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PartnersJuly 10, 2023

This is Kiwi: The man who brought Matariki to the masses

(Image: Supplied)
(Image: Supplied)

A Kiwibank series in collaboration with The Spinoff Podcast Network, This is Kiwi celebrates extraordinary achievements by ordinary New Zealanders. In the third episode, host Jane Yee speaks to Dr Rangi Mātāmua, Māori astronomy expert and 2023 Kiwibank New Zealander of the year.

Dr Rangi Mātāmua (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a shining star in the realm of indigenous knowledge. Rangi holds the esteemed position of professor of mātauranga Maori at Massey University, but many of us may know him for his work in advocating for the Matariki public holiday, a groundbreaking achievement when it was announced in 2021, and first celebrated in 2022. 

As we look up to Matariki this week, there’s not many who could claim to know more about the significance of the celebration than Mātāmua, chief adviser to the government on mātauranga Matariki. 

Mātāmua is passionate about sharing knowledge, and while his understanding of this cluster of stars is unparalleled, his knowledge extends far beyond, for example, living by the māramataka, and food sovereignty. 

Through his extensive work in the sciences, bringing mātauranga Māori to the masses, and advocating for more awareness of tikanga Māori, Mātāmua has been honoured with the Prime Minister’s science communication prize, the Callaghan medal for science communication, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society Te Apārangi. 

Mātāmua joined Jane Yee on the This is Kiwi podcast. Read an excerpt from the full interview below.

Jane Yee: How did you end up here? Where did your fascination with astronomy start?

Rangi Mātāmua: My fascination in it started with watching sci-fi television. I love sci-fi. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and it was really the emergence of some of the foundational sci-fi shows I grew up with, like Buck Rogers, Doctor Who, Blake Seven. What I loved about those programmes as there is some science that underpins it, like lightspeed and phases and teleportation, but it’s wrapped around narrative, and I love the stories. I watched it with my dad, and then as I got older I just had a natural fascination and connection to that space.

Your granddad played a big role in your knowledge of Matariki, right?

For that Māori element, yes, I didn’t know that my family had a legacy in that space. I just grew up as a normal kid in Levin… but it was when I went to second year in university and Matariki was starting to be talked about back then. 

When I came home, I said to my grandfather, “Do you know anything about this stuff?” And off he went to his room, and he came back with a 400-page manuscript that he just dumped on my lap, written from the years 1898 to 1933. And he said “there you go”. It had 987 stars, 105 constellations and their meanings, when they arise, what they mean. It’s an incredible document that was given to me, and he just told me “find a way to share it”. And so that’s pretty much what’s led to the work that I’m involved with.

He said to me “knowledge that isn’t shared isn’t knowledge”. And his whole point was that if I didn’t find a way to share some of that knowledge that it would be lost and be worthless. I’ve kind of used that as a mantra all my life.

Your 2023 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, Dr Rangi Mātāmua (Image: Kiwibank)

What are some of the traditions that you observe during Matariki? 

I have nine stars in my cluster, others have seven. It doesn’t matter how many stars you have, but as I celebrate it, one of the stars is connected to the people who have died since the last rising. Matariki is that moment where you call out their names, you remember them, and people weep and mourn for their loved ones, they carry photos of them. 

Matariki is at the prow of this massive canoe, which holds up the spirits of all of the people that have died for the year and suspends them from the front and the back of the canoe. Right at this moment as it’s rising on the horizon, we believe the captain of the canoe takes those spirits and scatters them across the sky to become stars for eternity. And we remember those people, we call out the names.

The different stars signify different things. There’s one for freshwater and saltwater, forest and earth. One star’s for our hopes and desires for the new year, one’s for wind and one’s for rain. All of these environmental spaces and domains and cultural domains feed into our well being and Matariki is about the stars that mark all of these elements that feed into our wellbeing, that launch our year. It’s a time where we reflect on who we are, who we hope to be, what our plans are, who are the most important people to us, we sit down and feast together. 

Te iwa o Matariki (Image: File)

Are there any key messages that you’d like people to take away, perhaps a practical way that they can apply the themes of Matariki as we head into it?

Matariki speaks to the best parts of who we are as people. It’s about coming together and sharing and being in one another’s company. You don’t have to have a massive, elaborate ceremony. It’s just the time where you reflect on those people who you’ve lost that mean the most to you, the people that mean the most to you right now, and your hopes and wishes for them going forward.

I really hope that we take it on and it becomes a part of our national identity. I’ve always thought that humility and wisdom are often interchangeable. There’s so much wisdom in humility, and so much humility in people who have wisdom. I’ve always tried to check myself to ensure that I’m doing things with the right intent and the right humility, because it can get away from you. And I suppose I’ve found myself in privileged places. I’ve received different awards and accolades, but I’ve always thought to myself that it is never about the individual. It was always about the kaupapa for me, the knowledge, and in particular what we’ve been able to do collectively around Matariki. My time is fleeting, I’m in and out, but Matariki and its values is what I really hope people take away from anything that I’m involved in, and what carries on for generations throughout our nation.

To hear the full kōrero, listen to This is Kiwi wherever you get your podcasts.

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