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Living Heritage – The Haka February 12, 2009

Posted by Rebecca Kahn in Features.
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There’s a great article in The Guardian today about the haka, the traditional Maori ritual that anyone who watches rugby (or bad TV ads) is familiar with.

The eye-rolling, grimacing dance is an important part of Maori culture, and has been incorporated into the culture in New Zealand and the rest of the world. But, according to the article, it’s been used in various culturally insensitive ways, which has angered and upset traditional leaders in the Maori community in New Zealand.

So the good news is that the New Zealand government has assigned intellectual property rights in the traditional Maori haka, or the Ka Mate, to Ngati Toa, a North Island tribal group. This in itself is great news but what’s even more important is the understanding from both the government and the Ngati Toa that this is not a decision that has been made around money, which is so often the lurking agenda behind decisions in the Traditional Knowledge sphere.

The agreement states that:
“Ngati Toa’s primary objective is to prevent the misappropriation and culturally inappropriate use of the Ka Mate haka,”

And the article goes to to say that:

“…while the tribe has tried several times to trademark the haka, it has failed, mainly becuase of concerns that¬† it might charge the All Blacks for performing it. However, John Key, New Zealand’s prime minister, said the issue was cultural redress and not money. If a company wanted to use the haka for commercial reasons there should be a recognition of the tribe’s cultural interests. How this would be handled in the final treaty settlement was still a matter of discussion, he told the New Zealand Herald.”

This is, I think, a really good example of how the tensions between groups in countries that have a history of colonisation can be addressed in a way that preserves traditional culture and heritage, not just for the ethnic groups where the traditions originated, but also for the groups who have appropriated this culture for themselves. Ideas of ownership in the TK arena¬† need not be an “us” and “them” scenario – but rather an agreement on the collective nature of heritage, with an acknowledgement of where the culture originated.

Pic: Kiwi Haka by Jad_23 on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0