It feels like I write a piece like this once every few months. Another day, another cringe-worthy example of cultural appropriation, this time thanks to Singapore-based marine company Keppel. Taking part in a chant competition to celebrate the Singaporean National Day, a team of employees from Keppel filmed a “haka”.
To be honest, it’s one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever watched. It seems pretty clear that no one in the video has the foggiest idea of what the haka stands for. They even launch into a strange hand-clapping game in the middle. Every time I see a video of a “haka” performed by people with no connection with New Zealand and no understanding of what the haka means to tāngata whenua, I think to myself that it couldn’t get much worse, then a group like Keppel comes along and proves me wrong.
It would be faintly funny – and the group of Keppel employees certainly look ridiculous – if it weren’t just the latest in an interminable run of offensive haka knock-offs. What will it take for people to understand that the haka is a sacred part of Māori culture? How many times do we have to explain that it’s not something that can be co-opted and performed for any old purpose?
As absurd as the Keppel group looks, I can’t just laugh it off. Māori are often told to lighten up, to stop being so precious and making such a fuss when our cultural traditions are misused and abused, but there’s a line, and we sailed past it long ago. Māori have a long history of being conciliatory, from te Tiriti o Waitangi to tribunal settlements for cents to the dollar and beyond. But enough is enough.
Funnily enough (har har), I wrote a similar piece to this in early June, when James Cameron revealed that the next Avatar film would feature a haka. Māori were told to suck it up then too. Are you noticing a theme here?
The kindest explanation I can think of for the persistent butchering of the haka is that people who appropriate Māori culture have no equivalent cultural taonga of their own, but while that may be true of some cultures, I’d imagine that Singaporean people have treasured artforms. I wonder how they’d feel if people from another country half way across the world decided to offer up their own ‘interpretation’ of one of their sacred practices.
And for those who feel like articles like this are a stuck record, that’s because they are. The simple answer? Stop treating Māori culture like some kind of free for all pick and mix free for the taking.
The haka might look like a funny dance to have a crack at to you, but to us it’s an integral part of who we are. And our identity isn’t yours to take.Support Villainesse