The Maori Haka: Its Meaning & History
What is the meaning of the Haka?
If you have heard anything about the New Zealand culture, no doubt you will have heard about the Haka. This captivating chant seen at many important New Zealand events, most famously before a rugby match against the All Blacks, has made the world more intrigued by the Maori culture. Of course, a great way to learn more is to come and experience the Maori culture for yourself in New Zealand. But to give you more context about the importance of the Haka and what the Haka means to the Maori people, we have put together this quick guide to the Maori Haka.
The Maori culture goes way beyond the Haka though, so we recommend you immerse yourself either by attending a cultural show, experiencing a hangi meal, learn about greenstone carving and more!
Where did the Haka come from?
Because Maori history has been passed down through songs and the spoken word, there’s not a clear story on where the haka first came from. However, there are a couple of common stories associated with the haka.
The Haka in Maori Legend
There are many Maori legends to suggest where the Haka came from, but one common legend is that of the sun god, Tama-te-nui-ra. His summer maid, Hine-raumati, made the air seem to dance and quiver on hot days. This is reflected in the quivering motion that haka performers do with their hands.
The Haka is Maori history
One early rendition of the haka being used was by chief Tinirau and the women in his tribe. He wanted revenge on a tohunga (priest) called Kae who was responsible for killing Tinirau’s pet whale. He sent his tribes’ women to hunt Kae down but all they knew about him was that he had crooked teeth. Upon arriving at their opposing tribe, they performed the haka to make the men smile and reveal Kae’s teeth, thus his identity.
Learn more about the Maori history in this quick guide.
Different types of Haka
While there are far more haka than the one listed below, here are a few of the main types of Maori haka.
The Peruperu is a type of haka performed as a “war dance”, as it was traditionally performed before a battle. It is characterised by leaps where the legs are pressed under the body and weapons are usually used. The sticking out of the tongue and bulging eyes are meant to intimidate the opponents, as well as invoke the God of War.
The Ngeri haka has a different purpose to motivate both performers and warriors. It’s usually performed without weapons and movements are freer as a sign of the performers expressing themselves.
Manawa wera haka
This haka is usually performed at funerals or after somebody’s death. Again, no weapons are used and the movement is freer.
To learn more about how to pronounce Maori words, take a look at our te reo Maori guide.
Who can perform the haka?
Long answer short; anyone can perform the haka as long as it is done with seriousness and respect. Traditionally, both males and females perform the haka, but there are certain haka involving only women and the same goes for the men.
Of course, traditionally, only the Maori performed the Haka but since New Zealand had a mixed population of Maori and Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders) are involved in performing haka. In fact, they even teach the haka in New Zealand schools.
The All Blacks Haka
The most famous haka heard internationally is the Ka Mate Haka. This is the haka performed by the national New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks. The main body of the chant goes like this:
Ka Mate Haka
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!
English translation of the Ka Mate Haka
‘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 man
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine
A step upward, another step upward!
A step upward, another… the Sun shines!
The history of the Ka Mate haka
The Ka Mate Haka was composed in 1820 by a war leader of the Ngati Toa iwi (tribe) called Te Rauparaha. He was fleeing his enemies from the Ngati Maniapoto iwi and the Waikato. He was given refuge on the shores of Lake Rotoaira at a site called Opotaka. He hid in a kumara pit. It was here that he was said to utter the words “Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora”, continuing to compose the lyrics to the Ka Mate haka until his pursuers never found him and when Te Rauparaha emerged from the pit and was befriended by the tribe at Opotaka.
Te Rauparaha’s haka was a celebration of life over death, rather than a war dance.
You can visit the very site and even the kumara pits where the Ka Mate Haka was born at Opotaka on the road between Turangi and the Tongariro National Park on the North Island. The site is well sing-posted off State Highway 47 about 13km from Turangi.
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