Dr Haare Williams recounts a story with his moko about the meaning of Matariki, with Shane Te Pou at Nga Whare Waatea Marae, Māngere. Photo / Dean Purcell
This year, Aotearoa New Zealand acknowledges Matariki as a public holiday. Even that simple law change was opposed by more than 40 MPs just this year. It’s a truly indigenous holiday. Isn’t that something, writes
Shane Te Pou
When I set out to tell the story of Matariki I reached out to one of my Tūhoe kaumatua, Dr Haare Williams, who told me about a conversation he had with his mokopuna:
“Koko?” said Te Makahi, 4, “What is Matariki?”
“Dear Te Makahi, They’re the stars telling people around the world to listen song of tūī.”
“I know that karakia, Koko.”
“Let’s sing, Whakarongo ki te tangi a te tui, tuitui-tuitui-a.”
A song of praise and a warning listen to the wisdom of Whenua Moana Ngahere ancestors.
Listen. Listening is the new language of beauty, hope and peace.
The rising of Puanga (Rigel) and later Matariki (Pleiades) heralded mid-winter, which was a time for remembering and a celebration as part of the planet we whakapapa to. To bring back remembering, renewal, rejuvenation and courage to stand for change.
Gran Wairemana told stories, the longest night was a time for whakapapa or whānau stories tracing back to Creation connecting to stars, trees, birds and ocean.
Taniwha, Patupaearehe and Matariki to the Aotearoa New Zealand landscape as much a part our cultural and spiritual landscapes as faeries are to England as leprechauns to Ireland. Matauranga allows us to be a learner and a “teacher” – to be kaitiaki.
Kaitiakitanga means we can look with respect on people, plants, places, animals and birds and all things important.
Storytelling is a big part of your early growth, where you will gain knowledge and understanding. Also, beliefs in being connected to place in the ecosystem.
Matariki set the start of the Māori year determined by the “nights of the moon”.
Matariki is a wake-up to all that is important like kaitiakitanga, the preservation of natural, cultural and spiritual resources.
“Ngahuru ma rua” (the 12th lunar month), recognises the principle of kaitiakitanga by resting Papatūānuku for the 10th and 11th months (Paengawhawha – April and Haki Haratua – May). Matariki allows us to go consult earth to begin a new season.
Planting and harvesting were measured by the nights of the moon or lunar nights and for Gran’s acres serving their generous, giving hearts.
He purapura whetu
Ko au tēnei e
Hoki iho ki a tatau o tēnei reanga, titirowhakamuri katahi ka haere whakamua. Ma tewhatu o te tangata e ata titiro he tirohanga hou ki nga uara o tona whakatekatekatanga. Kei konei, kei kora, kei whea atu, kei a tatau ko te huarahihou, anei ma Matariki e kawe nei.
Respect and reverence for the holiness of land and all things precious, nga taonga katoa.
Te Makahi and Waioeka, these are precious moments with you, holding close moments of beauty, like today with an epic sunrise, always to see a sky full of stars, staring into a never-ending night full of stars.
Then there’s dear little Waioeka, 2, who this morning asked:
“Koko, can we have a karakia for the worms?”
“Why the worms?”
“Because I don’t want the birds to eat my friends.”
Matariki, take our kids into the new life of a new generation, the inheritors of God’s jewel of life.
In the early morning of June/Pipiri 24, the stars of Matariki – also known as the Seven Sisters or Pleiades – will rise above the horizon just before dawn, preceding the sun, low in the northeastern sky.
For the first time, we will welcome Matariki as a public holiday, a truly indigenous holiday.
That is something extraordinary, that should not be underrated. Aotearoa New Zealand has long had public holidays that mark our Pākehā traditions (Christmas, Easter, New Year’s) and our modern history (Waitangi Day, provincial holidays, Anzac Day, Labour Day, Queen’s Birthday) but nothing from our Māori traditions – until now.
Isn’t that something? Doesn’t that show how far we have come as a country? We will finally have a public holiday that draws on the traditions and customs of Māori – that recognises tikanga Māori as something worthy of official acknowledgement and celebration. It is genuinely hard to overstate how much it means to finally see tikanga Māori given the same status as tikanga Pākehā.
It gives me hope.
It has not been an easy journey to get this recognition. Māori have had to fight to keep our customs alive against the tide of colonisation. Though acknowledgement of Māori traditions has been getting better, it still took more than a decade of campaigning to get Parliament to agree to create a public holiday in its honour. Even that simple law change was opposed by more than 40 MPs just this year, with some pouring scorn on the use of the Māori name for the Matariki star cluster. But it happened – the majority of MPs backed Matariki becoming a public holiday, as did two-thirds of voters.
There was a time, in my life, but especially in those of my parents and tīpuna, when the Government and Pākehā repressed Māori identity – when our ways were relegated to curios for tourists, and even use of our language was actively discouraged. How far we have come as Aotearoa New Zealand that tikanga Māori is now a part of mainstream life in this country, and that is embraced by more and more Pākehā.
So, what is Matariki? Why are these stars special to Māori?
First – a quick bit of astronomy.
The stars of Matariki, located in a cluster 440 light years away, are unusual. Most constellations just appear to be close together to us looking up at the night sky, but are, in fact, hundreds of light years apart from each other. The Matariki cluster was born together in a nebula and are moving together through the galaxy. The positioning of the cluster edge on to the path of Earth’s orbit around the sun means they appear to “catch up” with the sun over the early months of the year until they disappear from the night sky in mid-April – still in the sky, but hidden behind the sun’s glare in daytime. Then, in mid-to-late June, as the Earth progresses in its annual orbit, the stars appear to be reborn from behind the sun, rising each morning earlier and earlier before the sun.
Matua Haare Williams, one of the leading advocates for the recognition of Matariki, recently told me the traditional way his koroua taught him to find the cluster when he was a boy:
“In the morning, shortly before Rā, the sun, look for the bright star alone near the Eastern horizon. That is Puanga (Rigel), which is also of great significance to Māori – indeed, for iwi in the South, who couldn’t see Matariki as easily, Puanga marked this time instead.
“Now, look below Puanga for the line of three stars – Tautoru, or Orion’s Belt. Put your right hand up, palm out, with your little finger to Tautoru. Now, stretch your thumb out. Your thumb will be beside a group of stars in a v shape – that red, bright star is Taumata-kuku (Aldebaran).
“Another half a hand-span to the left is a tight, bright cluster of stars – Matariki. The name has two meanings: mata ariki (eyes of god) and mata riki (little eyes). Each of the seven most prominent stars has a name.
• Matariki, eyes of Tāwhirimātea
• Tupu-ā-rangi, sky tohunga
• Waipuna-ā-rangi, sky spring
• Waitī, sweet water
• Tupu-ā-nuku, Earth tohunga
• Ururangi, entry to the heavens
• Waitā, sprinkle of water.”
The striking set of stars with their well-timed reappearance in mid to late June is significant to a huge number of cultures around the world – from the ancient Europeans, to Native Americans, to indigenous Australians, to the Pacific peoples, and to Māori.
For Māori, this significance is both practical and spiritual.
Coinciding with takanga o te rā, the winter solstice,for Māori the rise of Matariki is a marker that this is the time when the days stop getting shorter. Although the coldest months are still to come, it tells us the days will begin to lengthen in anticipation of the summer to come. In our legends, it is when Tamanuiterā, god of the sun, ceases his journey northward with his winter wife, Hine Takurua, and begins to travel south, back to his summer wife, Hine Raumati.
The rising of Puanga and Matariki told our tīpuna it was time to snare birds and harvest from the sea while the fields, having been allowed to rest, were cleared and made ready for spring planting. The abundance of kaimoana and stores of kūmara would feed the people until spring.
This is not just stargazing for its own sake, this is Mātauranga Māori – our traditional science.
Our ancestors did not know about orbital planes and light years, but they knew the patterns of the stars and passed this knowledge down the generations. They knew that when they saw Matariki rise before the sun, it was the winter solstice. Our tīpuna used astronomical observations to predict the seasons and tell us what types of food were available, when to plant, when to harvest, and when to let the land rejuvenate.
Of course, Matariki is not just about the puku, it’s also about wairua – the spirit.
The rising of Matariki is greeted in the early morning with karakia, waiata, and tangi for those we have lost in the past year. The koroua rouse their mokopuna from bed before the sun comes up, show them how to find Matariki, and tell them that their return this is a sign of hope, a sign that spring will come again.
For Māori, Matariki is a time of rebirth, the beginning of a new year. We greet the new year and the hope of the future but, always, remember our past and those who have passed on.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the mid-winter celebration of Christmas is a time for communities to come together, to celebrate, remember, and feast. So, too, Matariki is a chance whānau to be with each other during the southern winter. After fasting, hākari (feasts) fortify both body and soul against the cold.
I spoke recently with renowned hāngī chef Rewi Spraggon. Food has always been central to Māori celebrations – to welcome and sustain guests, to show aroha. Our ancestors would use hākari to ensure that everyone had enough good food to eat during the lean months.
It seems this is a common need for all humanity. To come together with our loved ones during the cold winter – to enjoy each other’s company, to reflect on the past, to look after each other and build hope for what is to come.
This year, I will welcome Matariki at Pipitea Marae not just as a remembrance of our people’s past, but as a symbol of Aotearoa New Zealand’s future – Māori and Pākehā together. The hākari with over 300 people in attendance cooked by Spraggon and a number of Māoridom’s top chefs. A celebration of our traditional kai in a modern context.
I will think of the great Māori leaders who preserved our traditions through colonisation and repression, and then fought for them to be re-established and given equal footing with Pākehā traditions. I will think of leaders we have lost like Moana Jackson, Dame Aroha Reriti-Crofts and Ranginui Walker, and all the those who served as kaitiaki and kaiako of our traditions – whether for Aotearoa-New Zealand as a whole or just for their own whānau.
When my ancestors saw Matariki rise for the first time, they saw the turning point in the great cycle of the year that repeats again and again. It told them that, although we are in winter, summer would come again. When I see Matariki rise, I will think of our future as a country to come where we embrace tikanga Māori. That gives me hope.