Want to get a Texas high school football team pumped up?
Try the haka. It works for New Zealand’s legendary All Blacks rugby squad. And it’s doing pretty well for the Trojans of Trinity High School in Euless, TX, ranked by Rivals.com as the top high school football team in the nation.
Performing the haka - a Maori chant and dance – in north Texas isn’t an act of random cultural appropriation. The offensive and defensive lines of the Trojans are filled with Tongan players, representing the 4,000 people of Tongan descent who live in this town of 52,900. The size, speed and skill of these players has a lot to do with the emergence of Trinity as a football powerhouse – in a recent NPR piece on the team, one coach of the team remarked that his offensive line currently outweighed that of the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
What are 4,000 Tongans doing living in suburban Dallas? Working at DFW airport, for the most part. A Tongan employee of American Airlines told family and friends about a Texas community with a low cost of living and lots of airport-associated jobs, and helped start a migration from Tonga to Texas. The community has been well-received, perhaps because Tongan culture is heavily family focused, which aligned neatly with local community values.
And, of course, it doesn’t hurt when some of the Tongan seventeen-year olds are 6’2″, 280# and can pass block.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with rugby has seen New Zealand’s national side perform the haka before matches. It’s intimidating – huge guys, yelling and slapping their bodies in unison. I’d assumed it was a way to resolve cultural tensions in New Zealand between English immigrants and a subjugated Maori population, the sort of multiculturalist healing that I’d assumed emerged sometime in the 1970s. Nope. The haka was introduced to the wider world when a team of “native” New Zealanders – primarily Maori, but four players of British descent born in New Zealand – played matches in Britian in 1888-9. I’d also assumed that it was a war dance, and that there was a single melody and lyrics. Neither is true – the haka can refers to a set of posture dances with shouted accompaniments, and can be peformed in welcome, to commemorate events or to intimidate the hell out of sporting opponents. The All Blacks have used different hakas through the years, sometimes with lyrics specific to the match (referring to a New Zealand invasion of Australia, for instance.)
The haka’s worked pretty well for the All Blacks, and thus it’s been picked up by other New Zealand sports teams, including the basketball side (the Tall Blacks. Yes, that’s really what they call themselves) and the wheelchair rugby side. In the future, all New Zealand national teams may have their own custom hakas. But it’s generated some controversy when people from other countries have adopted the tradition. Football players at the University of Hawaii began using a controversial haka written for the All Blacks, but later changed to an original Hawaiian dance, the Ha’a.
So should the Tongan population in Euless be performing a Tongan dance instead of a New Zealand one? That’s what a commenter on the Euless Voice of Tonga website suggests:
Congratz for having an awesome team…..BUT!!! why are’nt you all doing the Sipi Tau…..instead of a Maori Haka. If you still insist on doing the Haka ….please learn to do it right….the way its being done now is an insult to the Maori ppl. Thankyou.
The Sipi Tau is the dance and chant the Tongan national rugby team performs before their matches. The dance is a version of the Kailao, a Tongan war dance, and the lyrics are pretty damned intimidating:
Let the foreigner and sojourner beware
Today, destroyer of souls, I am everywhere
To the halfback and backs
Gone has my humanness.
Which is pretty much how every defensive tackle I know wants to feel before taking the field.
What’s fascinating to me is the way in which the Haka made it into Euless. It wasn’t through elders communicating a dance tradition to their children. Instead, some of the players watched the New Zealand rugby team perform the haka on YouTube and began learning the moves in a local park. With the permission and blessing of the local Tongan community, they began performing the dance at community events. It later worked its way onto the football field, where it’s become a critical part of Trinity football culture.
At this point, the ritual – whether the culturally appropriate one or not – is a sign of the acceptance of the Tongan community in Euless. This is, after all, a community where the school’s principal – originally from West Texas – routinely comes to work wearing a lava-lava. A Tongan community leader, talking about the reception the dance has received, said,”I had two older men with tears in their eyes tell me afterward, ‘After seeing that, we know that our future generations will be accepted here.’”