Macquarie University
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Moving memories: cognitive ecologies of the Māori haka

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posted on 2023-11-29, 05:13 authored by McArthur Mingon

The Māori haka is one of the most widely recognized indigenous performances in the modern era, and also one of the most commonly misunderstood (Hartigan, 2011). Haka is not just a ‘traditional war dance’ performed to intimidate opponents; it is a diverse performance practice which has many different forms and functions (Gardiner, 2007). Haka is an activity in which Māori worldviews and philosophies are embodied and instantiated in movement and poetry (Kāretu, 1993). However, due to the widespread misconception that haka is merely a ‘wardance’, the nature of its cognition and the depth of its epistemic value has been largely overlooked. 

This thesis considers the cognitive, affective, and epistemic aspects of haka from an interdisciplinary and cognitive ecological perspective. I examine these features in a set of case studies of haka performed in unique contemporary contexts, including in the Covid-19 pandemic (Chapter 1), in competitive kapa haka (Māori cultural performing arts) in Australia (Chapter 4), in a collaborative Anzac Day commemoration (Chapter 5), and in a contrast with robots (Chapter 7). The case studies draw from ethnographic fieldwork with the Māori diaspora in Sydney and are set amidst the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

I pursue the general view that the cognitive work in haka is characterised by the formation and the feeling of connection – that haka connects people and places, in the present and with the past, and that its performance works to overcome distances, in time and in space, between places, and across generations. To help clarify these connections, this thesis first draws on Māori perspectives and concepts, and approaches the practice in its appropriate culturalhistorical context. I then engage with relevant research and philosophy from across the cognitive sciences and humanities, looking for consilient views and useful contrasts to help conceptualise the connectivity of the practice. 

The thesis proposes that the cognitive and affective aspects of haka can be helpfully framed as the work of a cognitive ecology (Hutchins, 2010). Cognitive ecologies are “the multidimensional contexts in which we remember, feel, think, sense, communicate, imagine” (Tribble & Sutton, 2011, p. 94). The cognitive ecological approach has roots in distributed cognition and related theories (such as 4E and situated cognition), which highlight the embodied, environmental, and cultural/historical elements of cognitive ecosystems (Hutchins, 1995; Newen et al., 2018; Tribble & Keene, 2011). These approaches provide new and productive lines of engagement with otherwise overlooked aspects of psychological phenomena, as they draw further attention to the cognitive significance of cultural forms and contexts (Clark, 2008; Sterelny, 2012; Sutton & Keene, 2017). With these perspectives, I consider the coordination dynamics of haka’s performance ecology: the system of choreographed movements, chanting, and synchronous actions; along with the content of the compositions; and the situational contributions of each performance setting and audience. I consider how this cognitive ecology can be utilised to (1) express, entrain, and regulate emotional experiences, (2) establish, enhance, and preserve cultural identity, (3) coordinate, transmit, and preserve cultural knowledge, and (4) commemorate the past and coordinate cultural remembering. 


Table of Contents

Introduction -- Chapter One: What is Haka? -- Chapter Two: Connections -- Chapter Three: Haka Feels -- Chapter Four: Haka and Home -- Chapter Five: Haka and/as History -- Chapter Six: Layers of Memory -- Chapter Seven: Robots Can’t Haka -- Conclusion -- References

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

School of Psychological Sciences

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

John Sutton

Additional Supervisor 1

Kathryn Bicknell

Additional Supervisor 2

Gregory Downey


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Australia New Zealand


267 pages

Former Identifiers

AMIS ID: 279345

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