Haka

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The Haka is an ancient New Zealand war dance that was and is traditionally used on the battlefield as well as when groups come together in peace. It is a symbol of the tribe’s pride, strength, and unity. The Haka was composed by the Maori Ngati Toa’s warrior chief Te Rauparaha in the early 19th century to celebrate the warriors escape from death in battle. Actions within the dance include rhythmic body slapping, loud chanting violent foot stopping and tongue protrusions. The words chanted often describe the ancestors and events in the tribe’s history in a poetic manner. The dance is performed at many occasions to show the importance of the event. In this particular case, it was performed in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I had a chance to interview a New Zealand native after seeing a Haka performance she participated in go viral on various social media platforms.




What is your name and where are you located? Demi Hunziker, Auckland, New Zealand. My iwi (tribes) are Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu.

What does Haka mean to you? Haka to me is the purest representation of my Māori culture. It is the direct link to my ancestors, when I haka I feel their power running through my veins. It’s like I’m not standing alone, they’re all there performing haka with me. This quote by Alan Armstrong sums it up perfectly, “More than any other aspect of Māori culture , this complex dance is an expression of the passion, vigour and identity of the race race. It is at its best, truly, a message of the soul expressed by words and power…” – (Reed,1964).

What is the meaning of the faces made during a haka dance? The faces made during haka are called pūkana. When asked on his deathbed “What is the art of performing haka?” Hēnare Teōwai an expert in haka said “Kia kōrero te katoa o the Tinana” (The whole body should speak) (Kāretu, 1993). The face is another form of expression that must be used during haka. As with many cultures the eyes are seen as windows to the souls. Women and men flash the whites of their eyes until their pupils dilate but only the men protrude their tongues this is called a whētero, as the tongue is a representation of manhood or the penis. In my culture “The dance is mediocre or substandard if pukana or whētero are absent.” (Kāretu, 1993).

Why and when is it performed? There are many forms of haka, the most common being Tane Rore where the men are at the front in rows with the women behind or on the flanks. This type of haka usually have set actions. The haka we performed at Black Lives Matter march in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland, NZ) was a combination of Tane Rore and the peruperu a haka performed with weapons in times of war. Haka are also used in times of celebration, welcoming new people, as a means of displaying political thoughts and also laid down as challenges to governing bodies. “Hands, feet, legs, body, voice, tongue and eyes all play their part in the blending together to convey in their fullness the challenge, welcome, exultation, defiance or contempt of the words. It is disciplined, yet emotional.” (Kāretu 1993).

Who can perform the Haka dance? Māori first and foremost. People that have been taught by Māori, but only when they acknowledge our culture understand the meaning, intention behind both the words and actions and along side the Maori. It has to be culturally respectful and appropriate, always. Drunk “Kiwis” (New Zealanders) dressed up in grass skirts in London on Waitangi Day (the founding document of our nation signed in 1840) is an example of how NOT to perform the haka.

Is this a dance everyone learns? How old were you when you first learned the ritual? Growing up with Māori family and going to total immersion pre-schools and schools I can’t remember how old I was, as it was such a normal part of our lives. Our babies are taught while they’re still babies. In New Zealand the haka is commodified and is a part of our national rugby team and they perform it before every match. For many New Zealanders it is seen as a part of our country’s proud heritage although quite often with little to no respect or regard of it’s indigenous peoples. Because the haka inspires such pride and awe it is often bastardised as seen in movies like Fast And Furious 8 lead by The Rock.

How does the history behind the dance tie in with the BLM movement. Is there anything that people should know about the correlation between the two? I’ve quoted one book Timoti Karetu’s – Haka, and there is another resource you may find helpful Ki Te Whaiao An Introduction To Māori Culture And Society – Chapter 10 by Nathan W. Matthews and Karyn Paringatai. Another thing to potentially look at is the link between NZ history of activism: Parihaka 1881 the first peaceful protest, 6000 British troops descended on to a village of women children men all sitting, not resisting. The 1981 Springboks anti Apartheid protests that were against their national rugby team playing here in NZ. The Black Power Māori gang was inspired by African Americans and also The Polynesian Panthers was inspired by The Black Panthers in America. Anyway there’s a lot, but basically we love black people as a whole and we will stand and fight with you always because so much of our current culture even, is inspired by African American culture, example being that hip hop has been popping here since the early 80’s and still has a growing influence. THANK YOU so much for the opportunity to share my small island nation’s culture to the world for the greatest cause on the globe at the moment.

Ngā mihi, Demi Hunziker