Baby brand Haakaa now 'deeply sorry' for 'disrespectful' branding after denying any link to Tikanga Māori

Popular New Zealand baby product supplier Haakaa has apologised for causing "hurt and offence" after coming under fire for appropriating Tikanga Māori in its branding, despite having claimed they weren't. 

Haakaa, which specialises in baby products like silicone breast pumps, was founded by Morgan Van der Harst and her stepmother Shu Ting Zhang. The company now sells its products internationally in Australia, Europe, Asia and North America. 

Editor's note: Van der Harst has since contacted Newshub to say she is no longer involved with Haakaa, and doesn't wish to be connected to the company. 

It certainly has the monopoly on the New Zealand market - one new mum told Newshub that every mother she knows "has a Haakaa pump". 

But activist Te Hāmua Nikora approached the company early last year questioning what the name of the company "even means". 

In screenshots of messages shared with Newshub, Nikora informed the company he was a Te Reo and Tikanga consultant, and directly translated: "Haa means 'breath', Kaa means 'on fire'". 

"How does this make sense? Why are you using my language and culture to sell your product?" he asked. 

In response, a spokesperson informed Nikora that Haakaa was "created by a mum who was struggling to find non-toxic products that were suitable for her special needs daughter", and she wanted a "uniquely Kiwi" name which "symbolised the unique challenges and triumphs that come with the journey of motherhood". 

The inital message exchange between Haakaa and Nikora.
The inital message exchange between Haakaa and Nikora. Photo credit: Supplied/Te Hamua Nikora.

"You may have noticed it resembles the word 'haka', the traditional dance performed by Māori warriors," the initial response read. 

"To us 'Haakaa' symbolises determination rising to a challenge and the proud Kiwi roots of this company that still calls NZ home today."

This sentiment is echoed on the 'About us' section of the Haakaa website, and in a 2018 interview with US outlet Blasting News, van der Harst claimed the word Haakaa means "strength and to tackle any battle which life throws at you". 

The initial description on the 'About Us' page of the Haakaa website - note, this now appears to have been removed.
The initial description on the 'About Us' page of the Haakaa website - note, this now appears to have been removed. Photo credit: Newshub.

Haakaa ceased responding to Nikora after he requested it discontinue the misspelled take on 'haka' as its company name. 

"It is disrespectful and at the very least stupid and incorrect," he told them. 

"Can you please stop making a mockery and mess of my language... Te reo Māori is not 'Kiwi'."

Almost a year later, the company responded to more continued requests for explanation from Nikora in a series of messages he screenshotted and posted to Instagram on Monday. 

In contrast to the statements made earlier, a spokesperson for Haakaa this time claimed the company name "is a made-up word". 

"Yes we find Māori culture inspiring, but Haakaa as a name and trademark isn't Māori. It was never intended to have a Māori meaning," the spokesperson said. 

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

They also went on to say the logo - a face Nikora pointed out is of two koru forming a Mangopare with a mouth and tongue sticking out in a whetero - also has no Māori affiliation. 

"It was created by the founder 10 years ago when she studied graphic design," the spokesperson told Nikora.

However, in response to Newshub's request for comment, co-founder Shu Ting Zhang once again countered her own company's other claims, this time saying the name and logo were her efforts "to pay homage to the indigenous peoples of this land that I have come to call my home". 

She said she'd been made aware the company name and logo were "causing offence within the Māori community", which was not her intention. 

Zhang had since sought advice on "honouring our obligation to Te Tiriti o Waitangi as an organisation, as well as working on a way forward from here". 

"I am deeply sorry for any hurt or offence I may have caused," she told Newshub. 

"As a result, I am going to make changes within my organisation, and while there is still a way to go to make it right, I am going to take active steps towards transformation." 

Nikora's post on the matter has gone viral, racking up over 2000 likes, with many Haakaa customers expressing shock that the company wasn't Māori owned or affiliated as they had assumed. 

"I assumed the company was Māori-owned, their response [to Nikora] is completely ridiculous," one person wrote. 

"I'm tired of this shit... tired of white people using our culture when it's convenient for them and to sell their products," agreed another. 

Kayla Ahki, wife of rugby player Pita Ahki, dubbed it "embarrassing", while another mum said it was a "big reason why I don't buy from them anymore". 

Indigenous Canadian and Instagram creator Sarah Smokeyday revealed online that while she had promoted the company in the past, she would no longer be supporting the business. 

"Everyone knows I have promoted products from this company however I never followed their social media," she wrote in a recent post. 

"We recently purchased a large order of the breastfeeding aid, pump/milk collector to give away to participants at the mothers centre. Once those are gone we will not be purchasing from them again.

"The name and logo are both very clearly an act of appropriation against my indigenous Māori brothers and sisters."

Smokeyday said she was "embarrassed and angry" at herself for supporting the business, and expressed gratitude towards Nikora for bringing it to her attention. 

"I'm committed to not supporting any organisation that takes advantage of Indigenous peoples or their culture."

A spokesperson for Haakaa told Newshub they'd be reaching out to Nikora with an apology.