Nikau Hindin making aute at Ngāi Tūpoto marae, Hokianga (Photo: Seb Charles)
Nikau Hindin making aute at Ngāi Tūpoto marae, Hokianga (Photo: Seb Charles)

ĀteaJune 21, 2022

Mapping the stars to reclaim time: Nikau Hindin and the art of aute

 Nikau Hindin making aute at Ngāi Tūpoto marae, Hokianga (Photo: Seb Charles)
Nikau Hindin making aute at Ngāi Tūpoto marae, Hokianga (Photo: Seb Charles)

Exploring Māori concepts of time and space, Nikau Hindin’s detailed star maps are part of an ongoing pursuit to see the world the way our ancestors did.

Nikau Hindin of Ngāi Tūpoto, Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi is an aute maker who uses the maramataka and celestial navigation knowledge to reclaim Māori concepts of time.

The practice of aute takes its name from the plant aute, which was a canoe plant introduced to Aotearoa alongside many others such as kūmara and taro.

Aute was brought here by our tīpuna who, using the vast knowledge of celestial navigation, sailed Te Moana Nui a Kiwa from Hawaiki and eventually made Aotearoa their home. 

At some point the practice of Aute was discontinued. Hindin has spent the last decade dedicated to remembering and reinvigorating the practice of aute in Aotearoa. It revolves around the life cycle of the plant, from growing and harvesting, to processing the inner bark and creating a fine cloth.

Painting with natural earth pigments, she works intimately with plants and tools that come from the natural environment and aligns her practices with the maramataka, the Māori stellar-lunar calendar. 

The maramataka, whether we subscribe to it or not, relates to all of us and the way we interact with our natural environment every day. There has been a major revitalisation of maramataka within te ao Māori over the years, supported by the normalisation of narratives around Matariki being led nationally by the likes of Dr Rangi Mātāmua of Tūhoe.

“After reading Dr Rangi Mātāmua’s book Matariki, I was able to link the whetū with our maramataka. I realised that Matariki is just one of the significant morning stars used to track time – there are other stars to learn about that are associated with every new month and moon cycle,” says Hindin.

Summer and winter solstice star maps on aute by Nikau Hindin (Photo: Seb Charles)

Exploring these Māori concepts of time and space in an ongoing pursuit to see the world the way our ancestors did, Hindin produces detailed star maps that visually record the rising and setting of stars like Matariki, Puanga and Rehua.

“I use my star maps to document when these morning stars rise and where they are on the horizon, while adding to my kete of knowledge which originally came from learning about the star compass,” says Hindin.

The star compass was used by Māori and our relations across Te Moana Nui a Kiwa as they masterfully circumnavigated an area equal to one-third of the world’s surface.

“The star compass comes from the idea of when you’re on your waka, in the middle of the ocean, you can’t see any land and there’s a horizon 360 degrees around you, so it’s a three-dimensional framework,” says Hindin.

Through the revival of waka hourua, the knowledge systems and narratives around the star compass and celestial navigation have been given new life among communities throughout Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. 

Hindin learned about the star compass while studying towards a Master of Fine Arts in Hawai’i, where she found herself in the company of apprentice navigators who were training for deep-sea celestial navigation aboard the renowned and revered Hōkūle’a vessel.

“Watching them study for their long voyages to Tahiti, I just absorbed all the different stars and stories that they have, where they rise on the horizon and how they use our whetū to find direction. I came up with my star map system to help memorise the stars,” says Hindin.

The maps are 2D interpretations of the star compass navigational system. To represent the different star houses, at the base they feature niho taniwha patterns that come from Māori tukutuku designs found in carved meeting houses, with a horizontal line for the horizon and vertical lines that each show a different star and where they rise.

“The horizon is divided into 32 star houses, while every star house is 11¼ degrees,” says Hindin.

“Within those star houses there is north, south, east and west and there are seven star houses between those. Stars live in those houses, they rise in the east and set back in the same house on the opposite horizon on the west side.”

Nikau Hindin studying the horizon at Ngāi Tūpoto marae, Hokianga (Photo: Seb Charles)

In Aotearoa, our position in the globe in terms of latitude is quite low. The trained eye will be able to identify the south celestial pole in our nightscape, an important marker for orientation when observing the trajectory of our whetū. 

This is why we can look up and see Māhutonga and Atutahi rotating around throughout the night – because they’re circumpolar. Observing them can give you the feeling of being turned upside down, with clusters like Te Matau a Māui appearing to rise on its back before rotating around and setting in a different position.

By researching knowledge holders such as Dr Mātāmua, Rereata Makiha, Jack Thatcher and Wiremu Tawhai, upon returning to Aotearoa Hindin learnt the Māori names for those stars and began to distinguish between stars used for voyaging and those used for the maramataka on land.

“We think that the maramataka is just about the moon but it’s so much more. It’s actually about telling the time. Knowing what time it is helps you locate yourself in time and space,” says Hindin.

“If you memorise where those different stars rise and set, then when you see those stars on the horizon – like Tautoru, which rises exactly due east – so if you see Tautoru low on the horizon like we will on the morning of Matariki, you can be pretty sure that’s east.” 

For Hindin, helping Māori reclaim that knowledge of time is one of the key drivers behind her pursuit. She believes that maramataka was a way of life, not just reserved as knowledge for tohunga and decision makers. All members of the tribe would know what moon phase they were in at all times.

The imposed Gregorian system of time, based on the sun and 365-day calendar year, caused the disruption of the knowledge transmission, awareness and connection to our environment that was practised by Māori before colonisation.

The ramifications of that disruption not only impact the individual in their sense of knowing but also the way communities engage with the environment. 

“Colonisation has taken away our own ability to tell time in a Māori way,” says Hindin. “I think that’s the most powerful thing, having that connection to time and space. If you take that away from our people, then you’re taking away their connection with the environment, the whenua and also the stars.”

Incorporating this mātauranga Māori into her work is one way Hindin is living by the maramataka while helping to normalise and ground those narratives. 

Observing the phases of the moon directly influences how she interacts with the environment when it comes to harvesting aute.

“I harvest on Rākaunui, that’s when the cells are juiciest and the easiest to process and clean. Even just annually I try and to do all my harvesting and processing in the summer and during Takurua I’m inside painting,” says Hindin.

Living near the moana, she’s able to use the teachings of the maramataka to develop a holistic view of her environment.

“I pay attention to which phase of the moon we’re in and I’m looking at the ocean every day and noticing the relationship. You’d be surprised how consistent the ocean behaves at certain moon phases,” says Hindin.

As the moon waxes and wanes, with our stars rising and setting in the background, we’re reminded that celestial observation goes back through eons. The lessons that Matariki holds as we navigate our lives remain relevant for growth and evolution today.

We are currently rotating towards the acknowledgement of Te Hararei Tūmatanui o Te Kāhui Matariki (the official Matariki public holiday this Friday). An official hautapu ceremony will be facilitated by the minister for Crown relations in conjunction with Te Papa, which will be attended by the prime minister and led by Dr Mātāmua, chair of The Matariki Advisory Group, which is behind this big push to see our traditions around Matariki and Māori astronomy recognised by the Crown for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

For Hindin, the historical and culturally significant moment provides an opportunity for all New Zealanders to learn more about ways of knowing that are unique to this land.  

“Matariki is an amazing opportunity for us to learn our mātauranga Māori and astronomy, to learn about all our other stars that are in our sky and to think about how what is in our sky is also reflected in the land,” says Hindin.

She will be at Te Papa this weekend for a live demonstration called Toi Tuku Iho: Aute, where she will be joined by other aute makers from Te Moana Nui a Kiwa to demonstrate their practices and engage with the public.

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