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It was a haka labelled racist or, alternatively, all in good fun, but 30 years ago it was the cause of one of Auckland University's most violent days.

On May 1, 1979, 20 members of the He Taua protest group went to the engineering students' common room to stop that year's "haka party" performance.

Despite a decade of complaints, students persisted in performing their own version of Ka Mate while drunk, with obscenities painted on their bodies and wearing hard hats, boots and grass skirts.

At 9am, He Taua confronted 20 to 30 students, resulting in hospital admissions, stitches and broken bones.

Yesterday, many of those protesters - including MP Hone Harawira and his wife, Hilda, now a principal - were welcomed back by the School of Engineering. For many it was the first time they had returned since the brawl.

Initially, He Taua faced condemnation, much of it from Maoridom. Mr Harawira still stands by the group's actions that day.

"When people refuse to do what's right, at the end of the day you step in, do what you've got to do."

Engineering students never performed that particular haka again.

Another He Taua member, Ben Dalton, now chief executive of a $750 million trust, said there was never any plan for violence.

"I can honestly say I went there with peaceful intentions. But in the heat of the moment, that's what happened."

When the group burst in, Brent Stallard, now 51, was waiting for an exam, but those who were going to do the haka were already dressed and some were drinking.

He watched some of He Taua carry baseball bats and hoses and he quickly realised the newcomers were not there to play a capping prank.

Mr Stallard was one of the first out the door - which a woman was trying to lock - to call the police.

"You think about that, going into a room armed and then having ladies lock the doors so there's no escape, you can't condone that. Just to go and beat up a bunch of people because you don't like what they're doing is totally inappropriate."

Asked if the engineering students knew their version of the haka was insulting, Mr Stallard said they were "kids" in their late teens or early 20s.

"At the time, none of us kids thought we were disrespecting anyone's culture. Now as you get older you might have cause to reflect on it and wonder if you were.

"Would I do it now? No, I don't think I would. We're a lot older and wiser," Mr Stallard said.

Faculty dean Professor Michael Davies said he was pleased to show the group the increases in Maori and Pacific students now entering the school.

"I would have been embarrassed to have been involved. It's sad that it took something like that to wake the students up, but they were products of their time. It was very, very wrong."