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Maori Warrior | © Patricia Hofmeester/Shutterstock
Maori Warrior | © Patricia Hofmeester/Shutterstock
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The Haka: New Zealand’s Maori War Dance

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 1 February 2018
New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, are widely credited for bringing the haka to the world stage. This Maori war dance, however, holds a special place in cultural traditions, past and present. Let’s take a closer look at the haka’s meaning, history and contemporary uses, and how these are strongly interconnected with the Kiwi sense of identity.

A glimpse into the haka’s evolution

Haka is the generic term given to a Maori war dance, war cry or tribal challenge. It consists of vigorous rhythmic movements that involve various parts of the body: hands, feet, eyes, legs, voice and tongue all play a part in creating a disciplined and emotionally-charged message.

The dance’s origins can be traced back to early Maori legend. Tama-nui-te-ra, the Sun God and his wife Hine-raumati, who is the essence of summer, had a son named Tane-rore. Maori believe the fluttering air on a hot summer day is brought on by Tane-rore’s dance for his mother – a light, rapid movement which is the foundation of all haka. Essentially, the hand-trembling you’d typically see in haka performances are a representation of Tane-rore’s summer dance.

Maori Warriors Perform a haka During Waitangi Day Celebrations
Maori Warriors Perform a haka During Waitangi Day Celebrations | © ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

Traditionally, the haka was primarily performed by warriors before going into battle as a way of proclaiming their strength and intimidating the opposing iwi (tribe). Wars among Maori were partly waged for land ownership, but also had a strong focus on attaining and sustaining tribal Mana, a belief that is vital to Maori tradition and spirituality. In brief, Mana is a personal and sacred spiritual essence which can be gained through ancestral ties and personal wealth. With land being the most important resource to Maori (the more land you own, the higher your wealth and prestige), wars became a means to preserve the Mana gained from all land acquired, old and new.

The world was introduced to the haka through its use in sport, but many may not realise this tradition has been in place since the late 19th century. In fact, the first time the haka was performed in an international competition was in 1888 and also in 1889, when the predominantly-Maori New Zealand Native Rugby Team toured Britain, Ireland and Australia. They were not only the very first New Zealand team to perform a haka, but also the very first to wear the country’s distinctively all black sports uniform. This tour and its team had a great impact on local rugby history, prompting the formation of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (the NZRFU, later renamed the New Zealand Rugby Union) in 1892. The All Blacks had their first international test match in 1903 and the Maori All Blacks became an official part of the NZRFU in 1910. These rugby teams continued to carry on the haka tradition from then onwards.

Kapa Haka

A traditional variant of the haka is an ancient Maori art form known as kapa haka. The main point of difference between the two is that kapa haka has a strong focus on waiata, traditional songs that typically transmit feelings, tribal knowledge and historical narratives. Like the haka, this was also used to daunt the enemy during battle. However, the repression of Maori traditions and customs in the 19th century led the kapa haka to transform into more of a musical performance than a form of intimidation. These days, kapa haka is primarily used as means of preserving Tikanga Maori – the overarching customs and believes of the Maori people – particularly when it comes to teaching children about their heritage. All New Zealand schools have their own haka and kapa haka groups, and inter-school performance competitions are held on an annual basis.

Maori Performers
Maori Performers | © ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

The different types of haka

There are several haka varieties, performed by men and women alike which fulfill different purposes. Modern examples include the welcoming of distinguished guests, the acknowledgment of important achievements, or special occasions like birthdays, weddings and funerals. A haka is deemed to be a custom of high importance and a badly delivered performance could greatly damage a tribe’s reputation. As such, the leaders need to have enough expertise to influence their group’s timing and movements.

Maori Warrior
Maori Warrior | © Patricia Hofmeester/Shutterstock

Some of the major haka types include whakatu waewae, tutu ngarahu, peruperu and ngeri. Whakatu waewae involves no weapons and has performers standing upright while stamping their feet. Tutu Ngarahu was utilized as a precursor to battle and involved side-to-side jumping and the use of weapons. Peruperu was traditionally performed as tribes went into battle, with weapons and unified leaps being used to intimidate the enemies they were facing. Lastly, ngeri was an expressive dance with no defined moves, meant to motivate and incite warriors to ‘draw some blood’.

Here are two of the most distinguished haka to hit the international spectrum:

Ka Mate

Ka Mate was composed by Te Rauparaha, the leader of the North Island tribe of Ngati Toa, circa 1820. It was written after his escape from his pursuit of his Waikato enemies and the Ngati Maniapoto tribe, as a celebration of life’s triumph over death. This haka is widely renowned because of its traditional performance by the All Blacks. The main lyrics and their translation are as follows:

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru
Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā
Ā, upane! ka upane!
Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!

‘Tis death! ’tis death! (or: I may die) ’Tis life! ‘tis life! (or: I may live)
’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!
This is the hairy man
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine
A step upward, another step upward!
A step upward, another… the Sun shines!

Kapa o Pango

Since 2005, the All Blacks have performed Kapa o Pango as an alternative to Ka Mate. This particular haka was composed by Derek Lardelli and is meant to reflect New Zealand’s multicultural makeup, especially highlighting the diversity of the Polynesian cultures within the society. It is slightly controversial because of its use of a throat-cutting gesture in its conclusion. The words are as follows:

Taringa whakarongo!
Kia rite! Kia rite! Kia mau!
Hi!

Kia whakawhenua au i ahau!
Hi, aue! Hi!

Ko Aotearoa, e ngunguru nei!
Hi, au! Au! Aue, ha! Hi!

Ko kapa o pango, e ngunguru nei!
Hi, au! Au! Aue, ha! Hi!

I ahaha!

Ka tu te ihi-ihi

Ka tu te wanawana

Ki runga i te rangi, e tu iho nei, tu iho nei, hi!
Ponga ra!

Kapa o pango! Aue, hi!
Ponga ra!

Kapa o pango! Aue, hi!
Ha!

Let me go back to my first gasp of breath
Let my life force return to the earth
It is New Zealand that thunders now
And it is my time!
It is my moment!
The passion ignites!
This defines us as the All Blacks
And it is my time!
It is my moment!
The anticipation explodes!
Feel the power
Our dominance rises
Our supremacy emerges
To be placed on high
Silver fern!
All Blacks!
Silver fern!
All Blacks!
aue hi!

Controversies over the haka’s commercialisation

Maori and Pakeha (New Zealand Europeans) alike view the haka with a sense of pride, both in the rugby field and outside it. While New Zealanders generally believe that the popularisation of the haka can be a good thing – especially when it comes to promoting and fostering an interest for the Maori culture – the commercialisation of the dance has sparked some controversy.

New Zealand Rugby Team Perform The Haka Before A Test Match Against Italy
New Zealand Rugby Team Perform The Haka Before A Test Match Against Italy | © Marco lacobucci EPP/Shutterstock

In 2015 for instance, a British advertisement that featured former rugby player Matt Dawson satirising the Kiwi ritual through what was dubbed the ‘hakarena’ was not viewed lightly by Maori leaders. Before that in 2009, the New Zealand Government gave Ka Mate’s intellectual property rights back to Ngati Toa – primarily to curb the misappropriation of the traditional dance in Hollywood films and international advertising campaigns. The move came after the tribe spent a decade battling the commercial exploitation of Ka Mate in court. Notable examples included a local ad campaign for a baking competition, consisting of a mock Ka Mate performance by gingerbread men and an Italian advertisement for Fiat in 2006 that featured a feminine rendition of the male-exclusive war dance.

Despite the fact the haka has been adopted by sports teams as far as Hawaii and Texas, its use outside of New Zealand has complicated implications. It must be said that American football teams who have their own pre-game haka usually have Maori and Polynesian players on the team. Still, non-Maori can learn to perform a haka – but it is expected that they do so with full appreciation of the history of the war dance and the meaning behind each word and gesture that’s used in it.