New Zealand practitioners of rongoā Māori, known as tohunga or healers, are increasingly opening up their recipe books and offering age-old remedies handed down to them by their elders. Reports of success in treating chronic conditions like eczema and muscle pain are leading to a growing interest in the healing properties of native New Zealand plants like kawakawa and manuka.
For generations, the medicinal powers of the bush were well-known to Māori healers but with the arrival of Europeans in the 19th Century came diseases they had never seen before, and were unable to treat. A combination of loss of confidence in rongoā and the rise of travelling charlatans claiming to have supernatural powers led to the outlawing of rongoā in 1907 under the Tohunga Suppression Act. Despite attempts to stamp it out, Māori continued to use rongoā and a century later it's now becoming a part of the mainstream. Tonics and teas made with native plants are turning up in cafes and on supermarket shelves. But products like these only signify a tiny portion of the rongoā philosophy.
Healer Amiria Raumati is on the porch of her eco-cabin in the sandhills of Te Henga, a wild west coast beach. Her two boys play in a swing hanging from an old tōtara tree. It was when her eldest child Rain Ranginui ended up in hospital with eczema and asthma that Amiria turned to traditional methods rather than relying on steroids and ventilators. Now she spends her time learning about rongoā—taking her sons with her to harvest and dry native plants, creating balms and tonics to soothe aches and body ailments, often beginning in the gut. Starting at the tip of the North Island and making her way down to the bottom of the South—Amiria has sought knowledge and healing for herself and others from tohunga and elders she’s met along the way. For Amiria, rongoā is about connecting spiritually and physically to the natural world as much as it is feeding the body naturally prepared medicines. We spent an afternoon with Amiria learning about her efforts to become schooled in this ancient tradition.
VICE: Kia ora Amiria. Can you tell me about where you're from?
Amiria: I was born and raised in Taranaki under the watchful eye of Koro Taranaki Maunga [mountain] but whakapapa to Ngati te Ata me Tainui through my papa's line. My great-great-grandmother Nga Kahikatea Wirihana lived to 127 years of age, a matriarch of the Waiohua Hapu, the old people pre the great fleet from Hawaii, a hapu that was led by wahine—the chiefs were the grandmothers—the women, that is part of my lineage in this lifetime.
Are these things about your identity that you’ve always grown up knowing?
No, I wasn't as fortunate as my sons are. I was not immersed in Te Ao Māori. I was raised in a predominantly Pākeha community in Ngamotu [New Plymouth] Taranaki, I went to an all-girls Catholic school and left at 15. We would visit nan and koro and whanau in Waiuku but I wasn’t raised on the marae like others I know. I felt that was always missing in my life so I have made a conscious effort to trace those these ancestral trails in my adult life, especially for my sons.
When did you remember having that turning point, when you thought, I’ve got to go retrace?I’ve always been quite a conscious soul but I really started awakening in my mid 20s, spiritually this void was present and this yearning to seek deeper trails started pulling at my pito [belly button].
What were some major moments that spoke to you and made you feel you were on the right track or feel in the right place?
I was called by the tohorā [whales]. They kept coming to me, a wairua spiritually in my dreams, synchronistically dream after dream. Different pods of whales, orca, paikea [humpback whales], even great white sharks, were coming to me in my dreams. I’d be standing on the beach and they would call me, literally they would call me, they were singing to me in their whale song which vibrationally is one of the sounds of creation. I would walk into the water and swim out to them and I would hold onto their fins and they would take me with them in their pod out into the moana.
I called my aunty up in Whangara on the East Coast in Tairawhiti and told her I needed to come and she welcomed us with open arms. Whangara Te Ara Paikea, the pathway of Paikea the whale rider, even though I don’t whakapapa to that part of Aotearoa I knew I was being called there to be taught, and as soon as I got there the dreams stopped because I listened to the call of my tūpuna.
How much of your practice includes a supernatural element?
All of it. I’m guided by wairua [spirit]. I always roll with wairua and I serve spirit before I serve anything else. No amount of money or job will ever amount to the abundance I feel when this connected to wairua.
What do you say to people who are sceptical about what you do?
Nothing, you can’t persuade people that don’t roll with wairua, but you can lead by example. I’ve had a man walk into my space before and I shared a bit of kōrero about a certain rongoā that would help with his shoulder and he was like, "Urgh sounds like a whole bunch of heebie-jeebie airy fairy stuff to me." He put some on anyway—then he came back 15 minutes later and was like ‘Oh my God the pain is gone". He was a middle class, Pākeha. Laughed at what I had to share but, ended up buying three pottles of my rongoā.
How did that make you feel?
That my small contribution to the world is all worth it.
You have to rep for not just your mahi, but your culture in those situations?
Absolutely, it makes me even more proud to be Māori. It's important for us to have a presence wherever we go. We are tangata whenua and need to stand in our power always.
What was your first experiences with rongoā?
While living in Whanganui a Tara [Wellington] I started travelling to different wananga and different gatherings where healers and tohunga were present. I felt a shift in my wairua, I was becoming more present with the plants, the earth and elements started communicating to me in ways I couldn’t explain.
At that time did you know tohunga or did you have to seek them out?
I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, the right invitations were opening up to me. You don't have to strive or force the process it naturally unfolds, the right teachers appear.
In 2013 when my son Rain Ranginui was only one, he started getting sick and I didn’t understand what was going on. I had never dealt with sickness before. He was having trouble breathing and trouble with his skin, behavioural problems, energetic imbalances. He was reacting to different foods and it was just so foreign to me. He ended up in hospital one time and as a mother you can imagine how helpless you feel. He was having trouble breathing, his temperature was off the Richter and the doctors basically nailed it down to he’s developing asthma and eczema.
That's a common experience in New Zealand…
A common thing that is happening more and more to our children and they pumped him full of steroids and Ventolin and he reacted even more. It sort of helped him at that moment but it took him two weeks to fully recover, so when that happened again a few months later I took it into my own hands. I listened to wairua and knew it was deeper than what they prescribed so I started seeking out different plant systems and doing more and more research. I bypassed Western medicine and doctors in that sense and I went straight to source—I wanted to trace the whakapapa of this sickness and where it was coming from.
What do you personally feel is the medicine in rongoā?
For me, rongoā Māori is assisting and holding space for people to heal themselves. It is a fusion of plant medicine, tikanga [customary practices], kaitiakitanga [guardianship], karakia, pure intention and unconditional love. It is the understanding of nature and one's innate and direct connection to nature and the nature within.
What is next for you, what are you learning at the moment?
This year I’m stripping everything right back again. I’m moving onto a space of rebirthing. I head back to Hawaii to begin learning the fundamentals of lomilomi—Hawaiian massage—to harness a deeper understanding of how to work with energy. Lomilomi is a very feminine art form and modality of healing; the feminine side of romi romi which is Māori massage. So I’m being called to move into that space as well as cultivating creative sacred spaces with fellow mana wahine to assist this work, this healing.
How does rongoā fit or not fit in a modern urban environment?
I always felt that modern day society didn’t feel in alignment with spirit for me right from school. I was always breaking boundaries and getting into trouble. I was decolonising myself without realising it and although I don't like using that term that’s exactly what we’re doing. When I lived in Hawaii in 2014 I shared a presentation at University of Manoa about my journey with decolonisation and how that was held hand in hand with rongoā Māori because its dismantling all these paradigms that don’t resonate—first, with one’s culture and second, with one’s sole purpose. The old ones knew how to live all along, it’s just most have forgotten. There's a brokenness within people as a whole. There’s a real disconnection and I think social media is—as good as it is—it's bad in a sense people aren't connecting anymore. They’re not communicating kanohi ki te kanohi—face-to-face—they're communicating through cell phones and computer screens so that connection is lost and there’s a big need to compare to the illusion of someone else’s life when in reality there is a need to deeply connect to the magic of nature by decluttering one’s life and possessions.
Who are the guardians of the knowledge?
There is one kuia I will speak of here, one of the most powerful souls I’ve ever met and had the privilege of sitting with whom I absolutely adore with my whole heart, Nanny Rose—Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pere—one of our most revered and respected tohuna tipua. Holder of the ancient and sacred wisdoms. She did not need to access anything, she was born with the wisdom of the most ancient and has lived a life in service of rongoā Māori and Māori as a whole. In fact she moves beyond these realms and works with humanity from all walks of life. I feel a deep connection and respect for Nan that surpasses this lifetime and moves back in times of ancient cosmological connection.
Why do you think there’s an renewed interest in rongoā Māori?
People are feeling there's something missing in their lives on a mass scale and certain pharmaceutical medicines are failing and aren't healing or just topically healing, like putting a bandaid on a tumour. It’s merely repressing the root of the pain for a short period of time but deep down that trauma is festering. When you heal the spirit, you heal the whole self not just the physical self, it’s all balance.
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