Humankind has always looked to the stars for understanding and inspiration. As we approach the dawning of Matariki celebrations, one of New Zealand's foremost experts in Māori astronomy and tribal star lore tells the story of how his late grandfather shared with him ancient knowledge that he had kept hidden for decades. Paul Williams reports.
Professor Rangi Matamua wasn't always a university lecturer. Once upon a time he was an inquisitive young man growing up in Horowhenua who asked his grandfather to tell him what he knew about the stars, about Matariki.
What he could never have known was that Timi Rawiri Matamua had hidden in his bedroom a knowledge and an understanding of the stars that would send Matamua on a life journey - a 400-page manuscript detailing tribal star lore.
What his koro produced that day was a comprehensive record of Māori astronomy.
"It sent me on my journey...it has shaped my life with what I am doing today," he said.
"To think that for 50 years that knowledge base was housed in Rata Street in Levin."
Timi Rawiri Matamua took on the name Jim Moses and arrived in Levin in the 1950s. Many Māori changed their name or found it easier to adopt a Pākehā name during a period of urban migration when many Māori moves to more populated areas of New Zealand.
As time passed he began to realise the importance of the writings he held in his room, passed down by his forebears.
Timi Rawiri himself was given the manuscript by his elders. In the late 1800s, Te Kōkau Himiona Te Pikikōtuku and his son Rāwiri Te Kōkau were interviewed by historian Elsdon Best as part of his research for his book Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, and he gave them a map of the stars.
Te Kōkau and his son used the map to compile a manuscript, which they began together in 1898 and Rawiri completed in 1933. On his deathbed Rawiri handed the book to his grandson Timi Rāwiri, who in turn gave it to Rangi in 1995.
"He decided to give it to me and he did. I am happy that up there somewhere he might be thinking 'You haven't done too bad'," he said
Matamua said when his grandfather migrated south from his Tūhoe homelands in the Urewera, it was during a time when much traditional knowledge was being lost.
"It was seen as sacred to share it, but towards the end of his life he realised he had to share it. He told me to hold on to it and find a way to share it," he said.
"Knowledge that is not shared is not knowledge."
And so his own journey began. After years of studying the manuscript and researching Māori astronomy, he is sharing that knowledge through the release of books, essentially ensuring the survival of Māori star lore.
Matamua's best-selling book Matariki - The Star of the Year was released in 2017, and was a unique insight into Māori astronomy.
He said all Māori communities had detailed knowledge of the stars, as it was essential to their being and gave a division of time, like the spawning of animals or the planting of crops, and signalled changes in the environment.
He said while this knowledge and custom was embedded within cultural practices and ceremonies and spiritual beliefs, there was a danger of it being lost, although he was hopeful for the future.
"That knowledge was suppressed and for the most part lost in what I can only describe as the onslaught of colonisation," he said.
"In recent times there has been a resurgence in Māori working in this arena. Armed with precious manuscripts and oral histories, there is a new wave of Māori astronomical researchers working towards recreating the traditional whare kōkōrangi [observatories]," he said.
"Much of this new work is founded on te reo Māori, exploring traditional songs, incantations and any recorded account of Māori astronomy that makes up part of the language."
"It also involves interviews with Māori cultural experts and holders of knowledge who have maintained star lore within their regions."
Matamua said the "regeneration" in Māori astronomy was part of a larger movement where Māori themselves were striving to tell their own history and stories in a manner acceptable and appropriate to Māori.
"Much of that knowledge is now being decolonised and re-told by Māori based on Māori beliefs, Māori culture, Māori ways of thinking and Māori language," he said.
"To the forefront of this regrowth in Māori astronomy has been the celebration of Matariki."
Of Tūhoe, Rangi Matamua was educated at Taitoko Primary School in Levin, and Levin Intermediate School before attending Hato Paora College and the University of Waikato, where he is now a professor and dean within the faculty of Māori and Indigenous studies.
He said he and his brother and sisters were fortunate to have been raised in a strong family unit in Horowhenua and the importance of a good education was impressed on them.
"We were told by our grandparents to make sure we educated ourselves. They saw it as a pathway to help ourselves and others," he said.
Matamua is on an extensive tour of New Zealand and Australia where the kōrero centres around Matariki and the division of time and its true place in the modern day calendar. The lectures run for two hours and include images, animations and videos.
His latest book is a comprehensive explanation detailing what Matariki is, why it is observed by Māori, how Māori traditionally celebrate Matariki, and an explanation of when and how it should be celebrated.
He said there was a misconception that Matariki arrived in sync with modern-day calendars, whereas the actual dates changed each year. Matariki this year will appear in the dawn sky, on June 25, and will end on June 28.
It was founded on a lunar system that arrived on the correct lunar phase, when all the elements aligned. It was a cluster of stars visible at a specific time of year
Matamua said there were some misconceptions surrounding Matariki. One common belief was that there were seven stars, when there were actually nine stars - Matariki, Tupuārangi, Waipuna-ā-rangi, Waitī, Tupuānuku, Ururangi, Waitā, Pōhutukawa and Hiwa-i-te-Rangi.
Each star held a certain significance over wellbeing, as seen from the Māori viewpoint, and was a time to remember those who had passed and plan for the future. It was also viewed as a time to spend with whānau and friends with kai [food], waiata [song], tākaro [games] and haka.
Matamua said in the future he would like to see learning centres established for traditional Māori astronomy where iwi could meet to discuss celestial bodies.