Use of rongoā rākau (natural plant medicines) is increasing

More kaumātua and whānau are using, or wanting to use rongoā rākau

"There is a revival of these practices today, particularly with healers who operate from a kaupapa Māori approach"

A growing number of kaumātua and whānau are preferring to use rongoā, and rongoā rākau. Historically, many whānau lost their rongoā knowledge and customs or they went underground with them. With the legalised repression of rongoā rākau customs following the influence of the Tohunga Suppression Act (1907), whānau were restricted from openly using their natural rongoā. The Medicine Act has provided a legal foothold over what counts as “medicine” in Aotearoa and rongoā rākau has been largely repressed and is not counted as ‘real’ medicinal support. 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). Rongoā, for example, cannot be referred to as ‘medicine’ in the same way that Western pharmacology is.

Some Māori whānau have protected their rongoā rākau knowledge from disappearing from our culture altogether. There is a revival of these practices today, particularly with healers who operate from a kaupapa Māori approach (by Māori, with Māori, for Māori). Whānau who have retained their knowledge and practices of rongoā rākau are sharing their knowledge and resources with others, often through small clinics. Some DHBs are supporting our indigenous forms of healing, provided that the rongoā healer stays within the organisation’s policy constraints. There is also an increase in the number of health professionals who are actively supporting kaumātua and whānau to use rongoā.

We share some feedback from our Pae Herenga participants about the growing interest and desire that whānau have towards using rongoā rākau and how some health professionals are now able to introduce this into their work.

Kaumātua Hugh, in his Pae Herenga interview, commented that historically there was a shift towards doctor’s prescriptions rather than using rongoā; this may also be because the two medicines may not always be compatible:

Quite frankly from, from my observation I think a lot of that traditional [rongoā rākau] thing, has probably been superseded by the doctor’s prescription you know. I mean honestly, honestly, so you get this patient coming back ah… to the whare to spend their [last] days along with their cardboard box full of different pills…

Kuia Pat in her Pae Herenga interview, reflected on staff at an aged residential care facility ‘home’ supporting the use of rongoā while her husband was in residential care. She said:

… when he was in the rest home… he had a [skin infection on his] throat that ah, wouldn’t clear up. In fact, he was in the hospital when he got it. They thought, ‘oh, it’s nothing.’ [They didn’t] even give me anything to put on it but … [Names of whānau members] are very into rongoā. While my husband was in the rest home, he was quite depressed and cried a lot. [Whānau member had a drink] that he used to put together and we took it down to the rest home… and they used to give it to him… the Asian nurses were absolutely… adamant that he got that medication, had that drink… whenever it was running low, they’d let us know… [When] we came home, he actually still had it [the skin infection] there. But … it wasn’t getting worse… it wasn’t any getting better… [until] [name of whānau member] started making panipani with kawakawa leaves… No sign of it now.

Whaea Aggie received positive support from nurses continue her use of rongoā rākau to help her manage her illness and symptoms at the end of her life, however, some health professionals did not:

And that was just one specialist [that was not supportive] because all of the rest were good and I explained to them all, you know, I says ‘I believe in my, my Māori medicine. I believe in Māori rongoā, and healing and just everything. I believe in those.’ And the nurses were really good, and they said, ‘Carry it on. Keep doing it.’

Joy (health professional) reassures her patients that it is okay to tell the doctors they are using rongoā as she believes doctors have become more accepting of its use:

...'tell the doctor' I say when we have a discussion. 'You tell the doctor that that’s okay. They don’t mind, as long as they know' and sometimes I say to them 'well that’s okay you can still do that but be careful. I think at the moment have your chemo treatment because that’s, you know it is toxic, toxic to the body. But even after that, you can still have your rongoā.' So, we don’t sort of discourage it. The doctors are becoming quite accepting of that.

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