From out of the backstreets of a provincial town came a group of a dozen boys, each in the ancient dress of the Maori, and in unison they screamed, thumped their chests, taunted, stuck out their tongues and glared menacingly at us. So began the opening ceremony of the International Boys Schools Conference. The re-enactment of this war dance was evidently their way of saying, “Welcome to New Zealand.” (I’m not sure the Toronto Tourist Board would be interested in adopting this practice.)
If you are a fan of international rugby, you may have seen a version of the “Haka” done by the “All Blacks” as part of their pregame warm up. For the world’s most famous rugby team, it’s a way of motivating themselves while also intimidating their opponents. (I wonder if UCC’s squad should try this technique before their next debate with St. Andrews?)
The Haka is designed to let outsiders know that “Kiwis” are a strong people, and while they will not be intimidated, they will offer welcome, once outsiders have shown that their intentions are peaceful. Beforehand, a guide had sheepishly (Hey, this is New Zealand) instructed our female colleagues to stand behind the men. “It is not that we think you are second class at all, but it is important that women are in the back, so that they can be protected.”
The Haka invites quite conflicting reactions. Some see it as a wonderful way to celebrate raw manhood as boys act together to celebrate the strength of their physical selves in a most politically incorrect way. Others, though, can see the same ritual as an implicit approval of the worst of “boys will be boys” – a reinforcement of the flawed notion that the world of boys is about group-think, bluster, defiance, and physical intimidation.
As I looked on at the choreographed rage, I thought I was witnessing an ancient Polynesian version of “West Side Story.” The Sharks and the Jets would have fit right in, mate.