Janet McAllister: A festival both ancient and new

The door of a wharenui at Ngaruawahia depicts the constellation Matariki. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
The door of a wharenui at Ngaruawahia depicts the constellation Matariki. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Seven years ago, I wanted to use the word "Matariki" in a feature article but wasn't allowed, as my then editor had never heard of the Maori New Year. To be honest, I had first heard of it myself only a year or so before.

Now, until July 4, we're in the midst of a festival celebrated across the country; over 60 events are listed on the Auckland Council's Matariki website alone, including concerts, plays, storytelling, art, talks, a rewena bread bakeoff, kite-flying and astronomy.

One of the interesting things about Matariki is that it's not one large, focused celebration like the Lantern Festival, but a whole month of smaller, pick-and-choose events which change annually. And they're organised by all sorts of people, from flaxroots groups to central government organisations.

What happened? How did Matariki get to be both ancient and new?

Literally, Matariki means "small eyes" or, as Mata-ariki, "the eyes of a chief (or god)", and it is the Maori name for the Pleiades/Seven Sisters constellation. Maori art and architectural historian Dr Deidre Brown notes that Hawai'i has a similar name for both constellation and festival - Makahiki - so it's a good guess that the festival predates Maori arriving in Aotearoa.

Once here, only those iwi and hapu who could see it rise in late May from their land thought of the constellation as harbinger of the new year. Some celebrated the new year as soon as Matariki rose, others from the next new or full moon.

Traditionally, constellations bring together land, sea and sky - the stars help to guide both the agricultural cycle and navigation. Matariki's appearance also heralds a season not of marama (light) outside but maramatanga (enlightenment) inside: traditionally, the dark, cold winter was a time to learn from the elders.

From the late 19th century, Matariki became political: it was placed on the Waikato King movement's coat of arms, and is impressively carved into the door of the 1929 Mahinarangi wharenui at Ngaruawahia's Turangawaewae Marae.

Brown says that while the Matariki celebration has always been observed in certain rural areas by Maori, it was Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission), with Te Papa and the Ministry of Education, which started to promote it more widely in 2001. Since then the transplanted midwinter Christmases which were big news in the 1980s and 1990s seem to have all but disappeared, replaced by this indigenous, authentically Southern Hemisphere celebration.

Today's festival is a way for non-Maori to learn about Maori culture in a relaxed setting which doesn't have the tense political overtones of Waitangi Day. This brings its own challenge, similar to that of many cultural celebrations: how do you create a platform for true cross-cultural understanding, rather than just giving people an ordinary good time with a few superficial Maori sounds and tastes thrown in?

Happily, many Matariki events are discussions about these very issues, and/or they take place on marae, inviting visitors to experience a Maori space. And Brown thinks that instead of trying to cram all their "Maori events" into one month as they did four or five years ago, art galleries are now spreading them throughout the year and offering Matariki events of particular significance.

Maramatanga for all who want it.


- NZ Herald

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