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The Misappropriation of “Ka Mate”

New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, are famous for two things: their winning record and for performing the haka before their games. While haka is in part an Indigenous performance art using chant and movement to challenge, welcome, exult, or defy, it is also a vessel that contains sacred elements of Māori worldview, or Mātauranga Māori. Over the years, the All Blacks have primarily performed “Ka Mate,” a haka that was composed by Te Rauparaha, who was chief of the Ngāti Toa tribe of the North Island of New Zealand. 

 In the 1980s the All Blacks were led by Buck Shelford, who was a widely respected Māori player. As captain of the team and leader of the haka, Shelford told his team that if they were going to do “Ka Mate,” then they better do it right (expletives deleted). So what does it mean to do the haka right? It means that the pronunciation must be perfect and actions must be executed with precision. You must memorize the words, understand what they mean, and recognize why a particular movement corresponds with a word or phrase.

 The tradition of performing “Ka Mate” and many other haka at sporting events has migrated from New Zealand to other countries around the world. In America they are now being performed at many college sporting events, including football games at the University of Arizona. Sharon Toi is a Māori Fulbright Scholar at the University of Arizona who went to one of these games and thought the performance of “Ka Mate” was a joke. She recalls, “I was surprised at the depth of the hurt I felt when I saw what I believed to be a mockery...some of the audience around me laughed. I was hurt by the laughter because to us, the haka is symbolic of one’s prestige, or mana. Māori take the haka seriously, we learn it as children, and strive to perfect it as we grow older. The ‘Ka Mate’ haka was composed by a great warrior chief, a fighting chief: Te Rauparaha—one for whom any slight on his mana would foretell one’s death.” 

 Not only does the University of Arizona’s football team perform “Ka Mate” before their games, but they have also created two videos on the school’s YouTube channel that try to “teach” the haka. A representative from the athletics department said that “Ka Mate” was brought to the University “by student-athletes of Pacific Islander origin who wished to share this aspect of their culture with their teammates and community, and make it a part of the team’s pregame preparation.” 

That statement illustrates an ignorance of Māori culture. It is irresponsible for the University of Arizona to sanction a performance and production of “Ka Mate” that is offensive and inaccurate, and which violates the intellectual property rights of Māori when it is performed without permission.


Honor the Treaty

“Ka Mate” enjoys the protection of the Treaty of Waitangi, which is the primary source that governs and regulates the partnership between Māori and the New Zealand government. The Treaty contains promises, and one of the promises is the recognition that Māori have rangātiratanga, or “the greatest or highest chieftainship” over o ratou taonga katoa, “all of their treasured things.” It has also been said that rangātiratanga means authority and control over taonga. 

The reason “Ka Mate” is regarded as so special and entitled to Treaty protection is because it is the intellectual creation of Te Rauparaha, the Māori chief who conjured the famous haka when he was hiding from his enemies in a sweet potato pit. 

 As the descendants of Te Rauparaha, the Ngāti Toa tribe are the guardians, or kaitiaki, of his creation. And as kaitiaki, the Ngāti Toa tribe are obligated to do more than police the accuracy of any given “Ka Mate” performance. They are required to protect, among other things, the whakapapa, the korero, and the mauri that are embedded in their taonga. “Ka Mate” has whakapapa because it brings the Ngāti Toa tribe’s ancestors to life. It has korero because it speaks and tells an important lesson. And it has mauri because it has its own life force. Even though the University of Arizona is clearly not bound by the Treaty of Waitangi, it should not be party to any violation of the rights that the Treaty protects. As an institution of higher learning in a country that has its own troubled history with Indigenous Peoples, the university should demonstrate solidarity by respecting the rights the Ngāti Toa tribe. 

One of the ways they can do this is by consulting with the tribe before they use “Ka Mate.”


Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse

To its credit, the New Zealand government recognized the Ngāti Toa tribe’s rights when it passed the Haka Ka Mate Attribution Act. Under this law, if “Ka Mate” is being published for commercial purposes, communicated to the public, or used in film, the Act requires a statement of attribution declaring “Te Rauparaha was the composer of ‘Ka Mate’ and a chief of Ngāti Toa Rangatira.” Even though they now have statutory rights, the Ngāti Toa tribe doesn’t want to top spontaneous performances of “Ka Mate.” According to Te Ariki Kawhe Wineera, who is a direct descendant of Te Rauparaha, the Ngāti Toa tribe is proud to have their haka used by New Zealanders “as a unique expression of emotion—for example, when national teams win at sport. Most other uses of ‘Ka Mate,’ however, reflect an ignorance of the cultural values inherent in it; occasionally they are downright insulting.” 

 Unfortunately, the actions of the University of Arizona’s athletics department demonstrate the kind of ignorance that Wineera talks about. In the YouTube video, the pronunciation is so poor that the words no longer have meaning. The All Blacks themselves would not recognize the actions used by the players. Also, the “teaching” portion of the video conveys an attitude that disrespects the kaitiaki and Te Rauparaha by insinuating that you should “get down” and do the haka. 

 There are many options apart from training the football players to perfect their performance and consulting with the Ngāti Toa tribe before the team performs “Ka Mate.” Given that the team has players from all over the Pacific, for example, the Samoan players could teach everyone performance art from their own culture, like the siva tau. Similarly, Arizona is surrounded by Indigenous tribes, so they could also work with Navajo, Hopi, or the Tohono O’Odham to incorporate their cultural traditions into the Wildcats’ pre-game preparation. And if the team still wants to perform a haka, they could follow the example of Brigham Young University’s rugby team, which commissioned a haka to be written specifically for them that reflected the spirit and the culture of their University. Cultural misappropriation happens all the time, but we don’t have to accept it. The athletics department can live up to the reputation of its peers by ensuring “Ka Mate” is performed respectfully and with the consent of the Ngāti Toa tribe.


—Brendan M. Kennedy lives and works on the Navajo Nation for DNA People’s Legal Services. He was born and raised in Aotearoa/New Zealand. 

Photo courtesy of Alessio Bragadini
Image One: The New Zealand national rugby union team, officially nicknames the "All Blacks," performing the haka before a match.

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