No, New Zealand's Haka Dance Is Not a War Dance
The haka dance goes way back. If you're even remotely interested in New Zealand (or rugby), you've probably seen a haka dance performed. Often described as a Maori war dance, hakas are one of the country's most important native traditions. And they're certainly powerful.
Lines of people rhythmically engage in a call-and-response ritual that often involves stomping, chest-beating, bulging eyes and contorting the face while sticking out the tongue. It's an enthralling dance to watch and one that inspires immediate respect.
But for all its fame, the haka dance is often misunderstood. It isn't (necessarily) a war dance at all, and it also is not exclusive to men. What, then, is the meaning of the haka dance? This Maori practice is even more impressive than you thought.
What Is the Meaning of the Haka?
The literal translation for "haka" is "dance," and this is exactly what the word means: a Maori dance. It's unknown exactly when the haka was created, but its origin is connected to a beautiful legend involving the Maori sun god, Tama-nui-te-ra.
The god and one of his wives, Hine-raumati, had a son, Tane-rore, who would dance for his mother. His dance is said to be the movement of the air that can be seen on particularly hot summer days.
This trembling movement of light in the air is what inspired haka, which is meant to be a celebration of life. Eventually, the dance came to dominate social and communal aspects of Maori life, with different hakas used for different occasions, and with groups adding specific elements into their own dance.
The Elements of Haka
While styles of haka differ by occasion, there are certain elements that are essential to the dance.
Lines are always formed by performers, and there is always a leader. The leader initiates the dance by shouting phrases that are usually proverbs or instructions for how to stand during the haka. The leader's job is incredibly important, as it is on them to give strength and force to the performers, which is why the initial calls are fiercely delivered.
Each haka is specific in poses and expressions. But as the dance progresses and the performers are overtaken by the mana (force or power) of the haka, they express their own force with spontaneity. You'll see pkana (expressions) like pukana and ngangahu, which are the bulging or dilating of the eyes. Men also do whetero, or sticking out the tongue while contorting the face.
Depending on the purpose of the haka, these elements can instill fear, respect or solidarity.
Haka as a Warrior’s Dance
Most people believe that haka is a Maori warrior dance performed by men. Of course, now that you know "haka" means "dance," it would make no sense for it to be used only for war. Still, war haka, or peruperu haka, have an important role in Maori and New Zealand culture.
The ancestral war cry of peruperu haka serves two purposes: to intimidate opponents and to motivate warriors. By using whetero and pukana (the bulging of the tongue and eyes), as well as grunting, shouting, jumping and beating their weapons, the warriors showed their force before battle to their enemies, to themselves and to the gods.
During battle, the whetero was meant as an actual threat of what was to come. Hundreds of years ago, the Maori would eat their opponents' heads to capture their mana. By sticking out their tongue in an aggressive way, they reminded the enemy tribe that they would eat them should they lose the battle. (Of course, that's not what whetero means in other hakas.)
This haka is one of the best known, perhaps because of its undeniable power. But other dances are often confused with it. If you want to know whether a dance is a peruperu haka, look for jumping and weapons.
War Hakas Aren't a Thing of the Past
Peruperu hakas aren't a thing of the past. Although New Zealand is not a country in conflict, it has participated in numerous wars in the 20th and 21st centuries. During these conflicts, soldiers have sometimes performed haka before battle, as their ancestors did.
Maori soldiers famously did peruperu hakas during both world wars, at a time when their opponents may not have known what the performance meant. But you don't really need to know the history to understand the feeling a war haka inspires.
Haka Is Much More Than a War Dance
Because of the common misconception that haka is only for battles, people are often shocked to learn they are performed at events like weddings, birthdays and funerals. Any time the community comes together, or when two communities gather, a haka is appropriate.
This meant that it fit war, yes, but it also has been part of peace treaties or the forming of alliances. They are also performed to show respect to a person with incredible mana.
When conceptualized like this, it makes perfect sense that important guests would be received with a haka, or that a wedding would include this powerful dance.
Wedding Hakas Are Incredibly Powerful
They are performed to show two families or communities coming together, as well as to show love and respect for the newlyweds.
And in Funerals, Hakas Are Meant to Show Strength Through Community
Some hakas are meant to connect the community to each other, drawing strength from the mana of the dance. Through this connection, dancers can engage with their grief but also find solace in knowing that they are not alone in it.
Haka at funerals are also a way to commemorate and pay your respect to the departed.
Hakas Can Also Be a Way to Welcome Honored Guests
Case in point: When Harry and Meghan — then the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — visited New Zealand in 2018, they were welcomed with a haka on more than one occassion.
New Zealand’s All Blacks Rugby Team Doesn’t Perform a War Haka
If there is one thing that has brought haka dance to the international spotlight, it is the All Blacks, New Zealand's rugby team.
The team began performing a haka before matches in the late 1880s, drawing attention to the tradition. As sports have become televised and, therefore, globalized, the signature dance has reached millions of people from all over the world.
But their famous dance is not a war haka, as most people seem to assume. Instead, it is a ngeri haka, which is a style that is short, more spontaneous and is meant to symbolize community and strength. Ngeri haka is used to inspire and motivate the dancers. In fact, this is the style of haka dance that is usually performed at funerals, weddings and such events. And given that it emphasizes community, it perfectly fits sports as well.
Much of the confusion comes from the fact that the All Blacks haka — called "Ka Mate" — talks about life and death. "I may die, I may die, I may live, I may live" are the most important parts of the chant. And yet, the haka is not about war, but about narrowly escaping enemies.
Chief Te Rauparaha composed "Ka Mate" in the 1820s when another chief and his wife helped him hide in a pit so that his enemies couldn't find and kill him. The words reflect his feeling of uncertainty of whether he would live or die. It is said that as soon as Te Rauparaha came out of the pit, he performed the "Ka Mate" to celebrate his life as well as to thank chief Te Wharerangi and his wife Te Rangikoaea for saving him.
Haka Dance Is Also for Women
Another misconception people have about haka is that it is strictly for men. This comes from the idea that it's a war cry. But haka (like most dances) has traditionally been performed by both genders.
That said, women do not perform hakas exactly the way men do. Whetero, for instance, is reserved only for men, so you will never see a woman sticking out her tongue during a haka. Instead, female performers frown while pursing their lips. They also do not bend their knees or get low to the ground as men do. Rather, they stand straight and with their feet apart or one in front of the other.
Both genders use ngangahu, bulging and widening their eyes in an intense way.
New Zealand's Female Rugby Team, the Black Ferns, Also Do a Haka Dance Before Matches
The haka is called "Ko Uhia Mai," which translated to "let it be known." Whetu Tipiwai, a legendary Maori rugby player, composed it specifically for the Black Ferns.
Certain Styles of Haka Are Mixed-Gender
Because haka is all about community, it is not necessarily segregated by gender. The ngeri haka, for instance, is often performed by both men and women together. At a funeral, for instance, you will see everyone dancing together.
There is also a unique style called kapa haka, which includes instruments like a guitar, a ptatara conch shell and the poi and rkau, or the long sticks held by the men. This dance is marked by more melodic singing and more fluid movements, as opposed to the chanting and sharp movements of other haka styles.
Where to See a Haka Dance in New Zealand
It would be a waste of money to go to New Zealand and not see a haka dance. Although the dance is performed everywhere in the country, we encourage you to go to Maori-led cultural village like Whakarewarewa Thermal Village or Ko Tane.
Tours in the village often include performances as well as haka classes, so you can experience the mana of the dance yourself.