• What Does the Haka Mean?

    A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of attending the annual Senior School prizegiving of Tauranga Boys College. Our enjoyment of the evening was of course enhanced by seeing our grandson awarded a number of prizes.

    There were, though, many other aspects of the proceedings which merited our appreciation. There were interesting speeches, not least from the Headmaster, and excellent playing from the school band – but perhaps the most impressive moments of the evening were delivered by virtue of the haka that were performed at various stages of the proceedings.

    Judged simply in terms of the volume of sound and the precision of movement, the haka would have scored well as performances – but the intensity and passion of the young men involved would have alerted even the most insensitive observer to the fact that the haka were more than just performances.

    And a close observer would have recognised, given the different points in the proceedings at which they were delivered, that they were not all the same or intended for the same purpose.

    On occasion, as when the College staff processed into the room in their academic regalia, the haka was intended as a greeting and an acknowledgment and a tribute to those whose mana meant that they deserved such an honour. At other points, as when a prestigious award was made to a young Maori scholar, the haka was the celebration of an achievement on the part of a young man with whom the performers felt a special bond – or was perhaps simply a statement of pride and pleasure.

    My wife, who is English in origin, and I, both felt that the excellence of the haka marked the evening out as something that could not be found elsewhere – that they signalled to us and to everyone else present that we were in Aotearoa/New Zealand and that the school recognised and celebrated the Maori contribution to the life and personality of the school. And it was interesting and encouraging that, at some points, Pasifika students made a similar contribution to proceedings and expressed their own cultural heritage in similarly effective ways.

    Our thoughts along these lines were of course front of mind because of the controversy that had been generated in some overseas media concerning the All Blacks’ performance of the haka as they started matches at the Rugby World Cup.

    The ignorance of those overseas commentators about the subject on which they chose to comment was truly astonishing, as was the arrogance they showed in purporting to place the haka in a cultural context they did not understand.

    My mind was drawn to the example offered by a true rugby great, the legendary former Wallaby captain, John Eales. In a match against the All Blacks some years earlier, Eales had advised his players to turn their backs on the haka.

    In later years, he felt so troubled by that decision and so ashamed of his action, that he took the time to re-visit New Zealand and to make it his business to learn more about the haka. He travelled up and down the country, speaking to anyone who could offer him guidance, and he made a documentary recording what he had learned.

    He emerged with a deeper understanding of what the haka meant. He acknowledged that the haka was not after all intended to intimidate opponents or to provide any other unfair advantage, but that it mattered to the All Blacks as a statement of who they are and where they had come from.

    It is encouraging to discover, as our evening with Tauranga Boys College demonstrated to us, that the haka remains alive and well and is an integral part of our cultural heritage. Speaking purely for myself, I can say only that, when I am present as a haka is performed, I feel myself to be at home.

    Bryan Gould
    20 November 2019

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