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Cultural appropriation of the kick-ass kind

Want to get a Texas high school football team pumped up?

Try the haka. It works for New Zealand’s legendary All Blacks rugby squad. And it’s doing pretty well for the Trojans of Trinity High School in Euless, TX, ranked by Rivals.com as the top high school football team in the nation.

Performing the haka – a Maori chant and dance – in north Texas isn’t an act of random cultural appropriation. The offensive and defensive lines of the Trojans are filled with Tongan players, representing the 4,000 people of Tongan descent who live in this town of 52,900. The size, speed and skill of these players has a lot to do with the emergence of Trinity as a football powerhouse – in a recent NPR piece on the team, one coach of the team remarked that his offensive line currently outweighed that of the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

What are 4,000 Tongans doing living in suburban Dallas? Working at DFW airport, for the most part. A Tongan employee of American Airlines told family and friends about a Texas community with a low cost of living and lots of airport-associated jobs, and helped start a migration from Tonga to Texas. The community has been well-received, perhaps because Tongan culture is heavily family focused, which aligned neatly with local community values.

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt when some of the Tongan seventeen-year olds are 6’2″, 280# and can pass block.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with rugby has seen New Zealand’s national side perform the haka before matches. It’s intimidating – huge guys, yelling and slapping their bodies in unison. I’d assumed it was a way to resolve cultural tensions in New Zealand between English immigrants and a subjugated Maori population, the sort of multiculturalist healing that I’d assumed emerged sometime in the 1970s. Nope. The haka was introduced to the wider world when a team of “native” New Zealanders – primarily Maori, but four players of British descent born in New Zealand – played matches in Britian in 1888-9. I’d also assumed that it was a war dance, and that there was a single melody and lyrics. Neither is true – the haka can refers to a set of posture dances with shouted accompaniments, and can be peformed in welcome, to commemorate events or to intimidate the hell out of sporting opponents. The All Blacks have used different hakas through the years, sometimes with lyrics specific to the match (referring to a New Zealand invasion of Australia, for instance.)

The haka’s worked pretty well for the All Blacks, and thus it’s been picked up by other New Zealand sports teams, including the basketball side (the Tall Blacks. Yes, that’s really what they call themselves) and the wheelchair rugby side. In the future, all New Zealand national teams may have their own custom hakas. But it’s generated some controversy when people from other countries have adopted the tradition. Football players at the University of Hawaii began using a controversial haka written for the All Blacks, but later changed to an original Hawaiian dance, the Ha’a.

So should the Tongan population in Euless be performing a Tongan dance instead of a New Zealand one? That’s what a commenter on the Euless Voice of Tonga website suggests:

Congratz for having an awesome team…..BUT!!! why are’nt you all doing the Sipi Tau…..instead of a Maori Haka. If you still insist on doing the Haka ….please learn to do it right….the way its being done now is an insult to the Maori ppl. Thankyou.

The Sipi Tau is the dance and chant the Tongan national rugby team performs before their matches. The dance is a version of the Kailao, a Tongan war dance, and the lyrics are pretty damned intimidating:

Let the foreigner and sojourner beware
Today, destroyer of souls, I am everywhere
To the halfback and backs
Gone has my humanness.

Which is pretty much how every defensive tackle I know wants to feel before taking the field.

What’s fascinating to me is the way in which the Haka made it into Euless. It wasn’t through elders communicating a dance tradition to their children. Instead, some of the players watched the New Zealand rugby team perform the haka on YouTube and began learning the moves in a local park. With the permission and blessing of the local Tongan community, they began performing the dance at community events. It later worked its way onto the football field, where it’s become a critical part of Trinity football culture.

At this point, the ritual – whether the culturally appropriate one or not – is a sign of the acceptance of the Tongan community in Euless. This is, after all, a community where the school’s principal – originally from West Texas – routinely comes to work wearing a lava-lava. A Tongan community leader, talking about the reception the dance has received, said,”I had two older men with tears in their eyes tell me afterward, ‘After seeing that, we know that our future generations will be accepted here.'”

20 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation of the kick-ass kind”

  1. Hi Ethan,

    Thank you for sharing that story. It is fascinating how haka is able to penetrate many cultures. The Rugby national team of Madagascar has also adopted the haka ritual before its games.
    Photo of Malagasy haka here

  2. Great research and fascinating insight on haka. I hope the post attracts many more comments like Lova’s.

    It would also be interesting to learn what aspects of Texan culture are expropriated in Tonga as a result of family visits back home and reverse migration. Will we soon see Tongan cowboy boots and a Texan-Tongan accent?

  3. Lova, is there a Malagasy dance and chant with a similar significance as the haka? Or does the Malagasy rugby team perform a Maori haka?

    Lots of Madagascar on the blog this week – the next post focuses on the mines at Ilakaka… hope you’ll post there as well.

  4. David, I’ve been looking for an excuse to visit Tonga for years – researching whether Texan culture is affecting Tongan culture might be the reason to finally get on that airplane.

    I somehow managed to write this post without referencing Tongan Ninja, one of my favorite bad films. It’s probably best understood as New Zealand’s revenge on Tonga for adopting the haka – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3FrqpxxI2Q

  5. The Tallblacks hehehe – that I didn’t know. But what I do know is the New Zealand Wheelchair Rugby team is called the Wheelblacks.
    Wonderful writing as usual Mr. E.
    A few months ago when the Cameroon rugby team was in Nairobi to play Kenya they performed a haka. It looked ridiculous and perhaps contributed to the spanking they received on the pitch.

  6. Daudi, has wheelchair rugby, or “murderball”, made it to Kenya yet? It’s become quite visible in the US, due both to the film “Murderball” and the TV series “Friday Night Lights”.

  7. Not as far as I know. I’m pretty sure it hasn’t but will check. Murderball sounds good, I’ll have to watch it and see what it is all about.
    Did you ever play? It is interesting how rugby and cricket never really took off in West Africa.

  8. Daudi, the game is quite popular in American universities, and while I could have played at Williams, I didn’t – was too busy taking drugs, making art and having fun. But I did train with the Ghanaian national side briefly. They worked out in the same gym as me, and hoped that I’d play on their side as a scrumback, probably as prop or hooker. Good fun, but I wasn’t nearly good enough to play at their level. Would be fun to try again, especially now that sevens is more widespread.

  9. I wish the Tongans would use something from their own culture rather than a haka, which is all mashed up and out of context. The words ‘Ka mate’ mean “die!” and so can mean death to you or death to me. I read it is as death to you (the other) because a haka is usually addressed to the other as a form of challenge.

    It was (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Te_Rauparaha) Te_Rauparaha’s haka, a haka unwelcome by southern Maori because he killed so many, and so when i heard that the haka for the rubgy-players had been changed I was delighted.

    As a New Zealander, first the haka, they do, isn’t a haka as far as I am concerned but a rather silly approximation because they don’t have the movements right nor the text, which seems to be all jumbled up. So nice you bought this to attention, but I wish that the Tongans would pick something from their own culture and be creative with this.

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  11. Allyson Wille Seaborn

    Ethan I am enjoying reading all of your articles! My 3&4 year olds can do the haka. Their father taught it to them and they regularly do it before dinner when they are hungry! :)

  12. The path of the haka around the globe has long fascinated me. There was an incident September 2007 where the University of Hawaii football team was given a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for a pre-game haka. My Hawaiian connections were pretty stirred up about this. It was all over the Hawaiin media but today in a brief online search I find this link to the incident


    The great rugby nation of South Africa provided the platform for street children to perform their versions of the haka in imitation of what went on on the rugby fields, as part of their begging repertory. This was especially prevalent on the streets at the Grahamstown Festival of the Arts in the nineties.

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  14. Hmm. Not sure how I feel about this- I don’t have strong feelings about it, but I think I lean more on the side of the commenter who asked why they were doing the Ka Mate over the Sipi Tau. Sometimes when things have strong cultural ties it feels a bit wrong when those things are appropriated by others out of context (the Spice Girls and Robbie Williams have both used the haka, for example). In New Zealand schools, for example, it’s really bad form to sit on desks, because the Maori people believe the head is sacred and you do not sit where your head should be. This is tapu (the root word for the English word ‘taboo’).

    This feels a little like sitting on the desk to me.

  15. Congrats on an interesting, well written article — good to see some Maori culture on the world stage! (Linked via Kottke, reading from New Zealand).

    If you like the idea of the Tall Blacks, see if you can convince Badminton NZ to go with their original suggestion for the national team ;).

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