A rongoā reawakening
From the later 20th century, there was renewed Māori interest in rongoā. This was due to several factors:
- the resurgence of all aspects of Māori culture
- a loss of confidence in Western medicine – partly because Māori health continued to be poorer than that of Pākehā
- problems with access to health care for Māori
- the perceived lack of a spiritual dimension (taha wairua) in Western health services.
Although Māori largely accept Western concepts of health and illness, and use the mainstream health system, there is significant demand for rongoā today. This is particularly the case for unusual illnesses, or those that fail to respond to standard medical treatment. Some conditions are seen as ‘mate Māori’ (Māori sickness) – caused by an infringement of tapu (religious restriction).
Today’s healers differ significantly from the tohunga of old times. Training is highly variable, usually informal, and often less tribally-bound than the rigorous education of the whare wānanga (house of higher learning).
Many modern healers work in urban clinics, some alongside mainstream health professionals. They experiment, incorporating knowledge and practices from Western and other medical systems. As a result their work is idiosyncratic, with no standard system of diagnosis or consensus about treatments. Despite this, many healers are recognised as having knowledge and ability that has been passed down from their whānau, hapū or iwi.
Ngā Ringa Whakahaere o te Iwi Māori, a national body of Māori healers, was set up in 1993. It aims to be an authoritative and unified voice for traditional Māori healing, and to uphold, promote, protect and sustain its practice. It is the only legally constituted body that speaks for a large number of healers.
The approaches of modern-day tohunga have some common features. The use of wai rākau (plant-based medicines) is virtually universal, although the actual method depends on the practitioner. Spirituality is usually emphasised – or at least acknowledged. Many healers also see the Māori language as an important part of their practice.
Plants that are often used as remedies today include kūmarahou, kawakawa, mānuka, kōwhai and harakeke. Their medicinal uses have been recorded from the 19th century.