Rongoā & The Tohunga Suppression Act

Tohunga and their descendants have often debated whether it is the medicine, the karakia, or the belief of the patient in the rongoā or karakia that heals the patient. But with a result-oriented, holistic mindset it hardly matters, Kevin reasoned. “They know that the combination does work.” More, “It’s not until someone comes along and tries something different that we may go ‘it may work this way too,’” he added, speaking on behalf of his fellow Māori.

That statement underscores a key difference between an indigenous worldview and the Western paradigm that permeates this project: scientists need to conduct tests that prove a consistent outcome in order to verify the result of anything, whereas Māori may see that something works and think who am I to question how or why it works? It works, let’s just carry on.

To illustrate this contrast during my and Hugh’s first encounter with him, Kevin walked us through the process a tohunga may go through to heal a patient. “There would be an ailment and Māori would do a karakia and ask the unseen one to give the inspiration to cure the problem, whatever it is. You’d go into the bush and just feel it, or feel a tree leaning into him or her as they go into the bush and know that’s the one. Very often the name of the tree says something. If you feel that you’ve done something wrong usually that becomes a mental ailment. There is a tree called a kohekohe, now kohe means done wrong, so they would use those leaves to address that ailment. You either get rocks and heat it and imbue the person in its steam or you boil it up and use the liquid mixture. That inspiration would come to the tohunga– the medicine man I suppose you’d call it.” He paused for a moment and clarified, “Tohunga means expert. You could be an expert in different things, so a tohunga whakairo is an expert carver, tohunga rongoā is an expert in medicines...”

Since the arrival of Kupe, Rongoā has remained a vital mainstay in Māori culture. The living connection to the ngahere that Māori cultivate is itself in large part based in rongoā.

Detail of Kohekohe tree, Waipoua ngahere.Photograph by M. H.

There are two kinds of tohunga who claim expertise in religious rituals. First, the tohunga ahurewa, commonly described as a priest, was the one publicly sanctioned to serve as their community’s ritual expert. Second, the tohunga makutu, described as the shaman or sorcerer, was vetted and empowered by their individual capacities that were obtained directly from the gods and tūpuna. A third, the tohunga rongoā, the spiritual expert and practitioner of traditional medicine whose methods included magic in addition to native herbs and massages, was once a standard role in every iwi across New Zealand.20 Malcolm Voyce, “Māori Healers in New Zealand: The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907.” However, after generations of colonization, industrialization and government legislation, there are far fewer tohunga today than have practiced in the past. This shift is rooted in the expansive colonial government intervention and suppression of Māori traditional cultural practices that permeated policies post-British contact. Recollections of the intervention, like Kevin’s stories of post-colonial education, permeate this text, and the suppression of the tohunga community is no exception.

The repression of mātauranga Māori pertaining to tohunga practice has its lawful roots in the Tohunga Suppression Act (TSA) of 1907.21 Voyce. The TSA, birthed by New Zealand Parliament, was aimed at replacing the tohunga practice of traditional Māori healing with “modern” medicine. It was introduced by parliamentary member James Carroll, who acted on fellow officials’ concern over the “dangerous practices” of the tohunga and what they considered a “regressive Māori attitude.” Carroll, born in Wairoa, was from Irish and Ngāti Kahungunu descent and was the first Māori to hold the cabinet position of Minister of Native Affairs, which he held during the implementation of the TSA. He was also the acting prime minister for the Liberal Party in 1909 and 1911, which I’ve included to demonstrate the mainstream societal status from which his mindset grew.22 Alan Ward, “Carroll, James.”

Repercussions under the TSA ranged from fines to prosecution, but the widespread result was that tohunga simply declined to pass on their oral traditions to aspiring healers, leaving Māori without access to this realm of traditional knowledge. The TSA was repealed by the Māori Welfare Act in 1962, but only after banning practices of the spiritual and cultural leaders along with missionary preaching of Pākehā led to the perceived loss of power of the tohunga and hastened the assimilation of Māori.

Despite the blow to the societal status of tohunga, the TSA was by and large a failure. Legally, the legislation only amounted to a handful of prosecutions as most Māori hesitated to inform on their tohunga for fear of spiritual retribution. Also it failed to substantively white-wash widely held native perspectives of the supernatural cause of bodily ailments and disease.23 Voyce, “The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907,” 99. However, the legislation did push the traditional medicinal practice of Māori out of plain sight, where it quietly continued on a much smaller scale. In the decades since the TSA was repealed, Māori have begun to more openly practice their traditional medicinal methods, though the numbers of true tohunga are far fewer than they once were.

Those who maintain these traditions pass on their knowledge of the medicinal uses of native plants through the community at their marae. There are even contemporary circles of rongoā schooling in Northland that are working to develop the traditional knowledge and train practitioners to serve local communities. Those efforts, however, are still in the early phases of development, and my interaction with participants was limited. There are aspects of rongoā, including some medicinal uses of natives and examples of species relations that foster a higher medicinal effectiveness in plants that I learned through time spent with people privy to this knowledge. As is the case with most oral cultures, however, cultural information of this nature is guarded by those who yield it in order to protect their environment and community from exploitation or mismanagement. Especially in the aftermath of legislation like the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, Māori who practice medicinal healing are wary of exposing their knowledge to scrutiny from the rest of the world. Hugh and I did meet with one practitioner in rongoā schooling and her student but as a testament to the caution that knowledge holders still have, they were not ready to share their program details, as not even the first round of graduates has matriculated.

In respect for Māori practicing rongoā who wish to safeguard their knowledge from exploitation, I’ve included the following statement. My inclusion of rongoā knowledge in this text comes from the stories and demonstrations people shared with me directly and is used to demonstrate the interconnected ecosystems and intangible circuits of mauri (life force) in Aotearoa. Any inclusion of rongoā knowledge beyond those shared experiences, for the purpose of providing context and precedent, is limited and accompanied by an accredited external resource (see chapter III). I recognize that my intention to lift up traditional cultural activity and highlight its role in the interconnected ecology of the region is measurably less powerful than the potentially exploitative effects of my decision to include sensitive rongoā information in this text. I have determined that withholding the information would remove an elemental component of Māori cultural history and leave blank, potentially diluting, a foundational piece of the bond between people and indigenous flora and fauna that this project serves to uplift and make accessible to communities outside Northland. By including the information, perhaps the importance of its guardianship may be crystalized, and the discussion of a need for its further consideration in policy and medicine hastened.