Te Aka o Te Reinga: Muriwhenua’s very own Matariki landmark

Source: Te Karere

While I’m a Māori broadcaster by trade, I was raised in Muriwhenua/Far North and I trace my descent to the Te Aupōuri people, whose tribal interests stretch from the Kermadec Islands/Rangitahua off Cape Reinga/Te Reinga to Pawarenga in North Hokianga.

Waitai Petera (Ngāti Kuri, Te Aupōuri) with Te Kura o Te Kao students earlier this year on shoot for the Waka Huia episode about Te Ara Wairua at Cape Reinga, Te Reinga.

By Harata Brown, Te Karere

The area I’ve described could be seen as politically controversial today, especially in a post treaty-settlement environment, but that isn’t the intent. It’s there to instead acknowledge the shared genealogical links Te Aupōuri have with all tribes in Muriwhenua, especially Ngāti Kuri in the north, Ngāi Takoto south of Houhora, the descendants of Kuri in the Herekino and Whangapē area as well as Te Uri o Tai in Pawarenga.

Te Aupōuri ancestor Te Kaaka was recorded at Kapowairua near Te Reinga, when the country’s first map by Māori was created by an ancestor called Tuki. Tuki’s map was documented in 1793. Te Kaaka died in the inter-tribal battles between Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa.

I am a descendant of Te Kaaka and my Te Aupōuri sub-tribe or hapū is called Te Whānau Pani, (The Bereaved Family). We are the descendants of Te Kaaka and our identity originates from Te Kaaka’s death.

On Tuki’s map, he points out Te Reinga at the top, the surrounding Muriwhenua area and right in between what’s described as the North Island, Te Aho nā Māui, there’s a dotted line throughout the entire country that leads all the way to Te Reinga.

That dotted line is what we, as Māori, believe to be the spiritual pathway, Te Ara Wairua, the path one takes after death. That’s why another name for Te Reinga is Te Rerenga Wairua, the departure (rerenga) of sprits (wairua). It’s also said that Te Ara Wairua was left by our Polynesian ancestor and navigator Kupe, to ensure there was a spiritual pathway for the dead here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

While Matariki is a relatively new concept to the Far North in contemporary times, Matariki has been a part of our Muriwhenua landscape for centuries, since the time of Kupe.

Matariki means the mata (eyes) of the deity (ariki) according to pre-colonial Māori beliefs. One of the stars or mata named in the Matariki cluster is a prominent landmark at Te Reinga. Literally in our own back yard.

That mata is called Pohutukawa, it references the ancient tree that stands at Te Reinga, just below the light house. That ancient tree, what we call Te Aka o Te Reinga, is also a prominent marker in the spiritual pathway, where the spirits are said to leap off into the sea and pass the point where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet.

The meeting of the two oceans, according to a pre-colonial Te Aupōuri chant, is called Te Puapua a Hinenuitepō, the entrance into the Maiden of the Night. It’s also a site that marks where the demigod Māui, is said to have tried to cheat death and gain immortality. According to most pre-colonial Māori belief, this act by Māui is why we as people eventually experience death.

Harata Brown's Ngāti Whakaue whānau remembering loved ones at Mokoia Island Matariki Ceremony (Umu Kohukohu Whetu) in 2021 - From left Lani Kereopa, Harata Brown, Kahutapeka Ututaonga, Heeni Brown, Rangitiaria Tibble

Last year, I was fortunate to witness a Matariki ceremony or Umu Kohukohu Whetū held amongst my mother’s Ngāti Whakaue (Te Arawa) people in Rotorua, the first in over two centuries to be held on Mokoia Island.

In accordance with the Matariki ceremony, Pohutukawa is the first star in the Matariki cluster to be acknowledge in incantations (karakia) and calls (karanga) to remember and acknowledge those who have died in the previous year.

I like to call Pohutukawa our very own Muriwhenua star because it's the same concept as what we’ve always known at Cape Reinga, but in a Matariki context, it’s a yearly event rather than the pathway one takes immediately after death.

So yearly, at the rise of Matariki, the dead of the year gone past are acknowledged and remembered, so they may rise into the sky, to become stars and join Matariki. This aligns with what our men on the marae say: Te hunga kua wheturangitia - the people who have passed to become stars.

Matariki and the revitalisation of whāngai hau

This year's inaugural Matariki holiday is instrumental and vital to the restoration and revitalisation of our local pre-colonial Māori belief customs. Matariki could well be a sign that also helps bring back a ceremony in the Far North that we call whāngai hau.

That’s because the Matariki ceremonies of today practice a custom called, hautapu or in northern terms, whāngai hau. Locally, it’s said that the Ngāti Kuri identity was born out of a sacramental ceremony whāngai hau, where kuri or seals were sacrificed after battle. The site that commemorates this event is called Motu Whāngai Kuri, the Sacrifice of Seal Island.

Disregarding battle, similarly, the core of Matariki ceremonies include hautapu or in northern terms, whāngai hau. That’s because in Matariki ceremonies, foods from different environmental domains are offered to Matariki and the different stars that represent different aspects of life, death and more.

Matariki

As the fire from the umu beams, and food is unveiled, you can literally see the mist rise to the sky towards the stars. The food is cooked as a sacrifice to the star cluster. Once formalities are done, the food is then consumed to neutralise or whakanoa the sacred side of the Matariki ceremony.

So, as Matariki heralds the Māori new year, I believe Matariki will also in time herald a new era for the Far North. Another star in the Matariki cluster, Hiwaiterangi allows a person to cast a wish or dream. So, in the spirit of Matariki, my very own wish upon a Matariki star is to restore pre-colonial Māori beliefs and customs, to one day see the return of whāngai hau amongst our very own Muriwhenua people.

I grew up in Te Kao and while our Aupōuri people are devout Anglican, Morehu (Ratana) and Seventh Day Adventist, I don’t believe Matariki is something that threatens our current institutions of prayer, but rather, I believe Matariki is part of our reclamation journey to heal from our colonial past and restore belief in our very own Māori beliefs, like Matariki.

Long term, I see Matariki as a beacon of hope that will help my very own Aupōuri people restore faith in Māori ariki or deities, that I hope in my lifetime will see the revival and normalisation of traditional carvings, karakia and wānanga (like moko) in our very own Aupōuri region.

Harata Brown is a Northland video journalist for TVNZ's Te Karere. Harata also recently directed an episode for TVNZ's Waka Huia show about Te Ara Wairua, The Spiritual Pathway according to the people of Muriwhenua. Harata Brown has worked in the Māori Media sector since 2005 and holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Business, a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma in Film & Television Production. Harata is an alumni of Te Kao Area School and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rangi Aniwaniwa.

Harata Brown, Northland video journalist, Te Karere