Each year, the winter stars of Matariki signal the arrival of the Māori New Year. Traditionally, the rise of Matariki was a sign to ensure food crops had been harvested and the storehouses were well-stocked for the coming year. 

Nowadays, Matariki has become a time of revitalisation and resurgence of te reo Māori and mātauranga Māori. Matariki is an opportunity to reflect and celebrate our history and make plans for the future. 

In doing so, we acknowledge our traditions, language and culture, which together give us a sense of who we are.

Matariki is the Māori name for the star cluster also known as the Pleiades. While it comprises over 300 stars, only seven are typically seen. Towards the end of June this year, we can observe Matariki rise in the north-eastern horizon just before dawn. The first new moon following the rise of Matariki is called “Te Tahi o Pipiri” or the first day of Pipiri, Māori New Year’s Day.

Matariki is a time for remembering the dead and celebrating new life. Matariki was a season for manaakitanga (hospitality) that brought communities together. Visitors were showered with gifts of specially preserved food and other delicacies. Throughout Matariki, Māori learnt from each other, which ensured that traditions like arts, weaving, waiata, performances, wānanga and whakapapa were passed from one generation to the next.

Today Matariki is also about the revitalisation and resurgence of te reo Māori and mātauranga Māori traditions. Rituals of gathering to reflect upon the past year, sharing experiences, planning activities and acknowledging those who have passed during the year are important aspects of Matariki. In 1993, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Otepou revived the Matariki celebrations in Tauranga with an early morning trek up the Kopukairoa Mountain. This became an annual trek to celebrate the first sighting of Matariki in our moana with karakia (prayers) and waiata (songs), acknowledging the arrival of the New Year. During Matariki we celebrate who we are, consent to new beginnings, plan for the future, prepare for imminent trends and look for guidance to show us the way forward.

Māori astronomical understanding was embedded in pre-colonial Māori life, culture and belief. The sun, moon and stars were an essential part of practices affecting agriculture, fishing, architecture and exploration. Tohunga Māori (specialist men and women) with knowledge of the stars valued the importance of Matariki as an indicator of the seasons, a foreteller of the weather and a navigational beacon for Pacific Ocean travellers.

Did you know that the seven pou (figures) on The Strand in Tauranga were created by local carver James Tapiata to represent Matariki?

From left to right, when looking at the pou from The Strand:

The first figure, Kahui Matariki, is dressed in a dog skin cloak to reflect the status Matariki holds in the universe. He faces Mauao as a sign of respect to the mountain. It incorporates two other constellations: Tiheru (the Bailer), depicted by two full paua shells on the lower back and Tautoru (Orion), the three smaller shells in an arch on the shoulder. The mokomoko (lizard) sits at the back of the head and is symbolic of Maui's journey from Te Wao Tapu nui a Tane (the sacred garden of Tanenuiarangi) to Te Aoturoa (the state we are in now).

The second figure is Tupu a Nuku rising from the earth. The koru on top is enveloped by four manaia. The manaia are carved in styles from the South Island, East Coast, Taranaki and Northland. Collectively they represent Nga Hau e Wha (the four winds) and the four seasons.

The third figure, Tupu a Rangi, deals with the navigational aspects of Matariki. He holds a navigational instrument in his right hand and extends his left hand out to the horizon.

Waita, the fourth figure, tells of the travels undertaken by Māori with the hoe (paddle) upright in salute. There is also a modern day reference to the travels that we take in our own lives. This is shown by the unfilled ritorito pattern around the shoulders.

The fifth figure, Waiti, depicts the food-bringing aspect of Matariki. The hands hold kumara (sweet potato) from the garden, and pikopiko (fern fronds) from the forest. Fish are seen on the left leg and a kereru (pigeon) on the right. The ritorito pattern on the upper lip is filled, indicating that the potential is also filled in a physical sense.

The sixth figure is Waipuna a Rangi. The spiral design portrays the water that hails the arrival of Matariki and the life giving properties of water. The three manaia at the top represent the three iwi (tribes) of Tauranga Moana: Ngati Ranginui, Ngai Te Rangi and Ngati Pukenga.

Ururangi, the seventh figure, is carved in the Tainui style paying homage to the links Tauranga Māori have with Kingitanga. The twelve figures represent the Tekaumarua (the Council of Elders), and the main feature represents the Waikato River.