24 Jun 2024

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Atea a Rangi
Te atatu (sunrise) at the Atea a Rangi (image supplied).

In Waitangi Regional Park, about halfway between Napier and Hastings, you’ll find a teaching tool unique to Aotearoa, a traditional Māori star compass called Ātea a Rangi. And its teaching has created a much stronger connection to local culture, history, and the environment. 

Piripi Smith
Piripi Smith giving a korero about Hine Raumati at the Atea a Rangi

Piripi Smith, one of the driving forces behind its development and chair of the Ātea a Rangi Educational Trust, says “it all started with a challenge.” 

Piripi studied whakatere waka (celestial navigation) with Te Matau-a-Māui Voyaging Trust and his graduation assignment was to sail a waka hourua (large twin-hulled ocean-going canoe) from Rapanui / Easter Island to Aotearoa, one of 15 trips he has completed across the Pacific. One of his mentors, the late master waka carver Sir Hekenukumai ‘Hek’ Busby, suggested he find a way to share his knowledge. 

“We started thinking about how we were going to do that and the idea of Ātea a Rangi was born,” says Piripi. “It would be a place to first and foremost train traditional navigators.”

The star compass was first proposed back in 2014 and, at the time, there was only one other publicly accessible area in Aotearoa where you could see a traditional navigation compass, so it was viewed as an opportunity to create a new cultural destination and ensure the knowledge continued to be passed down. 

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council made a significant investment and signed a memorandum of understanding with the trust to manage the park in partnership. The trust was also able to get funding from Hastings District Council, Napier District Council and other partners, and the idea also had the backing of local iwi and hapu. Central government funding was used to create additional educational resources like books and online exercises that could be used by schools as a teaching module. 

“Once we had the funding it was all go, but the team made a point of taking things “nice and slow,” Piripi says. 

“One of the things we did well was bring the community on from the start. When we did the whakairo / carving of the pou, we didn’t do it all in one go. It was over the course of close to a year. We did it around the movement of the sun, around solstice and equinox, and it started to increase the interest of people within the community.”

The star compass consists of 32 wooden pou / posts up to 3.5m high laid out in a 30m circle. Locals Nathan Foote and Phil Belcher were the head carvers and they worked alongside Rangitane Taurima, Te Kaha Hawaikirangi, Paora Puketapu, Deon Wong and Piripi Smith. The rising and setting points of the celestial bodies are memorised by using the pou and the horizon, and each pou has a pūrākau / story built in, like Māui fishing up Te Ika-a-Māui / North Island.

Ātea a Rangi opened in 2017.

Every quarter the trust holds events there where different experts get to tell their own stories and talk about what’s happening in the environment at the time. 

“It is all based on local knowledge and korero,” says Piripi. “The main thing we’re trying to do is connect people to Ranginui in terms of what stars there are, and then connect them to the land, so they know what’s flowering in the bush at the time and what crops are available. It’s also about connecting them to the moana so they know what season it is for different varieties of shellfish or fish.” 

Te Kaha Hawaikirangi is a trustee alongside Piripi Smith and also works at Hawke’s Bay Regional Council to support the recognition and expression of Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) in the Council’s work. He believes Ātea a Rangi has been a particularly good investment for the community, for a variety of reasons. 

Before it opened, the Waitangi Regional Park was basically a dumping ground. It was a culturally significant place and was the first location in Hawke’s Bay where Europeans and Māori lived together as a community, but it certainly wasn’t being treated well. The council was clearing illegally dumped rubbish every week, burnt out cars were a regular sight and there were a number of 4WD tracks. 

“Ātea a Rangi led the creation of the ātea, the area is now treated with a level of respect and the mana that it deserves” Te Kaha says. “Now it’s used not only for its purpose as a means to share traditional stories and teach celestial navigation but also a place spiritually which people connect to.” 

The trust was acknowledging Matariki before it became a public holiday in 2022, but Piripi says the growing public interest in the Māori New Year has taken things to another level and it is now the busiest time of the year. Matariki events at Ātea a Rangi run for a week and up to 300 people can turn up for the morning karakia at 5.30am before they go to see the Matariki stars (weather permitting). School groups attend throughout the day and there’s a light show at night. 

As part of the partnership, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has helped create platforms at the park where marquees can be erected to host those events during Matariki, and it has also done additional planting. The next phase of the project is to improve the infrastructure to provide water, power, and toilets. 

“The council has been able to support wider restoration and development [of the park] because more members of the community have been interested in it and involved in it,” Te Kaha Hawaikirangi says. “It really got the ball rolling” 

The park now attracts photographers and artists and while Piripi and his partner Michelle, a full-time employee of the trust who also runs the schools programme, often take tours and talks, other guides have popped up to offer their own tours. While that could be seen as an endorsement of the popularity of Ātea a Rangi, Piripi says the guides don’t have as much knowledge of the history or the carvings. 

“So, we thought we should do it ourselves,” he says. 

Their tourism business is set to open later this year and Michelle adds that there is an opportunity to attract more groups from visiting cruise ships, a market they haven’t quite cracked yet. 

Students outside Marae
A rangatahi programme run by the Atea trust teaching about sailing small waka and the environment - Tangoio Marae

As well as in-person events and tours at the site, a large part of the programme is aimed at school children in years five to nine. The trust has a crew that runs a learning to sail programme as well as a Matariki programme that takes a portable planetarium to different schools in the region.

It also worked with Christchurch company Māui Studios to turn pūrākau that are represented on the pou into graphic novels and interactive online resources. 

“These pūrākau have been around for thousands of years but we’re just using a different medium. They still have resonance,” Piripii says. “The long waka voyages also have resonance and are a tangible example of the celestial navigation knowledge being put into action.” 

“What we’re trying to do is get tamariki involved at an earlier age,” says Piripi. “They’re not going to jump on a waka straight away, but we want them to have that grounding. We do education programmes right through secondary school, so as young adults the idea of crewing on a waka hourua to go over to the islands isn’t that foreign because they’ve grown up with it.”

Two years ago, they sailed to the Chatham Islands / Wharekauri, which he calls a “small trip,” and they are planning to do another trip to Tahiti and Rarotonga in a few years if they can obtain the funding. 

“It’s definitely a good way to keep the crew interested. They’re keen to help if they know there’s a trip coming up.” 

Piripi has previously worked with Sir Ian Taylor’s company Animation Research to create videos about Pacific migration, “because if we’re taking a tour, you can’t fit 4000 years of migration into an hour.” 

He says that learning about the innovation, skill and technology required to make that voyage to New Zealand has helped create more pride among students. 

Councils and other funding partners are also much more interested in helping when the recipients have proven themselves. 

“What we’ve found out in the last ten or so years with the waka and Ātea a Rangi is that track records and relationships are everything,” says Piripi. “If you’ve got a proven track record and your projects are on budget and on time and you report back, it’s just a lot easier to seek assistance the next time.”

While the funding was crucial, Michelle says they couldn’t have done it without the help of the community and their friends and whānau, who have regularly given up their time over the years to help run tours and events. 

Te Kaha Hawaikirangi believes the success of Ātea a Rangi has helped give the Napier City Council the confidence to move its waka hourua to a new spot that will include a brand-new floating dock, a storage facility, and an educational whare. 

“That’s a multi-million-dollar project,” says Piripi, and he hopes it will create another cultural landmark within the community. 

It’s clear there’s a real sense of achievement when they look at what the trust, its council partners and the community have been able to create in a park just off State Highway 51 - and what they’ve been able to teach all those who visit. 

“But there’s still so much more we’ve got to do,” says Piripi. 

This series brings to life the benefits of local arts and culture investment. Read more about localism here