On the 1st of May 1979, the University of Auckland was home to an incredibly influential event that despite its vital place in understanding the history of Aotearoa, it has been somewhat shrouded over the past 40 years. At the 2021 Auckland Arts Festival/Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki, Katie Wolfe will revisit events that Craccum magazine once catalogued, with her verbatim theatre piece The Haka Party Incident.
In the years between 1955 and 1979, it became tradition for Pākehā engineering students at the University to perform a mock haka during capping days. They would, often very drunkenly, stomp around the University campus donning raffia skirts and carrying mock taiaha. The racist display would tour campus, as well as the city; it was performed in lecture halls, pubs, and would even spill into Queen Street, stopping traffic. By the late seventies the students had also begun to draw genitals and swear words on their bodies, in a cruel distortion of tā moko. By 1979, Māori students (including those in the University Māori club) had been trying to end the racist event for over 20 years. On May 1st, after repeated attempts to shut down the mock haka through official lines, an activist group called He Taua confronted the engineering students while they were rehearsing.
The confrontation, which became violent, was the subject of intense scrutiny in the press. Auckland Star, one of the first outlets to cover the event, ran the headline ‘Gang Rampage at Varsity Leaves Students Battered’. Craccum, which hit stands about a week after the clash, catalogued the reaction of the media nationwide. Much of the coverage followed the Auckland Star’s lead, with a wide variety of authors employing racist rhetoric. Craccum also ran an interview with one of the members of He Taua, who asserted that, “The haka party has turned the Māori culture into a racist cartoon to be laughed at.” They went on to express their frustration with representations in the media. They said “the press just made out that every one of us went in there armed and bowled them over… Non-violence and passive protest and all this, we’ve been doing that for years and that’s what all of us are sworn to. That’s why I reckon any violence that came out of that should be labelled definitely as begun by the other side.” In the aftermath of the incident, there were eleven arrests and charges of rioting against He Taua, but the engineering students never performed the mock haka again.
David Merritt, who was the Editor-in-Chief of Craccum at the time, offers his own reflections on the day. “[The news] spread like a prairie fire across the campus and many wide eyed students appeared at the office to give us their versions of the events…. I wanted to get as many views as possible from the protagonists, AUSA and Club elected officials, the University admin and the student body at large through articles and many, many letters we received.” He remembers the response from the student body being mixed and divided, especially after Student President Janet Roth was ejected from office following conservative backlash: “The confrontation was short lived but the debate about the event and broader roles of racism, violence and booze stayed lively all year. There were many mass student forums, meetings and voting referenda as well as elections for the next year’s student administration… the Haka incident was a very galvanising event as far as immediately raising consciousness about racism.”
As Merritt notes, the event is a significant one in the history of race relations in Aotearoa. It highlighted a clear example of institutionalised racism, spurred on critical discourse about the oppression of Māori and became a stand for activists like Hilda Halkyard-Harawira and Hone Harawira to call for better for tangata whenua (they were both there on the day). Despite the significance of the event, it isn’t a widely known moment in the University’s history. Due to the unflattering portrait it paints of the colonial institution (remember, this occurred only 40 years ago), it has been concealed and lost for many, even with extensive archival documentation. With her verbatim theatre piece The Haka Party Incident, Director Katie Wolfe revisists and reinvigorates the story, stressing the importance of holding the event firm in our national memory.
Wolfe, best known for Kawa (2010) and her directorial work on Waru (2017), debuted The Haka Party Incident in 2017. She was particularly drawn to the story because of its unremembered nature: “I was interested in this moment of violence that had erupted between Māori and Pākehā – it seems incredibly important to me and I didn’t understand why it had been wiped from our nation’s memory – it had been almost completely forgotten.” Wolfe continues, highlighting the importance of keeping the event in the forefront of our minds, “The new engineering haka is called ‘Me Hoki Whakamuri Kia Anga Whakamua’ – which means ‘you must look to the past to move successfully forward’. The Haka Party incident revealed the UOA to have systemic racism; that is something an institution always needs to reflect on – is the UOA moving successfully forward?” Wolfe’s question is certainly one actively discussed on the University campus. Just two years ago students occupied the Clocktower and marched towards the centre of campus to protest the Vice-Chancellor’s refusal to remove white supremacist posters and stickers from campus. Retaining stories like the haka incident, whether that’s through artistic performance or organisation on campus, is key in recognising and challenging institutionalised racism at the University.
The Haka Party Incident utilises verbatim or documentary theatre, which means the source materials are not altered in the dialogue; the actors will be speaking history into present and recapturing real things people said during the time the events unfolded. Wolfe explains her decision to engage in this type of storytelling: “I really enjoy verbatim performance so this kaupapa seemed a perfect fit. Auckland Theatre Company gave me the opportunity to create a new work and were really supportive in taking on a piece of documentary theatre.” Since the original performance in 2017, Wolfe has continued to develop and expand the story. She says “I have spoken to many more people, so the story has further depth and perspective but there is a compelling consistency in the telling of the story.”
Of course, with the piece relying heavily on historical accounts, Wolfe engaged in some intense research. She describes her process, saying, “The focus of the research was finding those who were in the room that day, the room being the engineer’s common room. It has taken years to bring the voices of the documentary together. Only yesterday I was contacted by an engineer who now lives in Detroit. His mum saw an ad for the play and rang him – they had never spoken about it.” She cites the most rewarding aspect of the research being “finding the link between the 1923 Haka ‘Ākarana’ written for the university in 1923 by Rangi Hīroa and the version that it evolved to by 1979.”
Interestingly, Wolfe wanted to avoid representation of the media in her retellings. She says “I made a decision early on not to include any media in the documentary, mainly because it was so racist and biased. That in itself is interesting, but I wanted only to hear from the people who were there. I wanted their truth to be the enduring voice.” With this method, Wolfe is able to scrape aside the unfounded and racist claims that many papers published, amplifying the voices that aren’t catalogued quite as well in mainstream archives.
In a later Craccum issue of 1979, an author reflected on the magazine’s immediate coverage of the incident. They noted, “The more I think about the whole affair the more I become convinced that it has been blown up beyond all proportions by the media… As far as Craccum is concerned, it is almost a dead issue…” Clearly, Wolfe’s work disputes this claim pretty plainly, asserting the importance of the neglected event in our histories. She explains her hopes for what audiences of The Haka Party Incident will take away, stating, “for many it will be the first time they will have heard this story. My aim is never to attribute blame, which is often a focus when dealing with issues around racism.” She continues, “I hope The Haka Party Incident promotes the idea that we need to find the language to talk about racism, to be able to talk about these issues in a constructive and progressive way.”
Full Interview with Craccum Editor of 1979, David Merritt
How did the Craccum team first hear about the incident?
The Craccum office was on the top floor of the AUSA building, with a wall of windows overlooking the Engineering School. Remember, this was Capping Week so we were in a state of high alert for stunts and events that were going on. I’d seen the Haka Party in previous years and knew to run away and hide somewhere when they were on their “warpath/pub crawl”. So news of the event across the road spread like a prairie fire through the campus and many wide-eyed students appeared at the office to give us their versions of the events.
What was the approach to reporting about the event?
I wanted to get as many views as possible from the protagonists, AUSA and Club elected officials, the University admin and the student body at large through articles and many, many letters we received. Then, there was the story of the history of the Haka Party and the events leading up to the incident. There was the story of the boozing and the pub-crawling culture on campus as well. There was the discussion of NZ wide systemic racism and Māori starting to assert sovereignty over their own culture and place in kiwi society.
How do you remember the response from the student body?
Mixed and divided. The President was rolled from office by a conservative backlash for one but I think, looking back now, quite a body of students thought it was fair enough for the Engineers to get a bit of biffo. The confrontation was short-lived but the debate about the event and broader roles of racism, violence and booze stayed lively all year. There were many mass student forums, meetings and voting referenda as well as elections for the next year’s student administration. And by 1979, the campus was in its last gasps of 60’s rebellion as economic realism sank in with Muldoon and world events and the University moved towards assessment rather than exams to keep students busy all year. But the Haka incident was a very galvanising event as far as immediately raising consciousness about racism.
What was the response from the wider media and did it affect Craccum‘s reporting?
The popular media went wild with tabloid-type headlines. It was ‘big’ news for the best part of a month up and down the country as the talking heads all opined and chimed in, reported on the court cases and what was happening up at the University.
You have to remember that NZ at the time was in turmoil over many issues – historical and contemporary racism, sexism, homophobia, environmentalism. Punk rock was happening! It was the second term of the Muldoon Government, a time when NZ politics was punitive and brutal, it seemed that repressive legislation and questionable policy was everywhere! The Bastion Point occupation was happening, the rugby powers were engaged with South Africa for sporting contact, Think Big and the Clyde dam, economic recession and stagnation – you name it!
Student newspapers, like the students and staff at the time, were more progressive, left-leaning and cause-driven, so you always wanted to give voices to those whose views were misrepresented or silenced in the conventional media, whether it be politics or culture. That seemed to be part of the job description.
Can you describe the feelings that arise when you revisit this time?
About the event itself and about the work Craccum did to cover it?
Despite a substantial cringe factor, I’m very proud of that hard work as an editor, now over 40 years ago. I was unruly and fiercely opinionated on many issues. Craccum was plain and simple chaos and miracles and failure and success every week. Everyone worked hard and did things above and beyond the call of student newspaper duty. We were at a strange cultural intersection of hippie/punk/new wave with economic conservatism and academic over-work.
Anyway. You don’t know this yet but it is a curious thing to look back like this over 4 decades, to reassess, remember, reminisce. To put into a life historical context of being very “anti” things when I was 20, to be battling and fighting and trying to do things differently if not better all the time at points in my life. I had an attitude then, a chip on my shoulder, an SIS file, an arrest history at a variety of protests. It’s strange to note how much of those anti-establishment views I still have, how they may have changed over time, how they have evolved into everyday practice and gut feelings. I’ve seen a lot of stuff happen in this nation’s history already, lived through a bunch of good and bad, so a historical perspective is a mixed blessing/curse at the best of times, where several different versions and narratives play out over time.
What do you think are the most important aspects of the haka party incident to address in a historical/artistic review?
The incident was one of many boiling away at the time – the land marches, the occupations, the push back, the repressions, the beginnings of the cultural renaissance with te reo and the Treaty. The Springbok tour was just around the corner and the anti-apartheid movement wanted to address domestic racism as well.
The country has moved forwards and backwards over the last 40 years, in many ways, but we have moved together as a country to make better interpretations of our history and to address and redress the grievances. I love the two degrees of separation in NZ, this play and documentary show our ability to revisit and resolve with a sense of purpose and good spirit.
Interview with Cast
Craccum’s extended interview with The Haka Party Incident cast members Roimata Fox (Waru, The Pā Boys, Othello), Lauren Gibson (Be Longing, Lesbos, Anne Boleyn), and Aiden O’Malley (Bystander, Good Idea at the Time).
What were the difficulties in approaching a ‘verbatim theatre’ performance?
Roimata: Learning this new style of theatre is more exciting than it is difficult. The most difficult part was working with technology instead of raw performance.
Lauren: I think honouring the real people while also making the performances theatrical is a big one. Ultimately, our job is to tell the story and interpret the interviews as they were, but you also need to make that translate to a live audience.
Aiden: The precision is not only word for word but in every ‘um’ and ‘ah’, yawn, laugh and deep breath. This is daunting for me – my actor brain is screaming for space to play and improvise. But to lock those pieces into your body you begin to feel the person’s rhythms and how they might experience things.
Which aspects of the performance are the most difficult to do? Is there a particular scene or moment that sticks out?
R: Miriama Rauhihi (one of the activists from He Taua) says a beautiful piece at the end of this show which is a large piece of verbatim. That’s going to be my biggest challenge.
L: I have a sequence where I switch between playing 4 different people, mostly uninterrupted. That has proved an interesting challenge!
A: Playing multiple people that are quite similar is an awesome challenge, finding that point of difference between each person that can last the scene.
The stage is big and the story is huge so sometimes I’ll catch myself striving physically/mentally too hard to be authentic in the piece. Grounding back down and finding stillness in the person is where we find the truth.
How did you find working with Katie?
R: I love working with Katie and it has been a privilege to work with her again after playing her daughter for three seasons of The Ring Inz.
L: Katie is such a generous and fearless director. She’s open to collaboration from the whole team, and has such a clear artistic vision – all the while maintaining a calm and fun atmosphere in the room.
A: Katie breathes energy, it’s addictive. All the research and voices she’s collected keeps us focused to tell the story in all its truths.
How do you navigate portraying real people? What kind of research did you engage in?
R: My father not only knows the people but he also knows the history, so it was very helpful talking to him about it.
L: It may sound silly, but I guess accepting you will never actually ‘be’ that person was a big thing to acknowledge at the start of this process. All we can do is try and hone in on and recreate the essence of these people. A lot of care and research has gone into gathering their stories. I spent quite a lot of my summer watching as much archival footage as I could find and reading up on the histories of everyone involved.
A: Anyone who went through the 70s always has a wild story, so definitely reaching out for those to get a feel for the times, but mainly just observing everyday life, the detail we often miss.
What aspects of the piece have stayed with you the most?
R: The haka. Hands down.
L: How this story has been buried for so long – I’d never heard about the Haka Party incident until I was prepping for the audition. It really hit home the lack of New Zealand history I was taught in school.
A: We are mid rehearsals so it’s all soaked in at the moment, but whenever I slow down I can always hear a haka.
How has engaging in this performance affected your own understanding of our history?
R: I’m finding it easier to talk about racism.
L: It’s highlighted how much there is still to learn and learn from.
A: The story of Aotearoa still has a lot of unpacking to do.
Auckland Theatre Company’s season of The Haka Party Incident by Katie Wolfe plays in the Auckland Arts Festival|Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki at ASB Waterfront Theatre, from the 30th March to the 10th April.
Tickets and info atc.co.nz – $30 tickets for ages under 30 available.