The Haka : “I die, I die, I live, I live”

Alastair Eykyn, Courtesy of his blog, where the title is “The Origins of the Haka”

The haka is an emotive subject, with South Africa coach Pieter de Villiers whipping up a storm in New Zealand last week when he claimed the ritual was losing its lustre. “People are becoming used to it,” he said. “It’s not a novelty anymore and they don’t respect it.” Inevitably, the comments triggered articles in the Kiwi press featuring outraged Maori leaders, protective cultural figures and even a few disgruntled foreigners. But does De Villiers have a point?

For this week’s Radio 5 live rugby programme, I spoke to a number of different people about the haka and its place in Maori culture and All Black history. Here are many different kinds of haka and the Maori use them for a variety of purposes. They use them to welcome people, to bid farewell to their dead, to celebrate success and to express collective pride. The one haka recognised globally is the All Black haka: Ka Mate. This particular haka dates back over 200 years. A warrior chief named Te Raupahara composed it, having just escaped capture by a tribal rival. It was reflective of his relief and excitement at survival.

The words, “ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora” literally means “I die, I die, I live, I live.” Te Raupahara became something of a heroic figure as a leader and a warrior and his haka was kept alive after his death.The haka first became part of All Black operations in 1905 when it was adopted by “The Originals” – the first New Zealand side to tour overseas. It was performed not as a challenge in the sense we regard it now but more as pre-match entertainment. When the All Blacks performed it in Cardiff in 1905, the Welsh responded by bursting into their anthem Land Of My Fathers.

The haka was only performed overseas until 1987. Before that it was a rather different visual experience to what we see before matches now. Sir Wilson Whineray captained the All Blacks between 1957 and 1965. He told me it was very different then. He said: “It wasn’t done very well in my day. We only had a couple of Maori boys in our side. Looking at the old footage, we just stood in the same spot and stamped our feet.

“It has evolved quite a bit and is certainly a lot more vigorous now. I look at that and think I would be exhausted at the end of it. But, wherever we went, people loved the haka. We were always asked to perform it.”

 In Your Face: The French Rugby team confront the HAKA – 1989 Rugby World Cup

The turning point in the history of the All Black haka was in the mid-1980s. Under the captaincy of Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford, there was a drive to revitalise it and perform it on home soil. Shelford said: “[All Black hooker] Hika Reid and I had a talk about it. We thought that, unless we had total buy-in from the players and management, we wouldn’t do it. We did, so we thought, ‘Right, let’s practise it’. That was fun.

“Those pakeha [non-Maori] boys [were] stiff with no rhythm. They had to learn how to hang loose. We wondered how they were going to do the haka properly. With time and effort they got better. By 1987 they were pretty good at it and had learned and understood the origin of it – plus the meaning behind it. I’m proud we had the opportunity to give something back. I think it’s great to advertise our culture before a game. I love to see the Kenyans doing a dance after their Sevens matches, for instance. The haka is real Kiwi, real New Zealand.”

Leave a comment

Filed under cultural transmission, patriotism, world events & processes

Leave a Reply