Poi, Mau Rākau and the Impact of Colonial Thinking

There has been much debate, uproar about, and defense of, the recently released rules for the 2016 Kura Tuarua kapa haka nationals. The Committee has made a significant change to the rules in announcing that there will be a change in marking the aggregate section of the kapa haka competition. It is noted, in the new 2016 rules, under the Judged Disciplines:
51. Aggregate Section: Only the marks of the following items will be counted in the Aggregate Section for Co-ed Groups:
• Te Reo Māori
• Whakaeke
• Waiata/koroua/Mōteatea
• Waiata-a-ringa
• Poi
• Haka
• Whakawātea

Aggregate Section : Only the marks of the following items will be counted in the Aggregate Section for Single Sex Female Groups:
• Te Reo Māori
• Whakaeke
• Waiata/koroua/Mōteatea
• Waiata-a-ringa
• Poi
• Haka Wahine
• Whakawātea

Aggregate Section : Only the marks of the following items will be counted in the Aggregate Section for Single Sex Male Groups:
• Te Reo Māori
• Whakaeke
• Waiata/koroua/Mōteatea
• Waiata-a-ringa
• Mau Rākau
• Haka
• Whakawātea

The underlying assumptions for the marking rules are clearly premised upon a notion that ‘poi is for girls and mau rākau is for boys’. Sadly, I thought we had fought and won this internalised colonial thinking battle some 30 years ago.

I recall close friends who attended Auckland Girls Grammar talking about the early struggle to have the haka component of their brackets recognised and marked. It was a struggle and it was one worth having as it led to a greater understanding of both mana wahine and mana tane. What we are seeing now with rules that reposition poi and mau rākau as gendered areas of performance is a re-emergence of colonial gender ideas that have no place within Te Ao Māori, let alone within the kapa haka performances of our secondary schools.

There seems to be a range of justifications (some would call excuses) for the re-embedding of such colonial thinking into secondary school kapa haka. Some reports indicate a belief that it will encourage single sex schools to collaborate more in terms of kapa haka. This is interesting in that it denies that some whanau choose single sex schooling pathways for their children for exactly that reason – they are single sex schools. There are many and diverse reasons for that. So to hear some advocate that a way of dealing with the rules is to collaborate, which means to bring schools together to compete, then places that decision outside of those whose actual decision it is to make. What is just as concerning, in fact, is that these rules have emerged after the schools have already been selected for the nationals. So even if they wanted to combine to get around this rule they can’t. Equally, it needs to be highlighted that a number of single sex schools have in the past combined, and some currently continue to do that. The choice to do so should be with those whānau, and not be influenced by imposed gendered restrictions.

We have also seen comments that the committee undertook the process for the changes in line with their constitution. Where there are deep concerns in regards to the lack of meaningful engagement within the regions it appears clear that the committee voted for this change. Many of our people find the fact that those who are in a position to support kapa haka, and it’s place in supporting and inspiring our rangatahi ,have so taken an approach that both restricts specific forms of participation and denies the right of all of our people to utilise both poi and mau rākau.

The decision is a clear example of the internalisation and imposition of colonial thinking and practices. It is well known that both poi and mau rākau have been traditionally, and in contemporary contexts, used by both men and women. There have been, at times, issues in regards to how kapa haka competition rules have redefined the use of those taonga that have been gifted to us from our tupuna. Such redefinitions have often been grounded in misconceptions of who did what within traditional Māori society and in particular the roles and status of wahine and tane.

This is just one more example of the depth of which colonisation has pervaded our thinking and practices. In many ways it doesn’t matter who the committee members are as another group may have also made that decision. What is critical to the discussion is the power of colonial ideologies to influence how we make decisions about and within ourselves as Māori organisations.

The question needs to be asked about not only who made this decision and how it was made, but more critically we need to ask ourselves, how did this conversation ever make it to the table in the first place? How can a discussion that leads to the restriction of Māori boys doing poi and Māori girls doing mau rākau ever be raised in this time?

We need to ask how can that discussion be had in the light of the exceptionally powerful performances of many of our National groups where our wahine excel in mau rākau and our tane in poi. There are many many examples of that and yet there seems to be a huge chasm in regards to what happens on a Te Matatini stage (both regional and national) and what this committee is saying can happen on a secondary school kapa haka stage. And we need to ask why we would even want to do this? Who benefits from imposing such restrictions? and more importantly, who benefits from imposing restrictions that are based within colonial thinking?  It is most certain that collectively our people do not benefit from such actions.

Did the committee miss the great performance of Manutaki when both wahine and tane did the poi? Have the committee missed the power of wahine and tane together in wero as a part of Te Whare Tū Taua? Or the many kapa haka rōpu where our wahine have shown their strength with weaponry? Did the committee miss the power of the wāhine of Ngāti Waewae who laid the wero to the Waitangi Tribunal at Arahura marae?

Within our own whakapapa kōrero we know that neither poi nor mau rākau were gender specific. Early Pākehā arrivals to Aotearoa have also documented that poi was one of a range of Māori games to support physical development. Online the organisation Rangatahi tū Rangatahi provide an overview of a range of such games.

http://www.r2r.org.nz/games-activities-maori-youth/poi-toa.html

The Kura Tuarua Kapa Haka committee decision is effectively a move backwards at least 30 years in terms of many attempts to decolonise the dominance of western colonial thinking. The fact that it can even have been made raises a range of concerns in terms of how the roles and practices of our tupuna are reconstructed in ways that undermine movements for social justice in regards to gender relationships. Where some may see this issue as only one of kapa haka, it is without doubt much greater than that as it reflects a belief system and sets of assumptions that continue to create contexts of oppressive behaviours in that these beliefs are not about our tikanga, but are about colonial views that have become embedded within Māori society.

The broader issue is that of colonial hegemony. That is, the internalisation of colonial beliefs and practices to the point that we as Māori begin to see those ways of being as traditional and a part of who we are. Such internalisation has been instrumental in the disruption of traditional understandings about ourselves and each other as wahine and tane Māori. The issue of single sex boys schools not being marked for the poi is the flip side of earlier experiences of single sex girls schools such as Auckland Girls Grammar being denied marks for doing the haka. What that tells us is that the fundamental views of gender that colonisation imposed upon our world remain alive and well, and even more steadfast in that they are now enacted and implemented by ourselves upon our own people.

So what we are seeing in these new kapa haka rules is not new. It is a continuance of generations of colonial gendered thinking that dominates the western colonised context within which we find ourselves. To work against these types of impositions we need to challenge the fundamental beliefs that underpin them and seek to create pathways that are reflective of our tikanga and which provide healthy and sustainable ways for us to be with each other and to affirm the mana of both our wahine and our tane in ways that will ensure the wellbeing of all within Te Ao Māori.

The least that can be done is that this decision be reversed and that such gendered shortsightness not be enabled within any context, least of all in ways that deny opportunities and experiences of our tamariki and mokopuna.

About Te Wharepora Hou

Te Wharepora Hou is a collective of wāhine who are mainly Tāmaki Makaurau based, but we have strong participation from wāhine based elsewhere in Aotearoa and the world. We have come together to ensure a stronger voice for wāhine and are concerned primarily with the wellbeing of whānau, hapū, iwi and all that pertains to Papatūānuku and the sustenance of our people.
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One Response to Poi, Mau Rākau and the Impact of Colonial Thinking

  1. Tainui Stephens says:

    Ka tautoko katoa nei au i ta koutou e kii nei. I can’t believe that such a feckless decision was made on behalf of of such an important and beloved part of our Maori world. How dare we be drawn back into such fatally flawed western notions of gender. It is a fertile bed of misogyny and all the pain and lost potential we know that causes.

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