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Spirit of the Founder captured in Māori haka

01 July 2015

Although the fierce display of power and purpose of the Māori haka ahead of a sporting competition is often seen as an attempt to intimidate the opposition, it is meant as a good-spirited challenge and declaration of national pride.

Maori Haka

But did you know that The Salvation Army has its own haka (war dance), inspired by William Booth’s ‘I’ll Fight’ speech?

Kapa haka performers aim to have their whole body speak, employing postures, gestures and facial expressions to daunt an enemy or excite an audience, explained Valance Smith who lectures in Māori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. Historically, a tribe’s reputation rose or fell on its members’ ability to perform the haka.

The early Christian missionaries in New Zealand tried to eradicate the haka, believing it was in conflict with Christian beliefs and practices, said Valance. Instead of singing the haka, sacred waiata (songs) and other traditional chants, missionaries promoted hymns with European-style harmonies. Māori proved skilled at singing in harmony and began singing their own songs to English melodies. Since the 1980s, kapa haka has experienced a popular renaissance.

In its early days in New Zealand, The Salvation Army – or ‘Te Ope Whakaora’ in Māori, meaning ‘the Army that brings life’ – was committed to Māori, and several European officers learned the Māori language, translating Salvation Army songs and establishing a Māori Division and Training College. Yet, with some exceptions, this early passion and organisational commitment for working alongside Māori did not last.

General Eva Burrows’s 1987 ‘Agenda for the Future’ provided a timely reminder to the international Salvation Army to give greater attention to all forms of racial prejudice. This, along with a fight for justice and equality for Māori within wider New Zealand society, led The Salvation Army to renew and strengthen its commitment to work alongside and serve Māori over the past decades.

The Salvation Army haka debuted at the Mission 2010 congress in New Zealand with choreography to a translated version of William Booth’s ‘I’ll Fight’ speech. It was a powerful testimony that Māori were once more at home within The Salvation Army, and a rallying call for Salvationists to fight for the well-being of the most vulnerable in society.

This is a fight that is deeply personal to Māori, who are over-represented in hardship statistics, including lower life expectancy and poorer health outcomes, as well as being disadvantaged in areas such as housing, education, income and employment. Comprising just 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population, Māori people make up more than half of the country’s prison population.  

Fifteen members of the haka group are performing at Boundless 2015, representing their own culture and the New Zealand Salvation Army.

‘It’s a real privilege for our group to showcase Māori culture to people from around the world. Boundless is about bringing together people of different races, cultures and understanding, but with Christ at the centre – and when we do everything for the glorification of Christ, that’s where the power comes,’ said Lieutenants Tau and Trish Mataki, national leaders of The Salvation Army Māori Ministry and part of the group. ‘The Salvation Army is “whakawhanaungatanga” (relationships) at its best. This is what William Booth was talking about in his “I’ll Fight” speech: the gospel is for everyone, wherever our arms can reach.’

By Major Christina Tyson, Communications Secretary, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory


This article was included in issue two of Boundless Today. Click to read all issues of Boundless Today.

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Ephesians 3:8 - Preach to the nations the BOUNDLESS riches of Christ