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As political fervor for New Zealand’s Māori resurgence wanes, a new Indigenous holiday comes of age

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — When Ngarauru Mako told her family she was calling off Christmas festivities in favor of celebrating Matariki, the Māori new year holiday that’s experiencing a renaissance in New Zealand, her children didn’t believe her.

“We grew up with Christmas because it was just what you did, but I realized it wasn’t my thing,” said Mako, who is Māori, a member of New Zealand’s Indigenous people. “I just decided myself to cancel Christmas, be the Grinch, and take on Matariki.”

Now in its third year as a nationwide public holiday in New Zealand, Matariki marks the lunar new year by the rise of the star cluster known in the Northern Hemisphere as the Pleiades. The holiday is seeing a surge in popularity, even as political debates about race in New Zealand have grown more divisive. Accompanying the holiday’s rise is a tension between those embracing Indigenous language and culture, and a vocal minority who wish to see less of it.

“For much of our past, since the arrival of settlers to this land, mostly out of Great Britain, we’ve really looked to mimic and build our identity off Great Britain,” said Rangi Mātāmua, professor of Mātauranga Māori -– Māori knowledge — at Massey University and an adviser to the government on Matariki.

“But I think as we’ve moved a number of generations on, Aotearoa New Zealand is starting to come of age in terms of our understanding of our identity,” he added, using both the Māori and English names for the country.

When New Zealand established the national day in 2022, it became the first nation in the world to recognize an Indigenous-minority holiday, scholars including Mātāmua believe. But many did not know what it was. Even so, 51% of people did something to mark the day,