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BusinessJune 17, 2022

Santa, the Easter Bunny… and the Matariki possum?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

This year Aotearoa is officially celebrating Matariki as its 11th public holiday. But is it tika for businesses to slash prices in honour of a culturally significant occasion to Māori? Reweti Kohere finds out.

The cluster of stars known since antiquity as the Pleiades heralds a new year for some iwi when it rises midwinter. Known in Aotearoa as Matariki, the annual astronomical event has passed through our skies since time immemorial, marking an occasion to gather with whānau and friends to remember the year that was and the loved ones who have been lost in that time, celebrate the year that is and anticipate the year that will be.

New Zealanders will officially celebrate Matariki on Friday, June 24 for the first time ever, as their 11th public holiday. But while Matariki isn’t like the Christmas and Easter of today, saddled with the commercial baggage of presents and chocolate, already some people fear it could become a money-making exercise. Astronomer Dr Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe), who chaired a group advising Aotearoa’s government on the first indigenous public holiday, told RNZ that commercialism had transformed the birth and death of Jesus Christ, for instance, into “flying reindeer and Santa” and “12-foot rabbits that lay chocolate eggs”. Mātāmua added he would hate to see the “Matariki possum”.

Such a symbol might not (yet) exist but Matariki sales could well be on their way, with heavily discounted goods and services, special promotions, or collaborations that align with the meaning of the event. Boutique dairy company Lewis Road Creamery, famous for its chocolate milk collaboration with Whittaker’s, is selling a limited-edition drink in honour of Matariki but according to company chair Prem Maan, it’s been designed “for celebration, not for profit”. Only 40,000 bottles have been produced, all for the month of June alone. “We won’t make money on such a short product period,” Maan says. “Instead, we’ve taken real pleasure in creating something special to share the fruits of our labour, and to celebrate a fantastic national holiday.”

Lewis Road Creamery’s Matariki edition ‘winter spice’ beverage (Photo: Supplied)

Lewis Road Creamery partnered with iwi-owned Pouarua Farms to produce the “winter spice” beverage, which has notes of ginger root, black pepper, caramel, spices and horopito harvested from the Ruapehu region. Known for its hot, peppery taste, horopito is native to Aotearoa and was used by Māori to treat stomach pain, diarrhoea and poor circulation.

Horopito also makes an appearance in “rākau pepa” gouda, an exclusive cheese made by family-run cheesemakers Meyer Cheese for Matariki. The cheese was born late one summer evening, in a conversation between head cheesemaker Miel Meyer, his sons and an old high school friend. Meyer hit upon the idea of combining the business’s expertise in Dutch-style cheeses with native ingredients like horopito and kawakawa to create a homegrown gouda. “Although a small gesture we hope to support Matariki through increased confidence and knowledge around a small part of Māori culture and our appreciation of that,” Meyer says. 

Beyond such boutique products created to mark Matariki is the much larger question of the commercialisation of the day itself. For retailers, making money from the new public holiday is necessary if they are to cover the day’s costs, including time-and-a-half wages and holiday leave entitlements; the alternative is to close on Friday and miss out on revenue. Estimates from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment suggest Matariki will cost businesses between $337m and $448m, although those figures don’t account for any potential economic uplift from shops opening their doors to customers with a full day off work.

Meyer Cheese’s Matariki edition ‘rākau pepa’ gouda (Photo: Supplied)

Tania Rupapera (Ngāti Kahu, Ngāruahine) understands the commercial pressures that businesses like hers face on public holidays. The owner of Unity Collection, a contemporary Māori art gallery in the north Auckland town of Matakana, Rupapera gives her small staff a paid day off if a statutory holiday is a normal work day for them, and will instead work the shop floor herself or close for the day if she wants to spend time with whānau. “I’ll make that decision before I make a commercial financial decision for the business,” she says, adding she hasn’t yet decided if she’ll open or close Unity Collection on Matariki.

For Rupapera, making money comes second to running a business that values manaakitanga, whanaungatanga and aroha. Stocking more than 50 Māori creatives whose products range from raranga, kākahu and taonga to mahi toi and rongoā, Unity Collection has only been open for 18 months in a town that, according to the 2018 census, is mostly inhabited by Pākehā (94%) and where only 1% of the population speak te reo Māori. Matakana’s affluent, Pākehā residents might not have had much to do with Māori culture but they’re eager to learn, Rupapera says, and Unity Collection is often the bridge connecting the two.

Similarly, Matariki brings people together. Rupapera is aware that with a fully indigenous public holiday comes a responsibility to teach people about its significance to Māori. “Shopping for a set of sheets or a toaster – whatever it is – I can do that any time when I need it, not just because it’s discounted,” Rupapera says. “But there are so many important things in life. It’s just remembering what they are, connecting to that and not filling up the void with the commercialism of buying stuff, which has little value or importance or doesn’t bring that wairua into your life.”

Tauiwi business owners can make money on Friday – while doing it mindfully, she says. “Bring into it what you can, how you can, confidently.”

Tania Rupapera’s Unity Collection store in Matakana (Photo: Supplied)

During Matariki, Unity Collection is holding a series of community events including an invite-only free screening of the film Whina, about the life of Dame Whina Cooper; a putiputi-weaving workshop taught by Unity Collection team member Cherie Williams (Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngāti Wai); and a poi wānanga hosted by Te-Rina Gregory-Hawke, the founder of e-commerce pakihi Poi Yeah. Gregory-Hawke (Ngāti Whātua, Tainui, Ngāpuhi and Ngāi Te Rangi) has learned about Matariki since birth – it’s her middle name too. “I’ve learned about this through my whānau, through my kohanga, through my kura and throughout my whole life. It’s not just a one-off.”

But she’s preparing herself for the inevitable. “We will definitely see some signs in the windows that are going to say ‘50% off, Matariki sale on now, get in here’,” Gregory-Hawke says, a fear that’s based on her experience of running wānanga for government organisations. Those encounters, where the organisations’ cultural needs were met before the needs of Māori, were no more than “box-ticking exercises”, she says. “Māori consultation is often an afterthought, and it doesn’t approach us in a tikanga-based way.”

Gregory-Hawke expects a lot of lessons will be learned from the first official Matariki celebration – lessons that will differ depending on the tikanga of individual rohe. But that’s where iwi experts and Māori cultural consultants can help people approach the holiday in the right way. Even with her upcoming poi wananga, a fun and safe environment to ask questions, learn and pass on knowledge to others, she’s keen to whakamana attendees to give things a go. “Matariki this year will be bigger than it has ever been, and it’s going to continue to grow,” she says. “Year by year, each time we celebrate, everybody is going to begin to learn more because it’s official.”

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