In sports, there are plenty of ways to intimidate and distract opposing teams. But the haka, a synchronized dance and chant performed by New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks, may be one of the most stirring.

It also may be one of the more controversial, depending on how you feel about a traditional dance developed by the indigenous Maori population being used by a team embedded in a system of corporate ownership and sponsorship deals.

The story behind the haka

New Zealand's official tourism website calls the haka "a type of ancient Maori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace." A paper published in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues in 2002 explains that "haka is the generic name for all types of dance or ceremonial performance that involve movement" within the Maori culture. Haka as an all-encompassing term for dance or performance may be the most accurate. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand chronicles five different types of haka that were outlined in 1975, each with different meanings, steps, words and accessories.

The All Blacks' team website goes further, explaining the mythological origin of the haka:

According to Maori ethos, Tama-nui-to-ra, the Sun God, had two wives, Hine-raumati, the Summer maid, and Hine takurua, the Winter maid. The child born to him and Hine-raumati was Tane-rore, who is credited with the origin of the dance. Tane-rore is the trembling of the air as seen on the hot days of summer, and represented by the quivering of the hands in the dance.

Regardless of the particular definition, the haka is part of the Maori culture and tradition. A haka tells stories, and, in the case of the All Blacks' haka, sometimes it can be a story, too.

The New Zealand Kiwis perform a haka before a rugby match The All Blacks weren't the only rugby team in New Zealand to adopt a haka. The New Zealand Kiwis perform a haka in this undated photo. (Photo: State Library of New South Wales collection/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1888-89 New Zealand rugby team, which was comprised almost entirely of Maori players, toured certain parts of the U.K. and Australia and performed a haka prior to their games. By 1905 or 1906, when the team first played in England, they were performing a haka called "Ka Mate."

The "Ka Mate" was composed around 1820 by Te Rauparaha, the chief of the Ngati Toa iwi, or tribe, from New Zealand's North Island. It tells the story of Te Rauparaha attempting to escape the pursuit of a rival iwi. He finds a hiding place within a sweet potato pit that is guarded by a woman, Te Rangikoaea. In addition to guarding the pit, Te Rangikoaea is also dispelling the magic that the other iwi warriors are using in their attempts to find Te Rauparaha.

As the warriors approach the pit, Te Rauparaha, mutters to himself "Ka mate, ka mate," which means "It is death" or "Will I die?" When they pass and he is undetected, Te Rauparaha declares "Ka ora, ka ora!," or "It is life!" He emerges from the pit, having survived a dangerous encounter.

When the All Blacks perform the haka, they only perform this particular part. Maori cultural expert Inia Maxwell told Vice Sports that this is just the last third of the whole haka. On the surface, this doesn't have much to do with rugby. But the whole idea of overcoming the odds is a core component of competitive sports, so the story of Te Rauparaha resonates on some level.

A dance laden with history

Knowing the story of the "Ka Mate," however, is important to the athletes who perform it as it makes them aware of cultural tradition. It's also important for spectators.

The Maori have been deeply involved with rugby in New Zealand; indeed, prior to the 1920s, rugby teams in the country were very well integrated, with more Maori on the team than Pakeha, or New Zealanders of European descent. When the All Blacks and other teams began touring countries more regularly, Maori players were banned from play to accommodate the demands of South Africa's apartheid laws. This practice, which inspired the Halt All Racist Tours protest group, continued until the 1970s, and the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), the sport's governing body, didn't apologize for barring Maori players until 2010.

Maori warriors perform a haka for then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta Māori warriors perform a haka for then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta during a visit to Auckland, New Zealand in September 2012. (Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons)

The Maori have, to a certain extent, done better in the post-colonial period than many other indigenous groups. New Zealand made commitments to include Maori traditions, arts and culture as a part of the country's national identity. The Maori have some degree of political power on both national and local levels, but they still face challenges in having the government recognize breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand.

Given the complicated relationship between various governing bodies and the Maori, the performance of a haka can either be viewed as a "superb act of nationalism, but also a heartening example of postcolonial cohesion" or an "idealized version" of that cohesion. When you consider that the haka is one of the things the All Blacks are known for — to the point that it was a major part of the Adidas-led marketing campaign in 2007 — ownership of the haka itself becomes important. So important, in fact, that the iwi of Te Rauparaha sued for ownership of the "Ka Mate" — and won, even if the victory is viewed as largely symbolic.

The All Blacks seem aware of the potentially fraught standing of the "Ka Mate" haka. In fact, in 2005, the team had a new haka commissioned specifically for them, titled the "Kapa o Pango," though they still perform "Ka Mate."

The new haka, which is performed at the team's discretion, was crafted by haka expert Derek Lardelli. He told the New Zealand Herald in 2005 that, "[They] wanted a haka that said who they were, where they are from, and to create a legacy they wanted to leave for future All Blacks."

To that end, the "Kapa o Pango" is a rallying cry for the All Blacks, a haka that proclaims their victory and their connection to the land under their feet. It, like the "Ka Mate," is an impressive sight, and one that helps explain what the All Blacks are today: A multicultural sports team with a rich tradition that can both acknowledge its past and make its own future.