New Zealand uses haka to heal after Christchurch attacks

Christchurch: Days after the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, the country is struggling to respond to the horrific tragedy. The people in a way of showing solidarity with the Muslim community have lined up to perform the intimidating ceremonial dance which begins with fierce chants roughly translated as “I Live! I Die!”

It was perhaps inevitable that many would turn to the haka – a dance whose origins lie with the indigenous Maori community but which has become a global symbol of New Zealand as the battle cry of its national rugby team, the All Blacks.

Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian and avowed white supremacist, allegedly gunned down 50 Muslims during prayers last Friday. But the haka is not only meant to intimidate, but also to mourn, melding both hostility and beauty into an outpouring of true emotion, said Te Kahautu Maxwell, a professor of Maori at Waikato University.

“Haka is used for death and mourning. It is an integral part of the Maori mourning process. Haka is used to show love and compassion. Haka is used to uplift the spirits of bereaved families,” Maxwell said. With their eyes bulging while bellowing out the ritual’s loud rallying cries, tattooed members of one of New Zealand’s biggest criminal biker gangs joined with local children to channel that emotion through a haka for relatives of the dead gathered near Christchurch hospital this week.

Other haka performances have burst forth across Christchurch and elsewhere in the country as well as in Australia, where large communities of New Zealanders live. The haka stirs strong emotions in shooting survivor Kawthar Abulaban. She was in Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque when the shooting erupted, eventually escaping through the back door. In the days since, she has repeatedly watched videos of the haka performances staged in response to the massacre, welling up each time.

“Because you can feel it when you see them. You feel it, it touches your heart. Every time I see it I cry, it means too much,” she said. According to Maori legend, the haka originated at the beginning of time as a gift from Tanerore, the son of Tama-nuira, the sun god. “Just as heat haze shimmers on a hot summer’s day, in the haka all parts of the body shake from the crown to the soles of one’s feet,” Maxwell said, describing the intended meaning behind the dance’s movements.

Lisa Tumahai, who heads the Ngai Tahu, the main Maori iwi, or tribe, on New Zealand’s South Island, said it was a natural reaction by Kiwis looking to show support for their Muslim neighbours. “No matter how angry or scared we are feeling at the moment, we must come together as one strong community to show care and compassion for those who made Aotearoa their home and who have now lost precious loved ones,” she said.¬†Aotearoa, or “land of the long white cloud”, is the Maori name for New Zealand.