Saturday, July 12, 2008

History Of The Haka - Tribute to My New Zealand Maori, Samoan and Other Polynesian Friends And Neighbours

This article is dedicated to my late best friend and sparring partner, Sila. May you rest in peace and your spirit live on with the wise Samoan elders. Your name is forever etched in my tattoo.

Brief History Of The Māori

The ancestors of the Māori were a Polynesian people originating from south-east Asia. Some historians trace the early Polynesian settlers of New Zealand as migrating from today's China, making the long voyage traveling via Taiwan, through the South Pacific and on to Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, on the other hand, claims that the Polynesians arrived in the Pacific from America, rather than from the East, as other scholars claim. Heyerdahl bases his theory on the fact that the kumara, staple cultivated food crop of the pre-European New Zealand Māori, originates from central South America.

Around 3500 years ago the Polynesian culture began to expand eastwards from the Bismarck Archipelago. The exact reasons for this expansion are as yet unknown. Some Polynesians remained in the central south Pacific, while others moved on past Tahiti, and almost certainly arriving as far as South America, home of the kumara.

The exact date of Polynesian settlement of the islands of New Zealand is also unknown. Although previously thought to have been between 950 -1130 AD, scholars now debate both the time and circumstances of first Polynesian settlement.

The mythical Polynesian navigator, Kupe, was estimated by ethnologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries as having arrived around 925. By the same scholars, the mythical Māori figure Toi was estimated as having visited New Zealand in 1150.

The Great Fleet, considered to be the first mass arrival of Polynesian settlers, was estimated to have arrived in 1350. Modern scholars are now questioning not only the exactitude of the above dates, but also the Great Fleet theory itself. The debate continues today.

The Great Fleet forms part of the Māori canoe tradition, handed down orally from generation to generation. According to this tradition, the canoes of the Great Fleet arrived from the mythical homeland of Hawaiiki, known as the ancestral homeland, and generally considered as being somewhere in Eastern Polynesia.

The Great Fleet canoes were : the Aotea, Arawa, Tainui, Kurahaupo, Takitimu, Horouata, Tokomaru and Mataatua.

"Archaeological linguistic and cultural evidence today has discredited the Great Fleet theory, and a general consensus among scholars now is that the Polynesians originally moved into the Pacific from the West, spread eastwards, and that the Māori came most recently from the eastern Pacific (that is Tahiti or the Marquesas). They began to arrive in New Zealand about 1000 years ago."
The New Zealand Encyclopedia, 4th Edition. David Bateman

The first Polynesians settled mainly around the coast of New Zealand, and especially the east coast, which was more hospitable and temperate in climate. The settlers introduced animals such as the dog and the small Polynesian rat.

At this time, New Zealand was home to many flightless birds, including the Moa. This bird was, as a consequent, hunted extensively for its meat, large eggs, and feathers. The Moa bones, being strong, were used to fabricate artefacts. The Moa was particularly abundant in the South Island. There were 11 species of the bird, ranging from the size of a turkey up to 3.7 metres tall, and weighing up to 200 kg. Different species included the Upland moa (megalapteryx didinus), the Heavy-footed moa (Euryapteryx geranoides) and the Giant moa (Dinornis giganteus).

Definition of Māori

The name "Māori" originally meant "the local people", or "the original people". Māori was a word which signified "local" or "original" - as opposed to the new arrivals - white European settlers - the "pakeha". With the arrival of European settlers, the word Māori gradually became an adjective for the "Māori people". This change took place before 1815.

Tangata whenua signifies "the local people", "the local people of the land", "the local people of the ancestral land. Tangata signifies "human being", whenua signifies "land" or "ancestral land"


Video - Serious 'All Black' Haka

There were quite a number of different types of haka performed in pre-European times, depending on the occasion. There were hakas of song and joy, and warlike hakas of "utu", performed before going into battle.

There were two types of war haka - one performed without weapons, usually to express public or private feelings, known as the "haka taparahi", and the war haka with weapons, the "peruperu". The "peruperu" was traditionally performed before going into battle. It was to invoke Tumatauenga, the god of war, and warned the enemy of the fate awaiting him. It involved fierce facial expressions and grimaces, poking out of the tongue, eye bulging, grunts and cries, and the waving of war weapons.

Before actually going into battle, the warriors would generally assemble together. The warrior leading the "taua", or war party, would move into the centre of the men and cry :

"Tika tonu mai
Tika tonu mai
Ki ahau e noho nei
Tika tonu mai I a hei ha!"

Which means :

"Come forth this way, towards me
To this place where I now stand "Come forth this way, towards me
To this place where I now stand
Come straight this way
I a hei ha!
Come straight this way
I a hei ha!"

At this call, the warriors would prepare for the "peruperu" haka, during which the tribal elders would make a careful inspection during the dance. If the haka was not performed in total unity, this could be taken as an omen of disaster for the battle to come.

During the actual haka before battle the dancing warriors would eyeball the enemy. Sometimes this would be to stress a particular action during the haka, such as a slicing movement with the arm to indicate the fate awaiting the enemy. The warriors very often went into battle naked, apart from a plaited flax belt around the waist, and which was used for attaching short clubs.

The haka may also be used to tell of great feats, or danced as a special welcome before a high-ranking guest. A haka can also express grievance, or, in earlier times, could be addressing a prayer to one of the ancient Māori Gods.

The haka generally accompanies each cultural performance today.


War parties were usually composed of males, although female tribal members were not exempt from this activity.

The Māori warriors excelled in the art of ambush and surprise raids, appearing and disappearing swiftly and noiselessly into the thick New Zealand natural rainforest environment. They usually attacked at dawn. The aim was to kill all members of the enemy war party, so that no survivors would remain with the risk of "utu" (revenge).

If a lasting peace was considered with a former enemy, an inter-tribal marriage between families of aristocratic or chiefly rank was arranged to ensure the peace pact.

A war party was prepared with care, involving intricate ritual and the abstinence of certain foods and practices. The war party dedicated itself to Tumatauenga, the god of war, and special rites placed a "tapu" around the warrior.

The fighting season was generally between late November and early April, the summer months, when food and fishing was plentiful for warriors on a long war trail.

A war party led by a chief (rangatira), would be made up of around 70 warriors, which was the average compliment of a war canoe (waka taua). It was not uncommon, however, for a war canoe to carry up to 140 warriors. This was a "Te Hokwhitu a Tu".

On arrival back home, a cleansing rite was performed to lift the "tapu".

Video - Polynesian War Dance Competition - New Zealand vs Tonga. Priceless!!

Video - Very Funny Local "It's My Party" Cuz - 50 Cent Meets The Maori


Anonymous said...

Did you find it weird that some schools here are doing the Haka chants to "intimidate" their opponents before rugby matches ?
I think it's rather bizarre to see chinese kids doing the maori thing.
I would much rather they be more original,create something interesting and curse the other side in Hokkien !

Aussie Pete said...

Really? I didn't know that... I have a close friend and colleague here in SG whose boys both play rugby. He never told me about this.

Actually, I find that very, very strange... the haka is a cultural thing, not a rugby tradition...

In fact, it could almost be considered disrespectful, given that in most 'haka' cultures, they are taught the skills at a very early age.. it's not just a matter of learning a 'choreographed dance'. There is much, much more to it and the meanings run very deep indeed.

Thanks for letting me know this - I'll now ask my colleague if his boys do it... :D

Anonymous said...

It's either Raffles, ACS or St Andrews. Glad to know that at least someone agrees with me. Most of the others just thought it was "cool"(hate that word)

Anonymous said...

Just found clips of the boys doing the Haka on Youtube.
Just type "raffles","ACS","Rugby" & "haka"

Aussie Pete said...

Wow - thanks for sharing - I actually find this very disturbing - something has definitely been 'lost in translation' here, and the meaning and reason for the Haka have been entirely forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Wonder how the boy would feel if they were facing a New Zealand teams doing a dance mocking the chinese.

Anonymous said...

Doing the Haka for young New Zealand males , whether it be for rugby or not, is not strange at all. It just shows that it has become embedded in our culture and generally accepted. As a challenge steeming from warfare it has moved on the be a general challenge and is done with respect for the opponent -if they choose to take up the challenge.

Aussie Pete said...

Thanks anonymous - from my exposure to the NZ and Maori culture growing up, I agree with you 100% and understand where you're coming from!

Ben Smith said...

I'm coming in rather later...

But have been doing some thinking about this. Maori have allowed white New Zealanders like myself to perform the haka for a long time...so there's nothing disrespectful about people from other cultures like Chinese boys adopting it, either.

Not to say there aren't cultural concerns though. IMAO, whoever is doing it, the most important thing is to do it with pride and strength and power, not half-heartedly.