A Haka for Everyone

Matangi Tonga

The BYU football team has drawn much national and international media attention since it first performed the Ka Mate Haka before the 2005 Boston College game. Most respect what ESPN praised as a "dance for men," but some fans and local media are not so fond of the Cougars new pre-game tradition. The most common objection arises from the involvement of non-Polynesian players.

"I've never in my whole life heard that certain people can and cannot do the haka," said BYU wide receiver Bryce Mahuika, who is the grandson of a Maori chief. "The All Blacks [New Zealand's national rugby team] were the first to do it in a sports atmosphere. They've had all kinds of different people do it like white guys, poly guys such as Tongans and Samoans who aren't even Maori. They have all kinds of different guys doing it, and they've always done it. If they are all doing it in New Zealand where the Maori culture is from, then why can't everybody do it here?"

In Laie, Hawaii, the performing of traditional island dances at the Polynesian Cultural Center (P.C.C.) is not limited to people from the nation where the dances originated.

"My dad grew up going to the P.C.C., and he learned the Samoan slap dances; he learned the fire knife and all the different dances you can learn over there," Mahuika said. "Obviously he had learned the haka from back home in New Zealand."

Mahuika remembers his father Michael telling funny stories of how many thought he was not Maori but Tongan or Samoan while performing traditional dances from those islands.

"I can remember him telling jokes of how he used to run out on stage with the Tongan group and everyone would think he was Tongan," chuckled Mahuika. "The next thing you know he was out there with the Samoan group, so it doesn't even matter because most white people don't even know which is which. I bet half the people out there who look at our roster wouldn't be able to name who is Tongan, who is Samoan and who is Hawaiian anyways. It doesn't even really matter; we're all on the same team."

Coming together as a team is what the haka is all about for the Cougars. Recently, an article in a Salt Lake newspaper suggested that the white players on the BYU football team should stand aside and clap during BYU's pre-game haka. For the players on the BYU football team, the haka is not about putting on a show, it is about team unity and pre-game mentle preparation.

"The way the Haka was presented, it was a thing for us to do as a team," said Mahuika. "It was something for the team to do regardless of race, age or color. It was something meant to unify our team and get us ready emotionally and physically to play, and it has nothing to do with the color of your skin or where you're from. It has nothing to do with how good you can do it; it has nothing to do with whether you've done it before or if it's your first time or anything like that."

When Coach Mendenhall went to his team to ask them what they could do to provide motivation, team unity, and strength, Mahuika had just returned from his father's funeral where he and members of his family performed the haka at his father's graveside. Knowing the powerful emotions that the haka evoked in him and his father's countrymen, Mahuika believed that the dance could have a similar effect on his teammates.

"I presented it to the team and told them that if they wanted to do it, then I would lead them in the haka before the games," said Mahuika. "Coach Mendenhall said, ‘Yeah, let's do it.' I talked to the Polynesian guys first because I thought they would be the one's most familiar and not because they were the only ones that can do it, so then we all got together and did it in front of the team just to show them what it is and how to do it. From then on, we just said anyone who wants to do can do it, and we'll show you how so everyone can do it with us. It's never been about color or who should only have the right to do it or anything like that."

Mahuika has personally noticed how the haka has accomplished the purpose he was looking for among his teammates, and even though the pre-game ritual was meant for the team, Mahuika has seen how its influence has spread beyond.

"I think for those who've taken it a little more serious it helps them realize that this is something that does help us focus and become more ready emotionally for the game, and it also gets us unified together as a team before kickoff for the game," said Mahuika. "It has really helped us as a team a lot. Instead of rushing out onto the field and waiting for the game to start, this is a way to help set the tone for us as a team before the game.

"Obviously there are some people who do just stand there and watch and don't participate, but I would say it even helps them even though they're just standing there. When they see their teammates doing something like this and getting themselves focused and emotionally ready, they think, ‘Dang, our team is ready to go.' It affects everybody whether you're participating in it or not. I've heard from some of our fans that it even gets them pumped up for the games, so everybody who's doing it as part of our team or watching it from the stands, I think it's bringing everybody together and getting them ready for the game."

What started out as a small suggestion to foster team unity, focus and pre-game intensity, has now spread to become a BYU fan favorite at Lavell Edwards Stadium. It has even spread to surrounding high schools. State champion Bingham High School, Hunter High School, and Logan High School among others have or now perform the haka prior to their games.

Although many in the U.S. have criticized BYU for doing the haka, many in New Zealand were thrilled to hear that a storied American football team has adopted a Maori custom and shared it with tens of thousands of people.

"They're going crazy down there," said Mahuika. "They don't know exactly what football is, and they don't watch too much of it, but I just told them that it's kind of like rugby and then they get some idea at least and can appreciate it."

The excitement grew so to the point that the largest New Zealand newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, ran a story about the Cougars pre-game haka.

"It definitely is a complement to [New Zealanders]," said Mahuika. "When they heard back in New Zealand that we were doing it over here, it was all over in the news down there. The [New Zealand] Herald called my mom and my mom got a hold of me and they wanted to know what we were doing and why we were doing it. I explained to them and told them that we were doing it at the start of our college football games. They kind of didn't have the greatest idea of what that is, but when I explained to them that we're doing it in front of 65,000 people they were like, ‘Wow, that's unbelievable!'

"The colleges down there, you know, they have rugby and they may have around 20 people show up for their games. It's a much bigger thing here so when they realized how big it is they were like, ‘Geez, that's cool that they're embracing the culture and doing it.' To them, they were more amazed that we were doing it for so many people rather than worried about who was doing it.

"When you live on the islands and it's a pretty small culture as it is, anytime your culture gets out into the mainstream and into America it's a big deal back on the islands. You know America to them is like the biggest and greatest thing, and when they see people over here learning, appreciating, and doing the Haka on such a big scale like we are, they appreciate it like you wouldn't believe. It's become big news and everyone wants to know about it. Everyone is proud of it and everyone in my family is bragging about it and it's become a big thing down there."

One member of the Mahuika family who was especially pleased by the Cougars performance of a Maori dance was Bryce's great-uncle Api Mahuika, who is the chairman of the East Coast Ngati Porou tribe.

"It is a great opportunity for him to learn and share his culture," said Api Mahuika in The New Zealand Herald.

Who could have known that a simple suggestion by a player to his coach in Provo, Utah would affect people half a world away? In a recent television program on the mtn. about Polynesian culture, Bryce's brother Kyle went so far as to say that effect of BYU's haka was felt beyond this world. Kyle believes that his father must be looking down with a proud smile on his face each time his son leads BYU in the haka.

With the positive reactions from the locals back in New Zealand, one has to think that Bryce's father is watching over the pre-game proceedings with a great deal of satisfaction. Bryce acknowledges the role his father played in bringing this Maori tradition to BYU.

"We'll give the credit to my dad," smiled Bryce. "If it wasn't for him teaching it to me and making me half Maori, this never would have happened at all, but you know, here I am, and I'm just happy that everybody here embraced it and made it a cool thing for us and for our team preparation. That's really all it is."

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