Stars of the Matariki cluster: Tupuārangi

Stars of the Matariki cluster: Tupuārangi

There are nine stars in the Matariki star cluster. It has many different names around the world, and is known as the Pleiades – its ancient Greek name – or the Seven Sisters in English. The Hawaiian name is Makali‘i, or ‘eyes of royalty’, and in Japan it is Subaru, meaning ‘gathered together’. 

The star Tupuārangi (Greek: Atlas) is associated with everything that grows up in the trees: fruits, berries, and birds. Kaitiaki Taonga Collection Manager Humanities Cameron Woolford talks about the connection of Tupuārangi to taonga in our collections.

Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu.
When Matariki is seen, the fat is cooked.

Tupuārangi (or Tupu-ā-rangi) is one of the stars in the Matariki cluster. This star is connected to food that comes from the sky, and as such is located above Tupuānuku in the cluster. This whakataukī talks about one of these foods, birds!

Native birds were a staple kai for tīpuna Māori since their arrival in Aotearoa. The capturing and preservation of birds occurred when Matariki was seen, and helped sustain Māori over the cold winter months.

There are several methods to capture birds, the most effective took into account the behaviours and characteristics of the different species, and also considered the landscape.

One of my favourite methods, uses pet birds as decoys, called tīmori, and a cleverly made snare called a mutu kākā. As you may have guessed, this method was particularly used to capture kākā, but could also work with other birds.

North Island kākā, Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis, collected 14 August 1927, Tararua Range, New Zealand. Field Collection 1927-1966. CC BY 4.0. Te Papa (OR.001922)

Kākā habits and pōria

As kākā are very social and curious birds, they were easy to lure. Thus the tīmori would be cared for and used like a tool. The best tīmori were taken when young and raised and trained. They were often kept on perches in the , and had specific rings made to fit around their legs and tied in place. These were called kākā pōria, and were made out of hard substances to stop the kākā from breaking free using its powerful beak.

Kākā pōria (bird leg ring), maker unknown, kawakawa (stone), 1500, New Zealand. Purchased 1907. Te Papa (ME003850)

Snaring method

The tīmori would often be given a bone or hardwood to gnaw at. The sound would then attract other birds. Otherwise, the tīmori would be trained to call out, or prodded once the snares were set and the fowler hidden.

The mutu kākā mimicked a tree branch. First it was lashed to a long pole and then a noose was laid on the fake branch where birds could land. The noose would be held in place by the ngingita. When ready it would be set in trees bearing fruit or near them.  Once a kākā landed on the branch, the fowler would pull on the noose and it would close on the bird’s feet. Then the entire snare would be lowered and reset to catch the next one.

Mutu kākā (bird snare), maker/artist unknown, 19th century, Ruatāhuna. Augustus Hamilton Collection. Purchased 1914. Te Papa (ME000485)
A mutu kaka — Miss E. Richardson, p 472, The Maori – Volume II, by Elsdon Best. Publication details: Polynesian Society, 1941, Wellington. Part of: The Published Works of Elsdon Best, New Zealand Texts Collection (CC BY-SA 3.0 NZ)

Preservation method and containers

Once these birds, were caught, they were killed, plucked, and cooked. Bowls were set under them to catch the hinu or fat that dripped off, and then the birds were placed in layers inside different receptacles, tahā huahua and pātua were most commonly used. Often using the feathers to adorn them, and let people know what kinds of birds they held. The hinu was poured over after to cover and harden around the meat to protect it from spoiling.

They then stored these receptacles in raised storehouses called pātaka. This method of preservation, using the bird’s own fat, seems to have been a local innovation as it is not seen elsewhere in Polynesia.

Taha Huahua (gourd on stand), maker unknown. Acquired 1911. Te Papa (ME008668)

This returns us to our whakataukī, “Ka kitea a Matariki, kua maoka te hinu”. When you look at it in this context, it highlights the importance of Matariki to Māori life and time, and gives us a reminder to rest (after the mahi is done), keep warm, and enjoy Māori kai.


Top image credit: Te whānau Matariki. Image by Te Haunui Tuna, 2016, supplied by Rangi Matamua

Further reading

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