For more than 20 years, and despite multiple complaints over many years, Pākehā engineering students at Auckland University regularly performed a parody of haka during capping week. By 1979, a group that later became known as He Taua had had enough and confronted them head-on.
Although it was a significant event in New Zealand history, it was soon largely forgotten — that is, until Māori playwright and filmmaker Katie Wolfe put the story on the stage with her play, The Haka Party Incident.
As the play is set for its second outing next month, Katie tells Siena Yates why and how she brought the story to the stage.
I first came across the haka party incident in Ranginui Walker’s pukapuka Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou — Struggle Without End.
Even though there was only about a page and a half on it, I remember thinking: “Wow, this is a real moment of confrontation between Māori and Pākehā.”
From around the mid-1950s, engineering students had performed a mock haka for capping week. They wore grass skirts and, in the early years, they did an operatic, almost-gentlemanly version of a haka.
But, by the 1970s, it had pretty much turned into a pub crawl where students, still wearing the grass skirts, did their version of haka down Queen Street.
There were multiple complaints over the years from Māori students and the Auckland University Students’ Association which asked the engineering students to stop their culturally offensive “haka party”. But they didn’t listen. And the university refused to take any action — they wrote it off as “just a bit of fun”.
Finally, in 1979, a group (which later became known as He Taua) decided to take matters into their own hands. They included Hilda Halkyard-Harawira, Hone Harawira, Ben Dalton and Miriama Rauhihi-Ness.
Their plan was simply to show up at the students’ common room and ask them to take off the grass skirts. But the meeting became a confrontation and quickly blew up — and the whole thing was over in less than five minutes.
The engineering students never performed that mock haka again. But that was after He Taua members were detained and beaten by police, vilified by media as dangerous “gang members”, and even criticised by Māori leaders for going against the traditional, peaceful approach to protesting.
I was a child in the 1970s, and I remember how Māori, and our culture and reo, were treated in those days. But the thing about racism is that it’s not always overt. Often, it’s just the way it sits inside the normality of the day.
For example, when I was about seven years old, we did a project on Māori culture. But it was never acknowledged that anybody in the class was Māori. It was like we were talking about a strange, faraway thing that was completely separate from any of us.
Those kinds of memories were vivid for me. I think that’s why I could feel the significance of the story. And then the more I looked into it, the more I could see it was a turning point in race relations because it helped Aotearoa to face up to its institutional racism.
It led to an official inquiry by the Race Relations Conciliator and the Human Rights Commission. And it showed people that cultural appropriation was no longer going to be tolerated.
So it was a significant part of that push in the 1980s for initiatives like kura kaupapa, kōhanga reo and the Police Complaints Authority. But, unlike the Land March, Bastion Point or the Springbok Tour, the haka party incident played little or no part in the mainstream consciousness.
When I started looking into it around 2008, pretty much everyone I talked to had never heard of the incident. I knew I wanted to change that. It was a matter of finding the right way to tell the story because racism can be such a hard thing to talk about.
I had to find a way to take it out of the personal and put it into the context of the society at that time. I decided I was going to interview those who were there on the day and create a piece of verbatim theatre — a documentary on the stage.
The first interviews were in 2011 when I spoke to Hilda Halkyard-Harawira and Ben Dalton, both of whom were part of He Taua and who are central characters in the play.
Talking to the engineers, on the other hand, was a slow and complicated process. Initially, they were reluctant, because they’d never talked about it and they were afraid of being blamed.
We first made contact through one of the engineer’s wives who contacted the theatre company and said: “I’d really like my husband to talk about this.” Then it just went from there.
The cool thing is that, since that first workshop, we’ve had more and more people come forward, saying: “I was there, I’d like to tell my story.”
When we interviewed He Taua, we realised that a lot of them hadn’t seen each other in years, so there were heaps of laughs. One of my favourite stories was about how they arrived at the university. They had their set plan, but not only did they not know where they were going, they also quickly discovered there was nowhere to park.
Luckily, there were some roadworks going on outside the Kiwi Tavern right next to the uni — and, of course, all the road-workers were Māori. So the road-workers moved all the cones for them so they could park right outside. I’ve always liked that story.
Listening to the engineers was sometimes hilarious too. One of them said that he knew there was a back entrance to the common room so, when He Taua came in, he knew how to get out and just shot through. He ran as fast as he could all the way home — and it wasn’t until he got there that he realised he still had his grass skirt on. He still has it all these years later. He said he just had this feeling: “This is going to be part of history.”
The play includes the accounts of nearly 40 people, along with court and university newspaper transcripts.
In 2017, I was commissioned to write the play by the Auckland Theatre Company. We did a development workshop production. It was programmed for the 2020 season but, of course, that’s when Covid came along.
It finally got a premiere season in 2021 and was scheduled for a national tour and a season in the Aotearoa NZ Festival of the Arts, but none of these went ahead. Now, in 2023, we’re finally able to get the play back on the road with shows in Tāmaki Makaurau, Pōneke, Rotorua, Te Tairawhiti, Tauranga and Ōtautahi.
There are eight haka performed in the play. One is Ka Mate written by Ngāti Toa rangatira Te Rauparaha. Another is the traditional Tainui haka Tau ka Tau.
There’s also the original 1923 University of Auckland haka, Ākarana, written by Te Rangi Hīroa. The cast do perform the students’ terrible version of that haka as well. Our Māori cast were uneasy about performing it at first, but we looked at it as a necessary illustration, because people need to understand what happened.
Then, on the flip side of that, we have another University of Auckland haka which was composed for the opening of the new engineering building in 2020. It’s called Me Hoki Whakamuri Kia Anga Whakamua: “Look to the past to move boldly to the future.” It’s an incredible, beautiful haka of reconciliation.
The final haka of the play is He Taua which is written by my son, Nīkau. It’s quite simply a celebration of Māori pride.
What we’re doing by having these haka side-by-side with these stories is — rather than telling people they must whakamana and respect the haka — we’re showing the power and the beauty of the haka itself. Te ihi, te wehi, te wana.
I think storytelling is about finding the language to discuss issues that aren’t always easy to talk about. We’ve done that by giving people a voice, and by letting our haka speak for themselves.
I don’t see the play as some huge reckoning. It’s quite a humble thing. And its impact may be as simple as some people being able to say: “Because of that story, I was able to see things from a different point of view.”
Katie Wolfe (Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Toa Rangatira) is a director, writer and actor who works across theatre, film and television in both drama and documentary. Her play The Haka Party Incident won three Adam NZ Play Awards including Best Māori Playwright and is being restaged due to popular demand. It will run for a season at Auckland’s Te Pou Theatre this June 1-11 before embarking on a national tour.
As told to Siena Yates and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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