Finding a Tākitimu star path: navigating the generic Matariki festival

One of the more wonderful things to occur in the last 15 years has been the rise and integration of Matariki into our collective indigenous and now national consciousness. Today I was at the base of Mauao in Tauranga Moana with my daughter’s kura kaupapa Māori class listening to child-oriented presentations on Māori knowledge of music, weapons, waka hourua and the stars. All in te reo Māori. Meanwhile, mainstream early childhood centres and schools were doing the same alongside kura and kōhanga reo in an ongoing rotation that will continue for the whole week. It feels like Matariki is somehow transcending our fraught race relations and becoming our collective feel-good winter festival.

By necessity, it has also transformed into a pan-tribal Māori festival across the whole country that is a combination of knowledge gleaned from both iwi all around the country and early twentieth century Pākehā anthropologists like Elsdon Best and Percy Smith, put together as though it is one coherent narrative. This is unsurprisingly accepted at face value by many, no matter their geographic locality and whakapapa, with minor adjustments for local flavours, such as the focus on Puanga on the west coast.

The exception to this tendency to generalisation is the impressive and ground-breaking research of Dr Rangi Mātāmua, who has used the 400 page manuscript of his ancestors Te Kokau and Rawiri Te Kokau to examine Tūhoe astronomy of 1,200 stars. I’m pretty confident we can rely on Dr Mātāmua to explain the significance and place of Matariki for Tūhoe, and potentially wider to include those descended from Mataatua canoe. Having heard him speak on one occasion, I took away the following: Matariki is part of pre-contact astronomy; Matariki is an east coast tradition; Matariki is part of marking the movement into the Māori new year and acknowledging those who have died in the last year.

The other important discovery in my own study and that I was reminded in listening to him and reading articles this year is that it is a nonsense to speak of a coherent ‘te ao Māori.’ It is a creation that has been thrust upon the indigenous people of this country. Each iwi, hapū and perhaps even whānau had their own knowledge and traditions related to astronomy and other forms of knowledge. Dr Mātāmua’s seminal work on Tūhoe astronomy is not necessarily entirely congruent with a Tauranga Moana astronomy. Nor is it necessarily contradictory. Either way, caution is always advisable; the question must be where did this knowledge come from?

To my enduring regret, I can find no such manuscript as that uncovered by Dr Mātāmua for Tauranga Moana. However, when I broadened my search to Tākitimu canoe traditions, there are clues as to our views on the stars and astronomy in some of what remains. In my view the most reliable written Tākitimu source is Matiaha Tiramōrehu (1800?-1881) who shared his own knowledge with Edward Shortland. Tiramōrehu taught a wānanga in traditional practices and learnings at Moeraki until 1868. Tiramōrehu’s connection with the Tākitimu canoe is to Tahu-pōtiki, the progenitor of Kāi Tahu, who in our tradition was handed command of the Tākitimu canoe by Tamatea Arikinui in Tauranga Moana. Tiramōrehu provides a complex whakapapa for stars, quite different from the pan-tribal whakapapa of Ranginui and Papatūānuku:

From Te Mangu and Māhorahora-nui-a-Rangi (the great expanse of the heavens) came four children: Toko-mua; Toko-roto; Toko-pā; and Rangi-pōtiki.

From Toko-roto came all the atua related to the heavens: Rangi-nui; Rangi-roa; Rangi-pōuri; Rangi-pōtango; Rangi-whetū-mā; Rangi-whekere; Ao-nui; Ao-roa; Ao-tara; Urupā; Hoehoe; and Puhaorangi.

From Toko-pā came Kohu (the mist) who married Te Ika-roa (the Milky Way). These two gave birth to Ngā Whetū (the stars).

Finally, Rangi-pōtiki had three partners, the first of which was Hine-ahu-papa; from her descended the atua of the sky: Tū-nuku; Tū-rangi; Tama-i-koropao; and Haronga.

Haronga’s partner was Tongo-tongo and their children were a son and daughter, Te Rā (the sun) and Marama (the moon). As Haronga perceived there was no light for his daughter Marama, he gave Te Kohu in marriage to Te Ikaroa so that their children, Ngā Whetū would provide light.

So who were the stars? For descendants of the Tākitimu canoe, the journey of that canoe provides some tantalising possibilities for some of our own names for stars. My study of Tākitimu writings and speeches indicates that the likely atua (spiritual beings) that Tauranga Moana associated with the canoe were: Ārai-te-uru; Hine Huruhuru; Tunui o te Ika; Hine-kōrako; Hinekorito; Hinekotea; Hinemakehu; Kahukura; Ruamano; Te Wehenga Kauika; Te Pō Tuatini; Tutara Kauika; and Haurua Tai. There are other names around the country, but these have the strongest link to our area.

All of these seem to have related to the safe navigation of our canoe from Rangiātea to Aotearoa. Four of these are likely related to the stars. The key to any sea journey was the mapping of a star path, “a series of stars that either rise or set in the same part of the horizon…. [that] are usually employed when they are still low in the sky, as it can be difficult to judge the exact spot they have cut the horizon once they begin to climb high” (Evans, The Discovery of Aotearoa). Ten to 12 stars were normally regarded as sufficient for a successful journey, though as few as four were used in some instances.  Ārai-te-uru, Tūtara Kauika and Te Wehenga Kauki bear characteristics that suggest they were stars on the Tākitimu’s star path whilst Ruamano is perhaps a name for a star compass. This is supported by Evans, who explains:

In light of the need to use stars irregularly spaced about the horizon… the reference to taniwha swimming in front of, to the side of and behind the Takitimu… may lend further strength to the argument that some of the taniwha named in this tradition could be the names of navigation stars.

Evans proposes that Te Kohurau, the cave in which many of the atua (spiritual beings) that boarded Tākitimu were stored, is a name for a star path. Finally, it is worth noting that Tākitimu tradition in Ngāti Kahungunu retains an extensive list of navigation stars associated with Pacific journeys that includes a reference to Matariki.

Compared with the work undertaken by Dr Mātāmua, this is slim pickings. In no way should it be taken as a refutation of the significance of Matariki in Tauranga Moana. But if we cannot be confident in our own astronomy, what do we have to support our celebration of Matariki here? In his book Time, Elsdon Best does refer to Matariki in relation to a Tākitimu lunar calendar: “Without exception, stars were the ariki (controllers, heads) of these months. The year commenced with the appearance of Matariki (Pleiades) on the horizon at dawn.” And it is clear that the lunar calendar in our own area remained central to life right up until the 20th century; my pākeke, kuia and koroua at my marae who I have asked about this all commented that their parents’ generation based all of their actions, from gardening, to fishing, to diving, to personal hygiene, to rubbish disposal on the lunar calendar. This is demonstrated by a lunar calendar from the 1884 journal of our ancestor Kerekau, the son of Te Ua Maungapōhatu which provides specific names for each day that are clearly specific to our area and our environment.

I believe a Matariki festival makes sense for Tauranga Moana: Dr Mātāmua’s work clearly indicates Matariki is a key sign of the new year on the east coast of the North Island; the term is linked to Tākitimu lunar calendars; lunar calendars are absolutely central to the lives of our ancestors up until the last two or three generations; there is evidence of awareness of Matariki in a Tākitimu tradition. However, what exactly Matariki indicated in Tauranga Moana and Tākitimu tradition is less clear cut and deserves more focus. We have our own Tākitimu names for days, months and stars that are different to those used in other areas. They relate specifically to both the journey of our ancestors here and our connection to the natural environment in this place. These names need be revived to celebrate our own Tauranga Moana connection to Matariki. Let me start with this: June in our own Tākitimu lunar calendar is Ao-nui (the child of Toko-roto), not Pipiri.

These names need be revived to remind ourselves that we lose something very important when we agree to be grouped into a collective, generic Māori identity rather than research, examine and celebrate the identity given us by our whakapapa. Seek out that which is from your iwi, hapū and whānau. It is likely that not much is there, but there is some knowledge to be rediscovered. Our ancestors used narrative to communicate to us; colonisation attempted to rob us of their voices. Let us not continue that work on ourselves, but attempt to return to distant stories of knowledge, philosophy and vision, vaguely heard.

4 thoughts on “Finding a Tākitimu star path: navigating the generic Matariki festival

  1. Awesome reading. However a correction needs to be made. Te Kpkau recorded 1200 not 12,000 star names. Rangi Matamua was interviewed last night on Te Karere and correcting what he deems to be a fallacy about the 7 stars of Matariki but adds that it is in fact it is 9 stars. Problem with that view is that its a Tuhoe korero but its been promoted as Pan-Maori.

  2. Furthermore Tiramorehu’s whare wananga korero is very much a Kai Tahu cosmological view that in my opinion melds Takitimu and Waitaha korero together. You see parts of these recitals in the Wairarapa but again they differ from other Whakapapa Tatai of the region. Nevertheless they are acceptable.

    As for the tatai arorangi korero I would speak to the Tata’s from your area as they have korero from Rangiwaea whare wananga of Tauranga harbour.

    My GGgrandfather chief at Heretaunga was a star and maramataka expert who is a direct descendant of Tamatea Arikinui I will consult his korero to see if Matariki is an important star to the Kahungunu peoples.

    May I recommend the book “Puanga” by Sam Rerekura.

    Their is still much star lore of Takitimu to be unearthed. Just keep digging. Mauri Ora!

  3. Incidentally the following are all stars: Rangi-nui; Rangi-roa; Rangi-pōuri; Rangi-pōtango; Rangi-whetū-mā; Rangi-whekere. Rangi-nui is a star in Te Punga o te waka a Tamarereti. I would suggest that the other stars make up the taura as well in the kahui whetu. Korero- Matamua (but consistent throughout te ao maori)

    1. Kia ora matua, nāku tēnei te mihi ki a koe i tōu mātauranga. I’m a theologian rather than an astronomer so really appreciate the time you took to share this insight. There is precious little in Tauranga Moana (though I will talk again to Uncle Des), and there has been a tendency to privilege Kahungunu knowledge because there’s more recorded in writing. Interestingly, my own Pirirākau whakapapa would tend to point me west towards Waikato rather than south in terms of narrative and mythology. My motivations are the beauty of the narratives rather than who is ‘right;’ I love the challenge of trying to get a glimpse of the worldview of our ancestors. Anyway, thanks again, correction made and book purchased. Nāku iti noa, nā Graham

Comments are closed.