Page 1: Biography
Te Rangimarie, Puna Himene
Healer, nurse, spiritual leader
This biography, written by Sally Maclean, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Described as the 'smartest Maori woman it has been my lot to meet' by an investigating policeman, Puna Himene Te Rangimarie was one of the first to be prosecuted under the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907. Little is known of her background. In 1910 she was described as a young married woman; her husband was Hopu Nga Oka. She had been living at Meremere pa near Patea in South Taranaki for several years, and it is likely that she was of Nga Rauru or Ngati Ruanui.
Puna began to practise as a healer around 1908. With the aid of the spirit of her dead sister, Puna identified the illness of each person who came to her for help. Those she diagnosed as suffering from mate Maori (illness that had a spiritual cause) she treated herself. Others she sent to the Pakeha doctor. Puna often nursed her patients in her own home. Those who could not afford to pay her were not charged, and she organised a committee to defray the costs of patients who needed Pakeha medication or treatment.
Sometime between 1908 and 1910 she took the name Himene; this was, she said, the name of her dead sister. It was also possibly a transliteration of Simmons, the name of the doctor who lived at Patea. W. T. Simmons and Puna worked together on several cases. She nursed his Maori patients as required, carrying out his instructions. He believed that she had a beneficial influence on local Maori, for in addition to advocating temperance and hygiene and advising against smoking, she encouraged the local people to reject the religious teachings of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. In fact, Puna had herself become a spiritual leader with her own movement, whose followers were known as the 'inner circle'. Puna baptised some of them and gave them new names.
Her fame spread rapidly and patients travelled to Meremere pa from as far away as Gisborne. Many required Pakeha medical attention but could not be sent away for practical reasons. Those suffering from contagious diseases represented a health risk to the local people. In late 1909 a boy was brought from Waitotara for treatment. He had typhoid. The potentially fatal disease spread throughout the pa, prompting the marae committee to take action. A complaint against Puna was laid with the police through the Taranaki District Maori Council. On investigation, there was insufficient evidence to charge her under the Tohunga Suppression Act.
In March 1910 a woman who had been brought to Puna from Wanganui died at the pa. Evidence was later given that the woman's condition was terminal, there being little either Maori or Pakeha medicine could have done for her. Nevertheless, the death provided an opportunity for the marae committee to call in the police again. Puna, in retaliation, attempted through her followers to overturn the committee.
This time the police obtained testimony against Puna from a disaffected follower. He alleged that Puna had lured his wife away from him, after playing on her fears that she would die if she questioned Puna's power to heal. Constable Thomas Hickman, the chairman of the Taranaki District Maori Council and several members of the local marae committee visited Puna's house to question her. Puna stated that the woman was a relation, who had sought protection after being beaten by her husband. The woman was returned to her husband, and within days she made a statement to the marae committee that supported his evidence against Puna.
The native minister, James Carroll, subsequently gave his consent for Puna to be prosecuted. The charges, that she had 'gathered Maoris around her by practising on their superstitions or credulity' and that she had misled 'by professing to possess supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of disease', were heard in the Hawera Magistrate's Court in September 1910. The court was told of Puna's method of diagnosis, and her treatments, which included cold baths and doses of port wine. W. T. Simmons gave evidence in her support and even Detective James Siddells, who conducted the prosecution, had to admit that the 'defendant may have done a certain amount of good'. But, he added, the 'legislation had provided that tohungaism had to be suppressed, and it was in the best interests of the natives themselves that this should be so.'
Puna was convicted on the first charge; the second was withdrawn. The magistrate fined her £10. On being instructed to renounce her claim to supernatural powers, Puna refused, saying, 'I cannot tell my people lies.' However, she agreed to abandon spiritual healing and concentrate on nursing the sick. Siddells feared that the outcome of the trial would be a further increase in Puna's power in her community. Certainly, many Maori thought she had been unjustly treated. One hundred people from Meremere and the surrounding villages wrote to James Carroll, bearing testimony to her good work and asking that she be registered as a nurse. Carroll replied that Puna would have to pass examinations to gain registration, but could continue to practise as a nurse as long as she desisted from tohungaism.
Puna Himene Te Rangimarie last came to official notice through a letter she wrote to Carroll the following year. She reported to Carroll that she was 'conducting herself properly' and was sending her patients to the Pakeha doctor. She may well have sent herself, as the medical returns from Simmons for 1911 note his treatment of a 25-year-old woman named Puna, for dyspepsia. Of the remainder of her life, nothing is recorded.