I’m from New Zealand, which is relatively unique in the world in terms of its progressiveness. New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote in 1893 and the first country in the world to introduce the eight-hour working day, celebrating it with “Labour Day.” In 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. Ernest Rutherford, a pioneer of nuclear physics and the first to split the atom, another Kiwi, was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his theory of atomic structure. There are many more “firsts” that come from this beautiful country — not bad for one the size of a New York suburb. And while New Zealand certainly does not have a perfect track record in race relations, in my view, one of the things I’m most proud of New Zealand for is our celebration and embracing of our indigenous people: Maori.
I’m lucky to have a unique perspective passed on to me in that one of my forbears, a Wesleyan Methodist missionary was a witness signatory to one of New Zealand’s founding documents: The Treaty of Waitangi – a treaty between Maori and the Crown. On another side of the family, we were adopted by a beautiful Nga Puhi (Northern Tribe) woman. As well as being a signatory, the Nga Puhi people provided the very place where the treaty was signed. The treaty, itself the subject of tension and controversy at times, is one of the country’s founding documents and was the first of the many progressive commitments and declarations the country has made.
New Zealand’s national sport is rugby. Did I say sport? I may have meant religion! If you’re like me, a country boy playing rugby from the ages 4-18 and only socially beyond that, my dream was to make the All Blacks. The All Blacks, named for the team’s jersey color, is arguably the “winningest” international sports team and drives our national pride.
Before every game, the All Blacks perform a Maori Haka, an ancient posture dance of the New Zealand Māori that was traditionally used to prepare a war party for battle and create a united frenzy to prepare mentally and physically for impending conflict.
In modern context, Hakas are performed spontaneously at events like weddings and funerals. Last year, I was sad to miss the funeral of one of my lifetime heroes, my former headmaster Sir John Graham, which featured a full school haka to honor the great man. I can tell you from experience a Haka like this is one of the most moving experiences you can witness. Many hardened men have been brought to tears by this gesture; I know I have.
We all teach our children to perform the Haka whether we have Maori blood or not. It has become part of being Kiwi and a rare, modern celebration of nationhood that is both honoring of our indigenous people and honoring those on its receiving end.
Ka mate, Ka mate – the original All Blacks haka – was composed in the early 19th century by famous Maori warrior chief Te Rauparaha, of the Ngāti Toa Rangatira tribe. Te Rauparaha was fleeing an enemy tribe seeking retribution for a past wrong he had committed against them. As he was chased, fellow chief Te Wharerangi helped him hide in a pit and then instructed his wife Te Rangikoaea to sit on the pit entrance. After the enemy had moved on, Te Rauparaha emerged from the pit. There, in jubilant celebration of his lucky escape and in front of Te Wharerangi and his people, he performed Ka mate, Ka mate which he had composed while deep in the pit. I love that this small tribe’s haka is now our most famous.
First performed on the rugby field in 1888 by the New Zealand Native Team, this Haka has become so culturally ingrained and celebrated, it is on par and as sacred to New Zealanders as any country’s national anthem is to them. For Kiwis, it is our Haka. I’m proud that we perform the Haka before many of our sporting matches. This Haka is a celebration of life over death; it is the upholding of our Mana, our integrity; and it has survived hundreds of years.
I was lucky enough to work with AIG, sponsors of the All Blacks, on a campaign that celebrated the Haka. Here’s a beautiful short overview of its history by Hohepa Potini, Kaumatua (tribal elder of the tribe Ngati Toa and keeper of traditions). For a more immersive experience, check out www.haka360.com if you have a VR headset handy.
Thanks for being open enough to read and/or watch something that I’m sure is probably as niche and culturally diverse as you’ll find!
As for our Whanau (family), we stand for Aroha (love).
Strahan WIllis is managing director of the Porter Novelli Southern California office. He shared: “I love that we’ve developed a campaign centered on what we stand for ahead of what we are against. This is by far more compelling, more powerful and more inspiring to me and I’m grateful to be part of an agency that has such great soul.”