparaha used it to express his gratitude to “the hairy man [Te Wharerangi] who brought the sun and caused it to shine”. John Archer has presented extensive research on Ka Mate’s origins on the NZ Folksong website.

All Blacks’ new haka

Kapa o Pango has more specific thematic relevance to the All Blacks and is reserved for special occasions.

It expresses the team’s pride in their heritage and their team-mates, the honour to wear the black jersey with its silver fern, and that the occasion on which it is performed “defines us as All Blacks”.

The throat-slitting gesture, far from being an intimation of thuggish violence, represents drawing the breath of life into the heart and lungs and shows that each team member is at the cutting edge of personal performance.

Not that Sheehan let the facts stop him. He follows his criticism of Kapa o Pango’s gesture with the astonishing statement that it will remind the world how Maori “once engaged in unspeakable conduct”, something “we don’t discuss any more”.

In justification, he provides a quote from Captain Cook’s journals presenting the crew’s fear of Maori. This is painfully ahistorical and disappointingly perpetuates many tropes of early European writing about Maori, dramatic representations of savagery and barbarism penned largely from fear or ignorance.

Maori in war

Maori have a proud history of skill in warfare. Their advanced tactics thwarted British military incursions into the central and eastern North Island in the 1860s-1870s - territory later seized through the trojan horse of railway and road construction.

Does a legacy of wartime skill make Maori savages whose shameful conduct is exposed to the world by the haka? Of course not.

Did individual Maori at times engage in “unspeakable conduct” during warfare? Yes.

But for Sheehan to insinuate this is somehow peculiar to Maori is insulting and demonstrates a blinkered view of history.

Have individual Europeans and Australians also engaged in “unspeakable conduct” during history? Absolutely.

Maori conduct has not even approached the depths of human depravity found in European history, examples of which I should not need to list. Pot, kettle, black.

Cultural importance

Sheehan is not the first to complain about the haka; other precious commentators have already taken issue with Kapa o Pango.

It is a shame he must perpetuate this nonsense and exaggerate it into an inaccurate critique of the haka in general – all while tenuously linking it to the laudable conduct of Australian basketballer Lauren Jackson, as if to say “Australia good, New Zealand bad”.

Never mind; the haka is special to New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha, and it will not be going anywhere.

I remember when the All Blacks first performed Kapa o Pango at Dunedin’s legendary cauldron Carisbrook and my hairs stood on end.

The All Blacks had not only laid down a considerable challenge to their opponent; they had made an emphatic display of what it means to be an All Black, both for them and for New Zealanders in general.

A postscript to Sheehan and his editors: “Maori” is the plural of “Maori”, not “Maoris”. Like all Maori words, it does not take an ‘s’ as a plural.

See the All Blacks perform the haka when New Zealand take on France tonight in the Rugby World Cup final.

This is the final part of our Rugby World Cup series. To read the other parts, follow these links:

- Part one: Rugby World Cup: All Blacks, New Zealand Maori and the politics of the pitch

- Part two: What will the Rugby World Cup be worth to New Zealand

- Part three: Art or science? Decision making in rugby

- Part four: Rugby World Cup: Are cheats prospering?

- Part five: Rugby World Cup: The Australian situation

- Part six: Selling the Rugby World Cup

- Part seven: Rugby World Cup injuries: That’s gotta hurt

- Part eight: Rugby World Cup a lottery amid refereeing chaos

- Part nine: All Blacks’ proud tradition of the haka insulted in Rugby World Cup

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