Te Kahautu Maxwell has travelled the world doing Kapa Haka. His elders appointed him as a cultural advisor to Ministers and he is a Governor of Te Matatini (on its national board since 1997). He says these positions, alongside his role with University of Waikato, enable him to care for and pass on the Māoritangi he has been given responsibility for.
Students say Te Kahautu Maxwell is awesome, in the original meaning of the word as well as its more colloquial sense. He jokes about giving them an ear bashing and a taste of his tongue. When you experience him doing Haka, then you see what fierce is all about. But ask him about Kapa Haka and his role as manukura and he talks about nurturing, caring, growing. He helped establish the Kapa Haka teaching programme at Waikato over a decade ago, and he acknowledges that students have huge expectations of him. “They come here thinking they are going to be trained by me, but I don’t actually.” He believes he simply gives them the skills to learn for themselves.
Associate Professor Maxwell’s been in Kapa Haka since he could walk. His grandparents tutored a Kapa Haka called Ngā Pōtiki, in Ōpōtiki and established in 1956. “We all sharpened our teeth in the Ōpōtiki primary school catchment. It’s an incubator which nurtures young, eager, emerging Kapa Haka kids, whose piupiu drag on the ground because they’re so short. It’s the breeding ground for serious Kapa Haka members, potential and emerging songwriters, choreographers, tutors and judges.”
In his Level 1 Kapa Haka paper, Associate Professor Maxwell gets a wide range of people, from all walks of life: experienced kaihaka to international students and others who have never done Haka before in their lives. He says the international students seem to want a ‘taste’. He’s happy for them to nibble it, chew on it, savour it. “The taste of the true essence of what Māori performing arts are.” But the experienced students can be a bit taken aback, because Level 1 is really basic. “So they get a total shock at the real introductory level stuff. But they get to like it because I say they need to mentor the others, they need to show these international students and greenhorns what it is, what Kapa Haka is, and give them a really good experience. Because they have a lot of skills, and they need to nurture others too.”
Level 2 is very different. For a start there’s a big drop in numbers, which Associate Professor Maxwell says is just natural attrition. “I teach the subject matter for about the first four weeks, and then I break them up into groups around the different disciplines they’d like to look at and research and compose. Then I let them go to it. They start to compose, and people with higher proficiency in the language help others who are less skilled. They have ideas, and come together and make this creation. This is all in 12 weeks, and four hours of class each week. I’m just watching them all the time. I give them free reign. I don’t like to impose my way of doing things, or my styles, my culture and my tradiations on them, because they have their own. My job is to nurture that, and bring that out of them - grow it and allow it to bloom and flourish. They have to teach their peers as well. We have one big rule: no-one can criticise the other groups' creations, because they wouldn’t like that to happen to them. So it is all about respect, and expecting that return.”
At the end of the course Te Kahautu Maxwell’s students have to get up on stage and do a public performance is open to the public, free and draws a big crowd. “And I expect them to maintain my integrity. Because they know right up until they go on stage I can pull the plug and say you’re going to fail.” But does he ever do that? “No, because they pull finger. And I’ve never had a mediocre performance.”
The very first question Associate Professor Maxwell asks his students in their first class is ‘what does Kapa Haka mean to you?’ “They sit in the group and it takes about two hours. It’s a question that goes on and on. You don’t think about it until it is posed to you. I go around the class, and they start with a generic answer, but then you elicit more from them. Then they have to start thinking, because I don’t accept the same answer twice.”
That’s a big question for anyone, but Associate Professor Maxwell has just done his PhD on it so if anyone knows the answer, it’s him. In his thesis he talks about Kapa Haka being the vehicle to grow cultural capital. “Teaching them their histories, who they are, and installing pride in them. Once upon a time their parents would have been looked down upon by the colonisers. That we were a dirty people, that we were a dumb people. So Kapa Haka teaches them the stories about who they are and where they come from, and builds that pride. That knowledge that we come from a line of kings and queens.”
Kapa Haka also helps retain and maintain tribal libraries. “Building the cultural capital to be able to stand and perform oratory to the highest standard, by reciting all these stories, making connections to other people, other tribes. Maintaining the archaic language of my ancestors, the poets of the past, who would rival Shakespeare. Maintaining the oral arts of the female calling, not just the generic welcome, but to use the examples I saw as a young person growing up with my grandmother and my great-grandmother and great-grandfather. Kapa Haka is a role model, it is role modelling.”
Te Kahautu Maxwell has now tutored and taught three generations of some families. “My job is to give what I have been given freely to coming generations. Because if I die, what the hell’s the use of it? In return I expect the people I come in contact with, and that I have shared with, to do the same. Because it doesn’t belong to me, or to them - we are just caretakers.”