He Whakaaro
Titia ki te uma…
Hold fast to your heart…

Nā Maatakiwi Wakefield

“E hau nei tō reo pōhiri, ki ngā iwi puta noa i ngā motu e toru – o te Ika, o te waka, o te papaonekura, kia huihui ai tātou…”

The opening lines to ‘Te Matatini ki te Ao’ by Rob Ruha and friends, which became the theme song of the 2019 Matatini Festival of the same name. The last Matatini held in the ‘before Covid-19’ time and space which now seems, for some, a lifetime ago.

Considered the largest event in te ao Māori, Te Matatini is a biennial national senior kapa haka competition involving more than 40 of the best teams from throughout Aotearoa and Australia. Thousands of performers, composers and tutors, not to mention their supporters, spend hours bringing to life waiata and haka in the hope they will get to represent their region on the atamira at Te Matatini.

For many Māori, particularly those who live outside their tribal area, kapa haka provides an opportunity to express and celebrate being Māori while learning more about their culture through waiata and haka. It is a safe space, where like-minded people come together with the common purpose of not only their love of Māori performing arts but, more importantly, kaupapa Māori. Over time these kapa become extended whānau, mini communities within themselves providing support when needed.

Based around collective participation, our cultural practices and customs are traditional vessels for the transfer of knowledge. Old to young, young to old, there is so much more to be learned from in-person shared experiences than a text book, video or Zui could ever teach.

The arrival of Covid-19 in February 2020 looked to threaten not only the bonds of such relationships but their ability to exist. While some kapa opted for a virtual world experience, most kapa cancelled practices and competitions. Nearly two years on and two country-wide lockdowns and one global pandemic later, here we are in kapa haka limbo, in a world that is fast becoming the ‘are’s’ and ‘are nots’. This is by no means an anti-anyone or anything piece. I understand why things are the way they are and appreciate all that is being done to keep me and mine safe. But like many kaihaka, while appreciating the reasons why, I still have a sense of frustration and sadness with the further postponement of Te Matatini Herenga Waka, Herenga Tangata to February 2023. For many, Te Matatini is more than a national senior kapa haka competition, it is an opportunity to showcase Māori performance and visual and language arts to the world. Covid-19 will not stop this, nor will it diminish the desire within to engage in such events. What Covid-19 will do is change how we engage.

That being said and while we debate the physical impact this kārara kino has on our whānau and hapū, I can’t help but wonder what impact Covid-19 is having on wider Māori culture?

Based around collective participation, our cultural practices and customs are traditional vessels for the transfer of knowledge. Old to young, young to old, there is so much more to be learned from in-person shared experiences than a text book, video or Zui could ever teach. But as this huaketo riha makes its way through our communities, it is diminishing our ability to gather safely as an extended community. Whether it be to celebrate a birthday or the life of a loved one, without a doubt the pandemic is a barrier to our traditional cultural engagement.

Now, you could argue that it’s the Government’s regulations and rules that are the barriers, but sadly history recalls the results of past pandemics where such rules and regulations did not exist and whole whānau paid the price with their lives. While many of our urupā are filled with such reminders, there are few with a living memory of such events whose insight we could gladly benefit from. Rather, we are left to rely on written records, Western science and a pinch of common sense prevailing – presuming sense is common.

So where does this leave our collective-based cultural traditional practices, such as takihaka, pōhiri, manaaki manuhiri and even mahika kai? At face value it leaves them in a tenuous position. With an inability to exercise these practices as a collective, the question could be asked, will they survive Covid-19? The answer is quite simple – of course they will. This is not the first time te ao Māori has been at such a transition point in our history. Our oral traditions recall many times when we have faced similar circumstances. The arrival of the missionaries and settlers, the New Zealand Wars, various pandemics and, of course, legislation. In each case we and our traditions prevailed and without a doubt we will prevail again. For, as in those times, such practices will return again to the safe keeping of those who continue to intergenerationally practise and nurture them, for our marae and our whānau.

The time will come when we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, for like all things this too shall pass. Kapa haka will resume, wānaka will be held, the marae will ring again with our laughter and we will honour those who have passed. However, for now in these challenging times, hold fast to your heart the gifts of our tīpuna and cherish them. May they give you strength in the days to come, “…ko te kotahitanga, ko te nui o te aroha… Matatini o te tangata…” Kia haumaru te noho e te whānau

Maatakiwi Wakefield (Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe, Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Maniapoto) is a Kaitakawaenga Māori at the Christchurch City Libraries. A kaihaka, composer, tutor of kapa haka, and a founding Trustee of Te Atakura Kapa Haka Festival.