In a couple of months, on June 24, we’ll be celebrating Matariki as a national holiday for the first time. It will be the first new public holiday introduced in Aotearoa in nearly 100 years, and the first purely Māori holiday that predates the arrival of Captain Cook.
Here’s Dr Rangi Matamua, a leading expert on Matariki and Māori astronomy, on what it means — and the science that underpins it.
I failed fifth form science because I hated it. I couldn’t see a connection between me and the periodic table — until I got my head around the fact that, actually, the periodic table is genealogy. It is whakapapa connecting each element to the next.
From a Māori point of view, there’s no use understanding something in science unless you go on to understand how it’s connected to everything else. A piece of knowledge can be taken out and explored on its own, but, for us, it only has real purpose and meaning when it’s all stitched together in one fabric.
Western science is wonderfully objective and driven by evidence, and it will test and test to come up with rigorous findings, but quite often that happens in isolation, and then it moves on to the next thing. Whereas for me as a Māori scientist, the key thing is the practice of knowledge in everyday life.
An example of this will be the very important ceremony on the morning of 24 June with the rising of Matariki. This year, it will spark the opening of a whole lot of events, celebrations, and gatherings around the country.
It will be the first new public holiday introduced in Aotearoa in nearly 100 years. It will be the first purely Māori holiday in this country that predates the arrival of Captain Cook. It is, as far as I know, the first reinstated Indigenous knowledge celebration as a public holiday anywhere in the world.
I see this day as a chance to move the understanding of mātauranga Māori beyond the idea that it’s mainly stories about deities.
Our knowledge systems are still so often seen as “myths and legends”, as if they’re devoid of proper science. But there is empirical science that sits at the heart of mātauranga Māori. You don’t traverse the expanse of ocean that our ancestors traversed by riding on myths and legends. You need to have your science down.
The difference is that mātauranga Māori and Indigenous knowledge systems understand how to connect that knowledge to the people.
Let’s take Matariki as the example.
Matariki is part of a very detailed stellar lunar calendar system. In the modern world, we are accustomed to 365 (and a quarter) days for a year. We travel around the sun which gives us our year and our time system, regardless of any other environmental factors. But Māori followed localised calendar systems built off the lunar calendar, which is 354 days long.
Our ancestors knew about the apparent magnitude of stars and they knew that Matariki needed to be a certain height on the horizon, while the sun is below the horizon, for it to be visible. So, they triangulated the position of the sun, the visibility of the stars, and lunar phase to tell where they were in their calendar system, and the correct lunar month. Because of the difference between the lunar year and the solar year, which is 11 days, over three years there was a 33-day slippage.
So, every three or so years, they’d introduce an extra month into the calendar system. It’s called intercalation, or an intercalary month, and it’s the same concept as a leap day being inserted every four years to the solar calendar. That’s how my ancestors managed their system of time. Which is very scientific.
Then, to make it all have meaning and purpose, which is essential, Māori cultural practices and even spirituality were built around this movement of time.
This meant more than just “knowing” the information — it needed to become part of their practice. So, they lived it every day. They hunted, fished, gardened, undertook every activity, by the moon, the position of the sun, the pre-dawn rising of stars. Their whole lives were orientated not just around the sky, but their environment.
Mātauranga Māori had the ability to take the scientific principle and demonstrate to people that if they followed that star, they’d arrive at a certain location. Then, to make the premise have deep meaning to the people, that star became a deity.
Or we knew that when a certain star was visible, the birds would fly in a certain direction. So that star was named after those birds, which would lead to a particular land area, which was then embedded into a ceremony so that it had a tangible connection for people.
The science, and the scientific beauty, that underpinned all of that can get lost or dismissed because some people, particularly those who don’t speak te reo, have only heard a handful of translated or interpreted stories.
Even for me to be using English now to explain these things misses a whole level of understanding that comes when we talk about them in te reo Māori. Our reo and our practice of mātauranga Māori are such major ways of maintaining our traditional knowledge that I have to remind myself that the opinions of people who have absolutely no understanding of Māori language or customs is null and void when it comes to determining how our knowledge is defined.
It’s a waste of time trying to argue with those people. Debating in that way just sets up the idea that mātauranga Māori and western science are adversaries. They’re not. In fact, they connect very well together. The important difference, for me, is that Indigenous knowledge systems understand how to link people with the scientific concepts in a meaningful way.
There is clear evidence, for example, that we are heating up the earth. Scientific evidence. We are emitting carbon, we are polluting. Western science is saying: “Here is the evidence.” Yet the science has failed to embed that knowledge in the everyday practices of people. If western science was all knowing and all perfect, then we wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation where we continue to destroy the only livable planet we have that exists within any manageable distance from us.
So, when it comes to these really important issues, we can’t assume that one way of knowing is superior to another.
The knowledge that I have, and that I have made my life’s work to share, comes from a time before there was a written language in Aotearoa.
I’m the latest in a long line of Māori astronomers, beginning with my ancestor, Te Pikikōtuku, who was from Te Arawa — and it was from him that knowledge was passed down through the generations to Te Kōkau of Tūhoe.
Te Kōkau was an acknowledged Māori astronomer, and his community knew that’s what he did. He was befriended by the famous ethnographer Elsdon Best. At that time, Elsdon Best was a prolific writer on Māori. He was part of that generation — the Percy Smith and Governor Grey generation — where they recorded, as western ethnologists, their ideas about what they were seeing among Māori.
Te Kōkau gave a certain amount of knowledge to Elsdon Best to help him with his book Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori. And in 1898, Elsdon Best gave him a manuscript of the book.
For the next 30 years, it was expanded and worked on by Te Kōkau and, after his death, by his son Rāwiri Te Kōkau. It became a very detailed manuscript where they recorded over 900 star names, 103 constellations, and a whole curriculum on how you teach Māori star lore.
The manuscript was handed on to my grandfather when he was a young boy. I grew up around my grandfather, and he taught me bits and pieces about the sky and the lunar phases. He was a gardener and a healer, but I was unaware that he had this document.
In the early ‘90s, I was at university just as there was starting to be talk about Matariki. I went home to him and said: “Hey, you know anything about Matariki?”
And he just went off to his room and came back with this big manuscript, and he goes: “Here you go.”
It was 400 pages of longhand written in te reo Māori. It took me probably a year just to learn how to read the book.
My grandfather said: “Never give that book away. That is a taonga written by the hand of your ancestors.” But on his deathbed, he realised the richness of knowledge that existed in that book. And he told me that I needed to find a way. These were his last words to me. “You need to find a way to share that knowledge. Knowledge that isn’t shared isn’t knowledge.” And then he died.
And so, for me, it’s imperative that our traditional knowledge is disseminated and incorporated to have meaning and purpose in our modern world.
Mātauranga Māori is not locked in the past. It is still evolving and developing. It is a framework for our Indigenous knowledge systems, whether they are still purely traditional or whether we have incorporated other thinking and concepts and added elements of our Māoriness to them.
I think, for example, about how our ancestors were excellent gardeners. When new variations of crops like potatoes and pumpkin were introduced, they quickly adapted to those and incorporated them into their world. But they still planted them using the lunar calendar, even though they were introduced species.
It’s similar to the place and value of written material. Writing is not a traditional medium. But Māori very quickly understood the importance of the written word for conveying our knowledge. And I think it’s a vitally important tool today.
The era where we allow non-Māori to tell Māori who they are and to write their history needs to come to an end. We have to take the lead in telling the world who we are, and we need to put pen to paper.
And we also need to put the knowledge into practice. This can be as simple as going out into the environment, or growing food. There are all sorts of ways to do that.
The beauty of the upcoming Matariki holiday is that it’s one way in which mātauranga Māori will connect us all.
There isn’t a single person in the world who doesn’t come from a culture or background where people looked up to the sky — for inspiration, for navigation, for understanding time.
The earliest cave painting in the world, some 20,000 years old, has Pleiades — which is Matariki — drawn on the wall, using astronomical references from China. This cluster of stars has been a universal point of contact for all peoples since the beginning of humanity.
So, our Matariki holiday is built on wonderful principles of unity and celebration and togetherness. And it shows that western understandings of science and mātauranga Māori are not adversaries but are linked together.
The entire nation, all five and a bit million of us, will stop on 24 June and acknowledge mātauranga Māori. I think, in generations to come, our descendants will look back and say that was a moment in time when we came of age as a nation.
Dr Rangi Matamua is Professor Mātauranga Māori, Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, at Massey University. Before that he was Professor and Associate Dean Postgraduate, School of Māori and Pacific Development, at the University of Waikato.
He is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, in fields such as Māori astronomy, science communication, Māori navigation, Indigenous knowledge and te reo Māori. He is a Fellow of the Te Apārangi, Royal Society of New Zealand.
As told to Connie Buchanan. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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