Natural born communicators
It’s one of the most powerful displays of group communication in the world. 44’s Phil Parrish goes face-to-face with sport’s greatest warm-up routine.
They rowed hundreds of miles together across the lonesome ocean to find their new home. Teamwork, and the determination for a better life, drove the endeavour, a courage expressed in wave upon wave of gritted teeth, surging arms and dark eyes forever focused on the horizon.
The vessels they travelled in were called waka, huge wooden canoes crafted from trees felled by the same hands which now gripped the oars. Together, the tribespeople and their makeshift fleet would power on in search of their new paradise, matching every treacherous twist of the violent Pacific.
Eventually they would arrive at two islands, beautiful green oases in the limitless blue. The land would be christened Aeotearoa, meaning long, white cloud. Now called New Zealand, it’s where the Maori have lived and bonded for the last eight centuries, navigating tides of conflict and prejudice, first from rival settlers and then from European colonialists.
Nurturing a warrior culture became both necessity and art form for the Maori, something sculpted over time like pounamu, the greenstone gems which they use to make weapons and jewellery. Comradeship is their terra firma: the rich, replenishing soil from which they harvest huge reserves of fortitude. For their tribe name itself means ‘natural’, people of the earth, as opposed to the ethereal, ghost-like wairua to which they pray.
Dancing was another fruit of this naturalness. Crouched in formation, centre of gravity lowered, legs planted on the ground like the strongest of oaks, the Maori learned to move in fearsome synchronicity. It’s a unity that’s galvanised them before battle, before marriage, before competition, and before all other occasions when being together was the only sensible way to live.
The dance, known as the haka, is now as much a part of their identity as the decorative tattoos accentuating their dark, brooding features. As a visual, physical and audible symbol of a people unafraid, the haka is riveting to watch, a transfixing example of the personal chemistry, mutual understanding and shared purpose that’s the essence of the very best group communication.
The most famous Maori warriors of today wear all black. Driven by sporting glory rather than survival, they surge across manicured battlefields of green rather than tempestuous, unchartered oceans. Muscles conditioned by technology, manoeuvres fine-tuned on the training ground, they’re an all-conquering 21st century force doing televised combat before a global audience.
The New Zealand rugby union team has elevated the Maori tradition of the haka to worldwide fame. As three-time winners of the Webb Ellis trophy, the team has become a by-word for teamwork, co-ordination, power and pace par excellence. Yet before this macho machine competes, it remembers to dance, performing the haka to intensify the players’ bond and deliver a regimented scream of adrenaline to opponents.
Whether you see it from the stands or the sofa, the haka is total communication, fusing history, culture, poetry and body language in a way that’s authentic, inspiring and which consigns so much of modern-day communication’s posturing to the touchline.
That’s not to say the All Blacks are invincible. They too, like the Maori, know how the sweetness of triumph can turn to the bitterness of defeat. Yet the haka will always be a winner, I think, summoning up ancestral ghosts from the past to conjure a palpable psychological advantage whenever it’s performed; an ineffable sixteenth man who’s always got his team-mates’ backs.
More than anything, the haka is a reminder that action, teamwork and communicating are what make us who we are. And it shows us that when people move and work in unison, the whole can be so much greater than the sum of its parts.
When we look ahead, the horizon before us is often scary and unknowable. But the prize of Aeotearoa doesn’t have to be out of reach. Not when you’re surging across the lonesome ocean as part of a team, united by a common mission, resolute in the will to make it happen, and carried forwards on the natural rhythm of the most powerful human instincts of all.