Rebecca Priestley: The intersection of astrophysics and matauranga Maori

by Rebecca Priestley / 15 July, 2016
Pauline Harris, chair of the Society for Maori Astronomy Research and Traditions, shows that astrophysics and Maori star lore can profitably coexist.
Photo/Thinkstock
Photo/Thinkstock


Matariki begins with the rising of the star cluster known to astronomers as the Pleiades. Thanks to the revitalisation of Maori knowledge, or matauranga, that started early this century, Matariki is now acknow­ledged and celebrated throughout Aotearoa, by Maori and Pakeha, in schools, museums and communities.

“I think it’s the beginning of people wanting to engage more with matauranga Maori,” says Pauline Harris, chair of the Society for Maori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART). Harris (Ngati Rongomaiwahine/Ngati Kahungunu) is involved in a range of projects aimed at cultural revitalisation, but Maori star lore is also an area of academic research.

Harris completed a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Canterbury in 2008 – she was “looking at these very small particles called neutrinos that come from gamma-ray bursts – some of the biggest explosions in the universe.” More recently, as a postdoctoral research fellow at Victoria University, she has been “looking for planets outside our solar system, using a technique called gravitational microlensing”.

Both areas of research involve receiving data from a telescope – a neutrino detector at the South Pole and optical telescopes in Chile and Tekapo – then analysing it using sophisticated computer software designed to filter out neutrino and planet signals from background noise. “We get the observations, then run millions of calculations to see if there’s a match between our computer model and the observations.”

Pauline Harris: “I’ve had to play catch-up in terms of Maori knowledge about the stars.” Photo/Les Maiden; Victoria University Wellington
Pauline Harris: “I’ve had to play catch-up in terms of Maori knowledge about the stars.” Photo/Les Maiden; Victoria University Wellington


Moving from astrophysics to the revival of Maori star lore – in projects supported by the Marsden Fund and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – has involved a change of methodology for Harris. “First you have to go outside and actually look up at the sky and try to become familiar with the movement of the stars and the different phases of the Moon.”

Recovering traditional knowledge involves travelling around the country to talk to Maori individuals and communities. “Everyone has different narratives to share – some might have lists of star names, others might have stories about certain stars.”

Further information is found in old manuscripts. Elsdon Best, at the end of his 1922 work The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, claimed that “the available data concerning Maori sky lore is now exhausted”, but Harris and her colleagues have proved him wrong. Best identified 100 Maori names for celestial bodies, but Harris’ SMART collaborator and University of Waikato scholar Rangi Matamua has so far compiled a list of 1000 Maori star names.

The work is of more than historical and cultural interest. Traditionally, Maori made practical use of the stars and the Moon for celestial navigation, as seasonal indicators and for information about ecological occurrences. “At different times of year, you’ll see a ripening of different plants that will correlate with a certain animal behaviour and a certain star observation.”

Harris is now interested in what this close reading of environmental occurrences can reveal about climate-induced ecological changes. In a new project, she plans to work with people “with a really strong relationship with the environment” through a series of indigenous citizen-science projects to provide a complementary set of data – alongside the temperature, sea level and other measurements being gathered by scientific instruments – to help determine the broader effects of climate change on the country’s ecosystems.

Astrophysics and matauranga Maori are very different bodies of knowledge, but Harris sees no value in pitting the two against each other. Rather, she says, it’s about “respecting both knowledge systems for what they are”. To see the intersections between them, says Harris, “you need to know both – and that’s been a real challenge. I’ve had to play catch-up in terms of Maori knowledge because we weren’t taught it at school. Making things better for students today is one of my drivers.”

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