Kua haehae ngā hihi o Matariki; The rays of Matariki are spread.
By Briar Pomana ((Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Rakaipaaka)
Illustrations by Charlie Ratahi McFarland (Ngāpuhi) (she/her)
I imagine Matariki as a gap-toothed, foul-mouthed Nanny that sits on her deck with a pipe filled with a natural substance and an endless steaming cup of tea. She’s wearing hand-knitted slippers, made with leftover brown and neon orange wool from the back of the crafts cupboard. Her hands are wrinkled and covered in tattooed dots from her school-girl days that are illegible amongst the drapery of loose skin. Matariki has many mokopuna that lean up against her, grabbing onto her long skirt with affection as they play peek-a-boo with one another. She laughs heartily at their jokes and scolds with great conviction when they run through her humble home with muddy feet.
In the morning, Matariki sits on a creaky rocking chair out on her deck. From her porch she can see beyond where the ocean foams and breaks, to where the valley touches the sky above the treeline. She is attuned to the intricacies of her slice of paradise and is as much a part of its cycle as the sun. Before evening she would have already collected the eggs from her precious hens whom she warmly refers to as ‘the girls’ and filled her basket with peculiar barbell radishes, rather raunchy looking carrots and more silverbeet than humanly ingestible, freshly washed and ready to be cooked or pickled.
In saying all of this, I can’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that the whetū that make up the cluster of Matariki have designated genders. The binary doesn’t make much sense to me in this context, and I’m seeing this narrative often as Matariki enters the public sphere and opinion. But, if I had to personify Matariki, the star that is the closest to Earth, a chain smoking, hunter-gatherer kuia is a warm image.
The Mystification of Matariki
When I was 16, my school went to a guest lecture that Dr Rangi Mātāmua was hosting at Eastern Institute of Technology. The best way I can describe Dr Rangi to the uninitiated (if you still don’t know who Dr Rangi is, you’re living under a rock), he is the godfather of modern Matariki as we know it. I won’t dive too deeply into his lifetime portfolio of work, but Dr Rangi left a long-lasting impression on me. At that time, Matariki was mostly celebrated by Māori and more extensively by whānau that were fortunate enough to inherit this knowledge.
We are now in our second year of Matariki as a public holiday. So more than ever, Matariki will be celebrated by brands, by councils and by communities throughout Aotearoa. Lewis Road Creamery has recently come under fire for releasing a limited Matariki-inspired milk flavour. What does milk have to do with Matariki? Apparently a whole lot. I fear that Matariki is in jeopardy of whimsical holiday quaintness, that in the years to come we’ll see movies of children embracing the ‘spirit of Matariki’ through family-friendly animated films. Only for the characters in the flick to realise Matariki is all about cherishing those you love and believing in magic.
Magic and fairytales are often prescribed to what we as Māori know as, pūrakau, kōrero tuku iho and whakapapa; esoteric stories, passed-down knowledge and genealogy. My depiction of Matariki is not entirely informed by any of the above. Matariki as a whetū is used as an umbrella name for the entire cluster and is often referred to as the mother of all the stars. My understanding is this is because of Matariki's strong ties to the natural environment and all living things. Cue the assigned gender roles.
Other stars in the cluster have a much more defined domain, such as Ururangi who indicates the winds and Tupuānuku who reflects the upcoming harvest of earth-grown things. I’ve found that like Matariki, the depictions of these whetū are rather whimsical and god-like. Ururangi is often a large burly man, similarly to how Tāwhirimātea, our atua of winds, is represented, whereas Tupuānuku is a mother-earth-type figure like Papatūānuku. These are all valid and I don’t want to dismiss these characteristics. I do not claim to be an expert and I understand how inspiring and comforting it can be to see the whetū in this manner. But this year, I’m much more interested in how the kāhui whetū (star cluster) show up in each of us. How we embody our environments and how we are similar to these reflective prisms of light we look to and seek guidance from. What if this Matariki we understood the stars as we do our grandmothers, our siblings, our friends, loved ones?
We are all reflective prisms of light.
When you wish upon a star, Hiwa-i-te-rangi will guide you. Wishing, goal setting, manifesting, whatever you choose to call it, Hiwa-i-te-rangi is responsible for it. Hiwa-i-te-rangi is a whetū that is strongly associated with the future and regenerative practice. It is mostly depicted as a young woman with sparkly motifs and surrounded by whimsicality, but I imagine Hiwa as a young takatāpui artist with piercings and tā moko covering their body. Fingers laced with rings of chrome and white gold, they have the most impressive collection of perfumes and oils kept in various vials and jars in an old oak cupboard. Hiwa understands the cosmic alignment of dreams, well-versed in travelling through time as a hitchhiker of hope. The first to pick up a tea towel in whoever's kitchen they find themselves in. Hiwa is a person that lives in communities built from our imaginations and where we all weaponise our brilliance.
Pōhutukawa is the whetū that represents those who have passed on, commonly depicted as an older woman, with long tousled hair and adorned with a pare kawakawa or pōuhutukawa flower. Similarly to Matariki, this whetū feels quite maternal and maybe this is because of our connection with Hine-nui-te-pō, the atua who guides us in Rarohenga, the underworld, that we tend to overtly feminise Pōhutukawa. But what if Pōhutukawa was a baby? The total opposite side of the spectrum. A bub that coos and is sent off into giggling blubbers on sight of those that have passed. One that despises tummy time and has toes that look like baby potatoes. What if Pōhutukawa was likened to a tubby little pep that has tight curly fluff and mile long lashes that seem to drip raindrops when they cry? When my Papa passed away, my family were huddled in a small, cold hospital room in Gisborne. It is said that when Papa had moved on from this lifetime, our nephew started cracking up and his parents could do nothing to stop him. This little baby, less than a year old, was able to single-handedly lift the tapu from a room full of whānau pani. They tend to do this in times of grief and loss. Babies are like spring, they remind us that things must die to give way to new life - just like Pōhutukawa.
Ururangi is a special whetū, it is one that we can physically feel. It is connected to what we know to whip violently through alleyways and flutter gracefully across the ocean and land. Ururangi is the whetū of the winds. In Te Ao Māori, wind, as a force of nature, holds great cultural significance and I suspect the same for indigenous cultures around the world. In many illustrations, Ururangi is depicted as a burly man with a great beard and I can assume, reminiscent of Tāwhirimātea, our atua of wind. I quite like the idea that Ururangi is this bearlike person just because of their sheer strength and the damage that they’re capable of. But also because some of the biggest, strongest men I know are as sweet as they come. There’s something in the whakapapa of a giant Māori man that immediately ensures he is the cuddliest, plushest squish-mallow of a person. I think of my childhood friend who was as tall as a house and smoked like a chimney. This is Ururangi for me. Someone that goes for ‘walks’ at family gatherings only to return just in time for when the food is being plated up. The smokers pae out the back of the marae who are as philosophical as the ones leaping about inside the whare. It only feels right that Ururangi should be a stoner with the biggest lungs in all the land.
When the rain is falling so quickly that it feels like the water could be pooling in the sky, that is an indication of Waipunarangi, the whetū that is connected to rain, mist and floods. At the moment, Waipunarangi is a beautiful woman with sharp features that remind me of Katara the waterbender from Avatar: The Last Airbender. In my head, Waipunarangi is my cousin Paige. An irarere muso who is never far from their guitar or a body of water. Waipunarangi has pounamu eyes and a misty complexion. They play pūoro at beaches trapped in suburbia and have Troy Kingi on vinyl. Headstrong but also incredibly in tune with the spiritual world, water to them is ritualistic and cleansing. They often keep a water bottle in the car for unexpected times of whakanoa. When provoked, Waipunarangi breaks generational curses for the fun of it. Whenever they go somewhere new, they take a dip in the nearest body of water out of respect for the elders past and present. Waipunarangi to me is not to be taken lightly; if they wanted to, they could bring armageddon onto the world, but for now, they rest and play their song.
Water flowing and riverbeds flourishing are good signs in relation to this whetū. Waitī is connected to our awa, our streams and freshwater. I usually identify myself as a glorified river rat because of our small town’s relationship with our awa and all I can see when I imagine Waitī personified is us neighbourhood riff-raffs that would be down at the river everyday. Whether we were bombing off the bridge, tying makeshift swings from tree branches or harvesting watercress, it felt like we were always knee-deep in trouble. It isn’t uncommon in small towns to see this type of scene. School uniforms hanging from oddly bent trees, muddied tracks cut by nothing other than the pounding of bare feet, and river weed that looks like pubes were par for the course. Waitī is one of us. They catch eels with no more than a hunk of last night’s steak and a bit of twine. Their bombs are the biggest and they know where the foot holes are when it’s time to go home for tea. Waitī would rather die than see their awa become just another junkyard. Nothing can replace the pull it has on a river rat.
Tupuānuku is the whetū that indicates the harvest and food grown on the earth. During Matariki, if you see it shining brightly it means the crops will be abundant in the coming seasons. Tupuānuku is associated with maternity and has depictions similar to Papatūānuku, a-mother-earth-type-beat. But, what if Tupuānuku was a beekeeping, kūmara digging koro in his utopia of a backyard garden? Tupuānuku’s house is filled with things he’s grown. He’s a weaver and storyteller of times when every valley was filled with bird song and fruit. He’s the quiet type of grandfather that puts his head down and does the work. His fingernails always have dirt under them and his closet is filled with cargos and sun hats. When his mokopuna arrive back home from the city, he greets them with mandarins and kamokamo relish. The local marae wouldn’t know what they’d do without him. Anything that needs to be done, Tupuānuku will happily chip away at. You’ll often find him on his knees deep in soil, or mowing his neighbour’s lawns. When the harvest is plentiful, Tupuānuku is his happiest and he can’t help telling everyone about it; at the dairy, at the gas station or even down at the river when he’s had a hard day out in the sun. He knows his whenua intimately and what he grows, he shares.
Because we’re surrounded by it, the ocean plays a massive role in the identity of people who live in Aotearoa. Iwi that come from seaside rohe have songs and chants filled with delicacies of what comes from the great deep. The ocean and the stars is how Māori came to these lands and it is this whetū that informs us of the state of our salty waters. Waitā is associated with the masculine as Tangaroa often is, but there are some who believe Tangaroa possesses more feminine traits and would alternatively send mihi to Hinemoana, another atua of the sea. The last few years during Matariki, I have participated in the audio experience Mauri Tau by Scotty Cotter and Silo Theatre. In the experience, listeners are encouraged to go for walks and collect tokens both physical and spiritual on their journey that align with the stars in the Matariki cluster. The entire operation is incredibly transformational and creatively inspiring. In the part of the audio journey where Waitā is mentioned, it is through a character that is a surfer, advising listeners to connect with the ocean and commit to caring for it as much as they play in it. Because of this, I can’t see any other characterisation of this whetū. I imagine someone with washboard abs and could easily dive into a scene of Blue Crush. They have a shell anklet that was given to them by a best mate and they drive a van with bumper stickers. Waitā always smells like salt and sunscreen, and their van is rarely clean. After every surf they challenge themselves to pick up at least five pieces of rubbish, which they often exceed. Waitā is the type of person to help someone change their tyre on the side of the road and also pick up struggling swimmers from rips. The ocean is their playground and they ensure to make it so they never have to get off the roundabout.
Connected to kai and life in the treelines, Tupuārangi is high maintenance. I feel like she’d be the queen bee at high school. Someone that could turn the waterworks on whenever they were feeling their crown being threatened, whether by friend or foe. Naturally, she is the lead of the school's theatre production and has the talent to go further. In a few years she’ll make an appearance on Shortland Street as the new head of the DHB. By day she is top of the hospital and by night she is the Ferndale femme fatale for her character's sneaky murder rampage. Outside of work, Tupuārangi, like most retired mean-girls, is a spiritualist who often collects rain water in mason jars and uses it in rituals. She loves to make lists and buys too many notebooks to which she will never fill. Her preference is a natural wine from Farro or Glengarry. When she goes home to her people, her feet never leave the ground and her Redbands don’t have a lick of mud. Tupuārangi will often impress her lovers by whistling to the kererū and tuī that live outside her window at her Ponsonby villa. When she’s in her garden harvesting from her pomegranate tree, she often finds their feathers to which she keeps and wears to gallery exhibitions and theatre shows in the city. Tupuārangi is that girl.