The meaning of Tu Kaha and the Tall Blacks culture

In November 2017 the Tall Blacks released a message on their @TallBlacks Facebook page, called Tū Kaha New Zealand, calling on Kiwis to stand with the team in their quest for a place at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.

In that message Tall Blacks Captain Mika Vukona says ‘Tu Kaha’, which means ‘stand strong’. But it also refers to the Tall Blacks haka, called Tū Kaha O Pango Te Kahikatea.

The essence of Tū Kaha is a lesson that the former Tall Black, Paora Winitana, instructs to all debutants that come into the Tall Blacks camp. He says he hopes it’s a lesson that spreads to all New Zealanders that follow the Tall Blacks.

“When we perform Tū Kaha, our haka, and play as the Tall Blacks, we do it with all Tall Blacks who have ever played for our country before and we do it with the people of New Zealand in our hearts and minds – that includes families, friends, our communities and the nation. So the notion of ‘togetherness’ is ingrained in the meaning of Tū Kaha. It’s about the strength we gain from all those around us, which helps us overcome the many challenges we all face in life.

So there’s a deeper meaning for Kiwis who are willing to allow the Tall Blacks to represent them, because this lesson should be embraced off-court too,” says Winitana.

Although Tall Blacks fans have been starved of seeing important home games for years, the new FIBA system will see that remedied. The Tall Blacks are about to play vital test matches that are World Cup qualifiers. Every result during the qualifying windows effect New Zealand’s chances of being represented at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. But will the New Zealand public get in behind the team? Winitana says that he believes so, particularly if they feel connected to what the team stands for, which is ultimately their fellow Kiwis.

“Every player who pulls on the black singlet feels immense pride and honour through the privilege of their position. We haven’t been able to do that on home soil in so long, but now we finally get to battle at home, defend our home turf, so we want to make our fans proud. The Tū Kaha message we sent out today was a small way of letting people know we are coming home and we are going out to stand strong, but we can only do it with New Zealanders by our side,” says Winitana.

Fostering the Tall Blacks Culture

Paora Winitana was appointed to the role of Cultural Ambassador in 2017 during the World Cup Qualifiers campaign heading to 2019. It’s a new position in the Tall Blacks camp, but one that is so important to the team because it is the culture that knits the team together. The players are not paid, so their reward comes from the privilege of representing the country and being part of the Tall Blacks family. Winitana says it is this privilege that keeps players impassioned to the cause and it’s his role is to foster this culture. Part of the job is to educate incoming debutants about the meaning of ‘Tū Kaha’. It a job well-suited to Winitana, especially when he is one of two people who scribed the team’s haka in 2006.

“When I was first named in the Tall Blacks, we did the haka ‘Ka Mate’, like most New Zealand teams that do the haka. The majority of people believe it’s the All Blacks’ haka, but it actually belongs to the whanau of Ngāti Toa.

“In 2006, when there was a change of leadership, the baton was handed from Tab Baldwin to Nenad Vucnic who was our new head coach. It wasn’t long before Nenad approached PC and said ‘I want to do something special, something unique for the Tall Blacks and I want it to incorporate everything we stand for, our culture, our history, everything that we represent’.

“PC gave me the mandate to come up with our own Haka, so I turned to my elders back in Ngāti Kahungunu (Hawkes Bay iwi), particularly Don Hutana, he was the kaitiaki or the guardian of our reo for our Iwi and a great mentor for me. I approached Don and invited him to tautoko (support) and let him know ‘this is the responsibility that we have and opportunity we have been given. Help us, support us and lead us.’ So, he did. Together we composed our Tall Blacks Haka Tu Kaha,” says Winitana.

While crafting the haka, Winitana said it was important to incorporate all the principles and standards that previous Tall Blacks stood for.

“We have a special legacy at New Zealand basketball and we took all that into consideration.

“We used symbolism and came up with the whakaaro (idea) that the Kahikatea tree would represent us. The Kahikatea tree is not the tallest tree in the world, but it’s the tallest tree that we have in New Zealand, so it represents all basketball players, the men of New Zealand basketball.

“There’s several key teachings about the Kahikatea tree that we take strength from, for example the Kahikatea doesn’t stand alone, but all together and never by itself, they grow and stand in bunches.  The unique thing about the Kahikatea tree is the root system – it’s the most far-spread of any tree and each root connects and synergize with other Kahikatea that forms a foundation that cannot be broken or moved. This message is fitting for us – It represents everything we stand for as Tall Blacks, as a country and the secret of our success, standing strong together. That’s the message of Tu Kaha.”

The meaning of the Tall Blacks haka

Contrary to popular belief, the Tall Blacks haka is not a war dance. Winitana says there are many reasons why New Zealanders haka – to celebrate, to acknowledge, to give thanks, at tangi (funerals). So what is the Tall Blacks haka saying exactly? Paora Winitana explains…

“When you see the haka for the first time you might think ‘wow, these guys are coming to kill us, to take over’, and there are many haka in New Zealand that are purely focused on that kind of message, but not Tū Kaha.

“The well-known haka ‘Ka mate’ from Ngāti Toa isn’t a haka of ‘we are coming to dominate’ but a korero of one of our tipuna Te Rauparaha and how he was successful in overcoming adversity and the life or death situation he was in. Another famous Kahungunu haka ‘Tika Tonu’ is a perfect example of one with its own meaning other than war, instead it is one that brings a son strength to overcome life’s challenges.

“The objective of the Tall Blacks’ haka Tū Kaha is purely to help us all stand strong, not only as Tall Blacks or as basketball players, but as a people, as New Zealanders. One of the lines is ‘Tuturu whakamaua kia tina,’ which means ‘we honour the past, the present, the future’. This is us acknowledging everybody who has gone before us, those who will surely follow after and the acceptance of the responsibility we have now to prepare the way forward. We are not standing strong because it’s the 12 guys you see standing against you, we are standing strong because it’s you against every Tall Black and all New Zealanders.

“Tū Kaha also tells the Tall Blacks’ secret to success through the story of Tane and his sacred journey to the highest Heaven in search for the ‘three baskets of knowledge’. We talk about the winds of Tāwhirimāte. In our culture he’s the guardian of the winds, and he bring Hurunuku and hururangi – his two strongest forces, to try and stop Tane from being successful. Tū Kaha teaches us that Tane used the strongest forces to overcome the strongest adversity to be victorious.

“We know that New Zealand basketball is not considered a powerhouse on the world stage like the Americans, or the Spaniards, Argentinians, the Australians or European nations, but we are New Zealand, and like the Kahikatea tree, we don’t have the individual superstars that you see in the NBA – that’s not our style. The Tall Blacks way is ‘kotahitanga’ working as one – our true Mana (strength/authority) is relying not so much on our physical strength, but more so our mental toughness, our fortitude and resilience, our ruthlessness and relentlessness as the people of New Zealand to never fear, but fight to the end.

“In Tū Kaha the question is asked ‘He aha tatau e tu tonu ai?’ which translates to ‘how is it that we can stand against you, our opponent, the strongest storm’. Then we give the reply, ‘He pakiaka, toi Ariki, toi Uru tapu,’ which means our strength is in our roots, this is the vine that we hold fast to that connects us to a higher power, our uniqueness as a culture – this separates us from any other country.

“For us the message of Tū Kaha, to stand strong together, makes up who we are as New Zealanders. So when we send out Tū Kaha at the start of each battle, we want all Kiwis to stand with us, because it is the people who have gone before us, who are with us now, and those who will come when we have left – that gives us our true mana and strength. So that’s what we mean we say the Tall Blacks stand for all New Zealanders through the message of Tū Kaha, and we hope that New Zealanders will stand with us too.

“Together we are strong, together we can overcome all challenges.”

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