Why robots can’t haka: skilled performance and embodied knowledge in the Māori haka

McArthur Mingon*, John Sutton

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    10 Citations (Scopus)
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    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.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)4337–4365
    Number of pages29
    Issue number1-2
    Early online date3 Jan 2021
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


    • embodied cognition
    • Indigenous psychology
    • distributed affect
    • synchrony


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