I wanted to investigate the Maori culture since I set foot in New Zealand. Actually, that was exactly the purpose of my visit. Their culture arises from the Polynesian explorers who arrived around the XIII century in these remote islands on their waka, voyaging canoes of mythological importance.
Then since, the Maori thrived on this land, and developed a unique, distinctive culture. As in the title of 1994 Alan Duff’s movie, they Once were warriors. Their society was divided in tribes, the iwi, a term that more precisely describes an extended kinship group. The worship of the ancestors is of special importance to the Maori, as they transmit onto the following generations their mana, which, as reported in the dictionary, means: “prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma – mana is a supernatural force in a person, place or object.” Other than providing resources and means of life, in the past Maori tribes fought each other for power and prestige.
Then, in the XVIII century, the British arrived, and, following a pattern recurring in all their colonies, they tried to wipe out the native culture, and impose their scheme for economic development: intense nature exploitation. The Maori fought back, and managed to keep several of their traditions alive. One of the most representative ones is the haka, the warrior-like dance made famous worldwide by the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks. Nevertheless, its meaning goes well beyond the world of sport. It is a way to express a wide range of feelings in several different occasions. Traditionally, it was performed before engaging in a battle, to invoke the blessing of the gods and strike fear in the foes. It also finds place in peaceful interactions, such as the reception of important guests, or to express grief, and a last goodbye, during a funeral. The haka can even manifest great joy, and be performed during a wedding, or in occasion of a great personal achievement.
In the world of performing arts, it turns into the discipline known as kapa haka, a more choreographic act also involving singing and the ladies’ poi dance. It takes place at any level of society, from schools to competitions on a regional and national base.
Understanding the deep relationship between the Maori and the Earth is crucial to comprehend their way of life: they used to live off the land, and all their gods are incarnated in natural elements. One of the iwi bound the most to their territory is the one of the Tūhoe, who lives in the lush region of Te Urewera. This densely forested area offered shelter for a long time to the Tūhoe, one of the last tribes to come in touch with the colonizers.
I randomly met Lassy, a Tūhoe lady who now lives in the South Island, around January 2018. Once she found out my interest towards the Urewera and its people, she put me in touch with her family, so I could go visiting them and witness their preparation to the Te Hui Ahurei a Tūhoe, also known as Tūhoe Festival. This event was created back in 1971 to celebrate the iwi‘s heritage, and different groups challenge themselves in a kapa haka competition.
I was invited to follow the Taiarahia performing group during the preparation of the event, in the village of Ruatoki, living along with them at the Te Rewarewa marae, the typical Maori meeting house where all social and communal events take place.
The guys trained hard, during long days in which they tried their performance over, over, and over again, to the point I had almost learnt the 20 minutes display myself. Sleeping and eating all together in the marae was an experience of unique fascination to me. The colourful decorations on the walls, along with the wooden carvings, are inspired by natural patterns and deities, as much as the majority of their typical tattoos, the moko. The sense of communal life pervaded every aspect of our daily activities, in a way that I perceive getting lost in our society, making me feel somehow nostalgic of a past I have never actually lived. A past when people relied on each other, rather than compete in the pursuit of a wealth that goes well beyond our needs. Many pictures hang all over the place, portraying the marae and the life of the ancestors back in the days: the elders (Kaumātua) play a striking role in Maori society, preserving the knowledge, the genealogy and fostering the new generations within the whānau, the family. Being able to trace back the whakapapa of the family is a reason of great prestige: as reported in the Te Ara – Encyclopedia of New Zealand: “Whakapapa is genealogy, a line of descent from ancestors down to the present day. Whakapapa links people to all other living things, and to the earth and the sky, and it traces the universe back to its origins.” Accessing records of the whakapapa is also essential for the claim of land compensation to the Maori Land Court, since, from the 1860s, much of Maori land has been confiscated by the British Crown (to examine further this intricate matter, check the governmental resources here ).
The Tūhoe have historically had a troubled relationship with the colonizers. Sheltered by the intricate forest and the rugged mountains of the Urewera, they came in touch with the Pākehā – the white invaders – only during the wars of 1860-70. Then since, they have been victim of brutal aggression, and their land has been almost entirely confiscated. This process of physical and emotional dispossession reached its climax in 2007, when the police, in anti-terrorism gear, locked down Ruatoki, where a group of people was allegedly organizing an armed uprising. The accuses proved to be unfounded.
To know more about the 2007 raids in Ruatoki, and the late Police apology, watch the dedicated special of Maori TV. To understand more of the Tūhoe’s oppression in the last 200 years, the reader will find a comprehensive insight in the documentary “Tūhoe: a History of Resistance” by Robert Marunui Iki Pouwhare, a Tūhoe director and producer, also lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology.
After the tough preparation, the day of the Ahurei a Tūhoe, the Tūhoe Festival, eventually arrived. A solemn ceremony opened the event, with emotional greetings among the families all here reunited. The youngsters performed on the first day, and then the senior teams took the stage. The group I followed and supported, Taiarahia, turned out to be the youngest, with many performers being at their first exhibition. Nevertheless, they showed great mana, and put on an energetic performance that deeply thrilled me, even though I had already seen it countless times. Their feet shook the ground, their voices roared, and their eye-balls popped out, as the tradition wants them to impress their audience, no matter if friends or enemies.
On the third day, other events took place, the major being the unmissable rugby tournament. Taiarahia placed its team to the final, which unfortunately have lost. Eventually, it was the sportsmanship prove the winner: all players gathered, cheered each other, and closed the competition with a jubilant display of haka.
The daily life around the village of Ruatoki is not always easy. Especially in the young Maori generations, the progressive dissociation from their cultural heritage creates a sense of lack of identity – a feeling of not-belonging – that enhances phenomena as street gangs, alcohol or drugs abuse and adolescent pregnancies.
The Kapa Haka not only stands as a perfect way to release dissatisfaction and frustration with hard training and vibrant performances, but also keeps the Maori aware of their customs, lore and uniqueness.
Ancient native cultures all around the world are based on the tight relationship among human beings, all other creatures, and the environment in which they live. Colonization and globalization have, though, led to a modern society in which this interdependence has broken off. The human civilization has thrived for millennia before the digital era, and the cultural inheritance is what characterized people from place to place, making them special and self-aware. Reviving our history and folklore would probably give us more individuality than choosing the brand of our food, car or shoes.
This is the wise lesson I found embedded in the Haka Way of Life.
Photography: Matteo Fabi