Professor Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe) is Te Ara Tōtara, Associate Dean Postgraduate, and Lecturer based in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato, Waikato University. An expert in Māori Astronomy and author of ‘Matariki: The Star of the Year’ (2017), Professor Matamua explores both the personal and collective significance of Matariki.

For myself and my whānau, Matariki holds significance on a deeply personal level.  

In the late 1890s Elsdon Best, the distinguished early New Zealand ethnographer, worked in the Urewera Forest as a surveyor. During this time, Elsdon interacted with a number of people from the Tūhoe community, gathering information for many of the books that he would write. One of the people he spoke with was my ancestor, Te Kōkau Himiona Te Pikikōtuku.

Te Kōkau shared with Elsdon vital knowledge and information which enabled him to write the famous Astronomical knowledge of the Māori (1922). In gratitude, Elsdon gave my ancestor, Te Kōkau, a ledger of some 400 pages, and an early star map. This was handed to my grandfather, which was handed to me, and has informed my knowledge of and passion for the stars and the importance of Matariki.

Matariki means many things, to many people, but its message of renewal, of honouring those who have passed, of looking forward to the future, and of unity, is one that can be shared by all people in Aotearoa.

For Māori, Matariki was undeniably the most celebrated ceremony within our calendar. We celebrated this time of year and the rising of different stars in correlation to the lunar calendar. Importantly, Māori followed what is called a lunar-stellar calendar. We would notice the early morning rise or setting, or position of the stars in relation to lunar phases and lunar months.

This triangulation of markers was key to identifying the rise of Matariki and understanding that it is more than just the position of a star. Rather, our ancestors understood Matariki was dependent on a number of factors which must all be taken into consideration.

For millennia, people have looked up and pondered existence, our connection to the environment, the world, the universe. All people relate to this, and this is what sits at the heart of Matariki.

Matariki is connected to the environment, it’s connected to spirituality, to ceremony, to celebration, to food, to water, the ocean, and the rivers. All of this is encompassed in Matariki ceremonies that are traditionally based around three ideas: that we remember those that have passed since the last rising of Matariki; that we celebrate the present with food and festivities, music, songs, dance and art; and that we take the opportunity to plan for the future.

My hope is that one day we collectively see Matariki as our national celebration in Aotearoa New Zealand.

There are different stars in the Matariki cluster. While there are different stars, with different names and different roles, they are united as one. A key principle of Matariki is therefore unity.

Matariki can and should be a platform and a vehicle for unity between people that live in Aotearoa. Regardless of the different colour, size, shape, movement and station of any one Matariki star, they come together as one, moving together in unison across the sky.

While Matariki is uniquely Māori, these three ideas transcend culture. It’s my desire and hope that it continues to grow as part of a wider shared identity within Aotearoa.