The Hui: Maramataka, Matariki and the revival of Māori sciences

Ahead of the official celebration of Matariki, a special episode of The Hui has taken a deeper look at the resurgence of the traditions associated with the Māori New Year and lunar calendar. 

The Matariki star cluster will soon be visible in our night skies, signalling the start of the Māori New Year. According to the Maramatakac - the Māori lunar calendar - the reappearance of Matariki brings the previous lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the next. It is regarded as a time of renewal and celebration in New Zealand.

Over the last decade, there's been a resurgence of traditional knowledge like Matariki across Aotearoa. Dr Rangi Mātāmua, an astronomy academic and lecturer in Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato, is helping to lead this revival.

This year, Dr Mātāmua - who descends from the Tūhoe iwi - became the first Māori recipient of a Prime Minister’s Science Prize. The Victoria University alum was awarded the Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize as part of the 2019 honours.

Dr Matamua.
Dr Matamua. Photo credit: File

Yet despite his academic achievements, Mātāmua is still having to fight to have Māori sciences recognised in mainstream spaces.

"I've had people say to me, 'that's not proper science'. I feel like saying, 'you go out on that ocean, and you see how far you get on myths and legends'," he told The Hui. "It irks me that, you know, it's such a racist point of view.

"When I look up into the sky, that's the same sky that my ancestor viewed. I love the narratives of the stars... their meanings and their purpose."

The Matariki star cluster.
The Matariki star cluster. Photo credit: File

Historically, tohunga - priests or chosen iwi experts - would look to Matariki to predict the abundance of the next harvest. The brighter and clearer the stars appeared, the warmer the growing season would be. Tohunga kōkōrangi - expert astronomers - also historically used stars and star clusters, including Matariki, to navigate across the Pacific.

Dr Mātāmua, regarded as a go-to expert on Matariki or the Māori New Year, has authored a book on the subject. He has also recently released an online series, 'Living By the Stars', where he shares his knowledge on the subject.

"I think isolationism actually speeds up the death of a culture. The way culture survives is by being shared with other people," he told The Hui. "And I hope that it continues to grow, continues to be shared."

This year, Matariki will officially begin on Monday, July 13. Auckland's annual Matariki Festival began on June 20 and will conclude on July 15.

The rise of Maramataka

Like Mātāmua, mātauranga Māori - the body of knowledge originating from Māori ancestors, including the Māori world view, perspectives and cultural practices - plays a big part of Rikki Solomon’s life. He has been an embalmer for more than 20 years.

By using the Maramataka - the traditional Māori lunar calendar passed down through generations - to guide him, Solomon wants to provide more comfort to whānau by changing the way the funeral industry operates.

Each iwi has their own distinct Maramataka. The different phases of the moon signalling when to undertake certain activities, such as when to plant and harvest kai, when to fish or when to rest.

"It's about reconnecting back to an environment - not just connecting at any time, but at specific times so that we move in sync with it too," Solomon told The Hui.

He is opening up his own funeral home, Te Rangi Kahupapa, and is letting whānau behind the mortuary doors.

"We wanted to take a multi-dimensional approach to different types of healing, using arts, using music, using our raranga, using traditional Māori instruments."

Solomon says although some funeral homes do follow tikanga - Māori values, customs and practices - many whānau still feel excluded from the process.

He wants to indigenise the funeral industry, and believes the Maramataka Māori can help achieve this.

Maramataka around Aotearoa

Environmental activist, researcher and educator Heeni Hoterene is also helping spearhead the resurgence of the Maramataka.

In the age of climate change, she says Maramataka is more relevant than ever.

"We've become so removed that we think humans are not part of the environments," she told The Hui.

When she’s not sharing her knowledge of Maramataka with communities across the far north, Heeni and her whānau can be found supporting Te Kura o Tututarakihi in Kaitaia - a school with a curriculum and timetable based on the Māori calendar.

Hoterene's partner, Rueben Taipari, teaches pupils about their connection to the Maramataka. The school has less than 20 students.

"[We] treat it like it’s a normal thing - it’s not tapu, it’s not a religion. It’s our science, it’s our mātauranga Māori.

"Even the school holidays are determined by the Maramataka - they have shorter breaks during the summer, and take a longer break during the winter months."

The school's principal, Rangimarie Pomare, says the environment forms a significant part of their teaching and fresh approach to learning. 

"Kāore mātou e hiahia kia kōrero mo te taiao - me te pānui I ngā kōrero - e mohio ana mātou na te mahi, na te wheako - e whai hua nei tēnei taio ki a rātou," Pomare told The Hui. ("We don’t just want to talk about the environment and read about it - we know it’s through doing things and experiencing the environment students will get the most out of the environment"). 

"I kura kē ka kī ko ētahi o ngā tamariki he tamariki whakararu pea engari i roto i a mātou e akiaki ana mātou i ngā pūmanawa kei roto tonu i ngā tamariki pēnei me te noho takatahi te whakaputa I o rātou whakaaro te whiriwhiri he aha o rātou ake hiahiaa." ("At other schools - some children may be considered troubled - but with us we encourage their natural talents by developing their independence, expressing their thoughts and figuring out what it is they want").

For Hoterene, using indigenous knowledge like the Maramataka is a powerful tool to reclaim mana motuhake - which refers to Māori's independent or separate identity, autonomy, authority and self-determination.

"My kaupapa and why I share this with other people is to empower them and to empower them in their decision making, empower them in their own personal mana," she said.