Matariki Festival: Sky's the limit

Last Updated : 11 Jun 2020
Matariki 2
Te Taumata Kapa Haka for Matariki Festival.

Matariki Festival will take place from 22 June to 14 July, bringing the richness and splendour of our Māori identity to all parts of the city.

Now in its 19th year, the ‘Māori New Year’ festival of events will host an array of arts, culture, food and community activations from Wellsford to Waiuku. Attracting more than 140,000 participants to more than 100 events, the annual festival has become a highlight on the region’s calendar.

“Matariki Festival gives us an opportunity to celebrate something that is uniquely Māori,” says Festival Director Ataahua Papa.

“Many of our city’s festivals have a huge international component. Recognising Matariki in this way gives people an opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of our city. Many who engage with the festival are non-Māori, and so it becomes an accessible space to be around Māori culture and participate in new experiences. Aucklanders can learn stories about where they live, the ground they walk on, and what has gone on before them.”

Iwi connection

With 19 recognised mana whenua groups in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland Council’s Arts, Community and Events department co-hosts with a different iwi each year, celebrating the layers of identity across the region.

In 2019, the iwi manaaki (host iwi) is Waikato-Tainui. Te Kawerau a Maki will hand over the role of iwi manaaki to Waikato-Tainui on 5 June. Te Warena Taua of Te Kawerau a Maki says that they have enjoyed their time as iwi manaaki of Matariki Festival in Tāmaki Makaurau.

“We are pleased to be able to transfer the mauri of the festival to our whānau of Waikato-Tainui for 2019. We look forward to the stories and events that will unfold in the city under their guidance for the coming Matariki season,” he says.

The Tainui waka sailed into Tāmaki Makaurau more than 1000 years ago. Since that time, there has been constant occupation and residence from its descendants. The first Māori King, Pootatau Te Wherowhero, lived as the protector of Auckland at Pukekawa, known today as Auckland Domain.

“We also acknowledge the mana rangatira of our collective hapuu in Taamaki Makaurau who have remained a Waikato-Tainui voice throughout the generations,” says Rahui Papa of Waikato-Tainui (the use of double vowels reflects Waikato-Tainui spelling).

Rahui Papa
Rahui Papa of Waikato-Tainui. Photo: Cherrilee Fuller.

Significance of Matariki

Matariki is a significant symbol for the tribe. The Kiingitanga nominated Te Paki o Matariki as its official standard, recognising the star cluster as the overarching guide for mana motuhake (self-determination).

“We look at Matariki in a heralding way,” adds Rahui. “A time for new beginnings.”

As the Matariki star cluster re-appears above the horizon, it signals a change of season, a time to look back and remember those who have passed, while also celebrating new life and planning for the future.

Also known as Pleiades, Matariki will be most visible in the dawn sky from 25 to 28 June. For Waikato-Tainui the Matariki star cluster has seven stars, often nicknamed the Seven Sisters. The Kiingitanga highlight seven on their flags. Each star has a name and is associated with our natural world. One ties to the ocean and the food within it, another represents foods that grow in trees.

Māori have used the brightness of each star as an indicator for the season ahead. “Our people would look to the stars that were brightest on the night of the new moon, to help predict what was to come,” says Rahui.

“If the star Tupuaarangi was bright, then food would flourish in the bush. If it was Waipuna-aarangi, the waters of the heavens, then it would be a very wet year.”

The word Matariki is an abbreviation of Ngā Mata o te Ariki (eyes of god) in reference to the god of wind and weather, Tāwhirimātea. When Tāne, god of the forest, separated his parents Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother), his brother Tāwhirimātea became upset, tearing his eyes out, crushing them into pieces, and throwing them across the sky.

“Matariki’s job is to lead Tama-nuite-raa from the house of the winter maiden, Hine Takurua, to the house of the summer maiden, Hine Raumati,” says Rahui. “If you look at it in a metaphorical way, the star cluster leads us from the cold of winter, into a brighter future.”

For Waikato-Tainui, traditions around Matariki include coming together over kai (food) and waiata (song) to strengthen whanaungatanga (relationships). Those that lived inland would plant food crops, binding them to the taiao (environment). Every practice during this season reflected the proverb ‘Ko taku muri, taku mua – my past and my future are synonymous with each other’.

Matariki Festival highlights

To acknowledge the history of Waikato-Tainui in Tāmaki Makaurau, this year’s festival dawn ceremony will take place at Pukekawa, Auckland Domain, on 22 June at 6am.

The iwi also have an art exhibition at Fresh Gallery Ōtara that explores whakapapa (genealogy), heritage and land. Taamaki ki raro will run until 3 August and feature works by Fred and Brett Graham as well as King Tuheitia’s second son, Korotangi Paki.

Another highlight in the 2019 Festival programme is the Matariki on the Move series. The Waiata events will feature female musicians Kaaterama Pou and Whirimako Black, and the Kōrero series will have a ‘one night only’ seminar with Māori knowledge holders Rangi Matamua, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and Rereata Makiha.

There will also be a Tirotiro Whetū night programme giving the public an opportunity to star gaze from the traditional waka hourua (double canoe), Aotearoa One, out on the water and away from the city’s light pollution.

“The role of arts and culture within Auckland Council isn’t just about an exhibition or performance,” adds Ataahua. “We need to be more aware of our surrounding environment. Our tūpuna survived all their years by studying the elements; this programme supports those teachings and passes them on to the next generation.”

Aotearoa One of Waikato-Tainui fleet ... a modern take on a traditional waka launched in 2003. Photo: New Zealand Maritime Museum

Raising awareness of Matariki

With almost 20 years of festivals, media, and school curricula raising awareness of Matariki across the country, the season has now become embedded in the mainstream. It has also made it easier for the public to embrace other facets of mātauranga Māori. Most recently, we have seen a resurgence around the maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar. Using the cycles of the moon and tohu (signs) of the land, sea and sky (including the stars), the maramataka tells us the best and worst days for planting and fishing, what days are better suited for study or meetings, and which are the high-energy, more productive days of the month.

The names of each day and season in the maramataka also reflect the energy of the time. Pipiri (June) means to be huddled close together, while Hōngongoi (July) is being inactive and crouching, due to cold.

“Matariki has opened up conversations to share how we, as Maaori, have lived over time,” says Rahui. “From knowledge around moon and sun cycles, to food gathering, and navigation, Matariki has been the herald for these stories to come forth and be shared with wider audiences in Aotearoa.”

Matariki – public holiday?

In 2018 there was a call for New Zealand to recognise Matariki with a public holiday. While the government hasn't yet formalised a holiday on the country’s national calendar, one Auckland business has been recognising Matariki with its own day off each year.

Isthmus, a design studio based in Auckland and Wellington, introduced Matariki as one of a series of staff-initiated culture nights in 2008. Back then, it was a simple dinner with six staff. By 2011 the company had embedded an additional holiday into its calendar.

“It started off with acknowledging the season and getting all our staff together,” says Isthmus CEO Ralph Johns.

“It has since grown to include all staff (approximately 80) and their families. We also hold a celebration with our clients and collaborators. In the spirit of Matariki, it is about generosity and taking time out of work to reflect and acknowledge those who help us achieve what we do. It feels so good to cross the barrier between work and the wider community.”

Johns says the initial reason for the ‘public holiday’ was due to Waitangi Day and Anzac Day falling on a weekend (before they were ‘Mondayised’) and making up for that, with a day off. But the company then began to discuss the relevance of certain holidays to Aotearoa and preferred to acknowledge a homegrown, seasonal celebration.

“We just decided it was the right thing to do. Staff get the day off to do whatever they want, spend time with their children, pampering themselves, taking time out, then we all get dressed up in the evening and come to the studio to have dinner together and connect. Matariki night is hosted by the owners, the bosses serve the drinks and look after everybody. We all have our hands in the sink, preparing food together, eating it together, it's a real way of connecting.”

Johns wants to see others follow suit and for Matariki to become a national holiday. “We’re still celebrating things like Guy Fawkes and Queen’s Birthday, but what significance do they have to us? “Everything about Matariki makes sense. There is a natural logic that the transition from one year to the next is marked by the maximum tilt of the earth, our furthest distance from the sun. From a company perspective, it provides a punctuation mark in the middle of the long, dark winter; a time to both reflect on business and look forward. It's also a time to recognise and thank staff.”

Since Isthmus introduced ‘Matariki Day’ it has seen a boost in confidence by staff, in the use of te reo Māori and understanding of te ao Māori (a Māori world view). As a native of Wales, he knows the power of language resurgence to a culture and country, and is proud to be part of the momentum towards that in Aotearoa. This year, waiata (songs) will be performed at the Isthmus winter feast.

“All of these things show us Matariki is not just about the academia of the constellation,” says Rahui. “It is about the wairua, the spiritual feeling you get when you interact with te ao Maaori (the Maaori world). Matariki stirs the heart and excites the mind, all at the same time.”

Story: Qiane Matata-Sipu

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