Let me put this gently - ease up on haka

20:01, Feb 25 2013
van beynen
Martin van Beynen

It does not take much for New Zealanders to break out in a haka these days.

You see the haka at funerals, at sleazy boxing tournaments, at the rugby, at formal welcomes and a whole host of other activities.

Pretty much the same dance appears to be used on such a wide variety of occasions that you begin to wonder how it can possibly retain its power and integrity.

I realise, of course, traditional haka come in different guises and can be used in different situations. However, unless I am missing something (which is quite possible), pretty much the same dance is performed whatever the occasion.

So much so that the dance or ritual is in severe danger of being overused and devalued.

The haka relies on impact and to some extent, shock. Used sparingly it is impressive but used too much it becomes tiresome.


Overuse is a killer but you could argue that if overuse is the villain here, why do we not get sick of the national anthem, which, let's be frank, is, particularly in its lyrics, decidedly lame.

Is it because the haka is so much more powerful and therefore potentially more wearing on the patience?

The dance has gone from being a notable cultural feature exclusive to Maori to being a pop culture icon used by all and sundry to send a message with vague connotations.

It has become a national dance that New Zealanders overseas trot out all over the world.

There may not be too much wrong with the haka working its way into pop culture from traditional culture. I am not a stickler for tradition and one of Maoridom's main problems, I believe, is too much respect for tradition and not enough respect for the realities that face Maori as human beings in our taxing society.

The other trouble with it being ubiquitous is that you start wondering if it is really the sort of national dance that we should unreservedly adopt as our icon. If a visitor were to deduce national New Zealand characteristics from the haka, as it is usually performed, he or she would have to say New Zealanders are violent, fierce, unwelcoming, confrontational and aggressive.

This is all fine for an international rugby game but can a dance used to intimidate and frighten really be regarded as a good way of welcoming guests or saying goodbye to loved ones at a funeral?

On the surface there is no joy or warmth in the haka and important visitors must be briefed beforehand in case they get entirely the wrong idea, which would be understandable.

Many countries have a national dance but it's hard to imagine Argentinians cracking out a tango at a funeral, the Brazilians doing a samba at a boxing match and the Irish welcoming foreign dignitaries with Irish dancing.

On second thoughts maybe it's not so hard.

The other problem with the haka is that traditionally it must have been performed by strapping warriors at the height of their strength and power. These days it so often features saggy obesity that you fear for the health of Maori if not the nation as a whole.

New Zealand's most famous haka, Ka Mate, is said to have originated from a verse Te Rauparaha coined while hiding from his enemies in a pit. Why should we celebrate Te Rauparaha, a murderous chief and early imperialist?

When Maori are particularly sensitive to any slight by non- Maori, it's puzzling why anybody descended from tribes butchered by Te Rauparaha would want anything to do with his verse. Maybe Te Rauparaha was just following his cultural dictates and values, but isn't killing and torturing something we abhor in all cultures?

Some will be outraged at an analysis like this. The haka, they will argue, is now so sacrosanct in New Zealand culture that it cannot bear any criticism and upstarts like myself should keep my upstart opinions to myself. However, just because the haka is traditional and derived from Maori culture, it should not be placed off limits to criticism.

I am not arguing for a ban on the haka. Far from it. I'm just saying in as sensitive a way as I can (admittedly quite difficult for me): let's ease up on the haka.

If we are to have a national dance, which is used overseas and for a myriad of occasions, maybe we can choose something a little bit more friendly.

The Press