This Week in Sports

Pre-game haka: honorable or offensive?

In last week’s outing against the UCLA Bruins football team, ABC’s cameras showed the University of Arizona Wildcats perform a pre-game haka — the “Ka Mate” — a tradition that traces back to 2009 when the Wildcats first performed it to honor the Polynesian heritage of some of the players on the team. Paying tribute to Polynesian culture is an honorable gesture, but something feels wrong when certain players who have no tie to the Maori culture — in this case, American Samoa-born Lene Maiava, the leader, and Hawaiian-born Sani Fuimaono, the performer, from the Wildcats — lead and perform the Ka Mate, which the New Zealand All Blacks popularized to honor that culture specifically.

Indeed, as of Thursday, the Wildcats Athletics Department released a statement saying, “We’ve been made aware that a segment of the population is unhappy that the haka is being performed. As a result, we have decided to discontinue the activity … Moving forward, the university [is] now planning to identify other alternatives that would provide an outlet for their Polynesian student athletes to showcase the heritage they are so proud of.”

The Arizona Daily Star reported that this move has been prompted by the outcry of a Cal State Northridge associate professor, originally from New Zealand, who started a petition. “The professor said to a New Zealand news organization that Arizona’s rendition is ‘a mess, and it’s an affront to me as a Kiwi that they’re doing this, especially that it’s Ka Mate.’”

There is a very specific issue with the haka: Although cultural integration should be promoted and players from Polynesian descent have a right to promote their culture, the actual Ka Mate haka must be reserved to players of Maori descent. Popularized by a team with direct connection to Maori heritage and always led by a Maori player, the Ka Mate is very specific to the this culture.

When led by a Maori player — like at Brigham Young University byBryce Mahuika, the grandson of the chief of a Maori tribe — it makes perfect sense. But when it is a Polynesian player leading it, especially from an American Samoa like at Arizona, it is not cultural integration anymore but cultural appropriation. Samoa, Fiji and Tonga all have their own versions of the haka in the Siva Tau, the Cibi and the Sipi Tau. Heck, even the All Blacks created the new haka “Kapa o Pango” — roughly translated to “All Blacks” — meant only for that team, as a representation of their identity.

Bottom line: Performing the haka and paying tribute to Polynesian culture is great, especially in the United States where Polynesians lack representation. But in doing so, I’d rather see hakas like the one from the University of Hawaii, sung entirely in Hawaiian rather than a roughed-up version of the oh so emblematic “Ka Mate” led by a non-Maori player.