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

PartnersMarch 31, 2023

Meet the 2023 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year

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

Dr Rangi Mātāmua has been announced as the 2023 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year for his work in communicating the importance of mātauranga Māori.

Aotearoa boasts an exceptionally rich cultural heritage, with our indigenous Māori population contributing significantly to our unique identity. It hasn’t always been a celebrated part of that identity, but through the work of several Māori activists, scholars and rangatira over the years, the nation is now witnessing an extraordinary revival of Māori culture and traditions. In the modern story of this revival, one man has played a pivotal role in getting mātauranga Māori onto the national, and even world stage: Dr Rangiānehu (Rangi) Mātāmua (Tūhoe).

An esteemed Māori astronomer, author, and academic, Mātāmua has been named the 2023 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year for his monumental contributions to astronomy and his unwavering commitment to preserving and promoting Māori culture –being one of the leading voices in the establishment of the national Matariki holiday, our first public holiday celebrating an indigenous tradition.

The annual Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year accolade is bestowed upon an individual who demonstrates exceptional leadership, vision, and commitment to the betterment of New Zealand society. In receiving this honour, Mātāmua joins the likes of 2022 winner Siouxsie Wiles, 2017 winner Taika Waititi, 2013 winner Dame Anne Salmond and other distinguished New Zealanders who have made significant contributions to the nation across various fields.

“I’ve never seen myself as an icon or a trailblazer. And I mean it sincerely. I’ve just had a passion to do something and have just gone out to do it. And with the sincere belief that it will have benefits for the people,” says Mātāmua.

One moment Mātāmua holds particularly close is the launch of the Matariki holiday last year: “In that moment, while we were looking out, conducting karakia to the rising of the stars, I turned to the prime minister [Jacinda Ardern] and, you know, embraced her and said, ‘Hey, thank you.’ And she said, ‘Thank you.’ And then in that moment, it dawned on me just how significant this was.”

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

Mātāmua’s story has its beginnings in Levin, just north of Wellington. A family legacy of practising Māori astronomy was passed down through generations, culminating in a 400-page manuscript of traditional star lore written by one of his tūpuna. This treasure trove of celestial knowledge was entrusted to Mātāmua by his dying grandfather, who urged him to share it with the world.

“As he lay on his deathbed in the early 2000s, my grandfather said to me: ‘Look, you’ve got to find a way to share this knowledge.’ He was concerned about how it might be shared but entrusted me with the responsibility of carrying on this legacy. That pivotal moment sparked my deep commitment to preserving and sharing our ancestral understanding of the cosmos and that’s really how I got into it.”

In his relentless pursuit of knowledge, Mātāmua completed a PhD in Māori Studies at the University of Waikato where he delved deep into mātauranga of Matariki, the cluster of stars known as Pleiades in Western astronomy. Matariki holds great significance in Māori culture, marking the beginning of the Māori New Year and symbolising renewal, regeneration, and the cyclical nature of life.

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

Mātāmua has shared his findings with the world, shedding light on the ancient wisdom of Māori astronomical knowledge and its relevance in modern times. His groundbreaking work has had a profound impact on New Zealand and the global astronomy community, helping to bridge the gap between Western astronomy and Māori star knowledge – mātauranga Māori and Western science.

“I can’t wait until we get to that point where for the next generation, Matariki is as normal and as widely practised as Christmas.”

In addition to his academic achievements, Mātāmua has demonstrated a deep commitment to community outreach and education. Through various workshops, public lectures, and educational resources, he has made Māori astronomy accessible to a broader audience. His Facebook live streams, where he teaches about the phases of the moon and their relevance to our lives reach thousands of viewers – resources that he uploads for free, for anyone who wants to learn.

“The main thing I would say is that knowledge that isn’t shared isn’t knowledge. It’s really important for us to be actively seeking knowledge and to expand the horizons of what we know and understand,” he says.

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

The impact of Mātāmua’s work extends far beyond the realm of astronomy. By unearthing and sharing traditional Māori knowledge, Mātāmua has fostered a sense of pride in identity among Māori communities throughout Aotearoa. 

Looking to the future, Mātāmua remains committed to his pursuit of knowledge and advocacy for te ao Māori. With plans to expand his research and further bridge the gap between indigenous knowledge and modern scientific understanding, the sky is truly the limit for this visionary astronomer. 

“The key to preserving and celebrating our cultural heritage and environment in a world that often feels like it’s spinning out of control is to truly consider what knowledge means for everyone.”

As Mātāmua continues to uncover the secrets of the cosmos and share the wisdom of Māori astronomical traditions, he serves as a beacon of inspiration for New Zealand and the world. His unwavering dedication to cultural preservation and groundbreaking contributions to the field of astronomy stand as a testament to the power of knowledge, unity, and the enduring importance of our connection to the stars above.

Read more: The humble superstar of Matariki

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