A Tūhoe astronomer is the first Māori to win one of the country's top science awards for his efforts to revitalise traditional Māori knowledge of the stars.

Professor Rangi Matamua was awarded the top communication prize at the Prime Minister's Science Awards on Tuesday.

Matamua said his interest in celestial knowledge begun when he first went to university and was gifted a 400-page manuscript written by his ancestors, which included hundreds of Māori names for the stars, from his grandfather.


"Before he died he said, 'look that manuscript and what you've been doing - don't let the manuscript go, it's an heirloom - but the knowledge within, you need to find a way to share that with people'," Matamua said.

"His last words were, 'knowledge that isn't shared isn't knowledge' - that's what he said that to me, and I've used that as a mantra for trying to share openly, and with anyone that's interested in the knowledge base that I've been fortunate enough to have and to grow throughout the years."

He said it hasn't always been easy to navigate the western science space, which had only just started "to acknowledge some of the knowledge basis' that exist outside of their own parameters as being science.

"Just look at what our ancestors did to navigate here - you don't do that on myths and legends, you don't do that on spirituality, you do that on science.

"I think there is empirical science embedded within traditional Māori knowledge... but what they did to make it meaningful and have purpose is they encompassed it within cultural narratives and spirituality and belief systems, so it wasn't just seen as this clinical part of society that was devoid of any other connection to our world, it was included into everything.

"To me, that cultural element gives our science a completely new and deep and rich layer of meaning."

He said Māori knowledge was just starting to become more widely accepted, and cited the interest in celebrating Matariki as an example of how things from te ao Māori were becoming a greater part of our national identity.