Christchurch shootings: How the haka unifies New Zealand in mourning


As New Zealand mourns the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings, the traditional Maori haka dance is reverberating around the country.

It’s a ceremonial dance many might associate with the famous New Zealand All Blacks rugby team.

But what does the haka actually signify, and why have so many been performed across New Zealand this week?

What is the haka?

It’s a ceremonial dance that comes from New Zealand’s Maori people, and it’s performed in a group with synchronised movements, lots of stomping, shouting and eye-rolling.

Matthew Tukaki, executive director of the Maori Council of New Zealand, told the BBC that while it’s often thought of as a war dance, “the central theme is actually one of respect”.

In fact, there isn’t just one haka – there are hundreds. Each region and each tribe has its own, depending on the occasion and who taught dance to the community.

So is it actually a war dance?

“Traditionally it was war dance to basically threaten or warn the enemy,” explains Mr Tukaki. “But its meaning has changed.”

You’ll have seen the All Blacks tap into that war dance tradition, but you might also remember a haka being performed whenever the British royals pay a visit to New Zealand.

Today, it’s performed at all kinds of ceremonial occasions – from receiving dignitaries to birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, or the funerals of chiefs and people of high standing.

For Friday’s memorial, there are nationwide haka planned to show support for the Muslim community.

Why is it performed for the Christchurch victims?

There have been countless spontaneous instances where New Zealanders have performed the haka in recent days.

“I am not all surprised to see this,” says Donna Hall, a fellow member of the Maori council. “It’s a spiritual response to what has happened and it really is intended to tap the spiritual depth of people.”

She points out that it’s very important for the country to have this “unifying response” right now, at a time when everyone is still shocked by what happened last Friday.

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Does every Kiwi know how to do it?

Pretty much. Traditionally it’s something limited to Maori communities, but it has long spread far beyond that.

“Let’s be honest, the All Blacks can take most of the credit for this,” says Ms Hall.

It’s now something many children learn in school from early on, regardless of whether they are Maori or not.

What about cultural appropriation?

Is it ok for non-Maori New Zealanders to perform the haka? “Yes,” Mr Tukaki says emphatically. “This is a special time. We are at a special moment in New Zealand history, but also one that will be important for our future.”

Cultural appropriation would only be an issue when cultural elements are adopted outside the communities, he says, without any Maori involvement. This is not the case in the current situation.

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Mr Tukaki believes the many haka videos going viral are a powerful statement in themselves, countering the online hatred that allegedly fed the shooting suspect’s thinking.

“Let’s overwhelm them with love,” he says. “I’ve seen haka from New Zealand, but also from Chicago, New York, London and Sydney. I have seen boys from a Muslim school in Auckland doing it – and it makes me very proud.”

What is planned for Friday?

The New Zealand Maori Council has called for a moment of silence and a nationwide haka on 22 March, when commemorations will mark one week since the shooting.

At 12:30 local time (2300 GMT Thursday), representatives of the council will lead a haka at the Al-Noor mosque, the site where most of the victims died in last week’s attack.

The dance will be specially composed for the event, and its words will reflect the country’s opposition to violence and hatred.

Across New Zealand, people are being encouraged to perform a haka outside their schools or places of work – or wherever they happen to be.

“While there will be many different haka on Friday, there will be one common theme,” explains Ms Hall. “We will be taking a stand against hatred, showing love and compassion for our Muslim community.”

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