A Maori tradition rooted in New Zealand and created to prepare warriors for battle is circling the world — one country at a time.
Over the years, “kapa haka” (or haka as it is more commonly known) has been performed at many sites: on a New Zealand beach, before rugby matches in Ireland and other countries, at football games in the U.S., and at weddings and funerals.
It has even been part of a history-making moment at London’s Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II, whose grandson, Prince Harry of Wales, also took part in a haka in New Zealand when he was there with the military.
How did this once-local tradition become so widespread?
Sports (specifically rugby) was the spark that lit the lantern of global awareness in 1888, when a New Zealand rugby team toured Ireland, Great Britain, Wales and other countries.
Britain and New Zealand had long had strong ties. On Feb. 6, 1840, the British and Maori chieftains signed the Treaty of Waitangi (generally considered the founding document of New Zealand as a nation).
The treaty recognized Maori ownership of lands, forests and other properties, and gave the Maori the rights of British subjects.
In return, the Maori people ceded New Zealand to Queen Victoria, giving her government the right to purchase land.
Waitangi Day is now an official New Zealand holiday, observed annually with a festive and impressive ritual and events. Members of Maori tribes arrive in canoes and land on the beach, where they perform a ceremonial haka, kicking off the day’s activities.
“It was one of the greatest spectacles I’ll ever witness,” said Robert Hubbard of Bray, Ireland, who was on North Island in New Zealand with his wife Jackie on Waitangi Day in 2010.
The haka is undeniably intense and captivating but has had its share of controversy. Pre-game hakas have delighted hundreds of thousands of fans but also raised the hackles of scores of opponents in Ireland, Europe and across the world, who view the haka as a confrontational challenge.
Hubbard, who is an avid rugby follower and has seen the haka performed by the All-Blacks in Ireland, says that while he personally enjoys the spectacle of the haka, he tends to agree with the players’ opinion.
“In a sporting context, it’s a fight and this is their way of attempting to intimidate their opposition,” Hubbard said.
It’s easier to understand his position if you watch videos of pre-game haka. Members of New Zealand’s official team, the All-Blacks, appear fierce and intimidating.
The haka is very physical. All parts of the body are used. Dancers show the whites of their eyes, poke out their tongues, slap their hands against their bodies and stomp their feet, while uttering a guttural combination of chant and grunts.
Their opponents often look bemused, even hostile. Many have answered the haka challenge in various ways, drowning it out with songs of their own, by simply glaring and standing like statues, or by linking arms and steadfastly moving forward to face the perceived challenge.
Still, the All-Blacks insist there is no challenge: “It isn’t a war dance; it’s ceremonial.” They contend the haka is meant to build their own players’ spiritual, physical and intellectual capacity in preparation for the coming game.
The haka has also come to Hawaii.
The University of Hawaii developed its own haka based on a traditional Maori version. UH’s “Ha’a” has lyrics and movements which are entirely Hawaiian in this version of the dance, which has since been adopted by and included in pre-game activities by other sports teams from Hawaii.
Kahuku High School on Oahu was reportedly the first American school to regularly perform a haka, starting in 2001. The Kahuku community is renowned for its spirit and support of the Kahuku Red Raiders. At every game, a sea of red fills the stadium with resounding cheers.
In 2010, a haka was composed for the school, and became a tradition until raising the ire of sports officials.
In 2015, they clamped down. Restrictions were imposed on pre-game hakas at state championship games. Officials said Kahuku would be penalized if they performed the haka.
Kahuku took the penalty.
In 2016, officials said any player performing the haka would be banned from the game — so the Kahuku community displayed their unbelievable spirit, rallying around the team.
They started to practice their school’s haka, and at the game they performed the dance the players were not allowed to do in a moment that went down in history.
Kahuku lost the game but the spirit of the community never faltered. It was a game that will never be forgotten.
In 2011, Kapaa High School’s football team started doing the haka after the game, facing the audience in tribute for their support. They still do it today. They are apparently the only Kauai high school team to do this.
Back in New Zealand, where it all started, last November, about 7,000 students, teachers and members of the Wairapa community on North Island believe they broke the haka world record set by 4,028 rugby fans at the Stade Amedee-Domenech in France in 2014.
They hope to bring it back to New Zealand which held it before France’s successful challenge.
The organizers have sent video of the massive flash mob haka and are awaiting confirmation of the feat by Guinness World Records.
Aussies did make another attempt to top the French record on Waitangi Day last month, but it is not known if they were successful.
Masterton Intermediate School Principal Russell Thompson, who instigated the New Zealand record attempt, wished “good luck” to the Aussie haka team.
“Imagine how cool that would be to spread it around beyond our country,” he said. “The haka is not just a New Zealand thing.”
Haka doesn’t belong to anybody. It belongs to everybody.
Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a resident of Kapaa.