20190626_114227.jpgNgā mihi o Matariki, arā o te tau hou Māori, ki a koutou!

The appearance in the sky of the star cluster Matariki (the Pleiades) is widely considered to mark the start of the Māori new year (although, as discussed further below, there are differing beliefs around the country). In 2019, Matariki is said to have appeared on 25 June, and at the time of posting Matariki celebrations are nearing an end for this year.

I’m not qualified to write about traditional celebration of Matariki, or about how Matariki fits into Māori astronomical lore. What I want to discuss instead is the relatively recent revival of Matariki as a modern festival.

The celebration of Matariki is a precolonial Māori tradition that continued into the early twentieth century before dwindling away. In a 1967 article in the magazine Te Ao Hou, the Māori writer Harry Dansey commented that widespread lack of awareness of Matariki’s importance in the Māori calendar was proof ‘that when old customs die, they die indeed.’ Yet, while the meaning and context of Matariki celebrations may have changed significantly, they have experienced a remarkable rebirth.

Possibly the first modern celebration of Matariki was reported in Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper in June 1995. Based around Wellington’s Pipitea marae, activities included kite-flying, demonstrations of Māori arts and talks on Māori issues. Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan, MP was patron of the festival, which was organised by artist Diane Prince and others. A revival of Matariki in Hawke’s Bay seems to have occurred in parallel with that in Wellington, with a public Matariki event being held for the first time in Hastings in 2000.

It was in the early 2000s that the public celebration of Matariki really started to take off. A key factor was the championing of Matariki by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission), which saw Matariki as an opportunity to promote the Māori language, and by Te Papa Tongarewa (the national museum), which started celebrating Matariki as part of its commitment to biculturalism. While Te Papa staff had been marking Matariki privately since the 1990s, Te Papa’s first public Matariki celebrations took place in 2001. The publication of Libby Hakaraia’s book Matariki: The Māori New Year in 2004 was also influential.

Over the past two decades, celebration of Matariki has become increasingly widespread and has grown in popularity. It has been taken up by local authorities around the country as a significant winter festival, and is observed in many schools.

There have also been calls for Matariki to become a public holiday. In 2009, Māori Party MP Rāhui Kātene’s private Member’s Bill, Te Rā o Matariki/Matariki Day Bill, had a first reading in Parliament. The Bill provided for Matariki to become a public holiday to celebrate the Māori new year, with the date of the observance to be notified by the Minister of Māori Affairs, based on expert advice. Although the Bill did not make it through to the select committee stage, the idea of a new holiday remains very much alive (see here, for example). Just today, the New Zealand Republic organisation launched a new petition asking Parliament to make Matariki a public holiday.

Even without a public holiday, Matariki seems to be evolving into a national festival, albeit with distinct local flavours. In 2016, Te Papa declared its aspiration to make Matariki ‘an indigenous event of national identity’, although there is clearly still some way to go to achieve this aim. Research conducted for Te Papa in 2017 found that 69 per cent of people were aware of Matariki but that most people (even most Māori) felt they had a low understanding of what Matariki was about.

Two main arguments are commonly put forward for Matariki to be embraced as a national festival. First, it’s argued that Matariki is indigenous to Aotearoa and is based on the seasons of this land. Celebrating Matariki is a way of recognising and respecting Māori culture, as Rāhui Kātene argued when she introduced her Bill: ‘Matariki is a festival in which we can truly commemorate the indigenous origins of Aotearoa by giving respect to the unique customs and culture of tangata whenua.’ As Kātene went on to note, it’s also a festival that connects Aotearoa to other Pacific countries with similar new year traditions. Indeed, other Polynesian peoples have also revived new year festivals based on the appearance of the Pleiades, such as Makahiki in Hawai’i and Matari’i in Tahiti.

The second key reason given for reviving Matariki in contemporary Aotearoa is that it can unite New Zealanders, bringing them together in a uniquely local celebration. In this respect, it’s often contrasted with the perceived contentiousness of Waitangi Day, and with British-derived celebrations (particularly the Queen’s Birthday, Guy Fawkes Day and New Year’s Eve) seen as having little relevance in New Zealand today. For example, Marilyn Head wrote in the Listener in 2003 that Matariki was ‘a potential alternative to the over-politicised Waitangi Day. Instead of tension and aggression, the spirit of Matariki is gentle, reflective and absolving.’ In the debate on Te Rā o Matariki Bill, Māori Party MP Hone Harawira said the Bill’s purpose was ‘Hei whakakotahi i ngā iwi o te motu i runga anō i ngā tikanga taketake o tēnei whenua’ (translated as ‘to unite the people of this nation on the basis of shared indigenous values’).

The growing recognition of Matariki as a national festival is not without challenges, however. For a start, the ‘nationalisation’ of Matariki could lead to the marginalisation or erasure of regional differences in beliefs about Matariki and the Māori new year. An example of this is the tradition among some iwi (particularly those in the west of the country, where Matariki is less visible) that the new year is heralded by the rising of Puanga (Rigel), rather than Matariki.

There could also be a risk of Matariki becoming an anodyne, depoliticised festival that moves away from its cultural origins. For the most part, it seems that the celebration of Matariki (or Puanga) is a tradition that Māori are happy to share with other New Zealanders. However, Matariki’s modern revival began as part of the project of Māori cultural revitalisation that gathered pace from the 1970s onwards. It involves a conscious celebration of mātauranga Māori (Māori indigenous knowledge) and an attempt to counter the effects of what Radio New Zealand’s Shannon Haunui-Thompson, in a recent discussion of Matariki, called ‘the C-word that we shouldn’t be using on radio – colonisation’. (It’s worth noting that Diane Prince, one of those responsible for Matariki’s modern revival, is an overtly political artist who, in the same year as the first Pipitea Matariki celebration, created a controversial installation at Auckland Art Gallery which invited visitors to tread on the New Zealand flag.)

As Matariki becomes more widely observed, therefore, a tension could develop between Matariki’s origins as a Māori-centred and Māori-controlled celebration and its increasing adoption as a broader community festival.

I don’t share the certainty of one commentator who is so sure Matariki will become a public holiday that he set up an automatic tweet inviting readers to mock him if his prediction does not come true within five years. So I won’t attempt to predict Matariki’s future, but I am confident it will grow and evolve further in the coming years. Its continued evolution will be fascinating to watch.

Further reading

Ann Hardy, ‘Re-designing the National Imaginary: The Development of Matariki as a Contemporary Festival’, Australian Journal of Communication, vol. 39, no. 1, 2012, pp. 101-117.

Takao Miyazato, ‘A Cultural Anthropological Study of the Matariki Tradition and the Maori New Year’, Bulletin of the Graduate School of International Cultural Studies, Aichi Prefectural University, vol. 8, 2007, pp. 193-211.

Guillaume Alévêque, ‘The Rise of the Pleiades: The Quest for Identity and the Politics of Tradition in French Polynesia’, in Edvard Hviding and Knut M. Rio (eds), Made in Oceania: Social Movements, Cultural Heritage and the State in the Pacific (Wantage: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2011), pp. 161-178.

Libby Hakaraia, Matariki: The Māori New Year (Auckland: Reed Publishing, 2004).

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, Matariki: Aotearoa Pacific New Year (Wellington, 2005).

John King, ‘Kites Mark Maori New Year’, Evening Post (Wellington), 26 June 1995, p. 2.

Marilyn Head, ‘Little Eyes’, Listener, 7 June 2003, pp. 30-31.

Te Rangi Huata, ‘Bay Skies Ablaze for Matariki’, Hawkes Bay Today, 17 June 2013, p. 11.