New Zealand is celebrating its first-ever Indigenous public holiday, Matariki, which signals the start of the Maori New Year.
Matariki is the Maori name for the Pleiades cluster of stars, which rises pre-dawn in the midwinter sky and symbolise the start of a new year.
The sacred day is a time for remembrance of deceased loved ones, expressing thanks and looking to the promise of a new year.
Maori astronomical experts, such as Victoria Campbell, use the sun, moon and stars as indicators to determine the time of the celebration.
According to Ms Campbell, the helical rising of Matariki during the Takaroa Lunar phase is the ideal time to celebrate.
“In my understanding from korero tuku iho [oral tradition] is that was known to be a prosperous time, which for me means it’s an appropriate time to, not only acknowledge our loved ones, but also celebrate,” Ms Campbell said.
Matariki officially became a public holiday after the New Zealand Government partnered with the Matariki advisory group of experts in 2021 who advised ministers on how best to celebrate the Maori New Year.
Experts from the advisory group have aligned that system of time to a Gregorian calendar and chose the closest Friday to mark the celebration nationally, according to advisory group Chair Professor Rangianeuhu Matamua.
Matariki public holiday a “huge accomplishment”
For Tangiora Beattie from the Nagai Tuhoe and Ngati Kahungunu tribe, commemorating Matariki as a New Zealand public holiday is a “huge accomplishment”.
“We’re starting to claim back what was rightfully taken from us,” she said.
We’re starting to claim back what was rightfully taken from us
“I think a lot of people are wanting to become a lot more dependant on the land and I think there’s been a huge disconnection with us and the land, and Matariki kind of signifies and represents that [claiming back].”
She added that Matariki celebrations allow her to connect to Maori culture while living in Sydney.
“We heal in a collective way,” Ms Beattie said, “So it’s very important that my children get to see it and how we work as a collective”.
A group gather before dawn at Strzelecki Lookout in Newcastle, Australia, to celebrate Matariki, the Maori New Year.
Raianna Poutapu, from the Tanui tribe, also joined in dawn celebrations for Matariki in Newcastle, north of Sydney, and said she was so grateful for the broader recognition of the sacred celebration.
“The work our Maori people of Aotearoa [New Zealand] have put in to officially give Matariki the recognition it deserves is so powerful and admirable,” she said.
“We have many more treasures to unfold and hold in high esteem.”
‘We take another meaningful step forward
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joined in the nation’s celebrations at a traditional hautapu ceremony early on Friday morning, honouring the sharing of Maori culture and knowledge.
“This is a special day not only for Aotearoa but globally as we celebrate our first authentically Maori public holiday, which has been met with overwhelming support,” Ms Ardern said.
“Today we take another meaningful step forward in understanding what makes us unique as a country and what holds us together as a nation.”
Ms Ardern added that the national recognition allowed New Zealanders who didn’t grow up with the tradition to learn more about Maori culture.
“It feels very symbolic to me, that stars that have been so integral in navigation for our ancestors, form a waypoint on our journey as a nation,” she said.
“A journey that does not begin or end here, but allows us the opportunity to learn and to grow”.
Minister for Maori Crown Relations, Te Arawhiti Kelvin Davis, said Matariki was a proud illustration of Māori knowledge, that has been passed down generationally.
“Traditionally Matariki was a time where Maori would give thanks for all the blessings of the past year and reconnect with one another,” Mr Davis said.
“From today onwards we can annually embed into our calendars a national holiday that is unique to Aotearoa and is inclusive of all of our people.”
Fears of commercialisation
The creation of a public holiday for Makariti has also been met with criticism, however, from Maori cultural advisors who fear it could commercialise the Indigenous celebration.
Auckland University of Technology Associate Professor Ella Henry, from the Ngātikahu ki Whangaroa tribe, said while she commended the public holiday she was “gravely concerned” about the commercialisation of the sacred day.
“I’d like to think that we can avoid this but the reality is there will be companies all over the place trying to capitalise on it,” she said.
“I’d like to think if we’re going to be discerning and buy anything, that we at least take the time to learn whether it’s an authentic Indigenous piece of art and not mass-produced somewhere else.”
Maori community in Newcastle write messages to their deceased loved ones on eco-friendly balloons which are released into the sky as part of Makariti celebrations.
The Matariki Advisory Committee also outlined their concerns in the 2021 Values for Matariki Celebrations report.
The report said that while the committee is “not adverse to businesses trading during the Matariki holiday period, the commercialisation of Matariki is a worry”.
Choosing appropriate celebrations was key to avoiding commercialisation, the report added, including rejecting fireworks, which are environmentally damaging and clash with core Maori values.