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A Totara Falls, Many Mourn and a New Day Dawns


Stuart Middleton


9 February 2018


Kua hinga te totara o te wao nui o Tane

The death of a chief is described by Maori as the falling of the totara tree in the great forest of Tane. The totara tree at Manukau Institute of Technology has fallen in this little part of the great forest. MIT has been mourning the death of Kukupa Tirakatene, our long serving Kaumatua, Kaiako o te Reo Maori, Kaiākau, Rangatira, Matua, Papa and friend to so many both at MIT and across Aotearoa.

Such a period of time is cause for reflection and as the tangi held at MIT ran its course, I thought often of my twin brother, Ewen, who passed away two years ago and who had worked with Kū at Rosehill College over a decade or so when Kū introduced Te Reo Māori into that school and was the only Maori teacher on the staff. As was the case in those times when this was common, the teacher of Te Reo was the go-to person for all matters Maori and all issues facing Maori students.

Such a role was demanding and my brother often mentioned the remarkable work being done by Kū in that setting, the assistance given to teachers and the huge contribution made to the school.

It was not to be the only time that Kū was to take an education institution and hold its hand as it took first steps and then increasingly bolder steps along the path towards a place where equity, parity, tino rangatiratanga, Te Tiriti, and manaakitanga started to impact on the minds, awareness and eventually the practices of those who work in it. It is quite a journey as this tapestry is woven.

Kū’s trademark kaikōrero at powhiri was “E kore e taea e te whenu kotahi ki te raranga I te whariki kia mohio ai tatou ki a tatou mā te mahi tahi o ngā whenu” – “The tapestry of understanding cannot be woven by one strand alone”.  The extended metaphor of weavers working together to achieve the fabric was how he exhorted people to behave, to work with others to achieve results but to also take note of the mistakes made (the “dropped stitches”) because there are learnings in them.

At MIT Kū lived these principles over a long time, working with some remarkable people – Tupae Pepe, Hapimana Rikihana, Dr Ranginui Walker, Sonny Rauwhero, Blackie Pohatu, and Maurice Wilson are names that spring to mind – to achieve things that were then new to MIT; teaching te Reo Māori, courses on Treaty Awareness, processes for ensuring that programmes took up opportunities they presented to reflect ako Maori and in the late 1990s the establishment of the Nga Kete Wananga Marae. All of these developments ebbed and flowed over time but increasingly such concerns were coming on to centre stage locally, regionally and nationally throughout Aotearoa.

In the early 2000s MIT instituted a project called Target 2010. Its goals were appropriate for then and focused on professional knowledge of staff and increased participation of Maori and Pacific communities in polytechnic education at MIT. A key element of this work was that the focus was on both Maori and Pacific and Kū’s contribution to bringing Pacific communities and students into a closer focus should not be underestimated. He celebrated both strands of the project and supported initiatives that established the key principles which saw the Pacific focus flourish but alongside a context where the kawa and tikanga of tangata whenua was respected and perhaps even strengthened.

MIT is embarking on a new wave of activity to achieve parity between priority learner groups and the overall performance of the institute. And as it pushes it boats out on this one, it will be without Kū Tirikātene, we will not have our Kaiākau, Papa Kū, to steer the canoe but we do have the learnings we have taken from his whakatauki, his karakia and and his example.

After a great tree has fallen in the forest there is a time of silence – the forest is grieving. Then over time the birdsong returns, other trees start to fill the gap and the forest seems to return to normal. But it is never the same.

Kua hinga te totara o te wao nui o Tane

Haere ra e te rangatira, haere, haere, haere atu ra.




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  1. Josh Williams. Josh Williams.

    Lovely tribute Stuart. I did not know Ku well but you only needed to meet him once to grasp his mana and decency.

  2. Peter Alsop Peter Alsop

    Oh, I missed that in the news. Indeed, what an incredible and beautiful man Kukupa seemed to be. We had the pleasure of working in with him during his Kaumatua tenure at Te Papa. His grace, poise and mana was simply incredible; a real privelege to have met him if only briefly.

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