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The haka – a traditional Māori dance – is well-known from the New Zealand rugby team. What are ...
2021-07-05 09:00:00

The Haka
A Māori Tradition

The haka. Source: Royal New Zealand Navy/Flickr
The Haka
The Haka

Can dance be a tool in the fight against racism? Yes – if it is the Māori haka. The haka is about respect: respect for the Māori people, respect for oneself. You cannot dance it poorly.

Read in 9 minutes

It is a spiritual answer to what has happened. The haka is danced in the whole country, everywhere the message remains the same. “We will be taking a stand against hatred, showing love and compassion for our Muslim community,” said Donna Hall from the Māori Council in a BBC interview in spring 2019, following the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand. The shooting carried out by white supremacist Brenton Tarrant claimed the lives of 51 people, with 40 people injured. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that it was one of the darkest moments in the history of New Zealand. Christchurch residents came to the place of the tragedy to show respect and compassion to the victims by dancing the haka. In other cities, the same event took place. Everyone was dancing: pupils, students, even motorbike gangs, and regular people.

The haka is a Māori dance which – according to one definition – is performed using the whole body. Hands, feet, legs, body, voice, tongue and eyes are used to show mobilization in the face of a challenge, to show welcome, elation, objection or contempt. The haka is a message from the soul expressed through words and posture.

Once the haka was mainly a war dance, the aim of which was first of all to frighten the enemy, and second, to lift morale; warriors believed that thanks to the haka, they would be granted victory by the god of war. Today it is performed before sports events, but also at weddings, funerals and birthday parties. “It’s a spiritual experience. It’s special because you dance it not only for yourself or your team, but also for the whole country, the Māori heritage, the native peoples. This tradition is passed on from one generation to another, if you were born in New Zealand, you know what haka means,” said New Zealand rugby player Lima Sopoaga.

Then in Christchurch, the haka became a bond bringing a shocked community together. Yet the road to this place has been winding, leading through the dark pages of history on the island country in the south-western Pacific.

We dance, or we return home

The Sun God Tamanuiterā had two wives: the summer wife Hineraumati and the winter wife Hinetakurua. Hineraumati gave birth to Tanerore, meaning ‘shimmering air’. On hot summer days, the son danced for his mother, making the air shimmer and the waves of heat rise. The haka originates from this mythical dance.

That’s the Māori legend. But the popularity of the dance, according to the aforementioned Donna Hall and others, is due to the All Blacks. This is the nickname of the New Zealand rugby team, which holds the same status in this discipline as Brazil does in football. New Zealand aren’t always the world champion, but if the championship started tomorrow, they would be one of the favourites. For the majority of rugby teams, playing against the mighty All Blacks is an important event.

Rugby players from the islands have danced the haka for a long time. They started already in the 19th century during a tour of Great Britain. The next chapter of the history of the dance reveals the standards and reality of the time. In 1921, South African players turned their back on the New Zealand team when they danced the haka. The incident didn’t evoke any reaction, while a South African journalist pointed out that “the players were disgusted by the fact they had to play against the band of coloured men”. Unfortunately, in the following decades New Zealand lent credence to the racist rule of Pretoria. Because of its apartheid policy in sports, South Africa was banned from the Davis Cup tennis tournament, the World Cup and the Olympics, but New Zealand continued to send their teams to Johannesburg and Cape Town. Additionally, New Zealand agreed to comply with the demand that teams didn’t include any Māori players or any other people of colour. It is as if New Zealand placed more value on the match opportunity against South Africa (also considered rugby greats) than its own players.

Indeed, the team protested: during the South Africa tour of 1949 they refused to dance the haka, saying that it didn’t make sense to dance it without any Māori players. The public was also against it (the organization Halt All Racist Tours was even set up), but the New Zealand rugby authorities vetoed this practice only in 1976, saying that players would only go to South Africa if the team could be made up of the best rugby players regardless of skin colour. In response, South Africa gave five Māori players the status of ‘honorary whites’ and let them into the country. “During the tour our coach said to me that the South Africans don’t want us to do the haka. I said: we are doing the haka or going home. And we did it,” said Billy Bush, a Māori player of the New Zealand team. The New Zealand authorities also lacked sensitivity: when in 1981 the South African team planned to visit the country, sparking protests, the government of Robert Muldoon didn’t put a stop to the racist tour, deciding that politics couldn’t interfere with sport.

“Today, on behalf of the New Zealand Rugby Union, we wish to say sorry first and foremost to those Māori players who were not considered for selection for teams to tour South Africa or to play South Africa. We apologise to the families of those players and to the wider Māori community who were affected directly or indirectly by the decisions taken to not include Māori players for those teams and tours. It was a period in which the respect of New Zealand Māori rugby was not upheld and that is deeply regretted.” This statement was issued by the New Zealand Rugby Union only in 2010.

The Māori and the Pākehā

As it is often the case, sport emphasized a wider social phenomenon. For years, neither the haka nor the Māori people were particularly important for the New Zealand authorities.

For decades, graduates of the Engineering Department at the University of Auckland celebrated their graduation with a ‘haka party’. They had reed-skirted hips, wore high boots, and ice-cream containers on their heads. They drew penises and swear words on their bodies. Dressed like this and usually drunk, they ran around the campus and beyond, shouting and pulling faces. The longer this custom continued, the louder and more vulgar it became. Despite decades of protests by Māori, the university authorities didn’t react.

Finally, in 1979 Māori activists took matters into their own hands. Carrying baseball bats, they confronted a group of graduates. Some ended up with stitches and others in hospital. The brawl lasted only three minutes, but according to Katie Wolfe, director of the documentary The Haka Party Incident, it had a fundamental impact on the approach to racism in New Zealand. Yes, the activists were arrested and the media described them as ‘gangsters’, but the ‘haka party’ never took place again at the University of Auckland. Public opinion also began to notice (which Wolfe emphasizes) how big a problem racism is in New Zealand.

Created in a storage house

It was then that the phenomenon known as the Māori renaissance started, the finale of which was the recognition of the Māori language as an official language of New Zealand in the 1980s (it was introduced into schools earlier). During this period, the government more willingly gave money for programmes supporting Māori culture. In other words, New Zealand started being interested in its roots, wanted to draw from them and became proud of them.

In the end, the changes also affected the rugby team, where in the meantime the haka was reduced to the level of a pre-match curiosity, danced only at some games outside of the country and performed poorly. The Pākehā, meaning ‘white New Zealanders’, didn’t understand what the haka was and didn’t particularly want to find out. The Māori players reminisced that they felt embarrassed by their colleagues. In this form, further continuation of the tradition missed the point of it. “Along with other Māori players we decided that either we will dance the haka the way it should be performed, or we don’t do it at all. I said to the team: ‘The haka is about respect, the respect for the Māori people, the respect for oneself. We need to dance it well,’” said famous New Zealand rugby player Wayne Shelford. “During the voting most voted for the haka. We started practising it. Some Pākehā men struggled with it and there was a lot of laughter sometimes, but everyone learnt it in the end.”

Shelford was the captain of the All Blacks and a world champion, though today he sees his biggest success in giving the haka its second life.

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 summons the sun and makes it shine
A step upward, another step upward!

A step upward, another... the Sun shines!


This is the Ka Mate (‘I may die’) haka, which has been performed by New Zealand rugby players since the beginning of the 20th century. It was composed almost 100 years earlier by Te Rauparaha, leader of the Ngāti Toa tribe, which at the time was residing in the north territories of Te Ika-a-Māui (this name was given by the Māori people to North Island, one of the two biggest islands comprising New Zealand today). Around 1820, the leader had to flee from enemy tribes. When he reached Motuopuhi, he asked chief Te Wharerangi for help. Te Wharerangi hid him in a sweet potato storage house (called a kumara) while his wife Te Rangikoaea sat at its entrance. According to one version, the enemies didn’t become interested in the storage house, as no Māori man would put himself in a situation where he would be underneath a woman’s genitals. Another version says that female genitals were the shield that stopped the spells cast by the chasing enemy group.

In any event, when he heard the enemies, Te Rauparaha thought interchangeably: “I might die” and “I might live”. “The hairy man” is probably Te Wharerangi, who gave the chief a chance to see the sun again. “A step upward” is one of the steps that Te Rauparaha had to take to come out of the storage and see the sun again. When it finally happened, the grateful chief danced the haka, which he came up with in hiding.

Since 2005, the All Blacks have danced interchangeably Ka Mate and Kapa o Pango, the haka written especially for them and telling the story of the New Zealand rugby team. The former head coach of the national team, Graham Henry, explained that the haka’s aim is to show the diversity of contemporary New Zealand, which includes not only “the Māori people and the Europeans, but also Tongans, Samoans, and others.” “When we’re in Wellington we perform Ka Mate, because we want to pay respects to Te Rauparaha and the lands that he walked on. In other cases, we decide spontaneously depending on how we feel, who we play against etc.,” TJ Perenara – a New Zealand rugby player, who lead the haka at the time – explained before the 2019 championship.

Usually it looks like this: after the anthems and before the start of the game, the players form a triangle. At the top of the triangle is the team captain, at the base are the least experienced players. The leader moves around his colleagues. He calls out words and the team responds. In specific moments, the players stamp their feet while moving their hands in synchronicity, they stick out their tongues and bulge their eyes. During the performance, the opponents stand on their side of the pitch and accept the haka.

Thanks to the All Blacks, the haka has become the most recognizable element of Māori culture. During the most recent World Cup, rugby matches were watched by 857 million viewers. Maybe not all of them watched New Zealand play, but the likelihood that they saw the haka is high. It’s also because it remains a unique event in the world of sports. Each time, the New Zealand rugby players pay tribute to Māori culture.

A monetized legacy

‘Unleash your inner warrior’ was the branding used a few years ago to advertise the energy drink Haka. It took place in Canada and, following the protests of a Māori organization, the company apologized. However, the drink is still available to buy today.

That’s the price for the recognizable image of the haka popularized by the rugby players – the haka has become part of pop culture, a symbol that others gladly take advantage of and that is even monetized by corporations. The dance has been used to sell beer, cars, bread, and almost any other products one can imagine. The motif of the haka is most powerfully used by Adidas, which provides equipment to the New Zealand rugby team. In 2007, during the ‘Bonded in Blood’ campaign, 39 team players featured on posters dancing the haka in a jungle. 8000 posters were printed using ink mixed with blood taken from the rugby players.

Members of the Ngāti Toa tribe tried to reserve the rights to Ka Mate to protect it. However, the courts responded that the dance is part of the culture of the whole country, and not just of one tribe. Only in 2009 did it gave Ngāti Toa the rights to Ka Mate. It was part of an agreement between eight tribes – the damages caused by the New Zealand authorities over 150 years were valued at $157 million. And the present reality for the Māori still remains difficult – scientists, NGOs and government organizations all agree that racism is a clear issue. More time and a lot of work is required to make the life standards between whites and Māori equal. Māori earn less; they are more often ill and unemployed. The haka will not solve any of these problems, but it is certainly something that brings New Zealand together rather than dividing it.

Translated from the Polish by Agata Masłowska

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