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Haka nation: how the iconic rugby war challenge binds New Zealanders together

New Zealand All Black’s perform the haka. Reuters/POOL New

Haka nation: how the iconic rugby war challenge binds New Zealanders together

The Rugby World Cup is poised to set the sporting world alight once again. England and Wales will host a total of 20 teams, which will consist of 20 pool stage matches, as well as a knockout stage of quarter and semi-final games, and the final on October 31.

The build-up to tournament has been nothing short of spectacular, with an estimated 94% of the tournament’s 2.45 m tickets sold, contributing to a £869m in direct expenditure.

New Zealand’s All Blacks will be playing for back-to-back world championships – a feat not yet accomplished by any team in its 28 year history. Of course, not only will the hopes and dreams of all New Zealanders be riding high on their team winning yet another world title, but indeed the mana, or sense of pride, in what it means to 4.5m people to be Kiwi will be proudly on display.

The famous All Black haka (war challenge) first performed in 1888 against Surrey, will be seen by millions of viewers worldwide.

The history of the haka

The haka is not only renowned across the sporting world for sending shivers down the opposition’s spine; it is also very much part of the social and cultural fabric of New Zealand. The haka is in the veins of every Kiwi – young and old. It makes up our Mauri (life) and ora (force).

Inter-tribally, Māori people traditionally competed for control over land, or to use utu (exact revenge) to maintain a sense or tribal equilibrium. This competitive nature, although an important aspect of a tribe’s ability to earn respect and mana (prestige) over land they lived on, usually did not surpass the need to achieve a common ground to work together, and to co-exist.

New Zealand Rugby 7 players perform the haka following a win over England in 2014. Reuters/Siu Chiu

Haka, like any other ritual preparing a tribe for war, was an expression of one’s strength, pride and unity. Such was the influence of haka that it was not unusual to see children mimicking many of the actions. It was also an enjoyable pastime to see who could perform the fiercest pukana (protruding of the tongues and eyes) and to act out the moves in every manner thinkable. Haka also helped many children to improve their physical skills and prowess including balance, hand and eye co-ordination, dexterity and poise under pressure.

The All Black teams perform two types of haka – Ka Mate and Kapa o Pango. Ka Mate was composed by the Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha, around 1820, as a celebration of life over death after his lucky escape from pursuing Ngāti Maniapoto and Waikato enemies. Having played only ten test matches this year, the All Blacks will be relying on a little luck to get them to the final, but as we well know luck only comes about through the rewards of hard work.

Kapa o Pango, developed in 2005, was introduced to complement Ka Mate and to be used on special occasions. The main message associated with Kapa o Pango is about claiming, and becoming one with, the land under one’s feet. It also serves as a reminder about our maternal relationship to the Earth, Papatuānuku, which nurtures us – and to give the All Blacks the strength they require to overcome the challenge before them.

Haka at school

The haka makes up one of six cultural performing art genres associated with kapa haka - the name for a Māori dance team. Kapa haka has a place in every school in New Zealand, not only as an educational requirement helping to demonstrate the bi-cultural competency of schools and teachers, but also as an integral part of the social and cultural development of our young people.

This was on display in June, when moving footage of boys doing the haka at the funeral of a beloved teacher at a school in Palmsteron North made international headlines.

The haka was formally recognised as an academic subject by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority in 2002; where students can now gain credits towards their high school National Certificate in Educational Achievement. In more recent times, teachers have used kapa haka as an effective teaching and learning assessment measure for students learning the Māori language.

My doctoral studies in 2007 explored the educational benefits associated with Maori students participating in kapa haka in public high schools in New Zealand. I found that despite the high levels of interest in the physicality of kapa haka, and the obvious talent of the students, the haka actually provides a gateway to learning te reo Māori (the Māori language). This in turn prepares many students to become successful leaders at school, and in their community.

The physical, social and academic attributes associated with learning the songs and actions within a group were very different to the learning they experienced in other areas of the curriculum that were more often didactic by nature.

Many students said that performing kapa haka was a way to protect and maintain their identity as Māori. It also helped students to solve problems as well as make adjustments to be able to better cope with the demands of school, and in their everyday lives. Being aware, and able to achieve these first two attributes, also helped them to develop positive relationships with their peers and teachers. As a result, students displayed greater levels of enthusiasm for learning, and wanted to be at school.

The haka breathes life into what it means to be New Zealander. It also inspires us all to stand tall, unite and move forward together as a one nation, with one dream. With that in mind, don’t be surprised to see the whole country break into a haka if the All Blacks once again make the final in Twickenham on October 31.