The Misunderstood Haka

Love it or hate it, the haka is something that gets under your skin. Whether it is done before a match or as a celebration afterwards, not many people can stay away from watching these tattooed men in their primal dance. 

Not born in NZ, but having lived there for the past 3 years, this ritual is part of everyday life. From funerals to celebrations , Pakeha, Maori and Pacific Islanders alike, all embrace it. I have attended an important event, when important dignitaries were welcomed, and it is long and drawn out, and taken very seriously.

It is part of a greeting ceremony, made up of 10 parts, much like a complete rugby match experience itself. Like the haka, there are also so many rituals happening before and after the game.

First impressions count. So it is when meeting with another group, or on the rugby field. Men need to show other men that they are strong, that they can protect their women. They do this with the first strong handshake, the glare. Women are much more covert, they will invite you into their lair, size you up and then decide if you are a threat or not. (Think I would rather face a haka.)

Here is a step by step break down of the entire ceremony, including the Haka. have taken the liberty of putting it in context of a rugby match experience.

Warea (Protective call by the visitors.) This was an incantation by the visitors to alert the hosts to their arrival, much like an email from the Springboks to the All Blacks, telling them that they would be arriving in Christchurch for a game on a specific day. They would also seek guidance from their Gods and make sure no super natural occurrences were going to get in their way. This obviously went wrong in the 1995 RWC when the infamous Susie got hold of the porridge.

2. Wero (The challenge.) Wero means "cast a spear" and it was the only way of knowing if your visitors came in peace or not. (Obviously, if you became the main course of the following BBQ, it was a no brainer.) The host sent out one warrior, gesticulating, grimacing and looking fierce , much like the team coming out to practice. He then laid down a taki, an object which could be an arrow, a white feather, a stick, and if picked up the wrong way could mean war. Ask Brian O Driscoll and that ill-conceived throwing of the blade of grass!! The warrior then returned to his own side. And BOD was taken out a minute later and returned to the bench with a dislocated shoulder. That match was obviously war.

3. Karanga (The call of welcome.) Mostly made by a woman, to welcome the visitors, remember their recent dead, their ancestors. This is akin to the singing of the national anthem before a game. The visitors will then enter.

4. The Haka This is the war dance that everyone speaks about. The eye rolling, tongue sticking thigh slapping dance. It is meant to show the visitors the strength of the tribe, that they are aware and on guard of any subterfuge (such as a high tackle or off sides). However, it is also meant to show respect for the opposing team, and to welcome them as important people.

5. Powhiri (pronounced poh-firi.) The host women call and dance to welcome the visitors onto the Marae , in the same way the sexy cheerleaders dance and chant and form a line to welcome the teams as they run onto the field. It is meant to ward off evil spirits and provide for their safety as they enter.

6. Tangi (Remembering the dead.) Lots of wailing as they remember the dead on both sides. In the stadium, the crowds remember their teams last defeat and are hoping that this time they will be victorious. There is silence before the game starts, also silence from the teams supporters when they just let a try through.

7. Whaikorer (The speeches.) Ancestors are honoured, their birthplace acknowledged, and a gift, koha, laid on the ground . The game is finished, one team has won. The journalists like Sumo or Kobus Wiese interview the captains. They talk about their game, honour both teams, and then the man of the match receives a phone, or the entire team get medals and the coveted cup. What a koha !

8. Hongi. The pressing of noses and foreheads, and handshakes as they share thoughts and feelings. Much like the team going along to shake the hands of their opponents at the end, sharing a T-shirt or a back clap now and again. They are now friends.

9. Kai (Food.) This is when the food is shared. Similarly, the boys getting together afterwards in the pub to have an ice cold beer. Either elated or deflated .

10. Take. (Discussion ) The reason for the meeting. They leave the table, to discuss important matters . In the same way the captains, coaches and assistant coach of both teams sit behind a table while a myriad of reporters throw questions at them.

So when you next hear that chanting, see those eyes rolling back, the tongues protruding, remember that they are not being pompous and threatening, but it is part of a long ritual that is there to welcome the opposing team, to show them how strong they are and it is about respect to others.

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