RATANA, Tahupotiki Wiremu
Maori faith healer and leader.
A new biography of Ratana, Tahupotiki Wiremu appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Better known in later life as “Bill”, T. W. Ratana was reared in the Wanganui region. From being an obscure Maori farmer in 1921, he had by the end of that year attracted national attention by his powers of faith healing. The reformed drinker's new power became apparent following visions, falling into trances, and curing a child after several days of prayer. Maori people flocked to him from all over New Zealand and miraculous cures were reported by many of them. Ratana himself was simple in speech and method; he spoke to each person quietly and never gestured; he never dramatised or indulged in meaningless ritual during his faith-healing sessions. To each one he required belief in God and rejection of Maori beliefs in Tohungaism. This was one of his greatest influences on the Maori people of that time but it was tempered by his advocacy of faith alone as a cure for all ills, rather than reliance on medical advice. Tall and slightly stooped and a lover of pipe smoking, Ratana had the penetrating eyes of a mystic with the modesty of a great man. He shunned press interviews, avoided photographers, and sought to escape attention by surrounding himself with an entourage who refused to identify him when asked.
Ratana formed a church which bears his name with the main temple at Ratana pa. He looked upon himself as a mouthpiece or intermediary between God and man so that much of the church ritual glorified his name and status. Although he made prophecies, he appeared to regard himself not as a prophet but merely “the instrument of God”. Ratana allied the movement with Labour Party policies, eventually obtaining his first electoral success in 1931. After his death Ratana candidates continued to dominate the Maori political scene.
Apart from his faith healing, religious, and political influence, Ratana gave new hope to the Maori people of the early 1920s. This developed into a rising tide of nationalism in the thirties. Although the numbers of Ratana adherents are decreasing, the movement still remains an influence, particularly in politics.
In his later years Ratana seemed to lose some of his power of faith healing and his following was checked by an unfortunate, though unfounded, charge of intoxication. The suggestion of drink, in view of his early background, and the fact that he did not permit alcohol at any of his gatherings, perhaps influenced many people against him. During his 18 years of faith healing he had to endure criticism in the press and on the platform but he remained, in spite of this, an unassuming yet commanding figure. His followers obeyed him willingly and his decision was absolute, but in his desire to eradicate the wrongs affecting the Maori people he failed to take into account the mood of the country. After his death many reforms in Maori welfare and land problems took place and some of these may have been due, in part, to the influence of the Ratana movement in the political field.
by John Bruce Palmer, B.A., Curator, Fiji Museum, Suva.