Te Rongoā Māori was the way in which Māori lived within the natural world prior to colonisation. Māori learned to utilise the surrounding environment to maintain health and wellbeing as well as to balance the body to restore mauri (life force energy).

Kaumātua Tom spoke about his understanding of the word ‘rongoā’:

[H]ere’s how I look at it. When you have a look at the word ‘rongo’, I mean that’s to listen, nē? And that’s fine.

The use of plants as medicine was developed through the study of whakapapa, particularly the whakapapa of Tāne and his descendants; this form of science is not unlike the study of plant genealogy that is used within Western classification systems. Māori used their observations of the world around them to categorise and reveal the specific therapeutic elements of each of the plants used, developing ways to extract and prepare the elements for human use.

These therapies were devised in combination with the use of sacred water, therapeutic touch as well as wairuatanga (Māori spirituality) practices. Therefore, rongoā has a broad meaning and application and encompasses a holistic approach to mauri (life force, vital essence) wellbeing. Rongoā means to treat, to preserve, to apply medicines, to find a solution to a problem. A rongoā Māori approach focuses on the essence (life force properties) within each plant, the whakapapa (genealogy) of each plant and the environment they inhabit and includes the whakapapa of the healer and the one being healed. The natural and holistic methods Māori practitioners use is varied.

The Pae Herenga study highlighted that rongoā is anything that helps to uplift the spirit, soothe the aching heart or bring physical relief from symptoms (emotional, physical and spiritual) for kaumātua and their whānau manaaki (family carers). Rongoā can include a range of healing approaches, including:

  • Whānau Manaaki connections/collective care systems
  • Clear, transparent, fluid communication (between kaumātua and whānau and between kaumātua whānau and health and social care professionals)
  • Hui - Kōrerorero (Preparation, planning, resolving problems,  negotiating end of life issues)
  • Te Reo (Māori language)
  • Whenua (Land)
  • Karakia (Prayers, incantations, chants) [includes different prayers for different occasions]
  • Kawa (ceremonies) and rituals to clear and cleanse: whakanoa, whakawātea
  • Karanga (‘Calling’ traditions)
  • Whaikorero (Speech making)
  • Whakakata (Humour)
  • Kai (food) & wai (beverages)
  • Haka (traditional action dance)
  • Waiata (Singing)
  • Kanikani (Dancing)
  • Tāniko (Weave, embroider)
  • Rongoā rākau (Wai, kai, balms, inhalations, teas, infusions, baths etc.)
  • Matakite (“Scanning & assessments”; talking with tūpuna)
  • Kāhui takitini (Art work)
  • Mirimiri (Massage)
  • Tioata (Crystals).

Rongoā rākau: A specific form of rongoā is rongoā rākau (plant medicines). There are many forms of rongoā rākau. Rongoā rākau practitioners source plants and prepare these in a variety of ways to bring comfort, relief and healing:

  • Salves
  • Inhalations (to breathe)
  • Infusions (burning rongoā; scent/smell)
  • Ingestion – oral (kai, wai, tinctures, teas)
  • Hot steam baths
  • Steam treatments
  • Poultices.

Kaumātua and rongoā practitioner Wii spoke about how the wairua is the most important part of rongoā, and by the rongoā practitioner focusing their thoughts on the wairua, they can help with healing process. Kaumātua Wii emphasised the most important part of the process was not the rongoā itself, but the wairua of that rongoā:

…Yes, but also when I was doing rongoā also, using different types of rongoā to heal people and all that, and I realised also, you don’t need the rongoā to actually start healing people. You can use the wairua of that rongoā also because everything has a wairua. Yeah.

Kaumātua Wii pointed out that rongoā does not have to be a plant medicine, it can be mirimiri, karakia and many other forms of healing, “Rongoā is actually like me and you talking.” He further highlighted that the person using the rongoā needed to believe in its healing ability and it was important not to try and force anything upon [person being treated]. He also spoke about how it was important to give patients an overview of what to expect if they had not seen a healer or been treated with rongoā before:

It comes in different forms also. It can be like… mirimiri and prayers and all this. But, for the person that’s terminally ill and using it like that, they’ve got to believe in that rongoā. They’ve got to believe themselves, that is the main thing…

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