COMMENT

Respectfully, there are some things that British journalists should keep their noses out of.

One of those things is the haka. Of all of the people who I would choose to write about our sacred taonga, a British journo with, in my opinion, nowhere near the mana required to opine on Māori rituals would be the very last person. And yet, Peter Bills chose himself to do just that.

I held off reading his piece until the number of friends who expressed outrage at his pontificating became too great to ignore. So I sat down, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and found myself grinding my teeth.

Advertisement

As I sat reading conjecture about the value, relevance and meaning of the haka, I patiently waited for the haka experts to be brought into the story. As I read the comments of an Irishman, an Australian, two Pākehā and a Māori, I reassured myself that surely authoritative discussion of the deeper meaning of the haka and its significance to Te Ao Māori would come soon. But it never did.

Granted, I read a condensed version, and I have no idea whether Bills consulted respected kaumatua, kuia and other haka specialists in the unabridged text, but what I read left me mutinous. It followed a long tradition of disrespect and misunderstanding surrounding the haka.

Among other low lights, Bills posed a number of questions that he likely believed would be thought-provoking. "Should world rugby continue to smile and tolerate [the haka] as a quirk of the old game?" he asked. "Does New Zealand need to do it any longer? Is the haka now a brand as well as an identity? And besides, is an expression of identity something this country still needs in 2018?" he continued.

His attempt at provocative performative pondering brought to mind a slightly flat rugby ball biffed out on the full off the side of a boot. Speaking of, my dad's old rugby boots from the 70s – not that he was known to be a player who kicked the ball out on the full – are fresher than the tired angles Bills wheezed onto the page.

I'm sure some New Zealanders will feel that I'm overreacting. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, they'll say. There's no law against a foreign journalist writing about another country's traditions. And they're right. There is no rule that says that Bills can't write about the haka. But there are also few, if any, compelling reasons why he should.

Maybe it feels particularly raw to me, because I am one of those kirimā Māori who are having to learn the language and traditions that should've been passed down to them (but for the fairly powerful disruption of colonial violence against the Māori culture) as a birthright.

I never participated in kapa haka. It's something I've always regretted. When I was small, I didn't understand the significance of our performance arts. I was raised in the Pākehā world, and while I learnt basic waiata poi and played tī rākau (stick games) in my primary school classrooms, I never stepped on stage to perform the art forms of my ancestors.

As someone whose whakapapa hails from Te Arawa, an iwi that has produced many kapa haka champions, it's a source of whakamā (shame) for me. Yet, whenever I've been seen haka performed, I've always felt a deep connection to my Māoritanga, and to Aotearoa as a whole.

Advertisement

I've been lucky enough to stand on the sidelines more times than I can count when the All Blacks have performed the haka, and I've experienced many a shiver that couldn't be attributed to the cold.

While our connections to the haka might be different depending on our heritage, the pride that most New Zealanders feel when they witness the haka is a part of our national fabric.

If Bills really wanted to do the haka justice, perhaps he should've spoken to the students who perform it at Te Matatini and Polyfest. Or the fans who mouth every word along with our men and women in black. Or the thousands of Kiwi kids of all ethnic backgrounds who grew up performing it at school.

None of this is to say that the haka is above debate, but if there is a debate to be had, then it should be led by Māori, not by a British journalist looking to sell books off the back of controversy. Nor should the discussion be co-opted by the media. There is a responsibility that comes with conversations about Māori customs, arts, history and treasures, especially given how quickly such stories can turn into another round of Māori-bashing. That responsibility cannot be taken lightly.

I, like most fans, love watching the All Blacks perform the haka, and would be upset if they were to change a 100+ year old tradition that honours our indigenous culture.

The men in black (along with their Black Fern sisters) clearly have a deep respect for the haka, which Steve Hansen and a number of All Blacks defended this week. It is a vital part of New Zealand rugby, and if the rest of the rugby world has a problem with it, they should think about how they have treated their own indigenous cultures.

And if they think that it gives the All Blacks a competitive advantage, they should stop making excuses for their own lacklustre performances.

The inclusion of the haka acknowledges Māori as our first people and connects our past and our present. While the haka is a part of New Zealand rugby, New Zealand rugby is only one part of the haka story. It is an ancient art that has a whole history of its own. Which is where Bills fell so far from the try line.

Perhaps the Brit should stick his nose into his own country's traditions. Britain has a long history of disrespecting indigenous cultures. Which makes the haka on the footy field even more important.

Lizzie Marvelly's new book, That F Word, from HarperCollins, is published on August 25.