This week, I was walking past Auckland’s Central Library after work, intending to pick up a book. However, a large crowd of people were gathered around the entrance, watching some sort of performance. Since this was far more interesting than getting the book or catching the bus home, I also stopped to watch. It was a traditional performances by a Maori group, sponsored by the library as part of their Matariki celebrations.

Matariki (I found out later) is the Maori New Year; the word itself refers to the Pleiades group of stars that becomes visible around late May to early June. In Maori legend, this cluster was formed when the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, tore out his eyes and threw them into the sky upon learning that Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, had been separated. Alternatively, it is a mother with seven daughters which appear to help the sun, who was weakened by his journey from the north at this time of year. The holiday has only recently been revived but has become popular as a general celebration of Maori culture. In addition to feasts and performances, one unusual Matariki tradition is kite-flying: these pākau get close to the stars.

Poi dancers (and guys singing in the background).

I joined halfway through, just in time to catch the poi dance. The poi are balls of cloth on the end of a string, which the dancers spin and catch while both the men and women sing. There was a woman with a guitar leading the group and she encouraged the crowd to sing as well.

After the first dance, the leader asked who in the crowd had not used poi before. Out of those who put up their hand, she chose a few to join the dancers in the second song. The “volunteers” actually picked it up fairly quickly!

Unwitting volunteers!

The last performance was a crowd favorite: the haka. The men stepped to the front to lead it, but both the men and women participated, with widened eyes, stamping, and shouting. The leader explained that this type of haka was used by the Maoris when they met early Europeans like Captain Cook, asking who they were and what they wanted. I imagine the Europeans were intimidated by this dance, but it ended this performance on a high note. After that, it was the usual bus ride home, but I’m glad I stopped to watch and learn more about Maori culture.


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