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Written by Kennedy Warne, Photographs by Mathias Svold

Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, traditionally welcome the new year in June, around the time of their winter solstice.

For tribes in the Whanganui region, the new year is heralded by the rising of the star Rigel, in the Orion cluster. In Maori, this star is called Puanga.

It's a period of celebration and remembrance, rooted in a deep respect for nature that is being kept alive by new generations.

The Whanganui region is defined by its 180-mile river, which rises in the volcanic mountains of the North Island.

The celebration of Puanga begins before dawn, when a bus picks people up to drive to the sacred mountain, Ruapehu.

People light a fire and gather to pray, calling out the names of loved ones who died during the past year.

The ritual continues as Maori bring the fire from the mountain to the Whanganui River, or Te Awa Tupua, the river of sacred power.

Maori tribes have controlled, cared for, and depended on the Whanganui River for more than 700 years.

Puanga signals the time to plant new crops and to celebrate a time of endings and beginnings.

The guiding proverb is Puanga kai rau—Puanga of abundant food—both a literal hope for good harvests and a metaphor for future prosperity.

The Whanganui River embodies this abundance.

Gerrard Albert teaches his son Tokoiterangi how to catch and revere river eel, known in Maori as tuna.

Kites are also flown at Puanga to symbolize a connection between earth and sky, the physical world and the spirit world, those who are living and those who have passed away.

In ancient times, large cloud-piercing kites required several people to fly them and could reach more than half a mile into the sky.

Children at Te Wainui-a-rua, a Maori school on the Whanganui River, celebrate Puanga by making traditional kites. Every morning they assemble and say, "We are the river, and the river is us."