Suppression of Rongoā

Historically, many whānau went underground with their natural treatments and plant medicines when they were actively discouraged from using them in Aotearoa early last century (Tohunga Suppression Act, 1907). Some kaumātua who took part in the Pae Herenga study could not recall being impacted by these restrictions as their whānau continued making and using natural rongoā treatments. Traditionally, training in rongoā rākau and the collection, preparation and administering of plants was first introduced to young children and their education continued until they had a full understanding of the plants, their whakapapa, healing properties and uses. Today, training is offered at some Māori universities and tohunga (experts) in rongoā rākau offer field-based training. There are definite limitations about what can be claimed about rongoā Māori in terms of its traditional healing properties and uses (what our tūpuna used it for). It cannot be referred to as ‘medicine’ in the same way that Western pharmacology does for example.

Reclaiming rongoā healing

There is a revival of rongoā practices among healers who operate from a kaupapa Māori approach (by Māori, for Māori, with Māori). A growing number of kaumātua are using rongoā rākau (plant medicines) and rongoā Māori (traditional treatments). They are reclaiming was what theirs all along but was only temporarily taken from them.

Whaea Aggie spoke about her faith, and her belief in God and Jesus. Her faith kept her strong even though she said she does not attend church. She also talked about her belief in rongoā Māori:

What keeps me well… at this time is, is my faith and belief. I was brought up Catholic, so I’ve got, even though I don’t go to church and all, but I still believe in God and Jesus and, and all of the realms up, up, wherever [they]] are. And, I believe in the rongoā that’s been given to me, to help me to, to get through…

GP K. highlights the importance of listening to whānau and discovering what’s important to them as many older people are beginning to use, or would like to access, rongoā Māori:

I guess empowering them so that they are able to take control of what’s going on… You know you’ve got to sit down, and you’ve got to listen to what is important to them. Not what is important to me or Harry or Tom, what is important for them and for the whānau, and really grasping and trying to whakamana that whānau to help them to achieve that, that goal.

Rongoā rākau can be applied or ingested; teas and tinctures are taken orally, there are balms for bathing, inhalations, and applications to the skin. Many whānau would like the option of using rongoā (in all its forms) but unfortunately, this knowledge has been lost to them due to the Government’s repression of their traditional health customs. Rongoā healers can be found via word of mouth and some healers have small clinics and websites. Some health professionals are supporting Indigenous forms of healing; however, they are required to observe the policy guidelines of that organisation.

GP A. who is also an experienced rongoā practitioner explained that she is happy to recommend her patients use rongoā rākau:

I would say, ‘Oh if you’re wanting to do rongoā rākau, these are your options.’ So, I’d highlight to them what they might be able to use. And then, because I’m not going to have the time to go and make that. And then I would say, ‘Oh I know somebody if you’re interested,’ you know, ‘this is somebody that you could get that from.’ So, I’ve already kind of said what I think would be good, and especially if I start them on something else and I’ve kind of had anecdotal evidence that that’s okay, then I know that these are the ones that I’m going to be okay with them having with a certain medicine. So, I would say, ‘Oh and you can go to this person and they’ll be able to do that…Keeps me safe from that perspective, and I’m just saying ‘these are your options’. I’m not saying, ‘Oh you should go and have that,’ you know so I’m saying, ‘these are options.’ So, I think that keeps it safe. I haven’t actually had any problems with it.

That’s right, so, but if I was to say, ‘you need to take that,’ you know that could be a problem. ‘You’re going to take that, and this is what you’re going to take’, that could be a problem. So, but I leave that to those who do that every day. And that’s the beauty of rongoā, it’s not about who does it, who provides it for you…  it’s about gaining the access to those who are willing to give the healing, or those who are willing to help them, because the true healing is not from the tohunga. It’s not even from, you know, it is from Io [God], but it’s actually within yourself. And so, it’s being able to find that pathway to be able to heal within yourself… like if someone says, ‘oh I go to the chiropractor, osteopath,’ whatever they [want], I’m like ‘whatever’s going to get you better. My job is to get you never to come back to my room because you’re so good,’ you know. ‘My job is I don’t want to see you again,’ you know.

A growing number of kaumātua and their whānau prefer to use rongoā Māori and rongoā rākau, but they may not wish to discuss this with the health care team. Kaumātua and whānau manaaki may not be very trusting of health professionals. Health professionals can still have misunderstanding about Indigenous natural healing approaches. The Medicine Act, for example, has provided a legal foothold over what counts as “medicine” in Aotearoa and rongoā rākau has been largely repressed, and not counted as ‘real’ medicinal treatment. Our Pae Herenga study participants reflected that some health providers are very trusting of their natural healing methods and appreciate being told about their use. However, others were not so trusting.

Dr. K. said that patients did not always tell her when they are taking rongoā:

I think I probably get a lot more [telling me] than some others [non-Maori GPs]. I guess for those [whānau] that I’ve known really well for the 10 years that I have been a GP I probably am getting most of it. But you know I’m sure there’s stuff that they… might not tell me.

Whānau do not always want to disclose using rongoā rākau (plant medicines) and holistic treatments due mainly to a lack of trust. Dr K highlights how she tries to increase trust with her patients:

I would hope it wasn’t our open trusting relationship perhaps, not being as open and trusting that I would [like], you know. So, it could, it could be that- I try really hard not to have a power difference between us. So, I work really hard to push that down so that we become equals, not ‘doctor knows best, and patient doesn’t’. So, I try to avoid that at all lengths.

Dr. K. had also observed whānau at the GP clinic where she works using rongoā:

I just know that especially in this clinic here we have lots of whānau who are using the rongoā. I definitely hear of kawakawa. What else am I hearing of? That would be the main one at the moment that is on the top of my head.

When asked what helps whānau to maintain the use of rongoā, karakia, Dr. K.  highlights the importance of listening to whānau and discovering what is important to them:

I guess empowering them. So, that they are able to take control of what’s going on… You know you’ve got to sit down, and you’ve got to listen to what is important to them. Not what is important to me or Harry or Tom, what is important for, for them and for the whanau, and then um and really grasping and trying to whakamana that whanau to help them to achieve that, that goal.

When asked by the Pae Herenga interviewer what would the context be where Vanessa (hospice worker and rongoā healer) was able to administer healing within a hospice setting, she responded:

… there are so many different scenarios that I can share. I will talk about, so I would say that whereas initially I don’t think the organisation had any knowledge about rongoā … I remember asking the Medical Director, ‘When you are assessing a patient how do you ask about what complementary remedies, or things that people are taking, how do you approach that conversation with them?’ ’Because I was concerned that some Māori patients were using wairākau, but not telling doctors about it. So, I said to the Medical Director, ‘How do you enquire about that?’ And he said, ‘Oh. I don’t.’ ‘So, what [about] traditional Chinese medicine, vitamins, acupuncture?’ ‘No, actually I don’t ask.’ So that gave me an idea of where I needed to start with in terms of acceptability of that, in this space. 

Vanessa talks with colleagues and volunteers about rongoā. She also includes the making of rongoā into the day unit programmes with patients, creating an opportunity for whānau to talk about their own experiences and memories of rongoā:

There have been times where I’ve made or I’ve done talks about rongoā with staff, with volunteers, and with our day unit patients. So, our day unit patients will make things like lip balm and skin cream, and things like that together. And we’ll learn and make [them] all along and we talk about wairua and we’ll talk about what remedies, what things their parents would use for them when they were sick and māuiui when they were young. And in that time patients can go back to remembering great times, remembering great healing, and we talk about the things that their whānau did with them at that time. And I think in a sense that memory triggers a comfort that they can bring forward in a way. So, it’s a great tool for that.


For health and palliative care professionals, we recommend:

  • Acting sensitively when enquiring about whether kaumātua or their whānau manaaki are using rongoā rākau treatments to support the older person.
  • Becoming informed about rongoā in all forms, as this will help to develop an understanding of how these treatments work alongside the bio-medical approaches that are being introduced as part of the kaumātua’s care.

For the health and palliative care sector, we recommend:

  • That research on this field of health care is undertaken to ensure that Western medicines (chemotherapy and radiography, for example) can be used safely in conjunction with rongoā rākau. At present rongoā, rākau is not included in pharmaceutical medications.
  • We recommend that health professionals access Kaupapa Māori training in the philosophy and practice of rongoā in all its forms, inclusive of te reo Māori, karakia, waiata and whakapapa and bring this healing approach out into the open for all people to access should they want it.

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