Stars of the Matariki cluster: Waitī

Stars of the Matariki cluster: Waitī

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 Waitī (Greek: Maia) is associated with all freshwater, and food sources that are sustained by those waters. Curator Mātauranga Māori Matiu Baker talks about freshwater and connections to this whetū in our collections.

Of the several stars that form Matariki, the female entity Waitī is associated with freshwater bodies, and the abundance of food resources she provides. Waitī is considered a twin, or māhanga, to the male entity Waitā, who is associated with salt water bodies.

It is said when Waitī shines bright within Matariki, an abundance of freshwater species such as tuna, piharau, kōkopu, kākahi and other species can be expected.

Importance of ritual and ceremony

This year as we celebrate the occurrence of Matariki once again in our morning sky New Zealanders’ will be able to reflect and meditate upon its significance on our newest public holiday, the inaugural Matariki public holiday.

Significantly, our inaugural Matariki public holiday will be celebrated by a series of important events, many of which are scheduled to be televised raising the awareness to new levels of national recognition, and hopefully shared understanding.

As Rangi Matāmua has expressed many times leading up to this event, this is truly a fabulous opportunity for us to share our uniquely New Zealand identity together, framed within our own Mātauranga Māori indigenous knowledge system, to be celebrated together in unity as a nation. And that’s pretty cool!

Regardless of how we might choose to recognise these important and meaning-laden events, it’s an opportunity to reflect on their deeper significance. Acknowledged, they have the power to be transformative both individually and collectively.

First Nations indigenous peoples have always understood the power of collective memory and knowledge underscored by ritual ceremony. Indeed, in a pre-industrial world, all peoples understood this. Significant celestial events, such as the rise of Matariki in the morning sky, were recognised and acknowledged in ritual and ceremonies; especially where they are associated with specific human activities.

In today’s secular societies, in a world where the profane abounds and the vast majority of us are increasingly disassociated from the cycles and patterns of our natural environment, Matariki reminds us of our relationship to each other and to community, and our relationship to our natural environment.


During Matariki foods harvested and collected from Waitī and Waitā, Tupuānuku and Tupuārangi, would be cooked in a special umu, or earth oven, known as te umu kohukohu and its hot aromatic steam released into the morning sky to nourish Te Kāhui Whetu o Matariki, and the remaining delicacies were enjoyed by the people in gratitude.

Kai cooking in the pot ahead of the Matariki dawn hautapu ceremony, 24 June 2022. Te Papa

Tuna were an important staple food source for pre-modern Māori, and remain an important food delicacy today.

In pre-modern times (up to the mid-19th century) the longfin eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii) and shortfin eel (Anguilla australis) were throughout New Zealand in vast numbers. However, the longfin eel, which is only found in New Zealand, is now considered ‘At Risk – Declining’ in the New Zealand Threat Classification System listings (2014).[i]

Māori have their own taxonomic system of identification recognising how tuna presented differently at different times in their life cycle, being aware of even small differences in marking and colouration in different locations.

Hinaki (eel/fish trap), weaver unknown, 1850 / 1900, New Zealand. Acquisition history unknown. Te Papa (ME011844)

Māori used a variety of means of catching tuna that were designed specifically to take advantage of the unique hydrology of its waterways. From differing types of tuna for different waterways and freshwater habitats, to whakamate tuna, channels cut into some river systems and other waterways to divert eels into hollows that functioned as a kind of holding tank to be collected later.

In a recent conversation with my father, I learned that whānau living along Mill Road, Ōtaki, whose properties bordered the Haruatai stream, including our own whānau, cut hollows into the earth for ‘holding tanks’ with a wooden taupoki at the end where their properties met the stream for storing live tuna right up to the 1950s and possibly into the 1960s for some whānau.

Perhaps the most popular symbol of collecting and catching tuna is the hīnaki. While the practice of making hīnaki is in decline, modern hīnaki made from steel or iron are still commonly used.

Unidentified men making hinaki nets, by James McDonald; photographer; 1920. te Papa (MU000523/005/0331)
Hīnaki made by John Puketapu (Te Āti Awa). John grew up in Waiwhetu during the 1920s where he learned to make hīnaki as a young boy. Hinaki (eel trap), John Puketapu, July 2000, Wellington. Purchased 2000 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (ME022092)
An old Maori eel-weir on the Hokio stream below the outlet of Lake Horowhenua 25.11.25, Leslie Adkin; photographer; 1925; Levin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (B.021667)

Elsdon Best compiled a huge body of information about Māori fishing practices, which was originally published in the Dominion Museum Bulletin No.12 [1929, reprinted in 1997].

Our Freshwater Waterways

Kua kaheko te tuna i roto i aku ringaringa
The eel has slipped through my hands

This whakataukī recognises the morphological characteristics of the slippery skin of a tuna and its status as a prized food to represent a loss where something worthwhile has slipped away.

The heavy footprint of civilisation and industry is putting our remaining natural waterways and delicate wetlands under stress, degrading and polluting the quality of our waterways and putting the life they support under threat.

Modern living often means a general non-reliance on freshwater kai as a necessity for most of us, meaning the vast majority are blissfully oblivious to the impact on these natural ecosystems. Yet many Māori still sources kai from their surrounding environment and are sensitive to shifts in the balance of these delicate and fragile environments.

For these reasons, Māori remain sensitive to any disruption or decline that threatens the interrelationship between tangata whenua as a vibrant and living culture, a way of living and being with the world and not just in it, and a healthy and vibrant eco-system. Something our elders understood in a world without supermarkets, Uber Eats and the food-to-you economy.

Who is advocating for the environment?

Now when the need is greatest Māori are at the vanguard advocating for the protection and restoration of our natural taonga, our oceans, lakes and rivers, wetlands, and forests. Read about some of the initiatives below:

  • Te Waikoropupū – Recently in the news Ngāti Tama-ki-Te-Waipounamu (South Island) have been at the forefront of efforts to protect Te Waikoropupū Springs, an internationally recognised natural taonga which are considered ‘in decline’ and current protection mechanisms under the Resource Management Act insufficient. Ngāti Tama are seeking a Water Conservation Order through the Environment Court to ensure this significant taonga is adequately protected now for future generations.
  • Lake Rotomā – This is a perfect example of combining mātauranga Māori” — traditional Māori knowledge — “and Western science,” said William Anaru, Te Arawa’s biosecurity manager.
    A recent article in the New York Times highlighted conservation efforts at Lake Rotomā, near Rotorua, where local iwi are working with conservation agencies to clean the lake of life-stifling introduced weeds to save the precious kōura (freshwater crayfish).
  • Te Hākari dune wetland, Ōhau – Māori culture has survived by being intimately coupled in a co-evolutionary sense with the wellbeing and survival of natural ecosystems
    Te Hākari is an ambitious and aspirational wetland restoration programme designed and delivered by local iwi Ngāti Te Rangitāwhia, Te Mateawa, Ngāti Kapumanawawhiti ki Kuku, and Ngāti Tūkorehe, in association with the Department of Conservation in the region of Kuku, at Horowhenua.
  • Restoring and Enhancing Tuna by Erina Watene-Rawiri (Waikato, Maniapoto, Ngaai te rangi – Taihoro Nukurangi)
    Our precious tuna species have long been under stress as our freshwater ecosystems become increasingly polluted and altered, or even disappear altogether. Read Erina Watene-Rawiri’s excellent illustrated informational published in Te Reo o te Repo – kei konei tonu au, by Landcare Research and learn more about our Tuna, their life cycle, and how and why we need to protect them.
  • Dr. Mahina-a-rangi Baker (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-tonga)
    Dr. Mahina-a-rangi Baker is one of a growing number of highly qualified Māori environmental planning experts leading change in their communities. Working with iwi at the intersection with local councils they are the new architects of an environmental planning framework underpinned and informed by Māori cultural values and Mātauranga Māori designed to ensure the survival of our fragile ecosystems for the generations.
    Read A Māori approach to decision-making for the future of freshwater and look at a working example of Dr. Baker’s model.


[i] Freshwater eels, What’s the difference? Department of Conservation

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

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