New Zealand celebrates Maori New Year by looking to the stars. Matariki is not a firecracker party, but a return to indigenous culture.
An article by
30.7.2020, 10:09 a.m
T he surfers are still in their sleeping bags. It’s a wet, dark morning in the rainy coastal town of Raglan. It’s the dead of winter in the southern hemisphere, and no one gets up early. But on the terrace of Solscape, an eco-backpacker accommodation for surfers and yoga tourists, about a dozen people gathered for a "dawn ceremony." New Year’s Eve celebration in July – not at midnight, but at dawn. And without rockets.
Ngaronoa Renata has a soft voice and a prayer in Maori for those in attendance – locals, employees and travelers, many of whom are Pakeha, New Zealanders of European descent. The 63-year-old from the Ngapuhi tribe lights a small fire in a metal bowl made of kauri branches – a local tree that has spiritual significance for the indigenous people. Earth and cosmos, humans and animals: everything is interconnected. The mountain on whose slope Solscape lies is called Karioi. For Renata, who works as a masseuse using traditional healing methods, it is sacred.
On a table are lanterns made of calabashes with perforations that resemble stars. The dawn ritual honors Matariki, the beginning of the year in the lunar Polynesian calendar and the rising of the eponymous Pleiades star group in the firmament. The "Pleiades" – nine stars, according to the latest research – can be glimpsed early in the morning in the northeast during these weeks and is the focus of celebrations small and large across the country. Unfortunately you can’t see the sky on this day in Raglan because of all the clouds and fog.
The mood is devotional, lanterns are passed around, with a wish for the next person and for the future. Renata talks about her late father, whose picture she placed next to the fire bowl among other sacred objects such as stones and herbs. "We overcome grief and draw new strength from memory," she says, intoning the song "Purea Nei". It is about the wind and the rain that drives away the bad and brings fresh spirit. There is also mention of the Corona crisis, which has been banished for the time being in New Zealand since the lockdown – "Mother Earth wanted us to pause". No one wears a mask, those who want to may embrace.
The Pleiades – nine stars, according to recent findings – can be glimpsed early in the morning in the northeast these weeks
In the meantime it has become light. Solscape invites you to breakfast in the hostel kitchen. Sitting together to eat "kai" as part of the sacred act, "this is Matariki too," says Renata, ladling compote on her porridge. "It’s about telling stories and being together, like in the old days around the fire, when the harvest was stored in the winter and people had time for each other."
The real meaning, however, goes deeper for them. 30 years ago Renata was initiated into the deeper secrets of her people by a tribal chief. She always held the annual winter ceremonies only in small circles. They were almost secret gatherings, always in nature, always Maori. No strangers took part. But by now, public interest is high, tribal knowledge has become, in a sense, suitable for the masses.
State sanctioned discrimination
The history of Maori begins with the stars. When Polynesian tribes set out from their South Sea islands some 800 years ago on canoes, with pigs between their legs to keep them warm and full, they came across the previously uninhabited landmass of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s original name in the country’s second official language, in the south of the Pacific. The "Land of the Long White Cloud" was discovered by seafarers using the night sky as a guide without GPS.
These navigational skills were lost along with many ancient customs and indigenous knowledge about nature due to colonization. The constitution-like Treaty of Waitangi – the 1840 partnership agreement between the British and Maori – stipulates that aboriginal land rights and culture exist on an equal footing with those of new immigrants. But in the following hundred years, the reality on the Commonwealth continent, the last to be colonized on Earth, was different.
Maori lost their land, their support and their dignity. They died of imported diseases and were no longer allowed to speak their language at school. The state-sanctioned discrimination and the resulting social disadvantages continued well into the last century, with consequences to this day: Maori represent an ethnic minority with 16.5 percent of the nearly five million New Zealanders, but appear disproportionately in prisons, as homeless, addicts and as victims and perpetrators of family violence in the statistics – even though the traditional dance Haka has conquered the world and Taika Waititi with "Jojo Rabbit" and "Ragnarok" Hollywood. His homeland is one of the best in the world, but "racist as fuck," the director said in a widely quoted interview.
Although Aotearoa is emphatically anti-racist compared to neighboring Australia, the renaissance of Maori culture by activists only really began a few decades ago – mainly through the revival of "te reo" ("the language"). Maori terms circulate in common parlance and in the media. Celebrations and board meetings are started with a traditional greeting and many buildings have bilingual signs. Geographical names such as that of Mount Taranaki, formerly Mount Egmont, have been changed back against the opposition of some Pakeha.
The myth of Matariki
In the Maori creation story, Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, were united. When the couple was separated from their seven children, one of them was so angry that it tore out its eyes, tore them apart and threw them into space. According to mythology, the "eyes of God" are the Matariki stars: the Pleiades, which appear as a group in the southern hemisphere sky at dawn in July. This marks the beginning of the new year in the traditional Polynesian Maori lunar calendar.
Matariki not only represents retreat and renewal, but also marks harvest cycles. The stars have always been indicators of growth and planting seasons. They also have a connection to ancestors and play a role in Maori grieving. One of the ancient legends describes a canoe made of stars whose captain casts a net every night to bring the deceased on earth to the underworld. A year later they can be seen as celestial bodies.
"Everyone was focused on saving our language," says Renata, the master of ceremonies in Raglan. "No one cared about Matariki back then." That Maori culture is being revived at all levels, not just folkloric in tourist enclaves, is visually reflected in public life. Academics and TV presenters wear traditional face tattoos with confidence. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had her picture taken wearing a feather cape while heavily pregnant at a reception at Buckingham Palace.
For dinner with the Queen in a feather cape, April 2018: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo by Toby Melville/ Pool
"We are the only culture in the world that gives such significance to a constellation," says Renata. The healer packs up her utensils and scrapes soot from the fire bowl. She will use him to grow the gourds from which lanterns can be made. The celebration, which for Renata means the center of her spirituality, is not bound to one day as a party, but stretches out over weeks similar to the Advent season – and more and more people with it.
Every day a star event
The windows of the Super restaurant on Christchurch harbor are decorated with celestial bodies: white dots and filigree formations. Inside, children and mothers sit on the floor in a corner next to sofas, in front of them long green strips of flax bush – a plant sacred to Maori and used to make baskets and mats. Small compact stars are made from the leaves. Sahni Bennet, owner of the trendy Asian cuisine restaurant, is surrounded by two of her seven children. It is the first time that the 42-year-old Matariki commits in a professional setting. "I’m getting more and more involved with my roots," she says. "The fact that I celebrate Matariki is now just part of it and makes much more sense to me than many other celebrations."
Aside from the craft afternoon, there’s another event lined up at Super every day of the week. The day before, it was a nine-course meal – "each course was named after the stars of Matariki". An evening with DJ is also part of the program, but without alcohol excess, says Bennet. "We don’t want to be spent and exhausted, we want to be replenished. Matariki means wellness to me."
For many, however, the New Year’s rush means realpolitik. A Maori Party MP first made a submission to Parliament in 2009 for Matariki to be introduced as an official public holiday – "so we can proudly stand by our unique New Zealand cultural identity," the politician said at the time.
She failed with her motion, but not the movement behind it. It has gained momentum once again as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests and sees itself as a building block in the long overdue decolonization process.
In a recent poll on NGO platform Action Station, 63 percent, mostly younger people, supported the holiday proposal. Last week, Action Station, along with the political organization New Zealand Republic, submitted a petition with 30.000 signatures to the government – on a USB stick to save paper, and not at the seat of government, but among Maori carvings at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington.
Labor MP Paul Eagle, who received the petition, had also submitted a request to Parliament two years ago. The time is ripe, he said at the museum, "In Wellington, our capital city, we now see many citizens who understand what Matariki is. Three or four years ago that was not the case."
Unlike their parents’ generation, Kiwi children of whatever ancestry already celebrate Matariki in schools and kindergartens almost as naturally as they hunt for eggs at Easter. Year by year, official and private activities increase. This time there were fireworks in Hawkes Bay, a festival of lights in Auckland, comedy in Wellington, art in Invercargill and a haka festival in Nelson.
Hundreds gathered in the earthquake-ravaged "red zone" in Christchurch. Celebrants sang, danced, carved wood and were served food from the traditional earth oven hangi. They planted 115 trees in the wasteland. At the same time, Stuff, New Zealand’s main news site, launched a campaign for the new old holiday. Prime Minister Ardern, who is up for re-election in September, says she is open to the idea.
"It is long overdue that we recognize the Maori New Year on Maori land," Laura O’Connell Rapira of Action Station, who started the petition, wrote on Spinoff. "It has been 33 years since the government decided to recognize te reo Maori as an official language. Jacinda Ardern could make Matariki this generation’s ‘Māori Language Act moment."
In the Dark Sky Reserve
Lake Tekapo, at the foot of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, is not only a highlight of visits to New Zealand and an oasis of space and tranquility: the surrounding 4.300 square kilometers were declared New Zealand’s only dark sky reserve in 2012. It’s one of only eight regions in the world where you can view the night sky without light pollution.
A restored giant Victorian telescope stands in the Dark Sky Project. Outside the visitor center, an icy wind blows around the ears of two men in weather jackets at five in the morning. Matariki expert Rangi Matamua and former rugby star Izzy Dagg, both Maori, wait their turn in front of a camera like sports reporters. In a moment, a livestream will begin, organized by the Tourism Authority to connect for the first time the rest of the world to this ancestral event in the most modern technical way.
10.000 people have already joined from Scotland to Austria to Brazil. The audio drops out briefly, then Matamua begins his greeting on the second try, blessing the new year and nature, but without Christian echoes. The professor at Waikato University in Hamilton is not afraid to speak of the "god of the wind" and the "essence of the sky" in the same breath.
Rugby star Izzy Dagg (l.) wants to change his calendar. Pictured with star navigator Piripi Smith Photo by Ben Rogers
Astronomy and esotericism are not contradictory for the academic, but combine in Maori spirituality. The "Matariki phenomenon" is a national movement, not just for Maori – a body of knowledge that needs to be shared, he tells viewers. He enthusiastically nibbles on the pancakes with watercress and sweet potato crisps that a television chef hands into the frame to the anchors at the end of the broadcast. Matariki breakfast with show effect. And as an introduction to another concept of time.
"The clock is the greatest colonization of mankind. She dictates what we do, when we do it, how we do it. This destroys our relationship to the environment"
"That was the kick start"
"The clock is the greatest colonization of mankind. It dictates what we do, when and how," Matamua says after the livestream is over. "It’s destroying our relationship with the environment. We no longer follow natural cycles." The astronomer, who was the first Maori to win a government science award and campaign against climate destruction, lives by the Maori lunar calendar as much as he can. The is only 354 days long and provides him with different information about his daily routine, the environment and his place in the world than the Roman Gregorian calendar does.
"In the Western world, we distinguish between religion, science, astrology, spirituality and cultural customs. In Maori philosophy, it all goes together. It is a holistic approach that helps me." Izzy Dagg, the rugby star, is still at the very beginning of this time change. "That was the kick-start today," he says. "It struck a nerve in me and was long overdue." He never spoke Maori at his private school or in his family, and Matariki certainly wasn’t part of his life in the past. "That will change now." He laughs, but it sounds wistful. "It is not too late, or?"
Men have stepped back outside and are studying the sky. Venus shines in the firmament. To the left of it, a cluster sparkles a little more faintly. Rangi Matamua shows Izzy Dagg which star is Hiwa-i-te-rangi, the "wishing star". Whoever sees it can make a wish. Both look and are silent.