Many years ago, when Dr Rangi Matamua was starting out in astronomy, he visited an observatory to ask if he could use their equipment.
“The person there told me their equipment was for proper science not myths and legends,” says Matamua.
On Tuesday, Matamua was named New Zealand’s top science communicator, recognition for two decades of work focused on raising the profile of Māori astronomy, including teaching New Zealanders about Matariki.
The Tūhoe astronomer is the first Māori to receive one of the Prime Minister’s annual, prestigious science awards since they were started in 2009.
He won’t name the observatory that turned him away years ago. But he has some sharp observations on how Māori scientists have struggled against racism.
Science is one of the last spheres that believe only western science is empirical, he says. What Māori do has been considered myths and legends.
“It’s not our Māori fault we haven’t been recognised before,” says Matamua.
“The scientific world is perhaps starting to realise the knowledge base we have and maybe starting to understand science is more than just what western science practitioners believe it is. I think perhaps they have issues believing that what we do is science half the time.
“Yes, it is racist.”
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Matamua says there is empirical science in mātauranga Māori, Māori knowledge but it is much more than scientific practice.
“There’s still the idea, we drifted here randomly on logs, arrived emaciated. We were this barbaric primitive culture with no understanding of what real science is. That’s just not true,” he says.
“I think things are starting to change. But there is still that element of belief and idea within the scientific academy and in fact, it exists within modern day education systems.”
The Royal Society Te Apārangi manages the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, which are funded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
President Professor Wendy Larner says Professor Matamua was the first Māori scientist to apply for the prize.
In the past two years, the event has moved its focus to actively encourage more Māori to participate. “We are delighted that Professor Matamua, a well-known iwi knowledge holder and brilliant science communicator, has won a prize this year,” says Larner.
The society has been supported by Professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Waikato, Linda Tuiwai Smith and Professor Jacinta Ruru, of the University of Otago to bring more diversity to the prizes and its judging panels.
“We have reviewed and broadened the choice of judges on our panels and we are reaching out to encourage a wider range of entrants. We encourage scientists from all fields and diverse backgrounds to enter all five categories for the prizes event.”
Māori have always been scientists, says Matamua.
“You don’t navigate that expansive ocean on myths and legends.
“You don’t come here and apply a very detailed and regionally specific division of time, really thrive and sync yourself into the natural rhythms of the environment here without having science. Science is the cornerstone of those undertakings.
“But because science is wrapped up in our cultural beliefs even in our spirituality in the way we view our science I think western practitioners of science have difficulties understanding the depth and richness of indigenous peoples’ knowledge basis. They don’t see it as science.
“There are many, many Māori scientists out there. Most of them don’t have science degrees but they are scientists in terms of their practitioner understanding of the spaces they work in.”
Western science has a very specialised, narrow focus.
“For Māori, the smallest space matters but it’s how it connects to everything else that’s vital for Māori and indigenous knowledge.”
For example, Māori would look at a star, correlate it with the lunar phase, relate it to the sun’s position, a spawning fish species and a particular tree that is in flower. Māori would then remember these types of observations by putting it into waiata (songs) and embedding them into ceremonies. It would become part of their spirituality and connect the entire observation to a specific deity.
“That’s mātauranga. One component of it is empirical science; the rest is embedded back into the culture in many different ways and that’s the area that’s disconnected from modern western science,” says Matamua.
As a teenager as Hato Paora boarding school in Manawatū, Matamua failed fourth form science.
“All I saw when I thought about science was coats, pocket protectors and middle-aged white men with spectacles,” he says.
“I just couldn’t make a connection to science until much later on when I started to realise there are empirical sciences embedded within our traditional knowledge bases. But because I didn’t have that relationship with the subject, I struggled.”
He never considered a career in science until he started attending Victoria University and was given a manuscript by his grandfather that was written by one of their ancestors, Te Kokau Himiona Te Pikikotuku.
Along with his son, Rawiri Te Kokau of Ruatāhuna in Te Urewera, the two men were among the informants for ethnologist Elsdon Best’s early publication Astronomical Knowledge of the Māori.
Matamua says Kokau was given a nautical star map and ledger from Best. He started writing in 1897 and completed his 400-page manuscript on Māori astronomy in 1933. The very important work was handed down over generations to be given to Rangi by his grandfather. He told Rangi to safeguard it, but share the knowledge inside.
Matamua says Kokau recorded that knowledge for a purpose. If he didn’t want it shared, he wouldn’t have written it down.
Since then, Matamua has written and spoken extensively about Māori astronomy and Matariki. He has also learned about western astronomy and delivers his work in both te reo Māori and English. His web series reached one million views in four months and more than 20,000 people followed his ‘Living by the Stars’ Facebook posts.
Matamua hopes everyone will continue to learn about the importance of Matariki and turn it into a public holiday.
“We have imported all these other celebrations and practices like Easter, Christmas and Guy Fawkes, but Matariki can unite us here because it has got relevance to us,” says Matamua.
“It has become this phenomenon that is spreading throughout the country and that is wonderful to see.”
He plans to use the $75,000 award to help establish his own institute of Māori astronomy in the next couple of years. A legacy for future generations.