Wednesday, August 29, 2012

New Zealand: A Haka for Fallen Warriors

New Zealand is a prominent cultural member within the British Commonwealth, and exists within its corner of the world as an almost opposite bookend to its larger neighbour Australia.  While Australians take an almost perverse pleasure in being descendents, by and large, of criminals (Australia having started as a massive penal colony), New Zealanders, or ‘Kiwis’, often style themselves as more English than the English.

But like Australia with its Aborigines, New Zealand has fully awakened to its shared culture with the native M­­aori, a Polynesian people that developed a proud warrior ethos.  This has blended, as in many areas, into a distinct military tradition within the New Zealand Defence Force, which has a military heritage (including consolidation with Australian units or ANZAC) which started primarily with the Second Boer War.  They have a proud history and sustained some of the highest casualty rates of any country in World Wars I and II.  (Captain Charles Upham, for example, is one of only three people to have won the Victoria Cross twice.)  The Maori were exempt from conscription but volunteered in large numbers nonetheless, and the 28th (Maori) Battalion was the most decorated of the New Zealand Army.  Kiwi units, including the excellent New Zealand SAS, have also served in such conflicts as Korea, Malaya, Viet Nam, and Afghanistan.

The Maori Battalion performs a haka in North Africa during World War II

The Maori have a tradition of the haka, a tribal dance of assembled men to commemorate great occasions such as welcoming respected guests, weddings or funerals, and which grew out of tribal challenges to their enemies before battle.

New Zealand troops perform a haka in Logar, Afghanistan

It is performed as a group, with simultaneous broad movements like stamping feet, slapping chests, fierce expressions, and shouted challenges.  (It has spread to other Polynesian cultures to some extent, and Americans are likely familiar with the pre-game haka of the All Blacks Rugby or the University of Hawaii football team, while other venues with Polynesian enclaves are picking it up too, like BYU and Euless High School near Fort Worth, Texas.)

Cpl Tamatea, LCpl Baker, Pte Harris

An excellent example of a haka is the unfortunate recent circumstance of ‘farewelling’ three members of the NZ Army – Cpl Luke Tamatea, LCpl Jacinda Baker, and Pte Richard Harris – who were killed by an IED in Bamyan in Afghanistan on 19 August.  The funeral procession is met by the assembled members of their unit, 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, who perform a last haka to commemorate their comrades as fallen warriors, before they pass for the last time through the waharoa, a carved ceremonial gateway to the base that serves in much the same manner as totem poles in the American Pacific Northwest.  While you have perhaps seen a haka before a sporting event, performed for entertainment or encouragement, this is a haka in its purest form.

It is clear that not all the soldiers assembled for the tribute are Maori, but that is in keeping with their culture.  The Maori recognize that anyone who respects their culture and wishes to participate as a member is welcome, a sentiment I understand and appreciate as it is the same idea behind being a Texan – it is not a bloodline so much as it is a state of mind.  That used to be the main idea about being an American, before the accelerating notion in this country of what Theodore Roosevelt called “hyphenated Americans”. 

The unit designation can be confusing since members of the Commonwealth have been subjected to brutal and increasing defense cuts for some time now, particularly in the Left-dominated political atmosphere of New Zealand.  Like the British and others, 'amalgamation' is the attempt to severely downsize while trying to keep the lineage of famous units somewhat intact. 

The video of this ceremony was released just a few days ago and has already gone viral world-wide – as well it should.  It is a moving demonstration of grief, pride, and respect.

Update:  While definitely a product of amateur photography, this is a good example of a New Zealand military haka performed at a turning-out, or graduation, ceremony after basic training:

And since, as I said above, the haka tradition is spreading through other Polynesian cultures and thence into communities and universities in the United States, there is nothing to restrict its spread through military association as well.  Could we see it being picked up in US military units too?  And what better place to start than the Marines?

Here Sergeant Steven Bouquet of Comanche, Texas leads a platoon of US Marines (Alfa Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines) in a responsive haka that they learned during bilateral training Exercise Galvanic Kiwi with the New Zealand Army in June 2012.  I expect the Marines, particularly with their historic association with the Pacific in World War II, would pull that off rather well.


  1. It is great seeing someone explain our unit traditions as if been told directly from our unit RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) it would be something different to see the US Marines performing a haka, but one must remember, although we allow anyone of any nation perform our haka "Kura Takahi Puni" at 2nd 1st, they normally must be apart of the unit. They must have passed infantry corp training and be attached or posted to the unit. Our haka is very sacred to us, especially being infantrymen. It describes not just what we do or how we feel but it represents the fibre that makes us warriors. I do thank you for posting this up though, some people see it as some fancy dance or a "slap dance" as one US general called it in Afghanistan, so it's good to see you get the jist of it. The US Marines in Pendleton would've got to see it over the last wee bit also since some boys from our Battalion are there at the moment. Awesome!

    1. Thank you for your kind words and to see that some Kiwis are enjoying some good training with the kindred souls of the US Marines at Camp Pendleton.

      The only news that has trickled out from that large exercise is that Japanese troops are here as well. Imagine the irony, 70 years on, with I'm sure a few of them at least looking around and thinking "Well, so this is what it would have looked like."

      I served with some Aussies in North Africa, with the UN peacekeeping mission in the occupied Western Sahara. There were no Kiwi troops present, but I dealt with a radio technician at a long distance, as I was well 'down range' in southern Algeria, and he kept me well tied to western civilization, and even told me of a delightful little place called Waikikamukau.

      I've been fortunate to have travelled widely but one place I have yet to go is New Zealand. It is definitely on my bucket list.


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