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Rangi Matamua speaking at a dawn event for the announcement of the Matariki holiday (Photo: Getty Images)
Rangi Matamua speaking at a dawn event for the announcement of the Matariki holiday (Photo: Getty Images)

ĀteaJune 21, 2022

The humble superstar of Matariki

Rangi Matamua speaking at a dawn event for the announcement of the Matariki holiday (Photo: Getty Images)
Rangi Matamua speaking at a dawn event for the announcement of the Matariki holiday (Photo: Getty Images)

Friday marks the first national public holiday celebrating Matariki – a public holiday that would likely not exist without the crucial research of professor Rangi Mātāmua.

On June 24, 2022, mātauranga Māori and its significance to our national identity will be observed as a public holiday for the first time. While we’ve had time off in New Zealand to celebrate the Gregorian New Year, and a number of other colonial days of significance, since around the 1870s, those who celebrate Matariki – known by many as the Māori New Year – have done so in their own time.

In September 2021 the bill to create a new public holiday celebrating Matariki was put forward by Labour MP Kiritapu Allan. It was a pre-election promise by Labour that this new public holiday would be established if they were re-elected in 2020. An Action Station petition had been signed by over 35,000 people and presented to parliament in May 2020, asking for a national day of recognition for Matariki, a time of year that’s been important in te ao Māori for hundreds of years.

When Te Pire mō te Hararei Tūmatanui o te Kāhui o Matariki/Te Kāhui o Matariki Public Holiday Bill was passed into law this April, it signified an acknowledgement of the importance of te ao Māori to Aotearoa’s identity. At the bill’s final reading, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said it was about time this recognition was given to our indigenous people: “It’s only taken 180-odd years to celebrate the essence of what it means to be Māori.” 

Rangi Mātāmua (Image: Supplied)

But that bill may not have been written without the advocacy of those who spent years researching, studying and campaigning for this official recognition of Matariki. Over the last five years, astronomy professor Rangiānehu (Rangi) Mātāmua (Tūhoe) has become the friendly face of the Matariki campaign. His work over the last 20 years researching the tikanga of Matariki and the different ways it has been celebrated across Aotearoa over time has culminated in two books on the subject. 

And though he’s been working towards it for decades, even Mātāmua didn’t think the Matariki public holiday would happen so quickly. “I never in my wildest dreams thought we would get to this place as a nation where we would take a day [where] we will stop as a nation to acknowledge mātauranga Māori,” he says.

His warm online presence has attracted tens of thousands of followers as he hosts Facebook livestreams to discuss everything from when Matariki will be rising to the importance of decolonising our perceptions of time. Sharing his insights on Matariki and how Māori used the stars is a crucial step in ensuring it stays relevant, says Mātāmua. “Knowledge that isn’t shared isn’t knowledge,” he says, quoting his grandfather’s words – words that have informed how Mātāmua approaches his research throughout his career.

He’s in high demand ahead of the first-ever Matariki public holiday he’s spent so long fighting for. The Māori scientist, researcher, storyteller and chairperson of the Matariki Advisory Committee is the go-to-guy for knowledge on the history and tikanga that surrounds the annual event.

He says he’s lucky to have been connected to te ao Māori throughout his life by the stories passed down through his whānau. During his childhood in Levin, Mātāmua was immersed in te ao Māori, going to a kura kaupapa boarding school and regularly visiting Kawiu marae. It was this connection that provided the platform for the research that has defined his career.

“My grandfather taught me bits and pieces about the moon and the stars and sun, all their names, when I was young,” he says. 

It was at university when Mātāmua found a renewed interest in Matariki. The early 1990s, he says, was a time of resurgence for Matariki in the wider Aotearoa psyche – so he asked his grandfather if he could share anything further than those childhood stories, about the stars and their meanings.

“He went off to his room and he came back with a manuscript written by my ancestor in the late 1800s. It was 400 pages or so,” Mātāmua says. “He had left it in his room, in his cupboard, for over 50 years. It sent me on this journey to research and understand it more, and I’ve been studying that book for 20 years.”

That manuscript was written by Mātāmua’s great great grandfather Rāwiri Te Kōkau and great grandfather Te Kōkau Himiona Te Pikikōtuku (Tūhoe, Ngāti Pikiao). It was kept hidden in a cupboard by his grandfather who contemplated both burning it and burying it because the burden of the manuscript’s tapu was so intense. 

Te whānau a Matariki (Image: Te Haunui Tuna, 2016, supplied by Rangi Mātāmua)

In the 20 years since receiving that taonga from his grandfather, Mātāmua has dedicated his life to researching the information it contained. He travelled the country to hear Matariki stories from different iwi and hapū and begin to fill the gaps in the modern understanding of Matariki, its history, its traditions and the stories it tells.

“There are differences around what star marks the new year – for some places it’s the star Puanga, not Matariki. I have nine stars in my cluster, other tribes have seven. And that variation actually exists right across the world,” he says.

Each of those nine stars in the cluster Mātāmua recognises has a job, and each one is important for telling us about what is to come, honouring what has been lost and providing a beacon towards which Māori did – and still do – direct their aspirations for the new year.

In 2019 Mātāmua was awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Communications Prize for raising awareness of Matariki at a national level. This skill as a communicator is almost certainly part of the Matariki movement’s success. His passion for mātauranga Māori is electric and his sense of humour helps make what is an unfamiliar subject for many accessible and exciting.  

“I asked the PM if we can have an eight-day holiday”, Mātāmua told the crowd at Kupu Festival, held at Te Tākinga marae in Rotorua at the weekend. “She said ‘one day, and get out’.”

The government asked Mātāmua on behalf of the Matariki Advisory Committee to provide recommendations on the dates on which the public holiday should be marked. He’s now set the dates for the Matariki holiday for the next 30 years and Mātāmua has big aspirations for how it will encourage New Zealanders to interact with tikanga Māori and create their own traditions. It’s a holiday for everyone, he assures, and there are many ways to celebrate.

“No one owns the stars – even though Elon Musk is attempting to – and no one owns the sky. They are connected to all of us and every single person who lives in Aotearoa today descends from people who used the stars to tell time, to navigate, to be connected,” he says.

To help people understand and connect with the new holiday, the advisory board has divided the principles of Matariki into three categories: Matariki Hunga Nui, Matariki Ahunga Nui and Matariki Manako Nui. 

“[The principles] are about remembering those who have passed, celebrating the present and planning for the future. It’s underpinned by values like collectivity and sharing and environmental awareness and feasting.”

These principles exist in te ao Pākehā already, says Mātāmua, and it’s critical that this holiday is seen as one for all New Zealanders to embrace – not just Māori.

“It’s underpinned by values like collectivity and sharing and environmental awareness and feasting – that belongs to everyone in my mind. I hope people view it in that way and celebrate Matariki as part of our nationhood.”

The first principle, Matariki Hunga Nui, relates to the gathering of people together to honour the dead. This part of the tradition is about remembering those who have passed since Matariki last rose, the spirits of whom Māori believe become stars in the sky.

Matariki Ahunga Nui is all about the kai that is shared during Matariki celebrations. A central motif in te ao Māori, shared kai represents connection and Matariki has always been a time for gathering over food and gaining insights into the food, harvest and climactic outlook for the next year.

Matariki Manako Nui refers to wishes and aspirations for the new year. According to the official Matariki website, “this was a period for learning, sharing, discussion and decision making”.

Mata Hakikino Conservation Reserve, where the Mātai Whetu has been installed to educate people about the traditional ways of using the maramataka (Photo: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images for Tourism New Zealand)

Celebrating Matariki can happen in many ways, by Māori and Pākehā. Whether going to a public event, gathering with friends and whānau or getting up early to see Matariki rise, the holiday and its many meanings are not just for tangata Māori, says Mātāmua.

Some councils and groups’ decisions to include fireworks in their Matariki celebrations have been questioned by the likes of the Matariki Advisory Committee, who say lighting up the skies may not be the best way to mark the occasion.

One of the reasons given for this misalignment is the pollution created by fireworks. As well as physical pollution, the light pollution may decrease people’s ability to see the star cluster, and noise pollution was also noted in the Matariki Advisory Committee recommendations when the holiday was being formalised. A report by the group stated: “​​Fireworks do not align with one of the core values – mana taiao, environmental awareness.”

Yet some councils – like the Wellington City Council – are still planning fireworks displays.

“All of the particles that get sent up in the sky fall back down to earth and wash out into the ocean and we didn’t think that that was aligned correctly with the values of Matariki,” says Mātāmua. “Some have taken that advice on board, others have chosen to carry on with fireworks. I suppose for me, the most important thing is that people are celebrating.”

He does hope the future of Matariki doesn’t look like other ultra-commercialised holidays like Christmas and Easter, though Mātāmua does admit it will be near-impossible to stop commercialisation. 

“Christmas has become Santa, and Easter has become giant rabbits and chocolate eggs. I would hate to see the Matariki possum,” he says. “We no longer need to look overseas to reflect our identity. We no longer needed to sing about flying reindeer and snow in December.”

Matariki is a good time to gather together over kai, even if you can’t put down a traditional hāngī (Image: File)

By having Māori lead the charge on the establishment of this holiday, and sharing what it means to te ao Māori, Mātāmua hopes all New Zealanders will be open to learning and embracing its significance without need for gimmicks like the Easter bunny.

“As a nation, when we respect those values we respect the deeper meaning and connection that Matariki has to us all, and I’m hoping that really impacts on our consciousness and the way that we do celebrate and respect what Matariki is.”

It will be through a collective embracing of this holiday and all it represents to tāngata Māori that New Zealand’s identity will be strengthened, Mātāmua says. In the decades to come, he wants this landmark day, the first public holiday of its kind in Aotearoa, to be celebrated as a moment where our country came of age.

“Where we stopped having to reflect our identity and understand who we are by looking overseas, that we have richness and culture and language and practices and ceremony and belief that originates from these islands.”

As Matariki rises this year, a cluster of stars heralding the promises of a new year, Mātāmua thinks it can be a symbol for all New Zealanders to also rise together as a nation celebrating who we are, in our own little corner of the Pacific.

“The values of Matariki are universally human and encompass us all. They speak to the best parts of who we are; sharing and kindness and love. I hope that we look on this day and we say ‘that’s who we are’. This is unique and special to us. This is us.”

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