Accepted paper:

White Men Can't Dance: the haka as ambiguous embodiment of the bicultural state


Nina Harding (Massey University)

Paper short abstract:

Performances of haka by the New Zealand Army overseas are also performances of the biculturalism of the New Zealand state. However, what Pākehā soldiers' poor execution of haka actually embodies is discomfort in enacting this bicultural project.

Paper long abstract:

The New Zealand state presents itself as a bicultural "partnership" between Pākehā and Māori, based on the rehabilitation of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi as the nation's founding document. The performance of haka by multi-ethnic groups of New Zealand soldiers on peacekeeping deployments overseas is seen as one of the most powerful embodiments of this biculturalism, demonstrating New Zealand's preferred national identity to the world. However, the bicultural project has also been challenged in the public sphere. While national appropriations of indigenous rituals are often "divorced from any […] understanding of […] the wider political issues of indigenous struggles" (Bell 2014) (as in the case of the All Blacks' haka) Ngāti Tūmatauenga (Tribe of the God of War- the New Zealand Army)'s actual biculturalism means that Pākehā soldiers have been unable to avoid exposure to such struggles. To fully embody New Zealand soldierhood, members must be capable of performing multiple haka. Although soldiers are generally confident and comfortable in their bodies, Pākehā soldiers' uncertainty over their right to take part in Māori rituals manifests in physical awkwardness and hesitancy. Based upon fieldwork in which I was embedded with a platoon deployed as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), this paper argues that Pākehā soldiers' physical inability to appropriately perform haka embodies the ambiguous reality of the bicultural state.

panel P38
Embodied rituals, symbols and performances: embodiment as a negotiation of the state, and state negotiations of embodiment