“Ritual and celebration are absolutely a form of resistance. Matariki, for example, is a very loud statement saying that we don’t need to follow someone else’s idea of ceremony or celebration.” — Professor Rangi Mātāmua. (Supplied)

Next month, we’ll be celebrating Matariki as a nation for the third year, thanks in large part to the work of Māori astronomy scholar Dr Rangi Mātāmua.

However, as Dr Mātāmua says here, Matariki is just the tip of an iceberg brimming with celebration and ceremony from te ao Māori. Here he is telling Siena Yates about some of the other ceremonies that could further indigenise and enrich our country.


There’s such a depth and richness to Māori culture — and expressing that, as a people, is part of our indigenisation. Ritual and celebration are absolutely a form of resistance.

Matariki, for example, is a very loud statement saying that we don’t need to follow someone else’s idea of ceremony or celebration. We have our own unique Māori approach that still has meaning and purpose. That is a sign of identity, and importantly, identity through practice.

That’s one way we’re indigenising our world.

I talk about indigenising because using the word “decolonisation” makes colonisation our starting point for understanding everything. But our starting point comes way before that. Particularly when we’re talking about Matariki and Māori systems of time, our starting point goes back to our connection to the natural world.

Right now, we’re completely out of sync with the natural rhythms of the environment, and with our timekeeping systems and the ecological and astronomical markers our ancestors used to follow. As a result, we seem to be having increasing difficulties with mental health, physical health, and wellbeing. Those are now massive issues that we face as a nation.

For instance, we know that, traditionally, Māori would rest during this season of flu and illnesses. But nowadays we’re trying to send kids to school and go to work ourselves when we’re probably more susceptible to being unwell. It just doesn’t make sense.

We should be active when the environment is active, and rest when the environment is resting. But, instead, when the environment shuts down, we want to be out playing sports and running around, and continuing to work. And when the environment is especially active and alive in summer, we’re scheduled to be on holiday, lying on a beach, reading a book, and resting.

I personally find the Christmas and New Year holiday period very difficult to connect with. It has no association with our part of the world and our environment. We celebrate these periods because we suffer from the colonial hangover of wanting to be British. We’re used to looking to the other side of the world with the idea that they’re the only people who have a proper culture and understand ceremony. Our own rituals are regarded as these nearly-pagan, second-class kinds of celebrations.

That’s a long hangover. But I do think we’re starting to come of age. We’re starting to realise that we’re our own nation and our own people, and we don’t need to mimic anyone else. We have our own stuff, and it’s beautiful and rich and meaningful and impactful.

Matariki is a big part of that, but my longer-term plan is to re-establish other celebrations right across the year; celebrations that acknowledge the different times of our year and our different seasons.

For example, our tīpuna held midsummer celebrations. They held celebrations for the Ngāhuru season (autumn) which we’ve just come out of. These ceremonies would take place just before the harvest. They also had what was called Te Mata o Te Tau, which celebrated the arrival of spring and the beginning of the planting season.

Our ancestors would wait for the first shoots — the first little growths to come through in the bush and in the forest. They were called mata, which means to still be raw or fresh. They would pick the mata and light a fire. And, as they chanted karakia to the different stars that bring food, wellbeing, and the signs of the year, one by one, they would throw those little shoots into the fire.

That was a ceremony for opening up the season and for welcoming things to grow and be bountiful. It was also a ceremony, like Matariki, that involved a feast. It marked the start of the work period: people would work across spring, summer, and in particular autumn, before relaxing back again into the winter.

That’s just one of the other ceremonies we could look at, and it will probably look different in each region. Just like Matariki, how you choose to celebrate might look different to how someone else in a different part of the country celebrates.

One thing I’m trying to address with Matariki is this idea people have that, “unless I have 12 tohunga and I’m on the hill at sunrise with the appropriate food, I can’t do justice to the ceremony.” But it can be really simple.

There’s a beautiful kōrero from Taranaki about an old man, an old kuia and their mokopuna, and how all they had was a kūmara. But, still, they cooked this kūmara for Matariki when it rose, and they shed tears and called out the names of their loved ones, and they huddled together and ate their kūmara. And I really think that shows how the celebration can be as simple as just sharing food with loved ones.

The big, elaborate ceremonies are important as a ceremonial marker and a marker of culture, but those intimate, family-focused events are equally as important.

Fundamentally, Matariki is about three things: Remembering the people who have died since the last rising of Matariki, coming together to feast, connect and celebrate who we are, and planning for the year ahead in the hopes of a bright and prosperous future. That’s the essence.

I think we can get caught up in looking backwards and thinking we can only do things “properly” by emulating what our ancestors did. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Our practices, beliefs, ideals, and culture still need to be practical in terms of having a place in the world that we live in today. Finding that balance can be tricky, though.

Take the maramataka. There’s a very modern thing happening where following the maramataka has taken on an almost horoscope-type positioning. There’s a sort of westernised belief that the moon gets up and is concerned with how we’re feeling that day, for example. But, in all my years working and studying in this field, I’ve never come across any maramataka before the 1990s that talks about the connection between people’s moods or emotions and the phases of the moon.

I can see why we’ve modernised it the way we have.

Because our practices, our lives, are no longer connected with the environment in the way they once were, we’re looking for other ways to interpret and interact with the maramataka. A lot of people find comfort in that. I think that’s good, but it’s not necessarily how our ancestors approached things.

What the records do talk about, however, is the connection between the moon and the environment. In particular, which phases are a good time for us to interact with our environment. So, in that sense, the wellbeing, moods and health of the environment are reflected directly in us, because we’re part of the environment.

This is why I always encourage people to connect with the environment as much as they can. I know in our modern world it can sometimes feel like we don’t have the time or ability to connect. But it can be as simple as being more aware of the change of season, being aware of the lunar phase, noticing the birds in the trees and the position of the sun in the sky. Just because we live in cities, it doesn’t mean that the environment’s not around us.

The more we do this in our daily lives, as well as on the big dates like Matariki and other celebrations, the more we get back to a system of timekeeping that makes sense for us. And I think we could absolutely do that.

And as a nation we not only could, but should, be seriously thinking about changing our processes, to fit into a more natural and environmentally attuned understanding of how to behave and interact with our world.

I’d be lying if I said that we could change the way we live tomorrow. We’re still part of a capitalistic system and culture, and sometimes things seem grim, like we’re up against it. So, it’s hard. But I do think we can get there one day. And maybe much sooner than we think.

One thing I do know is that, for one day a year, we stop our entire nation to celebrate mātauranga Māori and acknowledge the rising of Matariki. We acknowledge a particular lunar month and a particular lunar phase, we thank our environment, we remember our dead, and we take time to reconnect with each other.

In the first year of Matariki as a national holiday, 51 percent of us did something to celebrate. Last year, it was 60 percent of the entire population, a number far bigger than the Māori population. That tells me Matariki strikes a chord. Reconnecting to our world and our environment is something that’s important to many, many people.

So, can we indigenise, together? I think we can. It’s probably a way off, but something important has definitely begun. I’m hoping it continues to grow, within my lifetime, and particularly within the next generation.


Dr Rangiānehu Mātāmua is Chief Advisor Mātauranga Matariki and his role is to provide enduring support, advice and guidance to ensure the Matariki public holiday is embedded into New Zealand’s culture with its own unique identity and distinctive traditions. Dr Mātāmua is Professor Mātauranga Māori, Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, at Massey University. Before that he was a professor and associate dean postgraduate in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, at the University of Waikato.

Rangi is the recipient of multiple awards, including the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, for his work in Māori astronomy, science communication, Māori navigation, Indigenous knowledge and te reo Māori. He is a fellow of Te Apārangi, Royal Society of New Zealand.

As told to Siena Yates. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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