‘Haakaa’ company ‘deeply sorry’ for branding it claimed had no link to Māori

By Will Trafford

A company accused of cultural appropriation for using a misspelling of the word 'haka' and a ta moko in its logo has apologised for any hurt and offence caused - despite previously denying wrongdoing.

Haakaa produces baby products such as breast pumps and pacifiers and has received endorsements from celebrities like Chrissy Teagan and indigenous business advocates, but a growing chorus of activists who delved into the company's origins are calling out the business for having no connection to Te Ao Māori.

In addition to the branding the company started by Morgan Vanderharst and her stepmother Shu Ting Zhang, uses phrases like "The Original Haakaa" and “Why You Should Haakaa” to market its breast pumps. That has sparked online outrage by cultural kaitiaki such as Te Hāmua Nikora of  "Our culture is not your paycheck” fame.

"Why are you using my language and culture to sell your product?" he wrote online.

Nikora first broached the issue with Haakaa a year ago, he says they argued Haakaa was a “uniquely Kiwi" name which "symbolised the unique challenges and triumphs that come with the journey of motherhood".

"You may have noticed it resembles the word 'haka', the traditional dance performed by Māori warriors. To us 'Haakaa' symbolises determination rising to a challenge and the proud Kiwi roots of this company." they said.

Nikora made it clear to the company the haka was not a 'dance' and appealed to the company to “please stop making a mockery and mess of my language."

Company changing stance

In subsequent correspondence the organisation changed its stance altogether. Representatives told Nikora Haakaa was a "made-up word" that came about when its founder studied graphic design over 10 years ago.

"If you ask most breastfeeding mums or Google online what 'haakaa' means, they'll tell you it means our signature one-piece silicone breast pump - not a breath of fire." they said.

The organisation also argued its logo seemingly of two koru forming a mangopare and with a mouth and tongue sticking out as a whetero has no connection to Te Ao Māori.

Nikora’s most recent post with several thousand likes however appears to have triggered the company to reverse course and acknowledge the growing unease.

Yesterday co-founder Zhang said “I have been made aware that my company name and logo are causing offence within the Māori community…. I only wanted to pay homage to the indigenous peoples of this land that I have come to call my home". in a post on Instagram.

Zhang said she had sought advice on "honouring our obligation to Te Tiriti o Waitangi as an organisation” and was “going to make changes within my organisation to make it right”

“I am going to take active steps towards transformation," she said.

No listing for Haakaa

Te Ao Māori News approached Zhang’s organisation to seek clarity on whether the "transformation" meant an impending name change for the organisation and disestablishment of the logo. However, calls, texts and emails were not returned.

The Companies Office, where all New Zealand companies are listed, does not have a Haakaa as a company listing. 

However, it does list Shumax Holdings whose directors are Max Vanderharst and Shu Ting Zhang, both of Coatesville,  Auckland. That company is listed as a commodities broker and the register says it has no website or trading name.

The couple each hold one share directly, with 98 shares owned by MaxShu Trustee, which in turn is owned by the couple.

They are also directors of Think Green, with the shares again held by their trustee company. There are no other listings for the family members.