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  • Writer's pictureAnna Brankin

Puanga: past, present and future

Updated: 4 days ago

A tree outlined against stars.

It has been awesome to see Matariki becoming increasingly popular in recent years, with people throughout the country embracing tikanga and mātauranga Māori as a positive part of our national identity. It has also been the springboard for more research into the tradition of Māori star lore, and the revival of different approaches taken by different iwi.  

As well as the Matariki cluster, the stars Atutahi, Rehua and Puanga have always been important to Māori during the new year period. Each iwi tends to focus on the star that is the most relevant to them, whether it’s the most visible or because it gives a better read on specific weather patterns in their rohe.  

Three people standing together and smiling at the camera.
Our Puanga team: Parekaia Tapiata, Puti Akapita, Che Wilson

Here at NAIA, we’re focused on Puanga thanks to the mahi of our colleagues Che Wilson, Puti Akapita and Parakaia Tapiata. They’re working to revive the knowledge and traditions of the iwi of Te Taiuru (Taranaki, Whanganui and Rangitīkei), who look to Puanga as a signal of the end of the year and forecasting for the year to come.  


Che says that Puanga came to the front of his consciousness back in the 1990s when Te Papa was opened and people first started talking about Matariki. “It prompted me to ask my elders and they said that for us, it was Puanga. Since then a number of us have been doing independent research," he says.


 “I’m really grateful to Matariki because it forced us to get sorted and share amongst ourselves, and create publicly available information about Puanga for our people to turn to.”  


Although the traditions surrounding Puanga and Matariki are distinct from one another, there are similarities – and they are definitely not at odds. “My elders taught me that knowledge is not a competition. Ko tō piki amokura nōu, ko tōku piki amokura nōku,” Che says. “Your house of learning is yours, my house of learning is mine. Neither is wrong. They’re just different.”  


When Che began reaching out to other knowledge holders across Taranaki, Whanganui and Rangitīkei, he realised that the Puanga narrative was shared by all three iwi. As research has continued, the team has come to treat the knowledge system as a whare. The tāhūhū (ridge pole) represents the collective knowledge that is shared across the iwi. This is the mainstay of the mahi of our Puanga team. Meanwhile, the heke (rafters) are the differences and it is up to each iwi to look after and disseminate this distinct knowledge.  


“For many years our knowledge about Puanga was just held dormant, without being shared,” Che says. “Most people thought it was all about gardening, and resting the land so it would be ready to plant in the new year.”  


In fact, Puanga represents so much more, he says. The term Puanganui-o-te-rangi refers to the mana of Puanga and its affiliate stars over a period of approximately four months, from the last month of autumn until the beginning of spring. Although it is visible throughout the year, Puanga becomes especially prominent in the evening sky towards the end of autumn, and in the predawn sky during the first month of the new year. This prominence marks the time for two Puanga ritenga (ceremonies).  


“Te Maru o te Tau takes place in the evening in Haratua, during the big moon phase of the last lunar month of the Māori year,” says Che. “The second ceremony, Te Tahi o te Tau, takes place in the last quarter of Pipiri, the first month of the new year.”  


Whānau gathered around a fire under the predawn sky.
Te Tahi o te Tau ceremony at Ohakune.

Conducted at sunset, Te Maru o te Tau focuses on release: sending departed loved ones to Te Whata nā Maru (the Platform of Maru) in the west sky, and relinquishing challenges from the past year. It also signals the beginning of winter wānanga and the Pō Roa o Takurau (the Long Nights of Winter).  


Te Tahi o te Tau takes place before dawn and acknowledges the transition of the deceased to become stars, welcomes the new year and affirms our commitment to our atua and the environment with an offering of food.  


However, these are not the only ritenga. There are five altogether, with the others taking place in spring, summer and mid-autumn. Che explains that ritenga are a way for whānau to reconnect to nature and a simpler way of life. “They’re a source of both inspiration and wellbeing. They keep you connected to nature and prevent you from being consumed by the cacophony of modernity.”  


That connection to nature includes being mindful of the tohu that help predict and plan for coming events. Che says that reading Puanga can provide a forecast for the next month, the next season and the next year. 'Reading' the star means observing the direction of its flickers as well as any changes to its colour, which predict atmospheric changes that will affect mahi kai in coming months.   


“At the most basic level, science is the study of observation, and we have empirical data stretching back for centuries. We may not have had a written language but we had other ways of recording that data: putting it into chants to be memorised,” says Che. “I’ve been taking readings for 10 years based on what my dad taught me combined with the karakia and reo components I was taught by my elders, and you’d be surprised by how accurate it is.” 

Through kōrero with whānau and by poring over old manuscripts, the team has been piecing together the story of Puanga once more. “I was taught that knowledge is never lost. If you don’t use knowledge, or if you abuse it, it returns back to te wāhi ngaro until the time is right for it to be revealed again,” Che says. “This is why the notion of a discovery is foreign to us, and why nothing is ever lost. It is simply waiting for us to reconnect and tap into it once more. He māramatanga – enlightenment.”  



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