Use of haka as pre-game ritual may be appropriation

Story and pictures by SHAELYN BARBER

 

 

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The haka dance, originally performed by the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, has become a staple of world wide rugby culture, often performed before important games by sports teams across the globe.

“Haka can be a war dance, but it can also be a way to show love and a way to show support,” Te Anu Tonga said. She was born in New Zealand, but moved to the U.S. with her family when she was a young child.

“To be Maori is to connect, to connect with the people around you, connect with your environment,” Tonga said. Maori value spirituality, family and genealogy, and that is reflected in their haka dances.

In addition to a war dance, hakas are often performed at weddings, graduations or other celebrations. The dance is a way to show love.

“One of the things that does bother Maori is that haka is being used without permission and without knowledge of the stories behind it, the meaning behind it, what tribe it comes from,” Tonga said. “They’re mimicking things that they don’t understand.”

The haka was first brought into rugby by the New Zealand All Blacks, the country’s national rugby team.

“They were kind of the epitome of the rugby culture, still are,” said Nate Fairbanks, assistant coach for the Highland rugby club. “If you know about rugby, you know about the New Zealand All Blacks.”

Fairbanks, a former Highland rugby player himself, recently began his position as assistant coach of the team. While Highland once performed a haka before every game, Fairbanks said that during his time as a player the team reserved it for special or important occasions.

“You know, a bunch of high school kids, everyone was joking, making light of everything, but that was something that it was never appropriate to joke about,” Fairbanks said.

Larry Gelwix, the first coach of the Highland rugby team, introduced the dance as a pre-game ritual.

“He [Gelwix] had a lot of respect for the Polynesian culture, he had a lot of love for the people and wanted to make sure that his love for it didn’t become irreverent,” Fairbanks said.

“We don’t do the haka because we want to be cute or different … We did the haka because we believed it,” Gelwix said in a phone interview.

“It wasn’t that we just took it. We had the tribes and the tribal elders’ blessing and permission to do the haka on certain occasions,” Gelwix said. The team was given permission by one Maori tribe, who even wrote them a haka to perform.

“Larry [Gelwix] was really the one who drove the use of the haka,” coach Dan Berg said. Berg and his two older brothers were former players on the team under Gelwix.

Berg later became an assistant coach and, when Gelwix retired, took on his position as head coach.

As more sports teams picked up the traditional haka dance as their pre-game challenge, Berg began to feel that they weren’t doing it for the right reasons.

Berg said he doesn’t question other teams’ uses of the haka, because each team is doing it for a different reason.

“Under the right circumstances we would consider doing it again,” Berg said. “The boys ask about it all the time.”

The Highland rugby team consists of about 45 players ranging from eighth grade to 12th grade.

Michael Pakofe is currently a senior at Highland High School and one of the team’s starter players. He grew up in Hawaii, where the performance of the haka is a common practice before most sports games.

“When I started this program I thought they did the haka and when I found out they didn’t I was just hurt,” Pakofe said. ““I feel like it just starts with us players. We got to get together and just learn it.”

Highland Rugby player Kaufusa Pakofe said, “It gets you, like, pumped up and kind of intimidating or scared our opponents.”

However, not all the players feel the same.

“It’s very cultural so I would want to make sure it’s a certain group, does that make sense? Let’s put it this way, Italian teams should not do the haka,” Highland rugby player Alexander Whitmore said, voicing his concerns about the appropriation of the dance.

“I’m not really convinced that most teams who perform haka here in the United States understand sort of the deep spiritual and cultural significance of the haka,” said Toanui Tawa, lecturer of English at Southern Utah University, in a phone interview. “I think they view it simply as something that’s ‘cool.’”

Tawa was born and raised in New Zealand and moved to Hawaii to pursue an education at Brigham Young University, Hawaii. He completed his degree in English education at Southern Utah University.

“It’s more than just a form of entertainment, it is a way in which we are able to keep the stories and legends of our communities alive,” Tawa said. “It’s a way to honor the memory and lives of ancestors who have since passed on. It’s a medium through which we are able to communicate our belief systems and attitudes.”

Tawa is hesitant about the use of the haka in the world of sports.

“I believe there’s only a place for haka in sports only if the people who are performing it truly understand it,” Tawa said.