Mātai Whetū Marae, Hauraki

24th June 2022 will be the first official Matariki holiday in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Last year the government agreed to have a Public Holiday to mark Matariki. This is a very significant step as it is the first indigenous festival in the whole world to be marked and celebrated with a national public holiday. The decision has not come without controversy, but we have it and that is that. It won’t be held on the same day every year as Matariki is governed by the lunar calendar and the rising of stars. I won’t try to explain it here but share this link for you to read as it explains it so much more eloquently than I possibly could. However, in short, Matariki is part of a cluster of stars that rise when Pipiri, another star, is visible in the sky. Matariki marks the start of the Māori New Year as it rises in midwinter around the time of the winter solstice. The Matariki star cluster is known as Pleiades in Greece (often referred to as the Seven Sisters), Subaru in Japan, Matari’i in Tahiti, Karatgurk by indigenous people in some parts of Australia, Mao in China, Krittika in India, Isilimela in Africa, Freyja’s Hens in Scandinavia, Ani’tsutsa by Cherokee Indians, and Tianquiztli by the Aztecs. Some cultures observe 7 stars in the cluster, some see 9 and others may see more. We can all see the stars, the moon and the sun wherever we are in the world, though our skies may look a bit different.

When we first came to Aotearoa, the sky seemed very weird and unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t find The Plough which had always been a point of reference to me but I could still see Orion’s Belt and I learnt to recognise the Southern Cross and now that is my point of reference.

Whilst Matariki is a Māori celebration, it is not observed in the same way across the country. There are small but significant differences in the time and how iwi celebrate Matariki and like other cultures, some recognise 7 stars and others 9. Reasons for those differences are many but I’m not going to go into them here, sorry! Rangi Matamua is a Māori scientist and academic and he has written and spoken extensively about what he has learnt about Matariki. This is a long video, but worth watching if you want to know more.

The main point of this blog is to share my first experience of how one iwi celebrate Matariki.

I was privileged to be invited to the Matariki celebrations at Mātai Whetū marae in Kauaeranga, Thames in the Hauraki district. Ngāti Maru are mana whenua in this area and I have been working with a group of schools to support them as they develop their local curriculum. If I understood correctly, Ngāti Maru is one of the iwi that recognises only seven stars. They don’t recognise Pūhutakawa (the star that helps send the souls of those who have died during the year to be stars in the sky) and Hiwaiterangi (the star that carries our wishes and dreams for the future).

Taniwha on Kōpū Bridge as you come into Kauaeranga, Thames

Nigel and I drove up to Kauaeranga, Thames on Saturday afternoon so that we didn’t have a long drive on Sunday morning as the celebrations were due to start at 5.30am. Traditionally, Matariki is celebrated as the star cluster rises above the horizon at dawn.

We arrived at Mātai Whetū marae around 5.15am, it was foggy and damp but not actually raining as it had been all night! We found a place to sit around the fire. Tarpaulins were set out on the ground and there was space behind them to put our chairs and we settled in rugged up with plenty of warm clothes, raincoats, umbrellas and blankets. Gradually, the place filled up as the shuttle buses brought more people. It was uncannily quiet and we sat and watched, and listened, enjoying the peace and quiet in the dark and the time to think.

Sometime around 6am the opening karakia started. This was simply to open the proceedings and the kaikõrero also gave us some instructions about what was going to happen, we were asked to respect the sanctity of the event and not take photos or video during the karakia and karanga, though we were free to do so afterwards. I was heartened that I understood all of that kõrero in te reo Māori although it was reiterated in English by Koro, the kaumatua afterwards for those who don’t speak te reo Māori.

Then the formal karakia began. There were several Kaikarakia (men who said the karakia – karakia is often translated as ‘prayer’ as it is the closest concept we can relate it to, but they are more of an incantation, blessing, acknowledgment. Prayer to me is a poor translation as it has a religious connotation). The karakia referenced the stars, and what they provided for us (see below) and also helped us remember those who had died during the year. Matariki is closely tied to the Māori Orokohanga (Creation Story) Matariki is a short form of the full name “Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea”. This ‘sand story ‘ tells the story of how Matariki got its name. Part of the wider constellation of Matariki includes Te Waka a Rangi and Taramainuku. Each night he gathers up the souls of those who have died in his kupenga (net) and then at Matariki they are released to become stars on the chest of Ranginui. A significant element of this morning’s ceremony was to remember those who have died during the year and release them – this is an important part of the grieving process and allows us to let go of those we love but still remember them. It’s a complex worldview and quite different from how westerners approach grief but the more I learn, the more I think how much healthier it is. So, Koro went around the people gathered and we all had the chance to call out the names of family and friends who had died during the year to let them go. It was a very moving experience.

A Mullet and a fish head from a Kaipuku as an offering to Waitā

Each of the stars in the constellation guides an element of the Taiao (environmental world) so Waitī is the star of fresh water and all the creatures that live in it, Waitā is the star of salt water and all the creatures that live in it, Tipuārangi is the star of things that live above the ground, such as birds and berries, Tipuānuku of things that grow below ground such as kūmara. It is believed that how the stars shine at the time of Matariki foretells the prosperity of those things. Matariki is also a time to give thanks to those stars for the bounty that they provide. There is also Waipunerangi, the star connected to the rain, and Ururangi, connected to the wind. Matariki herself guides all of them. Some iwi, believe that Matariki is the mother of the other six who are sisters. Ngāti Maru is one of those iwi. Others, such as Ngāti Porou believe there are nine stars and whilst Matariki is the mother the others are brothers and sisters and they provide balance. According to Dr Rangi Matamua, there is scientific evidence to suggest there are nine stars and some cultures suggest there are even more. However, whatever the truth, the stories that each iwi and each culture around the world tell are valid in their own right.

A Tītī (Mutton Bird) and a Kererū (Wood Pigeon) as an offering to Tupuārangi

So, part of the ceremony is to give back to the stars in thanks for their bounty. One of the things I found fascinating as we watched was how the firekeepers maintained the fire. It never lost its shape, they constantly fed it with logs, keeping the ‘teepee’ form. At this point in the proceedings, it was clear why. As the other karakia were being recited and we sent our loved ones to the chest of Ranginui to shine for eternity, they created an opening on one side of the fire, and took the embers out to a prepared space at the side. They then placed elements from the environment to cook; kūmara for Tipuānuku, Tītī and Kererū for Tipuārangi, Tuna (eel) for Waitī and Mullet for Waitā. There was a pause as they cooked and Koro explained what was happening. When the steam rises from the cooked food, (in some iwi, this kai is cooked in an umu (earth oven), and when it is uncovered the steam rises) karakia are recited to each of the stars as offerings of their element are given to them to nourish them so that they continue to provide for us during the year to come.

Kūmara as an offering to Tupuānuku

There were 4 pou (posts) around the fire, the cooked kai was placed in rourou or kono specially woven from harakeke for the occasion and hung on the pou. Each kaikarakia went to a pou and offered up the kai to the appropriate star. Waitī, Waitā, Tipuārangi and Tipuānuku. By now the sky was starting to lighten despite the continuing fog and we could smell the fish and fowl baking in the embers.

Tuna (Eel) in a kono as an offering to Waiti.

Once all the karakia had been recited and thanks were given, the karanga started. This was a beautiful and incredibly moving part of the proceedings. I am unsure what its purpose was. Normally, karanga happen at the start of a powhiri and are an exchange between tangata whenua (the people of the land) and manuhiri (visitors). However, coming at the end, my interpretation is that it was calling the stars to the people to guide and protect for the coming year. I need to ask my friends for clarification. Whatever it was, it was beautiful. These wāhine, kaikaranga took it in turns to call the stars each in their own way, the tangi (rhythm and tone) flowed and rang out in the silence of the brightening sky.

Once the karanga were over, people stood to tautoko (support) the kaikarakia and the kaikaranga with waiata (songs). The hakari (feast), in this case, hangi, would be ready soon but it wasn’t quite ready yet and we were entertained by a medley of waiata*, anyone who knew the waiata was invited to come up and join in. They finished off with a rousing haka.

Now it was light, we could see who was who and I soon bumped into some of the kaiako from the kura in Thames who I work with, we had a natter, took some photos and discussed what we had just been a part of. I had some kai, Nigel had a cup of tea – (hangi is not vegetarian!!), and then we headed off back to the van, the sky now light and the day had begun.

I felt strangely disconnected as we moved away, unwilling to leave. It was a very moving experience, a sense of being part of something so much bigger than me. For a short time, I was part of a ceremony and a story that is ancient and which connects generations. It also grounds us and connects us with the elements of an environment which nourishes us, guides us, and with which we have an inextricable relationship. In the maelstrom of our lives, it’s easy to forget those connections. This morning, it was humbling to take a breath, sit down, disconnect from technology, focus on a ceremony that is ancient, and reconnect to the environment.

Sun shining through trees.

*(In my te reo class this evening we discussed ‘He aha te Māori Wāy?’ One of the things I suggested was that Māori can keep on singing, filling in time, and finding more songs until a signal from the kitchen that kai is ready.)

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