Every year in the middle of winter, the Matariki star cluster rises, ushering in the Māori New Year. It’s a time to gather with whānau and friends, reflect on the past, honour the present and look forward to the future.
Professor Rangi Mātāmua (Tūhoe) knows this time of year well. The University of Waikato professor and Māori astronomer has spent his career working to revitalise Matariki and educate New Zealanders about Māori astronomy.
Mātāmua’s interest in the Māori celestial space started when he was gifted a 400-page astronomy manuscript from his grandfather, written by his ancestors.
“Before he died, he said, ‘Don’t let the manuscript go, it’s an heirloom. The knowledge within, you need to find a way to share that with people,’” he says. “This was in the mid-1990s and I’ve been working in that space ever since – it’s a bit of a family legacy.”
Nicknamed ‘The Aotearoa Star Man’, Mātāmua has gone on to become one of the country’s foremost experts on Māori astronomy and Matariki.
He’s written a best-selling book on the topic, travels the country giving public lectures and has a large following on social media. In 2020, he won the Prime Minister’s Science Communications Prize from the Royal Society of New Zealand, becoming the first Māori to win the award and in 2023, was named Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.
What is Matariki?
Matariki, known in Western science as the Pleiades cluster, is visible in the sky for 11 months of the year. During mid-winter, it rises in the eastern horizon and is tied to the Māori lunar phases. “It’s very connected to various parts of our environment, food and celebration,” explains Mātāmua. In the past, Māori looked to Matariki to predict the coming harvest and to navigate their voyages across the Pacific.
The beauty of Matariki, says Mātāmua, are the principles it’s built upon – ideals that all people can connect with, regardless of heritage or ethnicity. “It transcends some of the political and, at times, racial differences in some of the things that we celebrate. It’s about unity, celebration, remembering the past, celebrating the now. It has these underlying principles that speak to the best part of humanity. I think its really good that we’re embracing it on a much wider scale.”
In the past 10 years, Mātāmua has seen this interest in Māori celestial knowledge flourish in the wider New Zealand community. “It started out as a small group of Māori community celebrating [Matariki]. Then it became part of Te Papa museum and other organisations picked up on it,” he says.
“It’s really expanded, moved beyond a Māori celebration and actually become part of an Aotearoa/New Zealand celebration. It’s becoming a greater part of our national identity.”
A huge part of this revitalisation is spurred on by the younger generation. “[They’re] so enthusiastic about and open about this knowledge. They’re hungry for a new way to interact with the world and a new way to be good citizens of the planet.”
Mātāmua welcomes the fact that along with this revitalisation of Māori wisdom comes accountability for his generation. “I think it’s long overdue,” he says. “I heard this phrase recently, ‘We need to be good ancestors.’ That means when our descendants of a hundred years’ time look back, they need to make sure we’ve done something that’s for the sustainability of future generations.”
Wisdom through language
Alongside his deep knowledge of astronomy, Mātāmua is a leading advocate of te reo Māori. In fact, his understanding of te reo was the key to unlocking the teachings that have guided his career.
“A lot of knowledge around Māori society, practices and astronomy is written in te reo. If you don’t have the language, then you’re not going to be able to unlock that information,” he says.
“To have the language, it opened me up to a whole world of knowledge that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of.”
Weaving together science and spirituality
One of the unique things about Māori astronomy when compared with the modern Western discipline, is that it positions empirical science within a broader cultural backdrop.
“They encompassed it within cultural narratives and spirituality and belief systems,” Mātāmua says. “To me, that cultural element gives our science completely new and deep and rich layer of meaning.”
However, as Mātāmua explains, if you go back further in history, you’ll find the Western and Māori perspectives shared many similarities.
“In Western astronomy, [like Māori], you had a lot of mythology. Stars and associations with lunar phases would let you know when it’s time to harvest, fish, hunt, and they were part of navigation,” he says.
“The other thing which is important to understand is that traditionally, astronomy and astrology were practiced hand in hand.”
Within this scientific view, the stars were connected to seasons, migration of animals and flowering of plants, as well as deities and heroes, like Hercules, Orion and Orpheus.
“It’s only in more recent times that [Western science] has split the discipline into astrology, which is seen as mystical and spiritual, and astronomy, which is a science,” says Mātāmua.
“Indigenous cultures don’t have an issue with running science and spirituality together.”
How the stars can guide us forward
As the world sits on the precipice of an incredible transformation amid the climate crisis and social movements, Mātāmua says it’s here where we can look to the stars to guide us forward.
“We do face some massive issues. There is a lot of empirical science embedded within traditional Māori knowledge and a lot of basic practices and principles that can really help us,” he says.
“If you look at Matariki, one of its key principles is the idea of wellbeing and environmental sustainability. It’s an opportunity for us as a nation to celebrate something that’s unique to this part of the world, and is connected to the environment, unity, respect, love – the best things that make us who we are.
“Indigenous people have always had a very special way of being connected to the cosmos and the Earth. I think there is so much in this that Western science can benefit from. That is my hope for the future.”