On the volcanic peak of Maungakiekie, astronomers and stargazers huddled in the freezing early morning to see the constellations of the new year rising. Observatories around the country have opened their doors. At Takaparawhau, overlooking Auckland, 1000 people gathered at dawn for the cracking open of an earth oven, to watch the steam and smoke rise into the dark sky in an offering to the stars.
Across Aotearoa, people have been gathering this week in pre-dawn mornings and icy winter nights to honour Matariki, the Māori new year. This year marks the first time the celebration is being formally and legally recognised, making it the country’s first Indigenous public holiday.
“I think it’s incredibly significant,” says Olive Karena-Lockyer (Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Raukawa) an astronomy educator at Stardome observatory. “It’s from here, from Aotearoa. It’s not imported, like Christmas or Easter or the Queen’s birthday,” she says. “It’s for us and what is relevant to our environment.”
Matariki is thename for a cluster of stars known elsewhere as the Pleiades. The constellation is visible from New Zealand for eleven months of the year, but disappears from the skies for a month in winter, reappearing in mid June, around the time of the winter solstice. Its rising is recognised by many iwi [tribes] as the beginning of a new year. The holiday centres on three principles: remembrance of those who have died, celebrating the present with family and friends; and looking to the future promise of a new year. It is believed to be one of the first Indigenous celebrations to be recognised as a public holiday in a settler colonial state.
Karena-Lockyer and will be guiding public visitors through the Matariki lights at Stardome observatory this year, and says learning about Matariki has been transformative for her own connection to culture and place. “It’s been kind of a perfect meeting of my interest in astronomy and my cultural identity and just looking for a place within it,” she says.
Speaking at a dawn ceremony on Friday, prime minister Jacinda Ardern called it “a moment in time. A waypoint on a long and important journey.”
“This is now an official holiday that does not divide us by Maori ancestry or other, rather, it unites us under the stars of Aotearoa,” Ardern said. “It holds within it enough space for each of us to build our own meaning, and traditions.”
“This is a historic moment for all of us,” associate minister for arts, culture and heritage Kiri Allan said as the legislation passed. “It will be the first national holiday to specifically recognise and celebrate mātauranga Māori [Māori scientific traditions],” she said, giving “a unique, new opportunity to embrace our distinctive national identity and helps to establish our place as a modern Pacific nation”.
The rise of Matariki has been met with celebration, but also some controversy in New Zealand.
Māori cultural advisers and academics have warned businesses not to commercialise the holiday. This month, Tātou, a Māori cultural communications agency, launched a campaign called “Matariki is not for sale”.chief executive Skye Kimura told Stuff.
Some business owners, in turn, have said that the addition of another public holiday to the calendar is too great a burden for shops and eateries already struggling with high inflation and low tourism. The newness of the holiday has also meant some disagreement over appropriate ways to celebrate: some city councils went ahead with fireworks displays, after being warned by cultural advisers it was inappropriate.
For Karena-Lockyer, there was also excitement associated with seeing the holiday come to the fore – and an opportunity for all New Zealanders to learn more about te ao Māori – the Indigenous culture and worldview. “Every year there’s a bit more knowledge and so there’s a bit more meaning and more action,” she said.
Matariki points New Zealanders toward observation of the natural world and its rhythms, she said. She cites a whakatauki [proverb]: Tuia ki te rangi, Tuia ki te whenua, Tuia ki te moana, E rongo te po, E rongo te Ao. “Look to the sky, the land, and the sea to understand the divisions between day and night,” she says.
“It’s about making the 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’ll understand what you should be doing within it.”