Who Owns the Haka?


For the 30-odd Americans who care about rugby, the pre-game war dances performed by some Oceanic teams are a familiar sight. New Zealand's Ka Mate haka, a traditional dance of the fierce Maori warriors, is a wonderfully frightening thing to witness, especially with hottie Dan Carter up front:

But don't even think about performing it publicly any time soon, lest you receive a friendly visit from the Maori Ngati Toa iwi or an all-expenses paid trip to the New Zealand courts. In the first ruling of its kind, the New Zealand Government gave the iwi, or tribe, intellectual property rights to the haka as part of a multi-million-dollar land claim settlement on February 11. The Ngati Toa ruling declares the Ka Mate the brainchild of Maori chief Te Rauparaha, after his narrow escape from enemies in the 1820s.

It's probably for the best that the Ngati Toa are preventing the world from repeating the haka's story. The first section of the haka—curiously omitted at family events—describes Re Rauparaha hiding under a woman's skirt and sitting mesmerized at her "pulsating cavern."

Maoris said they were tired of companies profiting from the Ka Mate, and the deal was meant to "protect the haka from inappropriate use," said Ngati Toa chief negotiator Matiu Rei. Prime Minister John Keys said the agreement was about "cultural redress…not about a financial issue or an attempt to restrict New Zealanders."

Perhaps that's why Ngati Toa's first target was in England. The Royal Shakespeare Company mimics the dance in its contemporary adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. In the new version of Bill's play, blokes out on a stag night drunkenly perform the haka with a blow-up doll, and end the sequence by mooning the audience, a practice known as "whakapohane" in Maori.

The idea of awarding ethnic groups or large populations IP rights, patents, and copyrights is picking up in India as well, where the country has set up "a team of Hindu gurus and 200 scientists to identify all ancient yoga positions…and register each one to stop 'patent pirates' from stealing its 'traditional knowledge.'"

India seems particularly irked by Bikram Choudhury, who has received U.S. patents and copyrights on his "original" yoga concept. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library is a response to numerous individuals in the U.S. who have obtained yoga trademarks, copyrights, and trademarks. It's likely Choudhury will have the same sense of irony as Perez Hilton if/when he decides to take someone to court for "stealing" his ideas.

This interpretation of intellectual property is sure to stifle cultural exchange if it becomes widespread. And do the Ngati Toa really want to deprive the world of the cutest little war dances you can shake a cinnamon stick at?