Issac Luke reconnects with Maori culture
As hundreds of eyes focussed in on him from the grandstand, with hands pounding against bare flesh and tears filling his eyes, Issac Luke finally knew he was home.
There had been countless hakas before, but this one, carried out by a large group of family and friends in the aftermath of the Warriors' Round 11 loss to the Canberra Raiders in New Plymouth last year, had a different level of meaning for Luke.
These were his people, in his homeland of Taranaki, conveying their respect for him in the most meaningful way possible according to Maori culture, with Luke adding to the moving scene by performing a haka of his own in response.
"I was feeling a bit of everything during that haka, I was proud, emotional… it has a huge cultural significance," Luke told NRL.com ahead of the annual Indigenous Round this week.
"That's why this round is special for us Maori people as well as the Indigenous Australians. We saw other cultures proudly represented last weekend [in the Representative Round] and now it's our turn.
"To be able to represent your culture most weekends is great, but this round will be huge."
After 12 years away from New Zealand, Luke returned at the end of 2015 and immediately began efforts to reconnect with his culture.
It started with enrolling in a course to improve his te reo Maori (native language), and has included learning more about his ancestors and what it means to be Maori.
"I left home for Australia when I was 16 and got the chance to come back a couple of years ago, and this is the first time it's been on my radar and to be able to get back to it is special," Luke said.
"I did lose touch with my culture while I was away. When I was growing up, everywhere I was, on maraes (meeting grounds), at funerals and that stuff, you sort of were around it all the time, but being over in Australia I had to find mates who were from New Zealand if I wanted to speak Maori.
"The opportunity to come home and reconnect with New Zealand and my culture definitely featured on my mind.
"I have been going to a language school since last February and getting back to my culture and learning everything that I kind of knew before I left New Zealand.
"My little sister speaks fluent Maori, and now when she says something I actually understand her which is good."
As players throughout the NRL Telstra Premiership celebrate Indigenous culture this week, Luke will be one of several doing so from a New Zealand point of view.
The Warriors will also gift a hei matau (greenstone carving) to the Penrith Panthers when they meet this Saturday at Pepper Stadium as part of their celebration of the Indigenous Round.
A proud descendant of the Ngāruahine Iwi (tribe) in New Zealand's North Island, Luke's increased awareness of his culture has seen him grow off the field according to Warriors welfare and education manager Jerry Seuseu.
"He's really got into quite a bit of stuff since he got back, he is becoming a bit of a leader not only on the field, but a leader in the community as well," Seuseu told NRL.com.
"For him that is part of the journey, it's about more than coming home and playing for the Warriors, it's reconnecting with who he is and the community he wants to serve."
Luke has also become involved in helping to raise awareness of respiratory disease, something which affects the Maori population more than any other ethnicity in New Zealand.
"Respiratory illness is something that is very close to me and my family. My father has suffered from asthma for most of his life, and for me growing up and hearing the nasty coughing and the struggle to breathe is something that will always haunt me," Luke said.
"I figured out that my kids also have asthma so I took the role on board, and while my kids don't suffer from it now as such, they have it and it's probably going to be around for their lives.
"As an ambassador, I want to raise awareness of asthma and respiratory conditions. With my profile I can help people deal with it."
With all 16 NRL clubs sporting special Indigenous Round jerseys this weekend, the Warriors will wear their 2017 away jersey which features a koru in its design, symbolising growth.