Māori reconnecting with the night sky

5:48 pm on 9 April 2024

By David Hill, Local Democracy Reporter

Māori never forgot the importance of the "celestial sky", says a dark skies advocate. Photo: supplied by Raul Elias-Drago

Māori never forgot the importance of the "celestial sky", a dark skies advocate says. Photo: Supplied / Raul Elias-Drago

Mana whenua are rediscovering a connection with the night sky, a Māori astronomer says.

Māori never forgot the importance of the celestial sky, but like so many living in an urban environment, their view of the night sky is increasingly obscured by bright lights, Victoria Campbell said.

Campbell, who represents three Rūnanga on the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve Trust Board, said her fascination for the stars was reignited while camping in the Mackenzie country.

Dark sky movements are under way in Oxford and Kaikōura, while other Canterbury communities are having conversations including in Hanmer Springs, Christchurch and the Selwyn district.

"It hasn't been forgotten, but it has been impacted by lifestyle changes," she said.

"A lot of us haven't taken the opportunity to physically connect with our night sky, but there is a growing enthusiasm.

"Being a city dweller myself, it wasn't until I went to the dark sky reserve and to dark places in our takiwā (territory) that I realised the importance of protecting our the night sky."

Knowledge of the celestial realm was traditionally kept at a hapū or local level, but was underpinned by iwi values.

In the days before calendars, it was used by to mark the seasons and to remind people when to hunt and when to plant crops, Campbell said.

The knowledge has been retained in following traditions, such as tītī or muttonbird hunters.

"From a Ngāi Tahu perspective, we view things collectively when we look at the natural world and that includes the celestial ream, and we have whakapapa which connects us to the stars.

"Engaging with the celestial sky has been important for millennia. In pre-European times there were schools of learning around the night sky for the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another."

There is a growing enthusiasm among Māori to learn more about astronomy and the evolving stars and planets, Campbell said.

Today, Rūnanga are engaging in addressing light pollution and sharing cultural narratives, where capacity allows.

The Kaikōura community has been actively working towards dark sky sanctuary status, which is known as the International Dark-Sky Association's gold standard.

Campbell said Te Rūnanga o Kaikōura has been in regular contact with her as the dark sky movement in the town developed.

Protecting the night sky has multiple benefits beyond astronomy and preserving traditional knowledge, including improving human health, protecting wildlife and boosting local economies.

Reducing light pollution can be achieved by turning lights downwards and by shielding light.

The ultimate goal is for New Zealand to become a dark sky nation.

"It would be a big achievement and it is achievable," Campbell said.

"It would drive tourism and we would have severe mana across the globe."

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