To investigate the unique kinds of mentality involved in skilled performance, this paper explores the performance ecology of the Māori haka, a ritual form of song and dance of the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand. We respond to a recent proposal to program robots to perform a haka as ‘cultural preservationists’ for ‘intangible cultural heritage’. This ‘Robot Māori Haka’ proposal raises questions about the nature of skill and the transmission of embodied knowledge; about the cognitive and affective experiences cultivated in indigenous practices like haka; and about the role of robots in the archival aspirations of human societies. Reproducing haka, we suggest, requires more than copying physical actions; preserving the ‘intangible’ entails more than programming postures and movements. To make this case, we discuss the history of European responses to the haka, and analyse its diverse performance features in cultural context. Arguing that indigenous movement practices incorporate genuinely embodied knowledge, we claim that skilled performance of haka is deeply mindful, embodying and transmitting dynamic, culturally shared understandings of the natural and social world. The indigenous psychologies incorporated in haka performance are animated by a shared history integrated with its environment. Examining haka performance through the lens of 4E cognitive skill theory for mutual benefit, we discuss the effects of synchrony in collective action, the social and environmental scaffolding of affect and emotion, and the multilayered relations between past and present. Culturally-embedded systems of skilled movement like the Māori haka may, we suggest, constitute specific ways of thinking and feeling.
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The robot haka can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf8PmRgOsvU.
The bodies of actual robots of course have unique histories which carry specific information about their past. A richer robotics might embrace hardware damage, adaptive compensation, or reused parts as aids both in theorising particularity in robots’ behavioural styles, and in assisting robots better to track their own histories (Chella 2019).
One of the authors, McArthur Mingon, is conducting fieldwork with Kapa Haka groups in Sydney, Australia, to explore these integrated features of Māori cultural practices in further detail.
There is no inevitable or determining relation between theory of mind and political action (Sutton and Tribble 2012). Yet particular Western assumptions about body and mind, moral development, propriety, and cognitive discipline animated both the perceptions and the judgements of haka by early European visitors and settlers. Brendan Hokowhitu (2014) quotes a number of striking examples. On Cook’s third voyage, Thomas Edgar wrote of the Māori ‘war dance’ which ‘consists of a variety of violent motions and hideous contortions of the limbs. There is something in them so uncommonly savage and terrible, their eyes appear to be starting from their head, their tongue hanging down to their chin’ (in Hokowhitu 2014, p. 279). And in 1867, the Wellington Independent lamented that ‘Forty years of civilization ought to have taught these people decency, but scrape a Māori, the most civilised, and the savage shows distinctly underneath. The “Haka” is an expose of the evil which lies at the root of their present prostrate condition, an exhibition of the utter immorality, depravity, and obscenity, which forms the ground work of their race… we shall do nothing until we alter their entire character, by taking in hand the education, per force, of the young growing saplings’ (in Hokowhitu 2014, pp. 281–282). In Sect. 5 below we discuss a haka performance by high school students in the streets of Christchurch after the 2019 terror attacks on the Muslim community, a powerful counter to such a chilling colonial threat.
The famous ‘Ka mate’ haka, for example, was originally composed as a ngeri, a “short haka to stiffen the sinews” and “to summon up the blood”. Ngeri are unlike haka taparahi (ceremonial haka) in that they do not have set actions, “thereby giving the performers free rein to express themselves as they deem appropriate” (Kāretu 1993, p. 41). This, incidentally, renders moot the ‘Robot Māori Haka’ programmers’ laborious decomposition of”each movement of Haka” so as to move the robot repeatedly “into the required posture and then recording the joints’ positions in the software” (Ser et al. 2016, p. 549) in order to “accurately preserve the original movements of the (Ka mate) Haka and teach it to new generations of New Zealanders and interested parties” (Sandoval et al. 2016, p. 512).
Video ‘Students remembering mosque shooting victims’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HO_2ES4deY8. The Tahu Potiki haka, named for the ancestor of the local iwi (tribe) Ngai Tahu, had also been used widely in Christchurch in the wake of the destructive 2011 earthquakes in which 185 people died.
An example can be seen here, in the video “In memory of Jarom Hadley Nathaniel Rihari. Haka 'Tau Ka Tau'.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdkC8hRoyj4.
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We are very grateful to Kath Bicknell, Greg Downey and the Cognitive Ecologies Lab, Alexander Gillett and the CAVE Culture and Cognition reading group, Eduardo Sandoval, and Christine Williams.
This research was supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project ‘Cognitive Ecologies: a philosophical study of collaborative embodied skills’, awarded to John Sutton. Part of the research was supported by a Macquarie University Research Training Program Scholarship awarded to McArthur Mingon.
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Mingon, M., Sutton, J. Why robots can’t haka: skilled performance and embodied knowledge in the Māori haka. Synthese (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02981-w
- Embodied cognition
- Indigenous psychology
- Distributed affect