Lisa-Lesley Gemmell, a freshman from New Zealand majoring in social work, said as a child, she was taught the following myth as a foundation for the actions within the haka.
She recounted, “The myth behind Haka was about the Sun God named Tama-Nui-Te Ra, and his partner Hineraumati, the goddess of the summer. Together they had a son named Tane-rore. And his embodiment was from the hot air that would shake with him, the heat, and that was considered to be a dance that he needed in honor of his mother.”
Ammon Chan Boon, a freshman from Australia majoring in social work, said breaking down the word Haka, ha means “to breathe” and ka means “to ignite the fires from within.”
Alexander Galea’i, a freshman from Laie majoring in business management, added to Chan Boon’s words, “When you put the two words [Ha-Ka] together you have a very emotional fierce chant or a very passionate kind of chanting.” He added doing haka it’s like calling upon your ancestors to give you strength and courage.
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Galea’i, born and raised in Laie, said he learned haka from his mother who is Māori. He said, “She taught me, my siblings and my cousins around the age of 4 to 6 when we were young.”
He explained how his mother learned haka back in Aotearoa, New Zealand, as a performer from different teachers. “She had a lot of mentors and tutors who taught her a lot of haka. One motion I learned from her is called takahia, the action where you pick up the foot and you stomp the ground to keep the rhythm,” Galea’i shared.
While learning from his mother, Galea’i said he realized every motion has a deep meaning. He explained, “You can takahia, to call upon your ancestors to help you give you that strength, that little reinforcement to aid you in whatever challenge you may be facing.”
Chan Boon said he and his family have always been performing haka. “We were born into it,” he stated. He said he started doing haka as early as 12 years old with his grandfather.
Reminiscing, Chan Boon shared a memory while learning haka. He recalled, “He [his grandfather] was a really tall guy." Whenever the children were not paying attention, his grandfather would say, ‘If you're not going to do haka 100 percent, then get out.’”
Chan Boon said initially when he was learning haka, he just did it for the sake of doing it. Later on, he said he developed a love for it because sometimes when he is performing haka with others, he said he gets a comforting feeling, specifically a feeling of belonging.
Chan Boon said in their culture they always thought haka “brings everyone together.” He explained "not only the people around you but also your ancestors that were before you.”
He shared the Māori proverb, “He aha te mea nui o te ao, He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” In English, he said it means, “What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people. It is the people. It is the people.”
Also learning from a young age, Gemmell said she learned haka from day one. She continued, “I was in a kohanga, [or] kindergarten, where you’re fully immersed in Māori and that’s where I was taught how to haka.”
Chan Boon said there’s no specific time when to perform haka. He said it’s usually done at sports events, graduations, weddings, birthdays, funerals and other special occasions.
He said the haka for him is a dance they perform in their culture to excite each other before they do a specific thing such as play rugby and basketball. Chan Boon compared it to taking pre-workout before exercising at the gym.
Gemmell said traditionally it’s before a battle to intimidate the other tribes. She continued, “Haka is a way to show our emotions at their peak. We do it at funerals to show our grief and at weddings to show our support for the marriage.”
Galea’i added to Gemmell’s words, “There are many different versions of different types of haka. Haka for war, haka for peace and haka for times of celebrations.” He continued, depending on the occasion and when appropriate, people can haka.
“Traditionally, [the haka] was performed by men, but women weren't exempt from joining the men because women were also warriors as well,” he explained. “They joined the battles with the men but the men would probably be more on the frontline whereas women were kinda like the last line of defense.”
Embracing their culture through haka
Galea’i shared his favorite haka is Paikea, because it talks about his ancestors of the Ngati Porou tribe. He explained, “Paikea is known as the whale rider. Paikea was a man that came from an ancient homeland, Hawaiki to Aotearoa, [or] New Zealand, by riding on the back of a whale.” The haka performed is a chant in his honor, he said.
He added, “It talks generally about his [Paikea’s] life, but it’s also some kind of funny stories.” Every time he performs Paikea, Galea’i said it brings a different ihi or spirit to haka, especially being part of that tribe.
Similarly, Gemmell who’s also part of the Ngati Porou tribe said Paikea is her favorite haka. “Performing Paikea connects me more with my ancestors,” she stated. She said Ka Panapana, a Māori women’s haka, as one of her favorites because it is only performed by women.
Chan Boon, part of the Ngāpuhi tribe, said his favorite haka is Ara Ngāpuhi. He shared a saying from this haka that he said is meaningful to him, “ko nga marama o Ngāpuhi e tū mai ra.” He said it translates to English, “the people of Ngāpuhi now we rise up,” or more likely to “it’s about to go down.”
Impacting lives with haka
Gemmell stated, “A learning lesson I learned from haka is to be strong, staunch, and hold your ground because you're representing your ancestors and your tribe.” She added she felt proud to share her culture with the world as a performer at the Polynesian Cultural Center Aotearoa Village, and help people be more aware of her culture.
Galea’i said, “I've just learned that haka is really just one to express themselves, to show a sense of love for the culture and to share emotions about the thing that you're looking for, or the thing that you're performing for.” He continued saying haka is not learned overnight but every day, continually.
“We're always taught that the haka brings everyone together. Not only the people around you but also your ancestors that were before you,” Chan Boon said. He added, there’s not a day that passes without him thinking about his ancestors.