Story: Kapa Haka

‘Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana – the whole body should speak,’ said haka master Henare Teowai of this traditional art form. Kapa haka has adapted to contemporary times, while continuing to draw on its traditional roots.

Story by Valance Smith
Main image: Kapa haka, Waitangi Day 1947

Story summary

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Kapa haka means traditional Māori dances performed by a group standing in rows. Tribes’ reputations were based on their ability to perform haka (dances) and the expertise of the haka leader.

There are many different types of haka, appropriate for different occasions. Waiata (songs) are also an important part of kapa haka.

In tradition, the first kapa haka was associated with the chief Tinirau. He told a group of women to perform for his enemy, Kae.

19th-century kapa haka

Christian missionaries tried to stop Māori practising haka, waiata and sacred chants. They encouraged Māori to sing hymns and European songs instead.

In the 1880s kapa haka groups began performing for tourists, often using European melodies with Māori words. Some concert groups toured overseas.

Important visitors such as the British royal family were welcomed with traditional ceremonies, including haka. Kapa haka was also featured at celebrations of Māori organisations such as the Ringatū Church and the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement).

20th-century changes

In the early 20th century kapa haka groups began performing modern waiata-ā-ringa (action songs). Many new songs were written around that time.

During the First World War, Māori leader Apirana Ngata encouraged kapa haka parties to raise money for the Maori Soldiers’ Fund. He collected many traditional waiata and speeches.

Kapa haka costumes combined traditional Māori clothing with modern garments. These included piupiu (flax kilts). Groups often used western instruments, mostly guitars.

Urban groups and competitions

As Māori moved to the cities, kapa haka groups were formed in urban areas. They helped people connect with their culture, and preserved Māori language and customs. Many groups involved a number of different tribes.

A kapa haka competition was held at the 1934 Waitangi Day celebrations. There were contests around the country, and in 1972 the first Polynesian Festival was held. From 1983 it was a Māori-only competition. Called Te Matatini from 2004, this biennial national competition attracts 40 competing teams, 2,000 performers and an audience of 30,000.

In the 2000s kapa haka was offered as a subject in universities, and practised in schools and military institutions. It continued to evolve, with haka and waiata being written on contemporary and political subjects.

How to cite this page:

Valance Smith, 'Kapa Haka', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 February 2023)

Story by Valance Smith, published 22 Oct 2014