A personal essay by Rangi Matamua on the science of Māori astronomy
My field of research is astronomy, in particular Māori astronomy. I have no formal training and in fact I failed fourth form (year 10) science. As a young Māori boy at a Māori boarding school, the Western notion of science was completely foreign to me. I had no genealogical connection to the periodic table, I did not see the cultural relevance of a bunsen burner, and when I thought about science, the image that came to mind was that of a skinny white man in a lab coat with thick-rimmed spectacles and a pocket protector.
Yet I always had natural curiosity to ask questions and seek answers, and I have always loved science. This interest began in front of the television and the hours I spent with my father watching sci-fi programmes such as Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Sapphire & Steel, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. During my formative years, the Star Wars movies were released and my life changed. What they helped me to realise is that narrative is so important in connecting people to knowledge, especially Indigenous peoples. These programmes infused very scientific theories and principles such as interstellar travel, light speed, teleportation, alien life, the multiverse and other concepts with storytelling. And for me it was the stories and narratives that helped me to connect to this knowledge base.
My connection to the field of astronomy is actually part of my family heritage. It began some seven generations ago with my ancestor Te Pikikōtuku from the Ngāti Pikiao people of the Rotoiti region. He was a well-known expert and leader, and was acknowledged as a tohunga kōkōrangi (astronomy expert). His son Himiona Te Pikikōtuku inherited his father’s mantle. Himiona moved inland to Te Urewera, to the heart of the Tūhoe people in Ruatāhuna. Here he settled with his partner and his in-laws. Their eldest child was Te Kōkau, who also became a tohunga like his father. Te Kōkau eventually passed his knowledge base to his son, Rāwiri Te Kōkau: four generations of Māori astronomers. These tohunga spent their nights, from sunset to sunrise, studying the night sky and making detailed observations of the celestial objects and the environment. Their knowledge base was passed down from father to son via oral transmission and shared observation.
In the late 1800s, Te Kōkau decided that he would record this information in a manuscript. Why he chose to pen the names of the stars and their stories and meanings I do not know. I can only speculate that against the backdrop of land alienation, war, and the narrative of the time that the Māori race was dying, he took it upon himself to record this knowledge in case it was lost to time. Te Kōkau secured a 400-page ledger from the famed ethnologist Elsdon Best. In the summer of 1898 Te Kōkau began writing. He wrote the names of over 900 stars that he had committed to memory, along with their corresponding stories and related information. He identified just over 100 constellations, and hand-drawing these star groups. He also included instructions for the practising of astronomical ceremony, songs associated with different stars and star groups, scientific observations, especially in relation to the application of a lunar stellar environmental calendar system, as well as numerous stories.
This manuscript was eventually given by Te Kōkau to his son Rāwiri, who also added his own observations, making his last entry in 1933. On his deathbed, Rāwiri handed the manuscript to his grandson Timi, who was in his early teenage years. Fearful of the tapu associated with this book and its contents, a fear reinforced by the reputation of his grandfather as a practitioner of “dark arts”, Timi took the manuscript, moved out of the region and hid it in a closet, where it was forgotten and remained untouched for more than 50 years.
Timi is my grandfather and his influence on me has shaped my life. I remember him as a kind, humble and reserved man who constantly reinforced the importance of education. He was also very superstitious and until his final days he was fearful of tapu. But as he aged he began to soften and sometimes he even spoke about his grandfather, albeit briefly.
In 1992 I began study at Victoria University. I wanted to attend this institution for a number reasons, but mostly because my uncle Pou Temara was a lecturer there and I wanted him to be my teacher. This pleased my grandfather, because Pou was also from Ruatāhuna and he was a tohunga. It was around this period, the early to mid-1990s, that Matariki (the Māori new year) was becoming a ‘thing’. Much of the resurgence in this space was centred around Te Papa, which hosted a number of early conferences and lectures about Matariki. As well, various iwi celebrations began to happen at the same time.
Most of the knowledge base that drove these early celebrations of Matariki came from individuals who still maintained oral histories, combined with small pockets of writings on astronomy, the most comprehensive being in two works by Elsdon Best, The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori and Tuhoe: The children of the mist (vol. 1).
There are also scatterings of Māori astronomical knowledge in other publications and resources like the Māori newspapers, but for the most part the information on the subject is limited. After attending one of the early Matariki lectures at Te Papa, where I listened to both Pou Temara and the late Hōhepa Kereopa speak about this star cluster, I returned home to my grandfather. During a quiet moment together I asked him if he knew anything about Matariki and the stars. A slight smile came to his face. He rose and left me alone, disappearing into another room. A few minutes later he returned and was holding what I thought to be a very old and large bible. He handed it to me and said it had been given to him by his grandfather. I opened it, and I saw pages and pages of names, drawings and stories, all in te reo Māori. In this instant my life took a turn and I began my journey into Māori astronomy.
I was given strict instructions by my grandfather about how I was to care for the knowledge. He spoke about it as if it were a living being with a life force of its own. He told me not to worry about the tapu attached to the book as he would protect me from this. What he was most insistent about was that I did not share the manuscript with anyone else. His eyes narrowed when he looked at me and said, “This book was written by the hands of your ancestors. They were tohunga and they were tapu. Do not give this book to anyone, do not share it with anyone. This is for you alone.”
I felt the weight of his words and knew that what the manuscript contained was more than just information and knowledge: it was history, it was time, it was memory and it was a legacy.
I spent the next 10 years poring over the pages of the manuscript, reading, learning, discovering and connecting to the practices of my forebears. It took me a year just to be able to read the handwriting; often the level of te reo Māori was beyond my comprehension and it took me considerable time to decipher exactly what was being discussed. Still, I continued to work with the manuscript, every time learning something new.
Then my grandfather became ill. As he moved into the final stage of his life my family gathered around him and we spent precious moments together. As things became worse he would sleep for extended periods of time, and when he was awake he seemed confused. But there were also periods where he was alert and where he spoke with clarity and purpose. An example was our final conversation. He called me to his bedside and while I held his hand he spoke of his vision for my future and the future of our family. I knew this was his ōhākī (final wishes) and I hung on every word.
Finally he came to the subject of the manuscript. He spoke about how it was an heirloom that needed to stay within the whānau and I was not to let it go. He spoke of the importance of the knowledge that it contained and the need for the mana of that knowledge to be maintained. These words were not surprising and I had expected him to say something along these lines.
However the next part of the conversation totally floored me. He looked at me and in a very soft voice explained that my role was to find a way to share the knowledge in the manuscript. While he wanted me to hold the item itself, the knowledge within the book had to be disseminated to all. He was not sure how I would do it, but he charged me with the duty to communicate this knowledge. His final words to me were, “knowledge that is not shared is not knowledge”.
After my grandfather passed I continued to study the manuscript while at the same time undertaking research into Māori astronomy through my career as a university academic. This professional position enabled me to secure research funding from Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga and Marsden, and to secure a Fulbright Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Award allowing me to travel, conduct interviews and collect data nationally and internationally. I also chased every single scrap of information I could find on Māori astronomy. I read books, papers, journals, newspapers; anything to gain more information. Once I felt like I had a sound foundation of the major principles of Māori astronomy, I moved to fulfil my grandfather’s wish to share this knowledge.
Like my ancestors before me, I began to write. My goal was to produce a large comprehensive book on Māori astronomy based on the manuscript I had received. As the book grew in size and scope I turned my attention to the section that was dedicated to Matariki. After a few weeks I had produced 100 pages about Matariki alone and I realised this was a book in its own right.
But the book included Māori star lore that had never been seen before in any other publication. I was about to release knowledge that had been recorded by my ancestor and this would challenge some of the existing information associated with Matariki, including the number of stars in the cluster, their names, the origins of the name itself, how it should be celebrated, and even the application of the science related to its rising and connection to the calendar system. My fear was that once it was released I would no longer be able to protect the mana of my grandfather and my ancestors, as their knowledge would be exposed to the world to be scrutinised and even ridiculed.
I contemplated this dilemma for a number of weeks and was even on the verge of not releasing the book. Then I recalled the words of my grandfather, “knowledge that is not shared is not knowledge”. I found solace in this statement.
I took a deep breath and in 2017 released my book Matariki: The star of the year.
An edited extract from the essay collection Ngā Kete Mātauranga: Māori scholars at the research interface (Otago University Press, $60) edited by Jacinta Ruru and Linda Waimarie Nikora, available at selected bookstores nationwide.