NZ #15: Queenstown, and Haka

By: | Post date: January 10, 2010 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

I was struck with awe—in fact, terror—when I pulled up at 6 PM to Queenstown, tourist haven of the South Island, to be greeted by a young man impersonating a moose in front of a moving bus.

It wasn’t Janet Frame’s awe at the big smoke’s granite and bustle. It’s an altogether more dysfunctional awe, at a town full of people younger than me, noisier than me, and drunker than me.

And that other business that twenty-year olds tend to get up to on holiday more than me; but this pretends to be a family-oriented blog. It doesn’t particularly succeed at it, but I might spare you the psychosexual drama for this post anyway.

The rains took care of the élan vital of the twenty-year olds, I daresay. The party crowds were in merry mood out and about last night; but Queenstown woke up soggy enough this morning for people to keep their party indoors.

Queenstown is impossibly beautiful, even more postcard-bespoke than Akaroa: a comity of mountains and lake and trees right out of a Swiss chalet. There was gold here in the 19th century; but the area now lives on the tourist’s dime alone, as the local taxi drivers assure me.

And the tourists still come, both the lowly and the high. That makes it a less Slow News Day here than you’d expect for a place this size. The current headline in the local paper: Muammar Gaddafi’s son was in town New Year’s Eve, and wanted to party.

The beat reporters were hot on the story, and somehow I suspect this isn’t the biggest story they’ve had to track. They talked to the hoteliers who had to bump another booking for Gaddafi fils and his people. They talked to two of the dozen blondes sourced locally by Gaddafi fils‘ men to join in their festivities. (“No fat ones”, the order specified.) The blondes reported that the visitors were gentlemen, their identities unknown, and they left the vistors after a couple of hours to rejoin their friends, who had not been invited to the party.

I’m not speculating about their friends’ weight or hair colour.

The beat reporters got paparazzo shots of the man himself, watching performers doing a haka for him on the tarmac of Queenstown airport. A last minute whim, apparently: Gaddafi fils couldn’t leave town without partaking of the local culture. Though not partaking *too* closely: as the bemused Kiwi Haka troupe told the beat reporter, they issued the traditional Pōwhiri challenge to the visitors, but did not drop the fern for the visiting headman to pick up, and prove his good intentions. The headman’s security detail wasn’t letting anyone get that close.

All very odd. That wasn’t the deal when Abel Tasman failed to acknowledge the local tribe’s challenge. And there’s the whiff of something unsavoury about Maori ritual performed on demand for visiting headmen.

But New Zealand has a long tradition of that, whether the visiting headmen are from Libya or England, or tourists from Across The Ditch. No, of course it’s not the same—the Treaty of Waitangi does mean something, after all. But it’s convenient romanticism to say the troupes should stay virtuous and poor. The same happens Across The Ditch, when every culturally sensitive conference feels entitled to demand an Aboriginal Welcome To Country—and then are surprised the elders demand remuneration.

But of course they should: it’s not like the elders had invited the conference as their guests in the first place (or the 18 million other non-indigenous inhabitants). If the visitors are willing to buy what they’re offering, who’s to begrudge them asking a fair price?

I don’t have a wide standard of comparison for Maori cultural performers: I’ve only watched half an hour’s worth on Maori TV, and the last three hotels I’ve been in don’t carry Maori TV. But I went and saw Kiwi Haka perform tonight, and I was very impressed. The women’s singing was excellent. (The men’s doesn’t have to be, because the men do more chanting and punctuating shouts.) The weapons display was instructive: if the Maori haven’t already branched out into martial arts, they should.

The banter was well worked through as well. I was startled at the matter-of-fact acknowledgement of after-battle cannibalism:

“This blow separated the crown of the skull, allowing the warrior to feast on the brains. Mmm! … But today, like everyone else, Maori prefer McDonalds and KFC.”

In a roundabout way, though, it speaks to the resurgence of Maori identity. The mihinare, the missionaries, successfully made the Maori abandon that kind of warfare, and (less successfully) sought to make them abandon the rituals and weapons to go with it. Noone would joke about cannibalism fifty years ago. The Maori now don’t do what they did; but neither are they ashamed of their forebears that did. And if it unsettles the tourist, so much the better.

But it was the Pōwhiri, the welcoming ritual, that transfixes. It was explained to us, but it still was alien and confounding: all in te Reo, threatening and solemn and aloof, the peace token of a fern thrown down and jabbed at for the visitor to pick up. The karanga, the call and response of women, from the two sides, only went on for a few seconds; but it too sounded like it was from another realm. Vaguely like Bulgarian polyphony.

All of it is drastically abbreviated of course: no spears were thrown past the visitors, and we did not chase the spearmen or kneel on one knee grasping our muskets, as happened of old. The singers of the karanga were not past childrearing age, as used to happen back then—because an encounter between tribes could still go awry, and old women were deemed more expendable. We didn’t exchange oratory or touch noses or feast together, as actually happens to this day in the marae. It wasn’t a “real” pōwhiri—of course, we’d hardly earned one.

And it’s not authentic, in a narrow sense; but as I keep learning, that’s not the kind of authenticity that matters. I’m not sure I got it right, but I gather the poi was traditionally the men’s domain, and has become a women’s dance for this kind of cultural exhibition. But if all Maoris growing up see women doing the poi, then that’s what’s real.

Just as they’ve all been told Aotearoa is the Maori name of New Zealand, and not originally a less common name for just the North Island: it’s the name of the whole country now, and that’s the new authenticity. The old authenticity was that the very notion of the North and the South Island being the same country was a Pakeha notion, and got a Pakeha name, Niu Tireni. But that’s an historical footnote, overtaken by new circumstances, and new constructions of nationhood.

Kiwi Haka did also perform a haka—they hardly couldn’t. Though not *that* haka (Ka mate, the one you all know from rugby); that haka is not welcome on the South Island, because of the devastations its composer Te Rauparaha brought to the South Island in the Musket Wars. The haka has even more layers of authenticity wrapped around it, being the most emblematic feature of Maori culture, and appropriated by the Pakeha in ways of their own.

The role of women in the haka is under contention, for example, and the historical evidence for or against is being conscripted to the debate. Tradition (in at least one construal) limited women in the haka to pūkana, dilating the eyes: glowering. But if the haka is a living tradition and not a museum piece, then it will reflect how Maori women fit into their culture now. And from what pūkana I’ve already seen, I don’t see Maori women taking a back seat anyway.

The souvenir shop had a book that went into several of these debates on authenticities of the haka, with good humour and encyclopaedic coverage. (Wira Gardiner. 2007. Haka: A Living Tradition. 2nd ed. Auckland: Hodder Moa.) Not everyone is as sanguine about reinventions of the haka: the All Blacks are notoriously touchy about their opponents not standing at reverent attention while the team gestures they’ll slit their throats.

There’s a haka Gardiner missed in his survey, which Wikipedia mentions, and I’d love to see the return of: a 1903 challenge to my countrymen, from Across The Ditch.

Tena koe, Kangaroo

How do you do, Kangaroo!

Tupoto koe, Kangaroo!

You look out, Kangaroo!

Niu Tireni tenei haere nei

New Zealand is invading you

Au Au Aue a!

Woe woe woe to you!

As you’ll notice, in 1903, it wasn’t yet Aotearoa. But Australia has indeed been successfully invaded by New Zealanders. Including enough Maori to establish the Nga Kapa Taumata Teitei, with a competition to judge performances nationally.

They should give serious thought to that 1903 haka, I reckon.

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