I was able to go to Te Matatini this past weekend in Wellington. It is a national competition of kapa haka that happens every two years. The location moves around, and it had not been in Wellington for some time. It was a big deal.
This is a competition of a Maori performance art. It involves iwi (tribes) putting on an originally choreographed and composed group dance/theatrical/chorus/storytelling pieces. As I understand it, based on conversations with other spectators, the piece is meant to represent something of importance to that iwi now, although it can pull from history. Traditional motifs and elements are strong, but it is not a rendition of a traditional piece. Each piece was about 20-30 minutes.
It was held in a large sports stadium with a temporary marae built in the center. A marae can be the center of an iwi. It is where oral tradition is alive, food is shared, ancestors are honored, and connections are made. They play a large role in the efforts to strengthen marae cultural and reestablish the language.
This is not from the national competition, but a nice example with high
school students. Student groups and regional competitions are popular.
I know it is long, but worth seeing the whole thing.
The competition was over four days, with three days of rounds and a finals day. Nine teams made it to the finals, which is what I watched. It felt a bit like when AFN is in town. The doors opened at 7am, and I had to walk across town to get to the stadium about 8am. As I walked teams and their families were gathering outside hotels, excited about the day. Groups were walking in town, at what would otherwise be a quiet business district on an early Sunday morning. In the stadium people were greeting family and friends they had not seen - probably since the last gathering two years ago.
And then it rained and rained and rained. I got a seat just at the rain line under the stadium seating. The hard core spectators were huddled on the stadium floor under spread out blue tarps. One tent was even set up.
Overall it was powerful. The themes of the performances included memorials, an iwi struggle with cancer, colonization, decolonization, and the tribunal claims process. A single piece went back and forth between aggressive replay of battles with the British (red coat costumes and fake heads included), to hoka challenges, to sad harmonies of loss, to athletic feats, to joyful smiles and upbeat harmonies.
The idea that Maori were using a traditional means to heal, communicate, and express themselves in today’s times was pretty cool. And many people in town were into it, Maori or not.
The All Blacks at the start of a rugby match.
It also gave me a new perspective on the haka in general. It is traditionally a gesture of challenge - to a battle or more recently to a sport match in the All Blacks rugby. It seemed to me overly aggressive and in a way scary. The tongue out and the whites of the eyes glaring. After seeing the kapa haka with the storytelling aspect it seems different. It is more a statement of strength. It seemed that the whole festival was a statement of here we are, this is what we are experiencing, we are sharing our story, and we are strong. The bigger question then becomes about the receiver, me. Why does one group feel threatened when another group shows a sign of strength? Isn’t it possible for more than one group to be strong simultaneously? Why do we tend to judge one group’s strength on the basis of another group’s weakness?
Just for fun - Bohemian Rhapsody.
I went to the Wellington Botanic Garden today for an afternoon stroll. The plaque in the Tree House Information Center stated, "Everything depends on something else." I just pondered this as I enjoyed the garden. It is a nicely done free resource for the community with wonderful children's spaces for hands on exploration and play.
Hosting, tradition, and ritual are all things that have never meant a lot to me as they seem to all come with a lot of social interaction that I have perceived as somewhat hollow. They are motions to go through just because it is prescribed and they are done automatically. I am enjoying the chance to expand this perception while in New Zealand.
A powhiri is a formal Maori welcoming ceremony that general takes place at a marae, which is a traditional Maori meeting place. In past it was an outdoor space, but in modern times it includes a building built with this purpose, generally for a specific iwi, or tribe. It seems that many modern marae were built starting in the 80's when the Maori culture had a renaissance in New Zealand, alongside the development of the Waitangi Treaty Tribunal. The two that I have been to are very intentionally designed and contain work from master carvers.
Each iwi has somewhat unique protocol, but great similarities. The visitors approach slowly and are assessed by the iwi members as to friend or foe. In older times there were weapons and postureing involved here, before it was determined that these visitors are safe to enter. The two groups hongi, just like a hand shaking line. Each gender has specific roles and both hosts and visitors introduce themselves through the intense oration of one representative member in Te Reo Maori (Maori language). A gift is offered, and we all have tea, which always includes yummy snacks. Oh, and there is singing. The offering of a song as a gift.
For our full powhiri though the Fulbright we went to the Wawhetu Marae just outside of Wellington central district. This particular marae hosts a lot of governments and foreign dignitaries, so it is accustomed to interacting with many diverse people. This one we stayed the night “marae style” with mats on the floor in the central room (see pictures above). The second one is on the grounds of the University and not associated with a particular iwi - but built to welcome and meet the needs of all Maori at the University. This one also includes carvings with more modern historical references along with ancestral references.
Personal space is interesting. In general I think of Americans as needing a lot. When we (group of about twenty American Fulbrighters) were told we would stay in one big room and sleep on mats, have limited shower access, that we would hongi with a line of strangers, and we would sing a song of our choosing as a thank you gesture in English as well as a introductory song in Te Reo - I do believe the anxiety level of the room went up.
A few notes that I found interesting - (not fact checked, just comments I heard from the perspective of the individual presenting about his/her own culture).