Te Rauparaha’s Ascent
Te Rauparaha was on the run. The Chieftain of the Ngati Toa iwi (Maori society) was retreating from a meeting that had gone spectacularly wrong. The Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto groups rejected his request for aid, and instead demanded his life. A taua was formed, guided by a Tohunga (“scholar/priest”) who cast tracking spells to help home in upon their target.
These were the musket wars of New Zealand in the early 19th Century. Te Rauparaha arrived in Motu O Puhi, the village of the iwi Te Wharerangi, his famously hairy neighbour, who granted him asylum. He hid the fugitive within a kumara (sweet potato) pit, and on top sat his wife Te Rangikoaea, for it was said a woman could ward off the malevolent spells cast by the Tohunga.
Hidden from view, Te Rauparaha could hear everything as his enemies arrived in the village. They were suspicious. Te Wharerangi attempted to mislead them; Yes, Te Rauparaha was here, he told them, but you are too late, for he had long since left for the Rangipo desert. The confidence of the hidden chief was failing. He whispered to himself, over and over;
Ka mate, Ka mate
(I die, I die)
Eternities passed under the feet of Te Rangikoaea; Te Rauparaha could do nothing but wait.
Ka mate, Ka mate
Finally, the voices grew distant, and with them, the iwi in the kumara pit grew optimistic in turn.
Ka ora, Ka ora!
(I live, I live!)
His trust put in Te Wharerangi and Te Rangikoeaea was rewarded. As he climbed from his cage, he was reborn.
Tenei te tangata puhuru huru
Nana nei I tiki mai
Whakawhiti t era
A upa….ne! Ka upa…ne!
A upane kaupane whiti t era!
(This is the hairy man* who fetched the sun and made it shine again! One upward step! Another upward step! Another, another…the sun shines!)
These were the words said to be composed by Te Rauparaha as he emerged from the pit, and to honour his saviours, he put these lines into a ceremonial Haka; the enduring dance of Maori folklore, the “symphony of the body,” and he performed it for his hosts that afternoon.
The Natives Dominate
New Zealand Natives, 1888. Source: rugbyfootballhistory.com/allblacks
Nowadays, “Ka Mate” is known and performed the world over. As the oldest “cultural challenge” laid down by the New Zealand All Blacks, this Haka has become one of the most famous symbols of Maori culture across the globe. The Haka, alongside the pre-match challenges of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, have become an emblem of the vibrancy and endurance of Polynesian and Melanesian culture over the past century. Rugby (not just Union but League and Sevens also) has been the vehicle for this, and the coordinated challenge is but one of its expressions.
But the movement of modern sport across the planet is a story inseparable to the imperial spread of Europe; rugby union, the sport of the “gentleman” and the pride of Apartheid, has perhaps been affected by this more than any other. Its relationship with the Islanders of the South Pacific is one of tension, marginalisation, resistance and renewal.
From its English roots, rugby union travelled the world, but it did not move at random. It followed cricket to the settler colonies of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada**, travelling with imperial officials who had picked up the game during their gentlemanly training at Oxford, Cambridge and the public schools of the Southeast.
It even followed cricket to the Southern Cone, outlasting the bat-and-ball sport in Argentina and Uruguay, albeit enduring here too mostly as an elite, white endeavour. Exported for the ‘gentleman’ of colonial high society, this sport more than any other was ostensibly for white men only, but in all realms the hand-egg was picked up by the colonised with varying degrees of popularity. Even in South Africa, rugby has always been played by black Africans (most famously Steve Biko), but apartheid ensured that this participation remained invisible.
Joe Warbrick. Source: Wikipedia
The Maori of Aotearoa took up the game soon after its arrival; brought to the colony by Charles Munro, who brought it home from Christ’s College London in 1870. Eighteen years later, the New Zealand Natives were formed by Maori Joseph Warbrick, who wished to create an all-Maori team to tour Great Britain. However, five Pakeha*** were selected due to problems with player availability and prior commitments (work and study) from first-string Maori. In Britain the Natives wore black and performed the first Haka in rugby (said to be Ka Mate, on occasion), met with “great curiosity” by British crowds and the confoundment of those who had turned up to watch a team they expected to be comprised of “savages.” Said one Scottish reporter in 1888,
“They are not unlike Europeans…that is their resemblance is great when one remembers that they were a savage tribe no further back than their generation.”
It is typical imperial logic deployed to credit the Maori’s *lack* of savagery with the influence of Europe. And so it was thought in New Zealand that bringing the team under ‘official’ administration would help improve the team, especially after reading frequent criticisms of ‘foul play’ from English officials who turned a blind eye to infringements from their own. But after a tour that lasted over a year, after 78 wins, 6 draws, and 23 losses, the Natives returned home as the best team in Aotearoa. They formed the backbone of the first New Zealand international teams, including the preposterously (but tellingly) named “Originals” who toured the UK in 1905.**** The All Blacks, the greatest team to play rugby union, were founded by Maori: the Haka, the black jersey, and the innovative, creative style of play were the legacies of those pioneers.
But it was not to last. As rugby arrived in New Zealand, the Maori were defending the last vestiges of their land from British squatters and soldiers. The land of Te Rauaparaha had long been extorted from him; he himself had tried to resist the rising tide of squatters and spent his final years in jail. As the Natives were formed, the use of Te Reo Maori was being marginalised and removed from schools. Polynesian culture was being slowly deleted from New Zealand life. The All Black Haka endured, but was far from unaffected. Perhaps that was why Ka Mate became the standard Haka of the All Blacks; Te Rauaparaha’s celebratory dance of cheating death and rebirth symbolising the persistence of the Maori in trying times, although there is much in its story of mortality and uprising that could happily find its home on the rugby field.
Maori became sparse in the All Black ranks. They were purged completely, in fact, whenever the All Blacks went to South Africa, for the Apartheid state would not allow any non-white players to grace a Springboks game. Those of Maori heritage maintained a nationwide team (The New Zealand Maori) who would play at home whilst the Pakeha were in South Africa.
The Famished Sea Eagle
In the early 20th Century rugby continued its journey east. Missionaries, settlers and traders from Australia and New Zealand landed in Fiji, bringing rugby with them. It swept across the archipelago, and leagues were swiftly set up. However, they were to be segregated by race until the 1930s. In 1939, the Fijian national team (now integrated and largely Melanesian) embarked on a tour to New Zealand. The captain, Ratu Cakobau (later the first indigenous Governor General of Fiji) went to the local spiritual chief to ask for a dance to match the haka. He was given a Cibi (pronounced Shimbi); like Ka Mate, not strictly a battle cry, but instead a Fijian celebratory dance to laud warriors as they returned home victorious from battle.
Fiji’s style of rugby (especially in Sevens) replicated the ethos of these dances; aggressive, skilful, quick and creative. It is true of all Islander rugby; the spirit of the challenge laid down is carried through the match. In Tonga, as with the haka, performants of the Sipi Tau are encouraged to lay down their challenge with passion and innovation, as they cry out the words;
Teu lea pea tala ki mamani katoa
Ko e ‘Ikale Tahi kuo halofia
Ke ‘ilo ‘e he sola mo e taka
Ko e ‘aho nit e u tamate tangata
(I shall speak to the whole world
The Sea Eagle is famished unfurl
Let the foreigner and sojourner beware
Today, destroyer of souls, I am everywhere)
For Siale Piutau, to perform the Sipi Tau is to replicate the pledge of the first Tongan King to God, as such combining the warrior tradition of the dance, the Christian missionary origins of Tongan rugby, and the call to the ancestors (familial ancestry, and the ghosts of Tongan rugby past) for their strength and experience. It is the transfer of warrior culture to the rugby field, for it is said the war cry of the Islander is to call forth the “honour and pride of Polynesia” and withstand all that threatens that enduring tradition, altered through the years, but never diminished.
Let me become one with the land
It is this adaptive, creative element of the dance that many self-titled rugby union “purists” ignore when they deride the cultural challenge. The haka bears the brunt of their repeated criticism, despite its overwhelming global popularity. Scroll down any comments section (I dare you) under an article on New Zealand rugby and you will find voices calling the challenge anything from “unfair,” to “outdated,” from “uncouth” to “savage.” Trolling or serious, these purists indulge in descriptions of savagery and cannibalism; they do not want Pacific culture in rugby.
It would not be tolerated were it to come from another culture, they tell us.
It is only because these cultures are “primitive” that the “PC” World Rugby permits them, they tell us.
It’s ridiculous, in a way, to call it outdated and old-fashioned. The Haka is constantly updated. Ka Mate is younger than Jerusalem (sung by England cricket), and the Haka has only recently been truly resurrected by the All Blacks. For decades the predominantly Pakeha team performed it with less fervour than a rotund goldfish. Check out this infamous 1973 attempt.
In the ‘90s, led by Maori like Carlos Spencer, the Haka became more than a routine. It was more than an evocation of tradition, but like the Sipi Tau, a celebration of the proud past of the All Blacks, one the most successful teams in the history of sport. It’s true of all codes. When the NZRL Kiwis took on Leeds Rhinos this autumn, Kylie Leuluai and Ali Lauitiiti, playing for Leeds, joined their countrymen in a special Haka, in a shared celebration of heritage.
The challenge continues to evolve with the times. Samoa and Fiji have both recently updated their challenges to the Tiva Sau and the Bole respectively. The former aimed to inject more aggression into the cry of the Manu Samoa, the latter ensured that the Fijian challenge is now a bona fide Melanesian call-to-arms, rather than the pre-emptive victory celebration of the Cibi. The Haka in rugby is no longer limited to male teams (there have always been mixed and female Haka in Maori culture); the dominant New Zealand Kiwi Ferns (League) and Black Ferns (Union) perform a Haka before every match. In 2005, the All Blacks debuted “Kapa o Pango” (All Blacks), written especially for the team, to reflect its modern multi-cultural makeup.
Kapa o pango kia whakawhenua au I ahau!
(Let me become one with the land)
Hi aue, hi! Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!
(This is our land Aotearoa that rumbles)
Ponga ra! Kapa o Pango, aue hi!
(Silver fern! All Blacks!)
This new dance was not without its controversy; Tana Umaga, All Black of Samoan descent, leading the haka, drew his arm from the sky and moved his thumb across his throat, beckoning in vital energies to fuel the oncoming effort. It was, instead, misinterpreted by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “violent throat-slitting gesture,” and the Telegraph in all its glory compared it to a “back-street alley” intimidation. The western world could not remove interpretations of savagery from its gaze. Following repeated calls for its removal, the gesture was dropped from Kapa o Pango in 2007.
The purists returned, now arguing that such changes made the challenge ‘inauthentic.’ If it is not traditional, they said, what is even the point? If the dance is not from time immemorial, why can’t anyone perform the Haka? Why can’t England perform a Morris dance before a game? (They always go on about Morris dancing).
Short answer is, there’s nothing stopping them. England started singing the old slave song “Swing Low” in 1988, when a group of public school boys from Douai School, Woolhampton belted it out one afternoon in Twickenham. Nowadays, they all sing it, and nobody really knows why (I’d rather they busted out a Morris dance, to be honest).
Long answer: shouts of ‘inauthenticity’ are a symptom of a wider, continuing, lack of understanding of the significance of the Pacific war dance in rugby. The appropriation of the Haka, these days, knows no bounds. If you can stomach it, check out the “Hakarena” by Matt Dawson. Maori and Pakeha alike were unimpressed.
It all ignores what the history and the folklore whispers, and needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Maori and Pacific rugby matters so much, to the sport and to the Oceania region. On contested terrain, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Maori have adopted the game and made it their own, and it is all transmitted through the challenge of the Cibi, Sipi Tau, Siva Tau and Haka; defiantly traditional, ferociously modern. As Dawson and others continue to misappropriate these dances, Pacific cultures have adapted the war dance once again to honour rugby players whose lives were cut short. In 2013, Samoan legend Brian Lima took to the field, barefoot and shirtless, to lead the Siva Tau in honour of Peter Fatialofa, who died suddenly aged 44.
When talented All-Black Jerry Collins passed in 2015 following a road accident in Southern France, a tribute match was held in his honour. Those who knew the Samon-born All Black in Perpignon paid their respects to Collins with an honourary Siva Tau.
These dances, that call forth the spirit of Polynesia have been adopted, movingly, as a guard of honour for those who embodied everything they meant. Nowhere has this been more appropriate when the greatest of them all, Jonah Lomu, suddenly died on the 18th November 2015. He was 40. The great winger, the gentle giant, a rugby league player in his youth who went on to transform the game of rugby union with his ferocity and his grace. The legendary All Black of Tongan descent who demolished England and tormented all who dared oppose him on another inevitable run towards the try-line. The great ambassador of Pacific rugby, who went from a difficult childhood to worldwide fame, playing through the pain of nephrotic syndrome, from Auckland to Cardiff. Said Mana ‘Otai, coach of Tonga.
“He gave a lot of hope to young Tongans, both male and female alike…He was one who could inspire others, myself included.”
“Although he played for the All Blacks, he was known worldwide as a Tongan. For Tonga, as a small island nation, that’s something Jonah has provided for us.”
The Haka was performed in his honour; his old school led the cry, and at his funeral, his team-mates followed. How else could you honour Lomu, the very embodiment of the struggle, endurance and triumph of Polynesia, than with the words of Te Rauparaha?
This was the man who fetched the sun and made it shine again!
* The accepted translation of tangata puhuru huru is the “hairy man,” understood to be a tribute to Te Wharerangi, but allblacks.com suggests instead that it in fact alludes to the spiritual qualities of Te Rangikoaea, which Te Rauparaha believed saved his life.
** Rugby arrived in Canada incredibly early, even as it was still being codified in England. However competition from American (Gridiron) and Canadian rules Football meant that rugby never took on the predominance it did elsewhere in the Dominion. Nowadays North American rugby focuses on 7s.
***”Pakeha” is a translation of the Maori word for “of European descent.” Some have claimed that it is a perjorative word, but its use is accepted in most New Zealand publications, and there is no evidence that it has ever been used in a derogatory sense by Maori. I am therefore using it to describe New Zealanders of European descent, for both brevity and to emphasise the focus of this article is on the Maori. For more info, read this
****In 1905 the “Originals” performed the Haka in Swansea, to be met by a chorus of “Hen Wlad Y Nhadau.” It is said that this was the moment when the song, penned in the 19th century, became the national anthem of Wales.
Title pic is Jonah Lomu and Te Rauparaha