More than a half-million people have viewed a video of Middleton High School’s football team performing its version of a traditional Polynesian war chant and dance since it was posted online early Sunday.
The 35-second video from a game this fall was posted on the Facebook group Funny Tongan Memes/Vines. By early Monday afternoon, it had racked up 500,000 views and 3,831 shares, and sparked a conversation about whether it’s fitting for an American high school team to perform the dance.
The haka began at Middleton at a spring 2011 camp when players asked assistant coach Harland Ah You to teach them it, longtime head coach Bill Brock said.
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“He asked them why and they replied, ‘Because it is cool,’” Brock said. “He told them he would not teach it to them if they only wanted to do it because it is cool, but if they wanted to learn what the haka is and what it represents, he would teach it to them.”
Ah You’s family is of Samoan descent and he previously lived in Hawaii. He said he tries to impart to his players the importance of respecting themselves and others, an important lesson from the haka.
“It’s not about sticking your tongue out or stamping your feet. It’s about respect,” he said.
The haka originated with the Māori people, who came to New Zealand from eastern Polynesia between 1250 and 1300. Europeans didn’t arrive in New Zealand until the 17th century.
A war haka, one of many different kinds of haka, was performed by warriors before a battle and was meant to intimidate the opposition through a show of strength and prowess.
The haka has been associated with New Zealand rugby teams since 1888, when the New Zealand Native team first performed it. The All Blacks team, New Zealand’s most celebrated rugby team, has used the haka since 1905, according to a team history.
The haka post on the Funny Tongan site, based in Auckland, New Zealand, has generated nearly 3,100 comments, many of them negative.
An Auckland resident, Kaycee Lawrence, said she found the performance disrespectful.
“I would give them props for giving it a go if they went about it the right way: meaning, learning from a Maori who could show them the history of haka, how to pronounce the words properly, the meaning of words & actions and the significance of it,” Lawrence wrote.
Isaac Calhoun, a Middleton High student who plays on the school’s freshman football team, said in reply to Lawrence’s post that “it was not meant to be disrespectful.”
Ah You said he understands the criticism from Kiwis who watched the video, saying the teenage players are still young.
“They’re still practicing and getting better,” Ah You said.
Wirihana Grace-Maurirere, a Māori who lives in Hastings, New Zealand, urged other posters not to be so critical.
“I love seeing my culture out there,” he said.
It appears football players at Jefferson High School in Portland, Ore., in 2007 were the first to perform the haka before a varsity game. The players slapped their chests, stamped their feet and shouted in unison.
It began with seven Tongan students. They saw it as a way to honor their Polynesian roots and students called it an exercise in cultural bonding.
The Oregon Schools Activities Association saw it in a different light: The group that oversees high school sports in Oregon called it taunting and instructed game referees to assess a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty whenever the Democrats performed the haka.
Other coaches complained, saying the dance was scary and invoked hand gestures they took as gang signals.
Later, a second Portland school, Roosevelt High, began performing the haka as a show of respect to the Polynesian community. The team’s coach, however, would only allow it to be done after his team won. Some people said that defeated the purpose, since the haka was done to prepare warriors for battle.
Even so, now both schools perform the dance after games.
Locally, Mountain View also performs the haka.
In Middleton, the team performs the haka both before and after games. There has not been an issue with game officials, Ah You said.
Players face their fans, which is a way to honor them, Ah You said.
The University of Hawaii football team used to perform the haka, but stopped after receiving an unsportsmanlike penalty in 2007.
Brigham Young University also performed the haka. Several Oregon players tried to jump crowd barriers and confront BYU players when several Cougars performed the ritual during a pep rally before the 2006 Vegas Bowl game. BYU and Utah players had a heated confrontation when BYU players performed the haka on Utah’s field in 2008.