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  • Tātai arorangi, Māori astronomical knowledge, is fundamental to te ao Māori. It forms a significant pillar of whakapapa stretching back to the beginnings of the universe. Tātai arorangi underpinned much of pre-colonial Māori culture, beliefs and day-to-day life. It informed navigation, maramataka, agricultural and mahinga kai practices and architecture.

    Tātai arorangi – Māori astronomy

    Tātai arorangi – detailed astronomical knowledge – is used to navigate the ocean, plant crops, harvest mahinga kai and tell the time.

    Select here to view video transcript, discussion questions and copyright information.

    With the arrival of European settlers, traditional astronomical knowledge was suppressed in favour of Western ideas. The push to assimilate Māori into a new culture saw a decline in Māori language speakers and Māori knowledge experts. Aspects of tātai arorangi as well as other forms of mātauranga and culture were lost.

    When you don’t have your language as a vehicle for knowledge, it really hinders what knowledge can be taught and understood. For without your language, you truly don’t understand the context.

    Dr Pauline Harris

    Celestial navigation

    Wayfinding – the ancient art of ocean navigation using the stars, Sun, Moon and natural signs – began a renaissance in the 1970s and sparked voyages of rediscovery throughout the Pacific. Aotearoa joined the revival in the 1990s with the building of the voyaging waka Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti by Hekenukumai Busby (Pūhipi). Māori navigators used a combination of mātauranga Māori and ancestral Pacific knowledge to close the Polynesian triangle. Master navigator Jack Thatcher translated a modernised star compass – kāpehu whetū – into te reo Māori. This isn’t the kind of compass you find on your phone – kāpehu whetū requires the user to know the positions of at least 220 stars!

    Celebrations of Matariki, which mark the rising of Te Kāhui o Matariki and the start of the Māori new year, also increased interest in Māori astronomy.

    Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions – SMART

    Dr Pauline Harris is the Chairperson of SMART – an organisation whose aim is to preserve and revitalise Māori astronomical knowledge.

    Select here to view video transcript, discussion questions and copyright information.

    Preserving and revitalising Māori astronomical knowledge

    The efforts to revitalise tātai arorangi took another step forward in 2009 – the International Year of Astronomy – with the formation of the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART). SMART is made up of Māori knowledge experts, astronomical educators, navigators and research specialists. SMART’s objectives are to contribute to the revitalisation of Māori star lore including maramataka and navigation. It does this by using a kaupapa Māori approach in its research to gather knowledge from iwi around the motu. Researchers also explore archival sources for information from years past.

    Sharing the past to empower the future

    SMART’s vision is to empower rangatahi and communities by realising their Māori potential. It creates unique educational programmes that engage rangatahi with science by presenting it within a kaupapa Māori context. SMART members actively engage in mātauranga and science communication, working with groups from kōhanga reo to universities and the wider community.

    Sharing mātauranga Māori

    Dr Pauline Harris provides insight on aspects of Māori knowledge.

    Select here to view video transcript, discussion questions and copyright information.

    SMART has also been one of the driving forces in the creation of Matariki – Aotearoa New Zealand’s first public holiday that recognises te ao Māori. For example, board member Rangi Mātāmua has written best-selling books about Matariki and has significant outreach via social media. In 2019, he gave talks throughout Aotearoa and Australia for the Royal Society Te Apārangi series ‘Ko Matariki e ārau ana’. More than 10,000 people attended these events! Rangi was awarded the Prime Minister's 2019 Science Communication Prize.

    When the New Zealand Government committed to making Matariki a public holiday, they established a Matariki Advisory Group. Several members of SMART were appointed to the group, with recognition of their expertise in te ao Māori and the pūrākau and mātauranga associated with Matariki and maramataka.

    Recognising the significance of Matariki through a public holiday will give Māori across the country a chance to share their traditions, history and stories with the rest of New Zealand. Te ao Māori plays a large part in defining who New Zealanders are as a nation and setting Aotearoa New Zealand apart from the rest of the world.

    New Zealand Government

    SMART recognises that tātai arorangi is important for Māori and Pacific whānau. Some of the knowledge is to be shared freely and some is to be protected. Celebrations like Matariki provide New Zealanders with the opportunities to respectfully learn about Māori astronomical knowledge.

    Related content

    Māori astronomy is still developing today through the use of current technologies. For instance, Tāwhaki is a joint venture between Te Taumutu Rūnanga and Wairewa Rūnanga (mana whenua and rangatira of Kaitōrete) and the New Zealand Government Space Agency. Over time, farming practices and irrigation have impacted on the region of Kaitōrete. The aim of Tāwhaki is to restore Kaitōrete and develop aerospace opportunities for New Zealand.

    Revitalising Māori astronomy features the origins of SMART, including some of the founding members and their mahi.

    Meet Professor Rangi Mātāmua, board member of SMART and Chair of the Matariki Advisory Group, in this PLD webinar as he shares ways to incorporate te reo Māori alongside teaching science.

    Meet Dr Pauline Harris in the Connected article Listening to the land.

    Useful links

    Visit the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART) Facebook page.

    Read about the creation of the Matariki public holiday. The webpage also has short, informative videos that feature members of the Matariki Advisory Group.

    Land of Voyagers, on the Mātauranga website, has a number of multimedia resources that explain astronomical knowledge and other techniques used in traditional navigation.


    This resource has been produced with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the support of the New Zealand Space Agency.

    Rights: Crown copyright

    Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the New Zealand Space Agency

    The New Zealand Space Agency, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, is the lead government agency for space policy, regulation and sector development.

      Published 25 July 2022 Referencing Hub articles
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