A fierce and rousing haka, the good old ka mate ka mate. It creates fear and terror in the hearts of those who face it. Ka mate is only one version of a Maori haka, but it is the one that has been adopted as the iconic national haka of New Zealand. I heard someone recently complain about the length of time a school prize giving took because whenever a pupil of the tangata whenua received a prize, they received a rousing haka from a section of the audience, stretching the ceremony by a couple of hours longer than it could have been. It became most poignant when an Asian girl took a major prize of a multi-thousand dollar university grant to polite applause, followed by a local boy winning a reading skills prize for which his supporters leapt to their feet with hearty slapping of thighs, quivering outstretched arms, bulging eyes and protruding tongues. It is a rousing chant, no question but is this just taking it a bit far? It is a war challenge isn’t it? There should be a time and a place for a war challenge and I am not sure a school prize giving is the time or place.
The subject came back to my mind because I am reading a very well-written book on colonial New Zealand in the deep south (Johnny Jones, A Colonial Saga by Diana Harris). The author of the ka mate chant, Te Rauparaha, features in some of the chapters. He was a chieftain who had fought his way down the North Island, Maui’s land, until he established his stronghold for the Ngati Toa tribe, on Kapiti Island.
But he was a chieftain who had ambitions to plunder the south island, Pounamu (greenstone) land. This land was the homeland of the Kai Tahu tribe which was a merger of the original inhabitants, the Waitaha who later merged with the Kati Mamoe when they arrived from the North Island in the fifteenth century who then, in the late seventeenth century, intermarried with the Ngai Tahu from the North Island’s east coast. By the time the pakeha arrived, most of the south island was under the united tribe of Kai Tahu.
But I preamble to explain how I rediscovered an interest in Te Rauparaha’s ka mate haka. He did lead a war party from Kapiti Island down to the south island when his war party slaughtered the people of Kaikoura before moving on to Kaiapoi where Te Maiharanui’s pa was located. Te Maiharanui was the spiritual leader of Kai Tahu. Te Rauparaha sent his chiefs in ahead to have a chat, but Te Waiharanui was taking no chances and so when he invited them to dinner they discovered that they were actually the menu. They ate Te Rauparaha’s chiefs for dinner. Literally. True story.
Te Rauparaha was well displeased and sometime later conspired with a pakeha ship’s captain to hide his warriors on the ship when it came into Akaroa harbour and lure Te Maiharanui and his family aboard to trade for muskets. They were captured and then Te Rauparaha’s war-party attacked the local villagers, butchering, eating or enslaving them before returning to Kapiti. He took Te Maiharanui back to Kapiti where he was killed. A year later the tribes down in Otakau and Waitaha heard that Te Rauparaha was back in the south island, causing mischief in Kaiapoi so Te Whakataupuka from Ruapuke (the island off the Southland coast now known as Stewart Island), with Taiaroa and Karetai from Otakau, put a team together and set off to have a word with him.
Long story short the southerners gave the invaders a bit of a spanking up at the salt lake in Marlborough and then dined out well at the after-match. But they were disappointed that they did not actually capture Te Rauparaha who had run off during the battle and then swam to an escaping waka, threw one of his warriors into the water, took his seat and paddled for all he was worth.
I was dismayed. I had an image of Te Rauparaha as being one of those stand and fight to the end guys. Death or glory. Aotearoa’s very own Geronimo or Musashi. Fearless in battle; inspirational in leadership; not a man who would throw one of his boys to the enemy ovens while he ran for his life. How could this man Te Rauparaha be the author of the our national warlike challenge, ka mate, ka mate?
So I looked further into the history of the ka mate ka mate haka. As it turns out, Te Rauparaha was on the run from his foe (he’s starting to make a habit of this running away from a fight thing). Anyway, he made his way to the village of a friendly chief, explained his predicament and was promptly put down a deep hole and the chief’s wife obligingly sat on the opening to hide him. When the enemy came storming through they couldn’t find him so they raced on. Some tales diplomatically refer to it as a kumara pit, other historians conclude that if the deception was created by the wife sitting on the opening, then it was far more likely to be a long-drop public toilet. So anyway when it’s all clear, the wife gets off the hole and Te Rauparaha is helped up whereupon he creates his ka mate ka mate haka in recognition of his close brush with death. This haka celebrates successfully hiding from his foes down a public lavatory.
Translated it goes:
I may die, I may die, I may live, I may live (repeat)
The hairy one (a gentleman would have averted his eyes) allowed the sunlight to reach me
One step up, then another and another, and lo! the sun shines,
When we sing the New Zealand anthem at these games we sing it both in Maori and English. I am relieved that we do not translate the ka mate haka into English. It sounds a fearsome, warlike, fight-to-the-death challenge in Maori, but loses a lot of its message in the translation. It would be a tad embarrassing if a few burly Saffas or French understood the true meaning as they faced the haka in a world cup final; and as for the Aussies, that just would not bear thinking about. I just hope this blog is never translated into French or Afrikaans. Fortunately the Aussies’ literacy skills are quite limited so they are unlikely to be reading past the headline. But apart from that, do you think that chants extolling the glory hiding down a toilet when the bad guys are after you is the sort of response we should be encouraging among our vulnerable young at school prize giving ceremonies??
Compare Ka mate with the Ko Niu Tireni (New Zealand) haka written by Wiremu Rangi for the All Black Invincibles’ tour of the British Isles.
The final chorus is:
Ka Tu te ihiihi (we shall stand fearless)
Ka tu te wanawana (we shall stand exalted in spirit)
Ki runga ki te rangi (we shall climb to the heavens)
E tu iho nei, tu iho nei, hi (we shall attain the zenith, the utmost heights)
The great George Nepia led this haka. The British were a bit stunned and bemused by this war chant following their “God Save the Queen”. But when Nepia led it on their 22nd game in Llanelli they performed it to a crowd that had just finished a rousing rendition of “Land of my fathers”; and if anyone can mob-sing it is the Welsh. But a newspaper report said that when Nepia led the haka the crowd was so silent you could hear a pin drop. At the end of the haka the crowd took up the challenge as one with another impromptu rendition of “Land of my fathers.” Respect!
The we then beat them 8-3.
Ko Niu Tireni works for me on the rugby pitch or in the school hall. If I need someone to watch my back, give me Wiremu Rangi of the 28th Maori Battallion over Te Rauparaha any day. I would vote for this Ko Niu Tireni haka to become our national anthem as well as our national haka.