In the week following the mosque shooting in Christchurch New Zealand, you may have seen videos of multiple groups honoring their fallen Muslim brothers and sisters with a traditional Maori haka dance. I knew about haka before these videos but I watched them with a renewed realization that I didn’t understand the symbolism or history of this deeply emotional dance. And so I set out to change that.
The most common idea about the haka is that it is a war dance, which would make it odd to be seen in the aftermath of a tragedy. However, ‘haka’ simply means dance, and can be used for many different events. In pre-European times, the haka was used as a way of bringing two groups together, as when a visiting Maori tribe met with a tribe from the area. Different haka have different names and meanings, and new words are written upon composition of a new haka.
The origin of the Haka movements is from Maori legend. The sun god Tama-nui-te-ra and his wife the Summer maid Hine-raumati had a son named Tane-rore. Tane-rore performed a dance in honor of his mother, with trembling hand actions. On occasions where the land is so hot that the air shimmers and creates mirages, it reminds Maori of this dance, and the movements of the modern haka mimic that sight.
The haka most performed by the All Blacks rugby team is ‘Ka Mate’, which was composed by Te Rauparaha in the 1800s after a near-death experience. He was almost killed by his enemies but managed to escape by hiding in a food storage pit. When he emerged, he was created by a friendly tribe. The words celebrate life winning over death.
Like life winning over death, the haka that is being performed in Christchurch celebrates unity over division and good over bad. It was commissioned by the Maori Council specifically to commemorate and honor the victims of the shooting. It is called the Haka Koiora (Haka for Life) and the words are incredibly powerful:
Haka Koiora – Haka for life (Composed by Dr Ken Kennedy, Koro Tini and Jamus Webster)
Paiahahā, Paiahahā (Attention! Attention!)
He aha rā ka tāpaea ngā mahi kikino (Why do we wait for something bad to happen)
Ki te kūkūtia tātou katoa e? (To eventually come together?)
Ia ha ha!
E oho, kia tika rā (Wake up, be true!)
Unuhia ngā here o te kino, (Strip away bad things like)
Whakatakē, whakaparahako e (Negativity and belittling others)
Ko te pūtake o te whakaaro, he kaikir (because the underlying factor is racism)
Takatakahia Hi (Stomp on it)
Wherawherahia Hi (Get rid of it)
Kia tū te tangata koia anake (So all that remains is your true person)
Ko au, Ko koe, ko koe, ko au, ko tāua e (I am you, you are me, this is us)
Ko te mea nui o te ao (The greatest thing in this world)
He tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata e (‘Tis people, ‘Tis people, ‘Tis people)
In the end, haka can indeed be seen as a war dance; a dance against hatred, against paralyzing grief, against whatever tears us apart as humans. An esteemed haka composer, Te Kahautu, spoke to this when he said “because our enemy is the unknown enemy, it’s a faceless enemy and we are performing a haka in defiance to say ‘Aotearoa will not change, Aotearoa will remain the same- a safe country.”
Elizabeth Hampson is not associated with any organization mentioned in this article. She would not receive funding from any company that would benefit from this article. All opinions herein are her own.
References and Further Reading
“Christchurch Shootings: How the Haka Unifies New Zealand in Mourning.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Mar. 2019, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-47648393.
Gardiner, Wira, and Scott Gardiner. Haka: a Living Tradition. Hodder Moa, 2007.
Gelineau, Kristen. “’Rise up!’ NZ Students Heal with Haka after Mosque Attacks.” The Public’s Radio, The Public’s Radio, 23 Mar. 2019, thepublicsradio.org/article/rise-up-nz-students-heal-with-haka-after-mosque-attacks.
Mazer, Sharon. “Performing Māori: Kapa Haka on the Stage and on the Ground.” Popular Entertainment Studies, 2011, novaojs.newcastle.edu.au/ojs/index.php/pes/article/view/44.
Murray, David. “HakaFracas? The Dialectics of Identity in Discussions of a Contemporary Maori Dance.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 11, no. 2, 2000, pp. 345–357.
Roes, Kawe. “’Māori Way of Expressing Love’: Haka Used to Express Grief after Christchurch Attack.” Stuff, 20 Mar. 2019, www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111420740/mori-way-of-expressing-love-haka-used-to-express-grief-after-christchurch-shootings.
Feature Image from: thepublicsradio.org/article/rise-up-nz-students-heal-with-haka-after-mosque-attacks