Wai 262 – Rongoā Māori

The claims in the Wai 262 inquiry also raised a number of distinctive issues relating to traditional Māori medicine and healing, that is, rongoā Māori.  Chapter seven of the Waitangi Tribunal’s report addresses these issues.  In particular, the Tribunal considers the potential benefits of rongoā Māori (‘What Rongoā Has to Offer’) and the ways in which the Crown has supported, and the extent to which it has undermined, rongoā Māori. 

The Tribunal notes that rongoā Māori is based on Māori conceptions of health and well-being, and the Māori public health system revolved around the concepts of tapu and noa.  Maori traditional healing operated within that framework.  The Tribunal refers to the work of eminent Maori health specialist, Professor Mason Durie and suggests that there are five main categories of traditional Maori healing:
  1. ritenga and karakia – rituals and incantations
  2. rākau rongoā – plant medicines (though today ‘rongoā’ is used in a more general sense, it can be used to refer to this specific form of healing)
  3. mirimiri – a form of massage
  4. water – used in cleansing rituals and other treatments
  5. minor surgical procedures – such as blood-letting to relieve swelling

Note that the traditional Māori view of health and healing was that it comprised both physical and spiritual dimensions.  As the Tribunal says:

In the holistic Māori view of health, outward manifestations of sickness reflect broader environmental, family or spiritual problems.  Rākau rongoā are not considered effective on their own.  Indeed the most important form of treatment by tohunga was and remains spiritual.

The traditional healing practices of the tohunga were, however, not able to effectively protect against the waves of foreign diseases colonial Māori communities encountered. “In the face of this crisis, the tohunga’s status diminished.  Community adherence to tapu around the sick and the dead – which would have helped check the spread of disease – accordingly slackened.  Some tohunga at the turn of the century also resorted to confused methods that had no basis in tradition.”  In an effort to address cases of medical misapplication or fraud, the Government granted the Māori councils the power to regulate the activities of local tohunga.  Calls continued for tohunga to be banned altogether, and, after the emergence of Rua Kenana’s prophetic movement seemed to tip the balance in 1906, the Tohunga Suppression Act was passed the following year.

The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 essentially defined three offenses:
  • gathering Māori around one by practicing on their superstition or credulity;
  • misleading or attempting to mislead any Māori by professing or pretending to possess supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of disease; and
  • misleading or attempting to mislead any Māori by professing or pretending to possess supernatural powers in the foretelling of future events.

The Tribunal is scathing of the Act and the motives underlying it:

Rather than being a genuine attempt to deal with the problems affecting Māori at the time, the Act was an expression of an underlying mind-set that was fundamentally hostile to mātauranga Māori.  The Act’s very title sent an aggressive and provocative message about the Government’s view of Māori beliefs.  Far from tackling charlatans or dangerous practices, the legislation imposed an effective ban on traditional Māori healing overall.  Thus, in our view, the Act was not only unjustified but also racist, in that it defined a core component of Māori culture as wrong and in need of ‘suppression.

The Act failed to suppress tohunga completely.  There were relatively few convictions under the Act and at the time of the Act’s repeal in 1962 there were still tohunga openly practicing.  It did, however, have the effect of driving the practice underground.  Although, in recent years, rongoā has received recognition and support from government, its relatively late engagement with government (compared with other forms of previously suppressed mātauranga, such as te reo Māori), is, suggests the Tribunal, a legacy of this legislation.

Importantly, the Tribunal notes that rongoā could play an important part in addressing the current crisis in Māori health.  The Tribunal reasons:
  • the medicinal properties of rākau rongoā are considerable;
  • Māori ideas about the role of te taha wairua (the spiritual dimension) in health remains fundamental;
  • expanding rongoā services may draw more Māori into the primary health care system;
  • the available evidence suggests growing Māori demand for rongoā services.

The Tribunal commends the Crown for funding rongoā services but notes that the Crown’s support for rongoā has been characterised by delays and even regressive steps such as the curtailing of funding for rākau rongoā. The Tribunal suggests that this can only be because the Crown is not convinced of the efficacy of rongoā or that the scepticism reflected in the Tohunga Suppression Act is still limiting the role of rongoā within the public health framework because the Government is afraid of being accused of political correctness.

The Tribunal therefore recommended that the Crown take the following actions “as a matter of urgency”:
  • Recognise that rongoā Māori has significant potential as a weapon in the fight to improve Māori health.
  • Incentivise the health system to expand rongoā services.
  • Adequately support Te Paepae Matua (the national body that supports and represents tohunga) to play the quality control role that the Crown should not and cannot play itself.
  • Begin to gather some hard data about the extent of current Māori use of services and the likely ongoing extent of demand.

Significant issues relating to Māori health and healing were raised in the context of the Wai 262 inquiry.  As this chapter demonstrates, many of those issues were quite specific to rongoā, or played out in a particular way in relation to this field of mātauranga Māori.  Yet, this chapter also reflects the broader concerns raised by the claimants in this inquiry – that is, how to ensure mātauranga Māori is fully recognised, that it is supported, and that it is controlled, managed, used, and protected by those who are the kaitiaki.

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