For 180 years, the power brokers in New Zealand education and science dismissed the maramataka — “the Māori calendar”. Myths and legends, they sniffed. Not worthy of serious study. Inferior to science, without a doubt.
Well, bring it on, says Rereata Makiha. Because when it comes to reading environmental cues, he says the maramataka is key — and the scientists come second. Seriously.
Here’s Rereata telling Dale Husband about the old people’s acute insights into our natural world.
Tell us about how you got your name please, Rereata?
We were all given ancestral names. But because we had lots of Pākehā headmasters, shopkeepers, etcetera — the old people wouldn’t put our ancestral names on our birth certificates.
Sometimes, it wasn’t until a person passed away and they put their proper name on the coffin, that we found out. And we thought: “Ooh! We didn’t know that!”
So, we grew up with nicknames, all of us. Mine is “Ral” — which doesn’t mean anything.
And the idea behind the nicknames was interesting. Because if you use an ancestral name, and you curse it, it has consequences. Whereas with a nickname, it doesn’t matter.
That’s another reason why they gave us those names. So that when kids are playing around, you didn’t tūkino, or disrespect, the ancestors.
The name I was given by my grandmother was Rereata — and that name comes from a kohu, or mist, that comes over the Waoku and down into the Waimā valley in Hokianga.
It was under that kohu that the old people, our grandmother being one of them, used to collect all the kōiwi (the remains of the dead) from the atamira (the raised platforms they built for the dead) — and take them into the rua kōiwi, the burial place in the mountains up home.
That practice had gone by the time I was born — probably before the First World War.
Interesting that your nana would choose such a name for you?
I remember once walking down with our granny to collect her pension. As we were crossing the Waimā bridge, she stopped and said: “Ooh, haere mai ana Rereata.”
You know, “Rereata’s coming.” And I thought: “Oh, that must be my namesake.” So, I turned around, and looked to see who was behind us.
When she saw the confusion on my face, she explained that “Rereata” was that kohu that came over the Waoku and settled in the Waimā valley until late afternoon.
Tell us about your mum and dad, please?
My dad was Matu Hamana Makiha, and Mum was Irihapeti. She was Maihi before she married. There were nine of us in the family. I’m number seven. There’s only three of us left now.
The old man moved around different jobs. He worked on different farms, before heading into forestry at Tinopai. He then got ordained as a Methodist minister, and that’s when we went back to Waimā.
Then, in the late 1960s, he moved down to Manurewa to pastor a Methodist church there, and that’s where he stayed till he passed away in 1978.
Can you paint us a picture of your whare?
My earliest memories are of a time when we were living in an old one and a half bedroom home in Whakairi along the Tāheke River, down the end of Puha Road there.
It had a dirt-floor kitchen — they were common back then — and we used to have four or five kids in the one bed.
Later on, some of the returned soldiers built us a new home in Whakairi.
We started primary school in Tāheke but switched to Tinopai when Dad went down to work in the forest there.
Then we came back to Waimā. Until, like everyone else at that time, we moved down into the cities. In our case, that meant Manurewa, in 1968, although I stayed back to do my last year at Northland College in Kaikohe.
What were you best at in school, Rally?
Ohh . . . nothing!
But you got School Cert!
Yeah, yeah. Got UE, too. It was quite rare for Māori kids to pass.
It was quite an annoying time, actually. Because I wanted to carry on with my reo. But we weren’t allowed to. We were streamed — and in the top stream, we had to take French.
I couldn’t give a stuff about learning French. The funny thing was, before School Cert, they sent out forms, which you had to complete to sit the exams.
So, when it came to languages, I ticked Māori. The French teacher never picked that up till after the forms came back from the ministry.
And she stormed into the classroom, eyes bulging, nose flaring, and she made me stand up. And everyone’s thinking: “What the hell’s going on here?”
She said: “You haven’t even taken any Māori lessons!”
I said: “I’ve got a better chance of passing Māori than I have of passing French!”
Of course, all my cousins were giggling. Anyway, she got so frustrated she said: “You’d better go down and see Mr Hohepa.”
That was our uncle Bill. Brilliant Māori teacher. We called him Bill Hop. He was the older brother to Pat Hohepa.
He was quiet, at first. Then he said: “The only problem you’ll have, is that the exam’s in the Ngāti Porou dialect.” This was in Hoani Waititi’s time, you see?
“But if you spend the next two weeks learning the Ngāti Porou dialect,” he said, “you’ll be right.”
That’s what I did, and I came second in the class. Never came second ever again.
You came down to Manurewa, then, as a teenager, and you started working. What’s the toughest job you’ve ever done?
Oh, probably in forestry. I worked in the road salvage crews down in Kinleith. I was driving bulldozers, trucks, at 15 or 16.
Then I went to the Southdown freezing works, because my brothers and all our cousins were working there. I was there for a couple of years, until one day my boss came up to me and says: “I hear you’ve got your School Certificate and your University Entrance?”
I said: “Yes.” Then he said: “This is no place for you. I’ll give you two weeks’ pay. You can find a better job.”
The next day, I signed up for a job in the Department of Labour.
Awesome. So, you and the beautiful Ngaire have got together, your kids have started coming along — and where did life go then, Rally?
I went from the Labour Department over to Māori Affairs in 1971. I began as a trainee community officer, on the “J-teams” — working with the police, Social Welfare, and church leaders, out among our young people.
This was during the growth of the gangs in South Auckland and out West Auckland. We were out on the streets — and if we got home before 5am that was early.
We were working in a very volatile situation. The good thing about that time though, Dale, was that we had our aunties and our kuia all over Auckland.
So, when we came across kids who’d run away from home, with nowhere to go, we could ring any one of these aunties and they’d take them in for the night until we could sort something out for them the next day. This was common.
Then I was put in charge of the Māori Affairs trade training schemes in South Auckland.
We had 25 different apprenticeship schemes on the go. We could get hold of these young people coming into the city and get them into apprenticeships, and then into jobs.
I had an outstanding team. Some of them were teachers — and we’d send these guys into the schools, and they mapped out pathways for each kid. We knew who was leaving school and who was going back. We knew who was going to leave without anything to do and who was going to leave the district.
So, quite early on — before the school year finished — we had a team in place which would back up these families, pick up these kids.
And the ones who didn’t know what they were doing, we’d either guide them back to school, or we’d take them around to visit these different apprenticeships. And you’d see their eyes light up: “Ooh . . . I’ll have a go at that!”
Those who were going on to further education, we helped them with scholarships and getting support from back home — because there was no money around back then, eh?
And when they moved out of the area, we had teams down the country who’d pick them up. So, we knew where every Māori kid in South Auckland was and where they were heading.
Back then, too, all our building firms — Fletchers, for one — were wholly owned by New Zealanders. And so, when you got to stage two of your apprenticeship, they snapped you up before you’d even finished.
Same with the engineering firms. You had the motor mechanics, the plumbers, auto electricians, the electricians, the whole lot, all providing pathways to a future.
It was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Then when Roger Douglas came into power, they canned it, overnight.
Sometimes I’d get up at 3am and walk the floor, trying to take in what had happened.
We really miss that connectivity don’t we, to this day? And our people are reported in the media in the worst possible way — alcohol abuse, domestic violence, underachievement, health issues. Do you get frustrated that there’s a bleak picture being constantly painted of us?
Yeah. It’s doubly sad because there’s a lot of positive things going on, too.
And the area where I can help is pointing to all that wonderful mātauranga that our tūpuna left behind for us.
I mean there’s some brilliant stuff with the waka navigation, with the waka hourua — and some extraordinary stuff in the environmental sciences.
And there are all the signs and innovations that the old people had that were passed down to us, that were ignored or dismissed as myths and legends by an education system that, for 180 years, didn’t value any of our ancestral mātauranga.
That’s one of the battles we’re having at the moment to ensure that the next generation don’t go through the same thing, eh?
I want to unpack some of that kōrero in a minute. But you and I, we met through broadcasting, back in the day. How did you get started in broadcasting?
When they shut down all our apprenticeship courses, Te Karere had just begun, and they were looking to build a team. Waihoroi Shortland and Tuku Morgan were there. So, Waihoroi — who’d been on the South Auckland trade training schemes — rang to see if I wanted to take a look.
I did. And I thought: “This is fascinating stuff. This is cool.”
So, they sent me out to do an interview. And that was the dumbest interview that’s ever been.
Then Rick Carlyon, the station manager at TVNZ, and Whai Ngata asked me: “Have you done any reporting? Any radio work? Written any stories?”
Far out. I couldn’t answer “yes” to any of their questions.
Finally, Whai gave me four stories from the Herald to translate. I did that, then I went home thinking: “Ahh. Bugger it.”
Then I got a call a few weeks later: “When do you want to start?”
After I’d got the hang of the job, I once asked Whai Ngata: “Why? Why did I get the job? When I couldn’t say ‘yes’ to any of your questions?”
He said it was the way I translated those stories. I didn’t translate them word for word. I took the idea of the story, like you do — and retold the story. And that’s what got me through.
How long were you at Te Karere?
I went there in ’86. And when they set up Mana Māori Media in 1990, Derek Fox invited me on board there. And when the Mana radio work ended around 2003, I went back to TV. Marae, then Waka Huia. Then MTS (Māori Television Service). I went down to Wellington, to be the bureau chief there for a while.
Let’s talk about the mahi you’re doing now, reconnecting us with our waka traditions and sharing your knowledge of the Māori calendar, the maramataka. How did you get into that?
It started about 15 years ago when my mate Ockie Simmonds rang me up. He used to install all the radar systems at the airports around the Pacific.
He got crook and had to lay up for a while. And one day, he rang me up and said: “Hey, you know this Māori calendar? It’s useless.”
And I said: “What’s the matter?”
“It won’t line up with the Pākehā calendar.”
“Well,” I said, “it never will.”
“I said: It never will. It’s like night and day. The night one is the lunar calendar, and the daytime one is a solar calendar — and they never match.”
He couldn’t understand. So, he flew up to Auckland, and we stayed up all night. And I told him how we used those lunar phases, and I was reaching back into what I’d been taught so many years earlier.
At the end of the night, he said to me: “If we don’t teach this, it’s going to get lost.”
Not long after that, we set up the Society of Māori Astronomy. That’s when we started going around teaching and talking to people about how our old people used these lunar phases to predict things.
We started with like six people in a room. On the Wednesday just gone, we were speaking in a two-storey theatre in Whangārei and it was just packed. People were being turned away.
And these days, I’m all over the motu, sharing this stuff every week.
So, we have the maramataka, the Māori calendar. But that’s not actually what maramataka is, is it?
No. It’s not. The actual term is “ngā taka o te marama” and “taka” is the reference to a repeating cycle. And the “marama” is the moon, so that’s talking about the repeating cycles of the moon.
There’s no such thing as a calendar. Not to us, anyway. So “ngā taka o te marama” is the repeating cycles of the moon.
Our old people just used “ngā tohu o te taiao”. It’s only recently that we started to talk about “the Māori calendar” — which doesn’t actually make sense.
Because there’s over 500 of these calendars. We have over 500 different types of maramataka from the different areas right across the country.
What kind of feedback are you getting from these hui?
Well, one of the neat things is that we’re starting to uncover a lot of information that’s been lying dormant for so many years. Some of it has been found inside old recipe books that somebody’s grandmother wrote.
Just the other night, they wanted to run a wānanga up there in Rāwhiti. We said: “Yeah, that’s fine. Do you have any calendars?”
“Yes, we found two!”
So, they sent them to me to have a look. That’s the way you can start, eh? You say: “Do the fish still run on that day? Do the īnanga (whitebait) still run at that time and at that day?”
You find that out — and you can start adjusting. But if you don’t have a local calendar, you’ve got to rebuild from scratch. That’s not easy.
I went down to Rotorua with a Hokianga calendar three years ago. I said to them: “There’s good news and bad news about this calendar. The good news is that it’s from Hokianga — and the bad news is that it won’t work here.”
My relations got a bit grumpy about that. So, I said: “Well, go and find your own. They’ll be around. Someone’s cookbook, someone’s recipe books . . .”
And, about two or three weeks later, they came back — and they’d found three old ones! One from Maketū, one from the lakes, and one from the bush.
This is really interesting. Has our understanding of time been colonised?
It has. The maramataka hasn’t been in use — and the colonisers don’t understand it. They put it down as myths and legends and stuff that you can’t believe, eh?
But we’ll take on scientists in a moment — hey, not a problem. Because they don’t have that understanding our tūpuna had about how things work in an environment.
We’re teaching our tamariki and our mokopuna to understand the tohu of the taiao — the signs of the environment — and not get distracted by the Pākehā science, which is based on tīkarokaro, or pulling things apart.
We don’t need to pull the fish apart to figure out how it swims. What we do is have a look for the hononga: how one thing supports another.
So, because our old people could read the taiao so well, they could tell exactly when the pohutukawa tree will flower. They knew that when that happens, a certain wind is going to blow, at a certain time of the month, and a tidal pattern is going to arise, and then you’ll find these fish eggs coming ashore.
And today, if you line all those elements up, every time we’ve been out to check, it’s been right on the button.
One of the things that struck me is that this is not a sort of mystical knowledge. It’s not other-worldly knowledge. It’s acute observation.
Yeah! That’s the right phrase. “Tiro” is a cursory glance, eh? Then you go to “tirotiro”, and that’s a more intense scrutiny. And then you go to “āta tirotiro”, and that’s where you’ve got microscopic inspection.
There’s a specific day when the takeke (piper) eggs come ashore in the Bay of Islands, and the old people say that happens at the peak flowering of the pohutukawa during the moon tides of the matiti muramura, which is our third summer phase.
So, we went up to Parorerahi to observe this, to see how good our old people were — or whether they were just telling a bunch of tito, eh?
And we saw the eggs coming ashore. That happens for 20 minutes out of a whole year. You could pick the eggs up in the foam. We watched them come ashore — and then they disappeared into the sand.
But, get this. That coming ashore, which normally happens in December, was delayed by seven weeks this year.
We checked twice before the end of December, and we could see they were still in the matiti hana phase.
But the eggs come at the height of matiti muramura, which is the next phase, when the northern rata and the old pohutukawa are at the peak of their flowering, and the forest canopy turns from white (hana) to red (muramura).
So, the locals said: “Leave it with us.”
At the end of January, they messaged me with “muramura” — which meant they’d now moved into the muramura phase, seven weeks later than normal. And sure enough, they went back down to the water, and there came the foam with the eggs.
Which Pākeha science can tell you that?
Do you feel a weight on your shoulders, Rereata? Because this information that you carry is a treasure — it’s very special. And people have gifted it to you, and I guess you’ve accumulated it over the course of your life. How have you sourced the information?
Well, I was part of an interesting wānanga. I had to be the driver for my dad.
He was a student at an old whare wānanga over in Ōmanaia where they were taught in the dark. Blackouts, they called them, where the old histories were passed down.
Why were they blackouts? Well, you weren’t allowed to write anything down, and you had to retain things word for word. So, one understanding was that the darkness was an aid to memory retention.
Then, one day in early 1970, this family came from a tangi in Tainui to Manurewa to ask for Dad’s help to take the tūpāpaku home to Otaua.
They asked our dad to teach them. They wanted to be taught all the things that our dad knew. So, he started a wānanga which went from 1970 till he passed away in 1978.
But in those eight years, I just learned so much. We were all taught in the dark, too. In the early years, we weren’t allowed to write anything down either. Later, we were.
But when my dad passed away, I put the books away for over 20 years. They just sat gathering dust under my bed. Until one day I realised that they weren’t given to me to gather dust.
I’ve heard, too, that some of the histories you learned in those wānanga are so old they pre-date our arrival in Aotearoa. And they recall our connections and shared history with our Pacific cousins.
Yeah. There are heaps of connections there. For example, we learned a karakia hiki tapu — a sacred karakia — which traces directly back to Sāmoa, and in particular to Manono island, just out of Upolu.
That karakia tells the story of Whakatau, and how he became the most important warrior across the Pacific.
It recalls an incident when Whakatau and his people were at home on Te Tīhi o Manono — and this was generations before the migration south.
He’d been out in the ocean with his mates, probably. And when they came ashore, his whole village had been wiped out. His mother was the only survivor. So, she asked him to go and avenge his brothers who’d been killed in the village.
Whakatau and his warriors went out and caught up with those no-good people and gave them a hiding. Slaughtered them. Burned down their house. When his mother saw the flames, she knew that her request had been made good.
So she let out this special waiata tangi — and that type of tangi was named after Whakatau’s mother, whose name was Apakura.
As I said, we learned about heaps of connections up there. You go back to the voyagers Tangīia or Uhenga, and Karika, who were sailing the Pacific at the same time.
Tangīia was from Tahiti and Karika was from Sāmoa — and there are some interesting stories around those two. And they were around like three or four generations before Kupe.
That’s fascinating kōrero, Ral. Thanks for sharing that. It’s incredible to think how long that ancient knowledge has been kept and passed on.
And now, as we come to the end of our chat, it sounds to me like you’ve got some confidence that we’re breeding a decent generation who might be able to carry the flag forward?
Yeah, I think the hope is that they can decolonise their minds. Move from a prescriptive way of thinking to an exploratory formula. So that it becomes a journey into the unknown.
And our ancestors were awesome at living in that space — you know, sailing out, not knowing if they would ever get home, but trusting in the knowledge that had been passed down to them. Trusting that they could survive whatever happens.
And that’s the journey, I think, that we now need to take our young people on.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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