The popularity of Matariki celebrations in New Zealand over recent years has steadily increased due in no small part to a growing awareness around its meaning and significance to iwi and Māori communities.
Palmerston North-based Māori cultural and wellbeing expert Dr Meihana Durie discusses aspects of the history, the decline, and the recent rise in popularity of Matariki, which begins its 2015 celebrations today, 18 June.
Urbanisation and the decline of ancient traditions
The renewed interest in Matariki is, as I like to call it, a “resurgence” in the tradition. However in order to be a resurgence, that means there was at some point a decline.
Post World WWII, urbanisation into larger towns and cities by many Māori families coincided with a significant change in the way that many urban-based whānau lived.
From a largely rural subsistence characterised by environmental conditions, urbanisation rendered many land, sea, and forest-based Māori cultural practices, tikanga, and protocols, kawa, largely obsolete without specific relevance to the urban lifestyle.
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One of those practices was the annual observance of the arrival of Matariki, otherwise known as the Pleiades star cluster.
This observation dates back to the time of the earliest Māori settlers in Aotearoa, and was critical for whānau and communities as it signalled the arrival of the coldest months. By this time, the necessary preparation for aspects such as food storage and preservation and work on food crops had to be complete.
Like many other indigenous cultures, survival for whānau here in Aotearoa was dependent partly upon the capacity to live in strong accord and harmony with the environment.
The success of aspects such as food crops, gardens, and the preservation of birds and fish was often dependent on the ability of community specialists to predict with exact accuracy the arrival of star constellations such as Matariki.
Not a universal observation
Not every iwi observed the arrival of the Matariki constellation with the same importance. Some iwi attach greater significance to the arrival of other stars such as Puanga, so Matariki is not necessarily a pan-tribal tradition.
The fact that iwi occupied different parts of Aotearoa also meant significant changes in weather patterns, seasonal markers and environmental occurrences. Basically, winter arrives earlier in some parts of the country than others.
From a contemporary viewpoint, however, the way that most iwi now commemorate the occasion is definitely more ubiquitous. in the sense that it is viewed as an opportunity to come together with the wider community and to share, to reflect, and to celebrate as one.
The resurgence begins
The present resurgence and recognition of Matariki traditions seemed to initiate during the mid-90s, and has become increasingly popular since.
The emergence of Te Reo Māori initiatives, such as the Kura Kaupapa Māori movement and other Māori language and cultural initiatives of the time, were key catalysts.
Since then, Matariki celebrations have continued to grow to the point where the tradition has now become widely acknowledged and embraced across the country by community groups, schools, businesses and a range of different organisations.
I think it’s interesting because Matariki is inherently about our environment here in Aotearoa. It’s definitely a recognition not only of the uniqueness of the Māori culture, but also extremities of the Aotearoa climate.
We talk about the weather a lot here in this country, probably because it has such a strong bearing upon what we can and can’t do especially during the winter months. For farmers it can impact on things as important as moving stock to higher country, for school children it can affect the ability to play Saturday morning sports, it can even impact upon something as seemingly trivial as hanging out the washing.
The practical implications regarding the arrival of Matariki are undoubtedly far different to those encountered in more ancient times, yet many of the underpinning social values still endure.
Because of the conditions, whānau and wider communities, put aside many of their usual occupations to instead come together to share kai (food) and renew valued and longstanding relationships.
This is otherwise known as the expression of manaakitanga (generosity) and the embodiment of whanaungatanga (social interaction and relationships).
A growing sense of a shared culture
The resurgence of Matariki represents a growing recognition across Aotearoa, and indeed the world, of the special characteristics and traditions that make the Maori culture so unique.
At the heart of Māori culture is this sense of inclusion and the importance of expressing generosity to others. These values are an inherent part of modern-day Matariki celebrations, and it’s emblematic of a growing desire across Māori communities to share with others in the community some of those special elements.
We all live on the same land mass and we all experience the same seasonal changes, therefore we must all try our best to protect and preserve our unique environment in a collaborative way.
A new tradition now firmly in place
Contemporary Matariki events are a firm fixture now on the Aotearoa calendar. They each represent an opportunity for broad and diverse groups within the wider community to come together, to reflect on the past, to celebrate the present, and to look forward to the coming months ahead.
Many events provide an opportunity to showcase Māori arts such as contemporary music or visual arts, or more traditional cultural aspects such as Kapa Haka.
At the core of all celebrations, however, are 2 things: first, Te Reo Māori – the Māori language and indigenous to Aotearoa; and second, kai – traditional Māori food and the ultimate expression of the core values of manaakitanga and whanaungatanga.
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