Indigenous stargazers of the distant past were more connected to the skies and the Earth than we can ever hope to be. They learned to co-exist with giant bodies tracking across the skies, learned to play by their celestial whims, sometimes guided by them to plant, navigate seas and even build homes.
But one thing was crystal clear: “There is no conflict between the astronomy bodies,” Professor Rangi Mātāmua quotes his grandfather’s mantra in an interview with Gulf News, following his talk at Expo 2020 Dubai’s Space Week.
As a seventh-generation Māori astronomer and an academic on the subject, Mātāmua speaks to a world constantly on the go. Where differences divide us on land, diverse celestial bodies have been moving in harmony since time immemorial. It is a lesson literally written in the stars.
‘We come from the stars’
“We Māori believe the sky and land are a reflection of each other. In a world bombarded with information, there is the urgency to address climate change, global warming and environmental issues. As much as it is important to look down, we need to look up. We’re all connected to the cosmos – we must be united,” he said.
That connection to Nature is born of traditional Māori worldview – one where they are direct descendants of the Earth and Sky.
Māori, who are Polynesians indigenous to New Zealand, have always known – since more than a millennium ago – that we are made of star stuff. Today, science tells us that our bodies comprise of matter that was forged by nuclear fusion reactions inside stars, giving us hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and more.
Celebrate Matariki, Māori New Year
Mātāmua said: “Astronomy plays such a crucial role in our history, our beliefs, our religion, our ceremonies and practices.”
Identity and culture erosion threatened the Māori way of life with European settlers arriving in 1800s. The education system was displaced and the Gregorian calendar was introduced, an unfamiliar way of telling time when the Māori were accustomed to lunar phases. A few diligently kept records like Mātāmua’s great-great grandfather, whose 400-page manuscript boasted 30 years of astronomy research.
“It formed the basis of my own decades-long official study,” he added, recalling that he received the book when he asked after the Māori New Year, Matariki.
The celebration is observed when the Pleiades constellation is seen rising at dawn in the winter solstice. Mātāmua says it is a gathering of people where a feast is cooked for the stars, incantations are recited and those who have passed since the last rising are remembered. From next year onwards, New Zealand will observe the festivities officially as a public holiday.
A bit of that revival excitement will be felt all the way here in Dubai as well. On New Zealand’s Expo-slotted national day, January 31, 2021, the pavilion is gearing up to celebrate the rising of the Matariki with site-wide events, including performances by band Six60 and the Royal Family Dance Crew.
Take part in the festival and recognise that “space is a place not to be conquered, but read”.