Our Wellington

News | 1 July 2021

Sharing stories of the stars

 For Toa Waaka’s ancestors, understanding the night sky was a “matter of life and death”.

Actor and astronomer Toa Waaka, with a bare chest and looking staunch at the camera, wearing a Māori korowai and neckpiece, with a black background.
Toa Waaka. Photo by Matt Dobson. Costume by CKFilmdesign.

“It determined when was the safest time to move north and south of the equator, to travel upon favourable winds and currents or aramoana (ocean highways) to new lands.” 

Toa – of Ngāti Toa, Te Āti Awa, Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Porou, and Ngāti Koata – is an actor, cultural advisor, education advocate, and Māori astronomer. 

He says there are many tribal versions of stories of the stars, depending on a tribe’s rohe (region) and what is relevant to them and their landscape. 

“For my Taranaki Whānau, Pūanga is the Taranaki Māori New Year star – the star (Rigel) that sits above Orion’s Belt. Taranaki Whānui use Pūanga because from the West Coast of Aotearoa all the land mass, the maunga (mountains), and ranges, sit between you and the rise of Matāriki but you see Pūanga first.” 

Pūanga Kai Rau (the bringer of plentiful food) is a term recognising when Pūanga brings te rā (the sun) back to us in the Southern Hemisphere. And with the summer, our trees bloom, birds come out to feed, and there is kai for the people. 

Toa says he is looking forward to sharing stories of the stars at Wellington’s Matāriki ki Pōneke Festival, as part of the Ahi Kā celebrations. 

He is passionate about ensuring this ancient knowledge isn’t lost, and it’s no surprise considering his whakapapa. 

“My mum’s an astronomer. She comes from a line where our ancestors, my great-great-grandfather recorded tātai arorangi – the cosmology of the universe – and had wānanga with other tribes. 

“On a Saturday night we’d walk around the coastline of Hongoeka looking at and talking about stars. I guess that’s the first thing I can recall as a child, learning about the stars because my mum was and is still so passionate about it.” 

Toa is Māori Strategic Framework Project Manager at University of Otago, Wellington. 

In 2008 he founded the Society for Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions, which provides opportunities for Aotearoa youth to engage with Māori astronomy traditions, celestial navigation, and space sciences.

For more details about Matariki ki Pōneke Festival and the Ahi Kā events, visit: https://wellington.govt.nz/news-and-events/events-and-festivals/matariki/ahi-ka