Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Tahu Pōtiki Haka

Students perform the Haka during a vigil to commemorate victims of the twin mosque massacre, outside the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, NZ on March 18, 2019

Their sorrowful voices have filled the suffering spaces that citizens of this grieving New Zealand city felt, whether in parks and at flower memorials or in schools. Day after day, the students of Christchurch have assembled, feet stomping the ground in unison as they chant the words of their nation's indigenous people in a heartfelt outpouring of anguish and love and support. 

In the aftermath of last week's deadly shooting spree on two mosques blamed on a white supremacist, the city’s young people have found solace in an old tradition: a Maori ceremonial dance called the haka

To much of the world, the haka is popularly associated with New Zealand's rugby team, the All Blacks, who perform it before games. That has led to a misconception that it is solely a war dance meant to inspire fear.

But though it may have started out that way, the haka has evolved to mean so much more. 

"Whenever I haka, I feel like I am from the tribe, standing with them – that all their spirits are with us", said high school student Georgia Horiana Myers Meihana, after she and her classmates finished reciting a karakia, or Maori prayer, at a flower memorial. "To us, it doesn't feel like we're just shouting words". 

Though hakas were traditionally performed by the Maori people in preparation for battle – they are not all about war. Hakas are performed to celebrate and to mourn, and are often part of important events such as funerals or 21st birthdays. 

In the aftermath of the shootings, people across New Zealand have performed hakas to show support and respect for the victims and their families. For the students, the haka has served as a powerful form of healing after a harrowing week in which they lost friends and the sense of safety that came from living in a nation previously largely immune to mass gun violence. 

Students perform the haka to pay tribute to classmates killed in Christchurch: 

On Monday, more than a thousand students gathered for a vigil in the park across from one of the mosques that was attacked – and there, they performed a haka that held a particularly poignant meaning. 

It is the haka used by Cashmere High School, which lost two students in the massacre. 

This haka, called Tahu Pōtiki is specific to Te Waipounamu, New Zealand’s South Island. It has an ancient history but became widely used in Christchurch following the 2011 earthquakes as a way to help the community, and particularly school students, cope with a disaster that killed 185 people. 

Now it is being used to show respect for those affected by another traumatic event. 

The first line, “Otautahi, Maraka Maraka” is a rallying call for Christchurch to rise up and remain resolute.

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