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Story: Russell, Mārama

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Russell, Mārama


Ngāpuhi and Te Roroa tohunga, midwife, woman of mana

This biography, written by Garry Hooker and Venus McGill Corfield, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

Mārama Moetara was born, probably in 1875 or 1876, at Waimamaku, a coastal Te Roroa village on fertile land a few miles south of Hokianga harbour. She was the youngest of four sisters and two brothers, including the chief Iehu Moetara. Her father, Hapakuku Moetara, also known as Tuohu Moetara, was a leading chief of Ngāti Korokoro and Te Roroa, a magistrate's court assessor and a member of the first Hokianga County Council. Her mother, Mere Hira, was a daughter of Te Hira Te Kawau and a grand-daughter of Āpihai Te Kawau, principal chief of Ngāti Whātua at Ōrākei. Her paternal grandparents were Rangatira Moetara of Ngāti Korokoro, a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi, and Te Hana, niece of the paramount Te Roroa chief and seer Taoho.

Mārama was reared in a Māori Christian community which had accepted the Pākehā way but sought to adapt it to Māori custom. She witnessed considerable cultural change in her childhood. Her family shared local misgivings at the loss of mana arising from widespread land sales and organised Pākehā settlement, the social effects on Māori of the liquor trade, and continuing breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi by the Crown.

A foundation pupil in 1885 of the Waimamaku Native School, Mārama is believed to have had little formal education, spending the greater part of her formative years assisting in the running of her father's home. She had only a limited understanding of English.

On 13 March 1897 at Rawene she married Frederick George Russell, a part-Māori settler of Aratapu, Northern Wairoa. Frederick was the grandson of the early Hokianga timber merchant George Frederick Russell, and the nephew of Frederick Nene Russell, the first MHR for Northern Māori. Initially living on Mārama's ancestral land at Waikara-Waipoua, Pākanae and Motutoa, the couple finally settled at Koutu Point, Hokianga, where they established a splendid garden. They had 14 children.

In her mid 30s Mārama followed in the footsteps of her ancestors by displaying mana as a traditional Māori healer, midwife and seer. Tradition says she was assisted by two spirit dogs: one black, the other red, and named Roiti. The latter particularly is remembered as a messenger and a guide. Although her healing remedies were many and varied, they were confined to mate Māori (Māori illnesses). Mārama expressly disclaimed any ability to deal with mate Pākehā. Patients suffering mate Māori frequently were referred to her by Rāwene's 'backblocks doctor', G. M. Smith.

A pūtake harakeke (flax root) poultice or a potion made from the pirikahu (Biddybid plant) were employed by her for lacerations; tōtara or flax splints and the roots of the tūpākihi shrub were used for fractures. Both the inner pith of the mamaku and her spittle, rubbed over with her wedding ring, were utilised in the treatment of boils. A patient's ulcerating breast, weeping like the tide, she diagnosed as having been invaded by a crab. Its cure entailed bathing in salt water and the application of Sloan's liniment.

As a midwife of rank, Mārama was called on to cure infertility, to ascertain the gender of the unborn, to induce birth through massage, manipulation, karakia and potions, and to deliver babies. A firm believer in the spiritual power of flax, her unwavering preference was for the use of muka (dressed flax) in the tying of the umbilical cord.

As a seer, Mārama enjoyed considerable prestige, having an ability to visualise and diagnose illnesses before their symptoms had been described to her and to command the spirits of the desperately ill to remain in this world. After being challenged by a rival Waikato tohunga to demonstrate the extent of her powers, she is said to have called upon Ngarunui, Ngaruroa and Ngarupaewhenua, the sacred waves of Hokianga, to fill an almost empty creek at Koutu Point not once, but three times.

Of medium build, with thick wavy hair, Mārama was a handsome woman whose natural dignity was clearly displayed by her face in repose. While indoors she liked to doze on the floor by an open fire, where she had many of her visions, and to smoke a pipe.

For 40 years Mārama Russell, a committed Anglican who readily reconciled her faith with her traditional beliefs, practised the ancient skills of a healing tohunga. In so doing she not only acted as a counterpoint to tohunga makutu, but reinforced the Māori world view of life as a holistic and integrated force. Much of her healing, whether directed at infringements of tapu or failure to meet the customary requirements of utu, was devoted to restoring that balance and wholeness. The myriad taonga (treasures) displayed in her home as gifts from grateful, and cured, patients, showed that many Māori continued to eschew Pākehā remedies for mate Māori.

Mārama Russell died at her home at Koutu Point on 8 December 1952, aged 76. She was survived by five daughters and three sons, her husband having predeceased her on 23 September 1935. Both are buried in Pākanae cemetery, Hokianga.

How to cite this page:

Garry Hooker and Venus McGill Corfield. 'Russell, Mārama', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4r31/russell-marama (accessed 14 June 2024)