I would venture a step further: The All Blacks’ rendition of the haka is indeed a superb act of nationalism, but also a heartening example of postcolonial cohesion. (Rugby has a knack for this.) As Tharoor puts it, “the haka, in its growling intensity, captures … the solidarity of warriors—both of Māori and non-Māori descent—fighting for a common future.”
It’s also an instance of a sports team paying homage to an indigenous culture without simply appropriating it. In this way, the All Blacks stand in stark contrast to controversial U.S. franchises such as the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and, sadly, my hometown Chicago Blackhawks—all of which incorporate imagery and nomenclature that offends many Native Americans.
Some argue such branding is intended to “honor” indigenous peoples. How this is accomplished by way of leering, cartoonish likenesses or outright epithets is beyond me. Even if such depictions weren’t constantly flagged as offensive by Native American advocates, slapping the name of a tribe onto your baseball cap is a decidedly superficial way to demonstrate respect.
The All Blacks’ presentation of the haka is inclusive and participatory. It is, from most reports, authentically performed and assiduously studied by Māori and non-Māori players alike. And this signals, more broadly, New Zealand’s relative success at integrating colonial and indigenous societies.
Of course, the treatment of the Māori in New Zealand has by no means been perfect. Nor has it ever been. They have suffered systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement, as have most colonized peoples at some time or another. Large tracts of land were confiscated from them in 1865 following the Taranaki Wars, for example. And as with native populations in the Americas, diseases imported from Europe took a massive toll. Meanwhile, realtors and landlords were permitted to refuse Māori tenants well into the mid-century. A parallel movement to the American civil-rights movement sprung up in the 1960s to address such structural inequalities.
Even today, inequality persists. Some critics go so far as to call New Zealanders’ affinity for the haka hypocritical, given that the Māori language and other aspects of the culture are dying out, and generally neglected by national schools.
But, on balance, New Zealand’s relationship with the Māori is, relatively speaking, something to be emulated. The Māori were accorded civil rights comparably earlier than most colonized peoples around the world. They were granted rights as full British subjects and had their property rights recognized with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. This was more than 100 years before the Aboriginal people of Australia were offered full citizenship, and more than 80 years before the Indian Citizenship Act in the United States. Intermarriage was not necessarily looked down upon.