Last month, almost every schoolkid in Wairarapa — more than 6,000 —stood together and performed a haka they’d been learning and practising for the past year.
Paora Ammunson, who wrote the haka 30 years ago, never imagined he’d see the day.
Here he reflects on what it’s meant to him and others.
What unites us
Sometimes it seems like there are more things that divide us than unite us, but I’m proud to say the opposite was the case in Wairarapa last month.
Thirty years ago, when I wrote the haka Ko Wairarapa, te reo Māori was barely an official language in its own country. Our national anthem was sung only in English. And past injustices had yet to be acknowledged, let alone reconciled. I remember being branded a radical for advocating for Māori language schools and television.
This has all changed within three decades. Our anthem is now sung in te reo and English, te reo is an official language of New Zealand, and Wairarapa iwi are heading to settle longstanding grievances.
Back in the ‘80s, I could never have imagined that almost every young person from our valley would be standing to perform a haka that was written for them.
When I wrote the haka, I was managing Māori Studies at the polytech in Masterton, and we needed a haka for our students. We could’ve drawn on Kahungunu or Rangitāne haka, but we wanted something that was more specific to Wairarapa, and that everyone could feel a sense of ownership over.
By then, our Wairarapatanga had reached a low point. We had lost a lot.
And we were going through horrible times. The freezing works were closing down, rural subsidies were slashed, our hospitals were being closed, our economy was almost shutting down before our eyes. I remember the main street of Greytown back then was dotted with empty shops. You could hardly get anything to eat on a Sunday afternoon. Things sure have changed since then.
Ko Wairarapa is a ngeri, a form of haka that is short, and really is just saying who you are. It’s about our identity, wanting people to be proud to come from Te Karu o te Ika: the eye of the fish of Māui.
The haka challenge
A year or so ago, we had some tragedies involving young people and others, and the Masterton Intermediate School principal, Russell Thompson, had this idea to unite all of our young people with the world record haka challenge. It was an extraordinary idea. Every single Wairarapa school embraced it wholeheartedly.
Masterton Intermediate did most of the work. It took on the job of teaching every single child in our region how to perform their haka. They connected with teachers and schools across the valley. They sent teams of haka ambassadors (boys and girls, of all ethnicities) to teach other schools. And they made a video and put it on YouTube.
The logistics were huge. It took more than a year to teach students Ko Wairarapa.
And, on November 2, more than 6,000 young people, as well as adults and kaumātua, stood together at Trust House Memorial Park in Masterton and performed Ko Wairarapa: We are Wairarapa.
The children had come by foot and by bus, from private schools, country schools, bigger town schools and kura kaupapa Māori. Some had to travel more than an hour to get to Masterton. From five-year-olds, who started school that week, to 18-year-olds who were about to sit their NCEA exams.
Our children were together for what we think is the first time in the history of Wairarapa. The headline in the paper read: Haka unites region.
These are things I could only dream of, all those years ago.
My cultural home
Wairarapa has always been a kind of cultural home for me.
On my mum’s side, we are from Papawai marae, just outside Greytown. Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Ngāti Moe, as well as Aohanga, north of Masterton, out at the coast. Mum brought us back to Wairarapa often, although we were raised in Porirua and Wellington. My dad was from the Herewini and Hona families, of Ngāti Whakaue and Ngāti Rongomai from Te Arawa. He died from cancer when I was seven, and Mum brought us five kids up. I’m the oldest.
I didn’t grow up speaking te reo, neither did my mum. Her parents probably knew their kids would be punished physically, economically and socially for speaking te reo, so it was a survival decision. Mum remembers children being attacked by teachers for speaking Māori. My dad’s father was a Norwegian Kiwi. Even on that side, our name was changed from Amundsen to Ammunson to sound less Scandinavian, more English —so it would be easier to get a government job.
My Norwegian ancestors arrived in the late 1800s. They walked from Wellington over the Rimutaka Hill to Mauriceville, north of Masterton. I’ve read accounts that when they walked through Wairarapa, local Māori people felt aroha for them and showed them what kinds of plants and fish were edible and how best to cook them.
It’s funny thinking of both sides of my whakapapa meeting up a century before me and talking about kai.
Dad first grew up at Ngāpuna on Lake Rotorua. But, because the council pumped raw sewage into the stream, there was a typhoid outbreak. So the government banned people from living at the pā, leaving many homeless. He was still a boy when the Marist brothers took him in — and still at primary school when he started boarding far away from Ngāpuna.
Both my partner and I grew up in a city far away from our ancestral lands, so we wanted our boys to grow up close to where they came from ancestrally. When our eldest was four, we left careers in the city and moved to Wairarapa, building next to the marae. Our boys all have names from their Māori, Samoan and Norwegian ancestors, because we want them to know who they are and who they’ve come from.
When Māori weren’t allowed in the pub
Growing up, I faced institutional prejudice (being told not to study Māori because it was a dead language) as well as overt racism (getting beaten up by kids because I wasn’t white). When you grow up knowing there’s something different about you, some people make the decision to survive by suppressing it. I was 18 when I decided I wanted to grab a hold of it.
Mum’s cousin Hine Paewai was one of Wairarapa’s last fluent native speakers and experts on Wairarapatanga, and she’s been gone more than a decade now. She had a huge influence on me.
Another was my mum’s brother, Kingi Matthews, a Māori Battalion soldier and a Māori All Black. When he came back from World War II, he had to sit outside on the footpath to have his victory beer with the other uncles — because Māori weren’t allowed in the pub. Māori soldiers were also banned from the ballot farms for returned servicemen. They were put into a narrower range of retraining options than other soldiers. And they weren’t eligible for benefits Pākehā soldiers could access.
New Zealanders often prefer to forget these kinds of things happened, because I think we’re all ashamed of them. The injustice of what happened over the years to Māori New Zealanders and my own family was something I couldn’t reconcile. So I started off by learning te reo and whakapapa things.
My role models were also people like Whata Winiata — who were academics, but also committed to their own people and their own community. They didn’t just sit in a big tower in Wellington. They went home and worked.
These kinds of grassroots people inspired me. They showed me that I had to actually live and be a part of the community I was arguing for. I couldn’t sit around in Wellington and do it from my desk. It wasn’t about being a “theoretical Māori”, it was about real life. Our marae were saved by the old people and those volunteers who stayed when everyone else moved to the cities for jobs and opportunities.
My own marae needed someone who could speak te reo, because there was hardly anyone left. And so I stood to speak for the first time as a teenager on our paepae at Papawai, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
In our region I could see how perilously close to the precipice our language and culture came. Back in the ‘80s, if you were young and spoke Māori, often people would think you were an extremist. I remember standing in a lift with my mate and there were complete strangers standing next to us who were clearly offended and disgusted that we were speaking Māori in front of them.
All these kids are our Wairarapa kids
We have a Wairarapa proverb that comes from Tumapuhiarangi: Tui tui tangata, tui tui korowai. Bringing people together is like weaving a fine cloak.
And, if you watch the aerial footage of our kids performing haka together, our korowai comes in all shapes and sizes, colours, ages, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, towns and incomes. Our korowai is incredibly fine and beautiful.
There was a wonderful feeling of ihi and unity that day. After the haka challenge ended, a lot of kids were surprised to see that many adults were crying.
One mum told me that, with all the problems facing our planet, watching all of our kids standing united, performing a haka with pride and mana, was a moment she’d cherish forever.
I’ve had many quite conservative people getting emotional as they told me how seeing their grandchildren that day had made them so proud to come from Wairarapa. Made them realise that we really do live in a very special part of the world. They saw that Māori language and culture is an important part of being a New Zealander. They see their kids embracing it. They know it’s not political correctness or cultural brow-beating. It’s our kids knowing who they are, and feeling good about it.
I believe every child growing up in Wairarapa should feel comfortable walking on to a marae. Every child should know that the lake we name ourselves after (Wairarapa Moana) is the eye of Māui’s great fish.
Whether they’re Māori, Pākehā, Chinese, Indian, Samoan, Tongan, Filipino, Sri Lankan or whatever: all these kids are our Wairarapa kids. They all belong here, and Ko Wairarapa is their haka.
The spinoffs in having an entire community come together and celebrate te reo and tikanga Wairarapa are many, and we will feel them for years to come.
Every school now has a haka they can perform at assemblies, prizegivings and sports games.
I know the cubs from Wairarapa headed south for a jamboree and busted out into haka recently. Our kids playing in a national hockey tournament did the same a week later — and I’m pretty sure every single child performing Ko Wairarapa on the hockey pitch that day was Pākehā.
Our Wairarapa Bush U-13 rugby team played East Coast recently. And after our Ngāti Porou visitors performed a stirring haka, our boys from Pākehā, Samoan and Māori families turned around and honoured them back with our own haka. Our manuhiri couldn’t remember the last time a Wairarapa Bush team had responded with a Wairarapa haka.
But, perhaps more importantly, every young person in our region knows a little bit more about the place they call home.
This is a world away from the ‘80s when even some of those who supported things Māori saw our reo and tikanga as more of a hobby than a real, living culture.
My mum told me that, as a child, her school would celebrate Exotica Day once a year, and on this day the Māori kids would have to come to school to tell everyone about their exotic Māori culture. She hated it. But that was how Māori things were thought of in the ‘50s — exotic and foreign.
She was in the park on November 2, watching every Wairarapa child perform Ko Wairarapa. I don’t think she ever imagined that one day every kid in the region would be standing with pride to perform a haka about Wairarapa.
If anything, I was most proud that my mum was there to witness that, in her lifetime, Māori culture is normal and welcome and part of who we are in Wairarapa.
Paora Ammunson is on the South Wairarapa District Council. He helped set up Wairarapa’s first PHO, chairs the Wairarapa Rugby Union, and runs a sportsville, focused on community sport and development. He’s also involved with his marae and wider iwi, and likes to tutor kapa haka and coach rugby in his spare time.
Māori can’t do it on our own
We have many to thank for this important day in Wairarapa history.
Masterton Intermediate principal Russell Thompson whose idea it was to take the haka record back for Aotearoa. Peter McNeur, Trudy Sears, Makuini Kerehi and the team at Wairarapa REAP (Rural Education Activities Programme) who helped make it happen. Provincial New Zealand is so lucky to have the REAP organisations who help with local education.
And we’re indebted to local companies and organisations like Tranzit Coachlines, Masterton District Council, Trust House Memorial Park, our Māori Wardens Wairarapa Aerial Imaging, Kahui Wairarapa, Noise Producation and Wairarapa TV, Wairarapa Road Safety, Compass Health, Wairarapa Police, Printcraft, Breadcraft. And of course our local Rangitāne and Wairarapa iwi.
The other unsung heroes in this project are the teachers (many of them non-Māori) in each of the participating schools who lead the teaching of kapa haka (and usually all the other performing arts). More often than not, they have little by way of resources and knowledge of te reo Māori to help them. They work tirelessly to ensure their students have some exposure to Māori culture and heritage. These are all people we know well in our community, because they give so much of themselves for us and our kids.
There are many really good people at the coalface who are hugely supportive of Māori culture. They were crucial to the haka challenge’s success.
For our language to survive we need all New Zealanders to support and cherish it. Māori can’t do it on our own.
Ko Wairarapa. We are Wairarapa.