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On the volcanic peak of Maungakiekie, stargazers and stargazers huddled in the frosty early morning to watch the New Year’s constellations rise. Observatories across the country have opened. In Takaparawhau, overlooking Auckland, 1,000 people gathered at dawn for the opening of an earth oven, to watch steam and smoke rise into the dark sky in an offering to the stars.

Across New Zealand’s Aotearoa, people have gathered this week on pre-dawn mornings and freezing winter nights to honor Matariki, the Maori New Year. This year marks the first time the celebration has been officially and legally recognized, making it the country’s first Indigenous holiday.

“I think it’s incredibly important,” says Olive Karena-Lockyer (Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Raukawa), astronomy educator at the Stardome observatory. “It’s from here, from Aotearoa. It doesn’t matter, like Christmas or Easter or the Queen’s birthday,” she says. “It’s about us and what’s relevant to our environment.”

Matariki is the Maori name for a group of stars known elsewhere as the Pleiades. The constellation is visible from New Zealand for eleven months of the year, but disappears from the sky for one month in winter, reappearing in mid-June, around the time of the winter solstice. His rise is recognized by many iwi [tribes] like the start of a new year. The holiday is centered on three principles: remembering those who have died, celebrating the present with family and friends; and looking towards the future promise of a new year. It is believed to be one of the first indigenous celebrations to be recognized as a public holiday in a colonial state.

Karena-Lockyer and will guide public visitors through the Lights of Matariki at the Stardome Observatory this year, and says learning about Matariki has been transformative for her own connection to culture and place. “It was kind of a perfect match between my interest in astronomy and my cultural identity and I was just looking for a place within it,” she says.

Jacinda Ardern speaks during a visit to Wainuiomata Intermediate in Wellington. Photography: Hagen Hopkins/AAP

Speaking at a dawn ceremony on Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it a “moment in time”. A landmark on a long and important journey.

“It is now an official holiday that does not divide us by Maori or other ancestry, but rather, it unites us under the stars of Aotearoa,” Ardern said. “It contains enough space for each of us to construct our own meaning and traditions.”

“This is a historic moment for all of us,” Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Kiri Allan said when the law was passed. “This will be the first national holiday to specifically recognize and celebrate mātauranga Māori [Māori scientific traditions]”, she said, offering “a unique new opportunity to embrace our distinctive national identity and helps establish our place as a modern Pacific nation”.

Matariki’s rise has been celebrated, but also controversial in New Zealand.

Maori cultural and academic advisers have warned companies not to market the holidays. This month, Tātou, a Maori cultural communications agency, launched a campaign called “Matariki is not for sale”. “Nobody wants to see a big Matariki mac,” general manager Skye Kimura told Stuff.

Some business owners, in turn, said adding another holiday to the calendar was too much of a burden on shops and restaurants already struggling with high inflation and low tourism. The novelty of the holiday has also led to some disagreement over the proper ways to celebrate: some town councils set off fireworks, after being warned by cultural advisers that it was inappropriate.

For Karena-Lockyer, there was also excitement associated with hyping up the party – and an opportunity for all New Zealanders to learn more about ao Māori tea – culture and worldview. indigenous. “Every year there’s a little more knowledge and so there’s a little more meaning and more action,” she said.

Matariki orients New Zealanders towards observing the natural world and its rhythms, she said. She quotes a whakatauki [proverb]: Tuia ki te rangi, Tuia ki te whenua, Tuia ki te moana, E rongo te po, E rongo te Ao. “Look at the sky, land and sea to understand the divisions between day and night,” she says.

“It’s about making connections and understanding that there are connections between what the sky is doing, what the land is doing and what the sea is doing. If you can understand those environments, then you will understand what you should do it.

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