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Origins of the New Zealand Haka Ka Mate

Myth isnt about the telling, its about the re-telling. Its the way a story can evolve and twist its way
into the very consciousness of a people. Its about how this story can then take on its own very
tangible influence; the power to incite its people to fiercely defend it as fact. No matter how
implausible the story it takes root, it defines those who tell it and fulfills those who feed from the
intensity it generates.
The Haka and Ancient Maori Verbal Tradition
The Maori seafarers who colonized New Zealand had no form of written language. Legends,
traditions and details of tribal lineage were, therefore, primarily passed down through the
generations via word of mouth. Ka Mate is but one such example of this early file sharing; perhaps
evolving through time picking up and losing lines of verse until finally taking its place as the most
instantly recognizable of New Zealand icons.
The story of Te Rauparaha and his connection to this particular version of the Haka is a perfect
example of just how murky the true genesis of Ka Mate truly is. Perhaps, there is some truth that
this version is an adaptation of a much earlier piece, one that has been crafted to address a certain
time and place. We even see this in the performers of today as they seek relevance by gathering and
borrowing, updating and even stealing from songs gone by.
Although Ka Mate speaks of an ancient mindset and is by no means contemporary, it still to this day
rivets. It can only be imagined what strength it had, when galvanizing warring factions on the
battlefield or enticing them to drink strength from their warrior forefathers. Assuming of course that
it ever truly was ment to be the battle cry that we now invariably label it. We may never conclusively
agree on the true meaning behind the words. But does it really matter - the tangible crackle of
electricity is no less real.
The Tale of Te Rauparaha - One of Many to be Credited as the Father of the Haka
It is the New Zealand of the early 1800s and Te Rauparaha, great Rangatira (Chief) of the Ngati Toa
is on the run. The Maori are immersed in bloody inter-tribal conflict and the Ngati Tuwharetoa are in
hot pursuit. With his enemy rapidly closing in, Te Rauparaha seeks refuge within the fortified village
of Chief Te Wharerangi at Motuopuhi.
Begrudgingly, Te Rauparaha is told to conceal himself in a pit used for the storage of kumara (sweet
potato). Te Wharerangis wife, Te Rangikoaea is then instructed to sit over the pit so as to shield Te
Rauparaha from his pursuers.
The general explanation for this is sexual. No self-respecting warrior would dare hide beneath the
genitalia of a woman, an obvious stroke of genius that would surely secure his hiding place and push
the Ngati Tuwharetoa to search elsewhere. Another reason suggested for including Te Rangikoaea
in the storyline is that female sex organs were also believed to neutralize incantation. So it would be
that any incoming spells the approaching enemy saw fit to hurl would be duly deflected.
The Haka is Born at the Bottom of a Kumara Pit
Soundly hidden in his famous pit, Te Rauparaha now sets about composing his famous variation of
the Haka. With his enemies foot steps now above him the first lines, thoughts of death, are gravely
whispered. But then a sudden burst of optimism, as it appears that Te Rangaikoaeas gynecological
defense system is in fact working. The disillusioned Ngati Tuwharetoa leave and we enter into a final
uplifting verse of grateful empowerment; saved ultimately by the Hairy Man Te Rauparaha climbs

triumphantly from the pit and into the brilliant sunlight above.
It is then said that he performs his new Haka for the first time in its entirety; grateful, emboldened
and defiant having so decisively tricked his enemy.
Ka Mate: Maori and English Translation
Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!
Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!
Tenei te tangata puhuru huru

Nana nei I tiki mai

Whakawhiti te ra
A upa ne! Ka upa ne!
A upane kaupane whiti te ra!
I die! I die! I live! I live!
I die! I die! I live! I live!
This is the hairy man
Who fetched the sun
And caused it to shine again

One upward step! Another upward step!

An upward step, another the sun shines!
Te Rauparaha Faces the Music
Te Rauparaha's paternity of the Haka is one that has been questioned many times over the years.
Alternative explantions of its origin postulate that Ka Mate can trace its echo back many centuries,
long before Te Rauparaha ever came into existance.
Alternative Mention of Ka MateSir George Grey, twice Governer of New Zealand decribed it in 1853
as an 'ancient poem'.Dame Anne Salmond, eminent New Zealand historian and anthropologist
suggested in 1973 that a version of Ka Mate was associated with a chant used to launch the great
"Tainui" waka fleet from 15th century Tahiti.Sir James (Timi Kara) Carroll, New Zealand Minister of
Native Affairs from 1899 to 1912, noted in 1901 that Ka Mate was a version of an ancient canoe
hauling chant (Toia Mai Te Waka). A chant that is still employed as a 'haka powheri', in which
distinguished visitors are 'drawn' safely onto the marae.Koinuke, of Ngati Paoa presented a version
of Ka mate that he called "The peace making song" at the Auckland Mechanics Institute in
1857.Edward Schnackenberg, wrote in 1949 of a more regionalized significance to the chant. A
decendent himself of a 19th century Kawhia missionary he quotes Te Huki (a Kawhia Tohunga) as
also possessing yet another version. One that tells of Maui (the great demigod) reigning in the sun
and heralding the promise of peace and prosperity.James Cowan, noted New Zealand author and
Maori historian suggested in 1926 that Te Rauparaha's Ka mate was in fact but a portion of a larger
Maori marriage chant. Author of the definitive work "The New Zealand wars: a history of the Maori
campaigns and the pioneering period (192223)", Cowan is highly respected.The fact that he was
himself a fluent speaker of the Maori language gaving him largely unprecedented access to the
tribal verbal traditions of the day.Sir John Te Herekiekie Grace (Ngati Tuwharetoa), in 1959 held an
interesting alternate theory. That Ka mate was in fact chanted by Te Wharerangi, the chief who
sheltered the fleeing Te Rauparaha.Sources:
John Archer: Ka Mate: Its Origins, Development and Significance