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The Matariki Long Weekend

Naked in Nuhaka

The Matariki Long Weekend

By Leo Koziol

WAIROA'S VERY FIRST MATARIKI WEEK is officially in full swing (1). They've been doing it down the Bay in Hastings for a number of years, thanks to the leadership (and, dare I say, commercial acumen) of one Te Rangi Huata, but this is the first time the event has come up here to the heart of the Maori heartland, to Wairoa.

Events commenced las weekend with a dawn ceremony atop Mount Whakapunake, high above Te Reinga falls and the Raukituri valley. Those gathered watched the rise of the Matariki stars -- otherwise known as Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters -- after which feathers of peace were brought down the mountain to reside in the Wairoa Museum for the duration of the celebrations. The feathers were paraded into town with a Ratana brass brand in tow, and are now placed amongst "The Cuz Exhibition", a wonderful little display of traditional and modern artworks by people from whanau in and around tiny little Rangiahua (a “blink and you miss it” settlement just up the Wairoa valley).

Other Matariki events have included a fashion show at the Gaiety Theatre and a cook off at Wairoa College. Shops up and down the (recently spruced up) main street have created window displays for the event, which are remarkably exquisite in their presentation and content -- the best are a mix of art, historic photographs and "found objects" (kete, kumara, paua shells, pumice rock) presented as Autumnal cornucopia. Tonight, the celebrations end with a night of performance, stalls and fireworks, which are actually just a precursor to a weekend of Kapa Haka Maori performance regionals at the Wairoa Community Centre.

* * * *

So what is Matariki?

For the uninitiated, Matariki is a traditional Maori "New Year" celebration when the seasons turn and the stellar universe above makes a journey of sorts. Here’s an extract from a glossary of Maori legends and lore:

"Matariki means literally "Little eyes" or "Little points." For people in many parts of Aotearoa, the [stars] appearance at dawn (or sometimes the new moon after their appearance) marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Matariki is usually a woman. The seven stars were often regarded as Matariki and her six daughters, though others considered the entire group to be a single female. Near the end of the Maori year, in mid-April, she was lost to sight in the west in the evening, then near the end of May she became visible in the east shortly before dawn."

In traditional Maori society, communities set up watch for Matariki. An hour before dawn those on watch would look to the horizon for the twinkling eyes of Matariki and if it was clear and bright, then a good season would be ahead, a good year of bounty and growth. If it was clouded, then perhaps the year would be less bountiful (2).

Matariki is a time for contemplation of the year now passed, and remembrance of the people we have lost over that time. It should also be a time of celebration and renewal for the year ahead:

“The end of the year was identified with Matariki's disappearance in the west as darkness came on -- and these were the direction and the time of day traditionally associated with death and sorrow. The start of the new year was marked by her reappearance in the north-east before dawn -- this direction and time being associated with light, life and wellbeing. The new year began... close to the time of the shortest day, when the light was about to return."

So Matariki was not only a means of measuring time, but a manner by which the spatial dimensions of Aotearoa were thought of. The East Coast -- Tairawhiti, Ngati Porou, Kahungunu -- is the first to see the light, the place of the dawning of life. The West Coast -- Taranaki, Waikato, Tainui -- is the space of life closure, of life's end, of sunset. So my experience of Matariki, here on the East Coast -- the place of “first light” -- is therefore quite different to those of people to the west.

Matariki has also been celebrated as a time of feasting:

“It is recorded that in Taranaki the old people would watch in midwinter for Matariki to appear at dawn. They might watch for several nights before this happened, and while waiting they would make a small hangi (earth oven). When Matariki rose up, they would weep and tell the stars the names of those who had died... Then they would uncover the oven so that the scent of the food would rise and strengthen Matariki who were weak and cold.”

One would assume they would then feast on the food in honour of Matariki.

One overall conclusion that I have arrived at is that Matariki cannot be oversimplified. It was celebrated and marked by a pre-European society that lived much more in tune with the passing of the seasons, and that -- without the trappings of modern electric lighting -- lived each day with a much greater spiritual sense of dark and light. The emerging stars, the rise and fall of the moon, the rise and setting of the sun. Different iwi (tribes) marked Matariki in different ways. Matariki must be learned about and explored, and, indeed, its evolution in the future will be affected by how this pattern of knowledge expands.

* * * *

Tirohia atu nei, ka whetuarangitia Matariki Te whitu o te tau e whakamoe mai ra. He homai anu rongo kia komai atu au -- Ka mate nei au i te matapouri, i te mataporehu o roto i a au!

See where Matariki are risen over the horizon, The seven of the year winking up there. They come with their message so I can rejoice. Here I am full of sorrow, full of sadness within! (3)

* * * *

Why is Matariki reemerging as an event in Aotearoa NZ?

Despite cultural colonisation, Matariki continued as a tradition among Maori communities well into the late 1800s. It has been recorded that one old lady carried on the Taranaki tradition of Matariki hangi until her death in about 1940. But it has only been over the past four or five years that Matariki has reemerged as a community event and celebration.

Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Maori (the Maori Language Commission) and Te Papa (the NZ National Museum) can take a lot of the credit for the rebirth of Matariki. The Commission has provided information on Matariki to Maori communities through kohanga reo (Maori language nests) and kura kaupapa (total immersion Maori schools). Te Papa is expanding Matariki to a wider audience, such as through a gorgeous calendar published annually (the months run June to June, not January to December) and a range of events in Wellington. Celebrations are spreading, and this year have included significant gatherings in Auckland, Taumarunui, Hastings, and Wairoa.

Hastings iwi have achieved astounding commercial success with Matariki. They held a "Mahinarangi Moonbeams" outdoor celebration, with fireworks and entertainment including lit-up balloons; a street party; a Kahungunu Winter Ball; and food and art workshops. There is a proposal to light up Te Mata Peak (above Hastings) as a part of future celebrations.

* * * *

It seems that Matariki can only go from strength to strength in future. Whether it evolves into a form of permanent “Maori New Year” or “Aotearoa Thanksgiving” celebration remains to be seen.

Te Rangi Huata, Matariki entrepreneur in Hastings, has lots of ideas for it, including a "Maori Halloween" and the idea of making it a national holiday. I strongly support the idea of making it a national holiday. There is a huge potential for Matariki to change our national culture and provide a positive Maori celebration that shifts us away from the negativity, conflict and dwelling upon past wrongs that happens each year with Waitangi Day (4).

Aotearoa NZ today is stuck with the trappings of European northern hemisphere culture in a place down under and back-to-front. Our holidays all celebrate the wrong things at the wrong time. Christmas in the sand (not snow), New Year's at the peak of summer (not winter), Easter as the leaves start to turn (and the bunnies start comtemplating hibernation) and Halloween with daffodils.

We light up our houses with christmas lights in December, but have to wait until 10 p.m. at night to go out and see them. Try lighting up a tree outside (as I did last Xmas) and the brightness is dimmed by thick summer foliage. Light them up now -- as I've done, as I've been much too lazy to remove them -- and they're magically transformed into lit twigs of Matariki light (hopefully, I'll start a trend). And the luminous magic starts at 5.00 p.m. (5)

We don’t have any kind of Thanksgiving celebration, as the US and Canada do. I lived in the States for five years, and remember Thanksgiving most fondly of all the northern hemisphere celebrations. Free from the commercial trappings of Christmas, free from religious elements which might cause conflict in a nation of peoples with so many different beliefs, Thanksgiving was simply a time of the year to gather with friends and families and celebrate and look back on the year gone by. Both the times of happiness, as well as the times of sadness and tragedy.

Living in San Francisco, one of the things that really touched me was how the seasons connected with the celebrations. Easter was in the bright newness of Spring. Halloween was when the huge Autumn "Harvest Moon" would rise up over the horizon. New Year's marked the depths of Winter. And Christmas came at just the right time to brighten up the gloomy darkness of long nights.

Americans go all out at Christmas to brighten up their homes, inside and out. It almost reaches a level of madness, the amount of Christmas lights people put over their homes and apartments. In a big dense city like San Francisco, just after Thanksgiving, people's homes would burst into light and excitement. Just when I'd start getting depressed about my bus journey home in darkness, the sparkling, twinkling lights of christmas would take over the town. It becomes a time of celebration and light and happiness.

Perhaps Aotearoa NZ could transform Matariki into something like the experiences one has living in the northern hemisphere? Light up your home, to reflect the stars being born up above. Get together with family and friends and give thanks for another year over. Remember those you have aroha (love) for that you have lost, and make a prayer -- in whatever way you feel comfortable -- for a year of peace ahead.

I see Matariki in ten or twenty years time as some kind of Christmas meets New Years meets Halloween meets Thanksgiving that is all of these events, but none of them. It is none of them, because it is Matariki, something unique that we can call our own. If we make it a long weekend, it can become a time of reflection, relaxation and release where we let go of the tensions and struggles of the year just gone. Where we reflect on our achievements, and our hopes for the future.

Matariki won’t make up for our mixed up celebrations calendar, but it does promise to provide us with something that's uniquely about “us”. It is universal to Maori and Pakeha, because we all live with the opposite shifting of seasons. It can be a Thanksgiving feast, it can be the light and happiness of a winter Christmas, it could even be a little bit of Halloween dress-up and bereavement grief catharsis (6). Let’s start by lobbying our politicians to make it a holiday. And tell them not to be chinsy about it -- let’s make it two days, say a Thursday and a Friday? (7)

And commence the great kiwi tradition of the Matariki Long Weekend.

* * * *

WEBLINK: Heretaunga Matariki

(1)The event has been organised by Mana Wahine, originally a Maori women's refuge and support group which has now taken on a much broader commmunity development role. Other supporters include the Wairoa Museum and a number of local businesses.

(2) It’s interesting to note that Subaru, the brand of Japanese car, is named after Pleiades also (check out the logo).

(3) This is a Matariki song from a book of Maori legends and folklore. The explanation: "When Matariki first reappeared, she and her daughters were greeted with songs lamenting the loss of those who had died in the previous year. But the singers' tears were joyful too, because the new year had begun."

(4) Waitangi Day is the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori tribes and the Crown, which is shrouded in controversy and divisiveness. Though Waitangi Day is an important social reckoning, I think that Matariki can perhaps provides some "yin" to that "yang".

(5) I've been chomping at the bit all week to turn my Matariki lights on, but have been racked with guilt over the power crisis. Yesterday, at noon, the power crisis officially ended, and I was able to light up my yard totally guilt-free!

(6) The idea of integrating Halloween into Matariki is not so strange. In Mexico, the people celebrate Halloween as a “Day of the Dead” where people dress up in costume to celebrate the spirit and loss of people who have passed away. The “Day of the Dead” has arisen through the integration of Catholic culture and traditional Aztec (indigenous) culture. The tradition of Matariki has similar elements from an indigenous people.

(7) I also think a long Matariki weekend would be wildly successful because it would lower the road toll. Closely following Queen's Birthday long weekend, people would be more apt to stay at home with family and friends. Those who do go away, could go and have a four-day Matariki Ski Weekend. Best of all, The Warehouse will have something to fill all those empty shelves with once all the Easter stock is cleared out in April. And all the product would be 100% Maori.

ABOUT NAKED IN NUHAKA Leo Koziol ( writes on identity, culture, and place in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century. Nuhaka is located on the East Coast of the North Island of NZ.

All content (c) Leo Koziol & Rautaki Group Consultants 2003.

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