Ka mate, ka ora

In the early 1800s, young Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha narrowly escaped death. His legacy lives on in the haka he composed.

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Hocken Library

Crouched in the dark of the kūmara pit, Te Rauparaha waited. The musk of damp soil filled his nostrils. Piles of kūmara dug into his skin. But he dared not move. His pursuers had chased him across Lake Rotoaira to this pā, Motuopuhi, northwest of Mt Tongariro, and were closing in.

Their footsteps halted just outside the kūmara pit. His relative, Te Wharerangi, told them he had long since fled.

Silence followed. Te Rauparaha eased forward, listening for a reply. Perhaps the deception had worked.

Words reached his ears. The rapid, erudite delivery of a tohunga: an incantation intended to reveal him.

It lifted the hairs on his skin. With each word uttered, each step taken, Te Rauparaha grew more certain that death was imminent. When all that remained between him and the tohunga was Te Wharerangi’s wife, Te Rangikoaea, who sat before the pit’s entrance, Te Rauparaha accepted his fate.

But the tohunga came no closer. His words rained down upon Te Rauparaha without effect. Nullified, he realised, by the placement of Te Rangikoaea. The tapu of her genitals rendered the incantation noa—powerless.

Unsuccessful, the pursuers were forced to depart. And in the still quiet of the earth, before beginning his return to daylight, Te Rauparaha gathered himself with a breath. “Kīkiki kākaka…”

Ka mate: will I die?

Like any oral history, there are many variations. Some say that parts of Ka Mate—and Kīkiki Kākaka, the ngeri that preceded it—were existing chants Te Rauparaha built upon. Regardless, Ka Mate would prove to cheat death in the coming centuries.

It would survive colonisation—which eradicated countless Māori compositions, or consigned them to fiercely guarded memory—to be popularised by New Zealand’s national rugby teams. First by the New Zealand Natives in 1888-89, then by the All Blacks, who, from 1987, began to regularly perform Ka Mate before domestic games. “Rugby was one of the first vehicles that carried te reo Māori to the world,” says Taku Parai of Ngāti Toa.

Yet while Te Rauparaha’s words became household, their significance did not. Ka Mate, to most people, was part of the All Blacks brand. Was the cost of its survival the loss of its meaning?

Ka ora: will I live?

For the descendants of Te Rauparaha, its meaning was never lost. The haka is a taonga—a treasure of immeasurable value.

“But it is a taonga under threat,” says Te Ariki Wi Neera, who sits on Ngāti Toa’s Ka Mate Haka Committee. In 2012, Ngāti Toa applied to the Intellectual Property Office to trademark parts of Ka Mate, in response to production of a tea towel featuring the haka by a company now called The Natural World. The application was ultimately unsuccessful.

Some progress was made in 2014 with the Haka Ka Mate Attribution Act. The result of a Treaty settlement, the Act recognised that Ngāti Toa holds a legal right of attribution for Ka Mate. Any publication for commercial purposes, or communication shown to the public, must include a statement acknowledging Te Rauparaha as its composer.

“Attribution isn’t protection, though,” says Wi Neera. Permission is not required—legally—to use Ka Mate. And if it isn’t attributed correctly? “Then the onus is on us to challenge it.”

Whiti te rā—the sun shines

Te Rauparaha was one of the greatest rangatira of his time, but even he sought the protection of others when he needed it. Perhaps one day his haka will find similar protection in Pākehā law.

“There have been some hard discussions about the future of Ka Mate,” Parai reflects. “Will we allow it to be part of sports promotion, or do we take it home, to lead our departed ones off the marae, as only Toa can do?”

The mana to decide belongs to the descendants of Te Rauparaha and Ngāti Toa Rangatira. Either way, for them, the answer to his question—“Will I die? Will I live?”—is as clear as daylight.

Tihema Baker is a writer of Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Raukawa te Au ki te Tonga and Te Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai.

Written with the permission of the Ka Mate Haka Committee of Ngāti Toa Rangatira.

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