Matariki has always been a special time of year for Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes. Now it’s a public holiday, he hopes non-Māori take the opportunity to engage with tikanga Māori in a safe and respectful way.
Matariki stirs fond memories of waking up in the early morning with excitement, in anticipation of seeing the mysterious and symbolic whānau of stars that we would sing and learn about at kura. Every year, in the cold midwinter, our kaiako and mātua at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ruamata in Rotorua would get us together and get us to school or to a high viewing point, to witness the rising of Matariki in accordance with the maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar.
There we were, huddled under blankets, freezing our asses off, teeth chattering, whispering to each other quietly in the dark pre-dawn while we patiently waited for the divine cluster of stars to appear. Waiting… singing our Matariki songs… trying to move the clouds with our minds… and then… nothing! Did that stop us from going back the next year? Of course not. If anything, those were lessons in commitment to cultural customs from our teachers and parents.
Rain or shine, it reaffirmed our Māoritanga. When it did appear, it brought with it a shining hope that our dreams and aspirations would come true. We were taught that it was a time to farewell those who had passed away that year, and that their spirits were now immortalised in the night sky as stars who watch over us. Observing Matariki reinforced our worldview, our connection to the taiao, to people and place.
I recall these experiences with much gratitude, and my beliefs haven’t changed, despite being challenged by an overwhelmingly monocultural and monolingual society that has an astoundingly surface-level understanding of my Māori worldview.
Now we are celebrating Matariki being made an official public holiday. For many in Aotearoa, Matariki is something new and exciting. The national awareness campaign driven by Dr Rangi Matamua and supported by many other tribal knowledge holders, has seen a holistic resurgence of interest in Māori astronomy that goes hand in hand with our traditional maramataka.
This is a wonderful and momentous milestone. It reaffirms what we’ve always known and practised. Beyond that, it gives us time and space in the way of relief from the western capitalist system of time, in the form of a public holiday and day off from work. It allows us time to be Māori and engage in one of our most significant cultural practices of the year, signalling the Māori New Year.
It’s more than just a holiday. Matariki is cultural, with a pre-dawn observation ritual that is being increasingly normalised in Māori communities. It’s a spiritual time, and because Māori are intrinsically tied to our environment, it’s an opportune moment to connect to the taiao.
At a time when we’re experiencing climate change acceleration, connecting to our taiao has never been more necessary. The Māori environmental calendar system observes phases of the moon, the trajectory of stars and position of the sun and planets. Traditionally, Māori lived in accordance with the lunar calendar, and in addition to the rich legacy of navigation, our ancestors’ observations informed planting, harvesting, food gathering and fishing practices.
Matariki provides insights into the oncoming seasons and regional ecological events. Those with the ability to read the signs based on the brightness of the stars at certain times, as explained in Matariki: The Star of The Year, can tell how the climate will affect mahinga kai, for instance whether there will be floods or drought, and what foods will be abundant. It’s important to note that many iwi have their own unique histories, variations and customs around the Māori New Year.
I’m hopeful that iwi around the country will facilitate Matariki rituals where they can help members who have been alienated or estranged to participate and feel included. There’s an opportunity for us as Māori to have a role and a responsibility to contribute, from planting and preparing kai for the hautapu, to joining in waiata and sharing the occasion with their tamariki. This to me is where the greatest potential is for connection and healing, where Māori can reaffirm their identity.
It’s also an opportunity for non-Māori to engage and participate in a safe and respectful way, led by Māori. There will be events held around the country, and it’s a great way for non-Māori to participate by attending, observing and learning about tikanga Māori, by supporting the communities where they reside.
In saying that, with this opportunity comes concern that yet another aspect of our culture will be commercialised and exploited at the expense of Māori, so there is this overwhelming urge to encourage people to understand what appropriate participation looks like.
Non-Māori should not engage in the commercialisation of Matariki for profit that isn’t redistributed to Māori. While it may take a few years for New Zealanders to gain the confidence to absorb Matariki into the capitalist machine, it will happen eventually. It’s already being capitalised on in advertising and will remain an area to be scrutinised.
Religious beliefs are guaranteed under article four of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and for Māori, we now have a public holiday that moves with the rising of Matariki, which allows us to physically enact our beliefs. This is a historical achievement that can’t go understated.
There will no doubt be a great portion of people who don’t engage in the cultural protocols of Matariki, who are simply grateful for another day off to be weekend warriors, the same way that many non-religious folk view Easter. In saying that, I hope people use the opportunity for learning.
The acknowledgement of Matariki is a cultural milestone for Aotearoa, and reflects a gradual increase in awareness in non-Māori society. For me, as someone who has observed Matariki for as long as I can remember, it seems well overdue. Nonetheless, it stands as an exciting win for Māori in our ongoing struggle for the right to practise and normalise our cultural customs and beliefs.
Concerns aside, I truly believe Matariki can be a beacon of light for the future of race relations in Aotearoa, and something that can bring all people together to better understand the cultural foundations of this whenua.
Te Rā Aro ki a Matariki, Matariki Observance Day, this year takes place on June 24.