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Māori arts: a powerful pride

I was one of more than 1.8 million New Zealanders tuning into Te Matatini last month.

I wouldn’t call myself patriotic – by any stretch of the imagination. Though there have been a few moments where I’ve felt ridiculously proud of our teeny tiny island. Watching our top kapa haka rōpū tear up the stage absolutely qualifies.

The talent at Te Matatini was world class: From Stan Walker’s soulful vocals, to Ngāti Whakaue’s powerful tribute to the Māori Battalion, to the sharp choreography and raw charisma of our own Te Rangiura o Wairarapa.

We saw bodies of all sizes giving it their all, wheelchair-users and hapū māmā taking centre stage, and takatāpui [LGBTQ+] performing as their authentic selves. All a privilege to witness.

Leading up to the event, there were the usual conversations about funding. Te Matatini receives $2.9 million from the government – slightly less than the $8 million and $19.7 million bestowed on the Royal New Zealand Ballet and NZSO. The PM seems open to discussions about upping the pūtea. Watch this space.

The benefits of funding Māori performing arts go beyond entertainment. Events like Te Matatini increase the visibility of te ao Māori — and likewise representation for young tangata whenua.

As Māori academic Hemopereki Simon wrote for The Herald, “[Te Matatini] features the best of our language, dance, poetry, politics and music. Te Matatini awakens the Māoriness in my people.” For many rangatahi Māori, the Māoriness reflected at them in the mainstream media is, often, synonymous with deprivation. Ill health, damp houses, crime-filled neighbourhoods. As weaver Nan Walden shared with Midweek, to be a Māori teen meant streaming into the “bottom” classes and constant detentions…so her heritage became a source of shame.

In kapa haka, however, Māoriness is synonymous with artistry, passion and whanaungatanga [kinship]. At Te Matatini, Māori are powerful. Young people deserve to see that – and to be it.

Also, we know that embracing cultural identity is good for our health. A 2019 study from Auckland University found “kapa haka…had significant cascading benefits for the participants’ identity and wellbeing”.

For participants, kapa haka provides an accessible pathway to te reo and mātauranga Māori [Māori knowledge], a sense of community, and “precious opportunities to be completely and unashamedly Māori”. All of which significantly improved their mental health.

“To be able to express ourselves uniquely as Māori is about preserving our heritage, our existence and presence,” psychologist Linda Waimarie Nikora said.

“[This leads to] outcomes extending far beyond the individual, the team and the stage”.

Judging from the commentary on social media following Te Matatini, kapa haka has captured Kiwis of all backgrounds. I’m reminded of a conversation with artist Sam Te Tau about the stories within Māori art. The stories “of humanity and spirituality are universal. You don’t need the same DNA to appreciate them.”

Nor do you need the same DNA to appreciate kapa haka. An impassioned message, joyful movement, impeccable costuming, and harmonies that make your ears hum…it’s worthy of support because it is universally beautiful. Because the skill level involved is phenomenal. Because it’s part of Aotearoa.

There is room to nurture all artistic talents — ballet, orchestral music, line dance, the works. But it’s clear there is an increasing appreciation for kapa haka and all it stands for. If we’re cool with the Māoriness the All Blacks and their epic haka abilities bring to our screens, we can spare a little extra for our Māori performing artists. They deserve to be seen by more people.

To everyone involved with Te Matatini — ka pai to mahi, e hoa mā. I, for one, can’t wait to see more.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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