In the spring of 2017, my research sabbatical at Waikato University in Aotearoa/New Zealand centered on the extreme over-representation of the indigenous Māori people in the prison system. Nonetheless, I was constantly pulled into the national obsession with rugby and its conspicuous connection to Māori culture. Although well aware that many Māori athletes are rugby players, I was surprised to see the members of Hamilton’s local professional team perform a version of the traditional Māori haka before matches. The haka is a traditional Māori dance and song performed on the battlefield, at welcoming ceremonies, and during peace negotiations. Representing cultural pride and unity, the contemporary haka is performed at cultural events and to signify the rights of Māori other indigenous peoples.
But on a rugby pitch? Performed by teams often comprised of mostly Pākehā, or white New Zealanders, the haka seemed to me to be an example of, at the very least, cultural appropriation. Realizing that the haka was performed by many rugby teams, including the All Blacks national team—considered by many to be the best team in the world—only deepened my sense that use of the haka (as well as other Māori practices and symbols) was an instance of a population of settler colonists appropriating, if not misusing, indigenous culture.
My perceptions were decidedly framed by my own participation in studies of “playing Indian,” a tradition in which white Americans remove elements of Native American identity from their cultural contexts in order to refashion them in their own image. Specifically, non-Indian people mimic the imagined movements, actions, and performances of American Indians in order to re-make their colonial identity in terms of conquest, hierarchy, and domination. Such stagings, common to Native American athletic mascots, for example, portray the Indian as warlike and bellicose, while others—commonly barefooted and bare-chested— imply a constellation of savagery and sexualized wildness. In Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy (2003), C. Richard King and I argued that such images dehumanize and demonize Native Americans, constraining the ability of the non-Indian community to relate to Indians as contemporary, genuine human actors. Such mascot exhibitions are marked by a colonial ambivalence that includes contact, friendship, and subsequent submission. It is a sensual narrative that turns on wildness, sexuality, and savagery, and it is a nostalgic narrative mourning the loss of these once-great warriors and their glorious society. Like Wild West shows and Indian Guide Scouts, Native mascots allow white America to re-imagine itself as a partial embodiment of “primitive” Indianness, but more than anything else, as a colonizer justifiably and comfortably in power. In fact, in 2015 the American Anthropological Association approved a resolution condemning Indian mascots.
Whether or not the narratives conveyed by rugby players performing the haka embody themes of colonial dominance as conspicuously as do American Indian mascots is unclear. But the broader story of New Zealand celebrations of Māori culture, often with the participation of Māori athletes, tends to erase the horrors of settler colonialism and continued discrimination against Māori citizens. While they may contain traces of white desire for the colonized Other, these stagings surely attempt to support the theme of biculturalism advocated by the national government since the late 1970s. More recently, the official policy has been to highlight the nation-building motto “One Nation, Two Peoples,” and central to this is the rebranding the All Blacks national rugby team as the glossy, internationally popular vehicle of Maoridom.
Certainly, not all Pākehā uses of Māori culture have been embraced. Continuing a long tradition, racist mimicry remains tangible. One example occurred annually—on capping day—at Auckland University’s School of Engineering, when drunken Pākehā students would dress in buffoonish “Māori” outfits to stage mock versions of the school haka. In 1979, members of a Māori activist group He Taua confronted the students staging this racist spectacle, and the event ultimately ended in violence. Many consider this protest a turning point that opened the eyes of New Zealanders to the prevalent racism faced by its Māori people and convinced the government to finally establish Māori culture as central to the imagined community of New Zealand. A few Māori people express concern about how re-situating the haka within the stadia of a highly-commercialized sport makes authenticity impossible, and they refer to those who participate in performances clearly staged for tourists as “Plastic Māori.”
However, most Māori fully embrace both rugby and the way the sport has fused with Māori performances. Indeed, many Māori people these days refer to rugby as Māori rugby. Before returning home, I listened to a Māori scholar consider the increasing use of the haka by rugby teams. He mused, “Perhaps this is an indigenization of the Pākehā…an instance of colonizing the colonizer.”