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Graham Adams: Did Pakeha really crush traditional Maori medicine?

Jacinda Ardern claimed in Parliament in 2021 that her government was driving “foundational change”. As Exhibits A and B for this project — which would allegedly “make a long-term difference to how we see ourselves” — she cited the Matariki public holiday and the new compulsory school history curriculum that focuses largely on the Māori experience of colonisation.


The curriculum will be introduced to schools from next year but there is a much more pressing need for compulsory history lessons to begin immediately for our politicians, journalists and health leaders. After all, schoolchildren usually don’t get the chance to write columns in newspapers or take part in television programmes that — wittingly or unwittingly — mislead thousands of their compatriots.


Last Friday, an article by Rawiri Waititi appeared in the New Zealand Herald to mark Māori Language Week. It included:


“Part of colonisation and imperialism is to assert the dominance of the colonial culture and language. Colonisation meant that the whole system of Māori self-belief had to be attacked and derided. The Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 is merely one example of our spiritual leadership being outlawed.”


Referring to that particular law in a column decrying the effects of colonisation is frankly bizarre. The legislation was introduced to Parliament by one of Maoridom’s most illustrious politicians, James Carroll, who was Minister of Native Affairs (and later Acting Prime Minister on two occasions).


In fact, all the four Māori MPs in Parliament in 1907 voted in favour — including rising star Apirana Ngata.


Furthermore, it was strongly backed by Māui Pōmare, who became New Zealand’s first Māori doctor in 1899 — and was made Minister of Health in 1923.


Appointed Māori Health Officer in 1901, Pōmare was a fierce critic of the practices of some tohunga (variously defined as “priests” or “experts in traditional Māori healing”). These included treating feverish patients by putting them in cold water and plying them with alcohol, as well as exorcising devils.


As Māmari Stephens — now a law academic at Victoria University — noted in her LLB (Hons) dissertation on the Tohunga Suppression Act:


“After 17 children died in one pā alone after the ministrations of tohunga, Māori Health Officer Dr Māui Pōmare pushed, in his 1904 annual report, for legislation against the practices of tohunga. This report was one of the main drivers for the eventual passage of the legislation.”


Other reasons for the Act’s introduction have been hotly debated — ranging from a desire to rein in the charismatic prophet and faith healer Rua Kenana (although it was never used against him) to an attempt by Ngata to distance himself from tohungas’ practices to ensure better funding by Parliament for Māori health.


Whatever the web of reasons that motivated the Māori MPs to support the bill, it was undeniably promoted by influential Māori figures. With that information in hand, Waititi’s attempt to link it to an oppressive colonialism looks like a spectacular own goal — unless he wants to claim that some of the Māori world’s most famous luminaries were acting against the interests of their own people with the intention to “attack and deride” their “self-belief”.


Waititi is far from alone, however, in using the tohunga law as evidence of the oppressive effects of colonisation.


In an episode of her publicly funded docu-comedy Bad News, Alice Snedden tackled the question of poor Māori health statistics. Among her interview subjects was her dad, Pat Snedden, who was then chair of the Auckland District Health Board.


Asked about “institutional racism” in the health system, Snedden Snr traced it back to the hurdles Māori had faced in treating illness after the arrival of Captain Cook and the introduction of European diseases.


“And then you’ve got the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act, which means the ability of Māori to address their own health issues using their own cultural lens was suppressed. The traditional ways of keeping yourself well were outlawed.”


Alice: “They were legislatively outlawed?”


Pat: “Legislatively outlawed!”


Alice: “Wow!”


As it happens, Alice Snedden is a trained lawyer, yet it seems that at no point before the programme was aired did she think it was worthwhile to check the details of the law her father had mentioned — despite her obvious surprise.


Of course, if she had discovered the legislation had been supported by the most prominent Māori political leaders and doctors of the time, the narrative of Pakeha oppression she was pushing throughout the programme would have been seriously undermined.


A little research would also have shown her that the Act was aimed specifically at anyone who “gathers Maoris around him by practising on their superstition or credulity, or who misleads or attempts to mislead any Maori by professing or pretending to profess supernatural powers in the treatment of cure of any disease, or in the foretelling of future events”.


The law made no attempt to prohibit many of the traditional treatments used by tohunga, such as medicinal plants and herbs, even if they turned out to be worthless.


Unfortunately, it’s not just our parliamentary leaders, television hosts and high-ranking health officials who omit — or perhaps are ignorant of — such pertinent information either.


Last year, in a Stuff column titled, “We must speak out against racism”, Meng Foon, the Race Relations Commissioner, opined:


“Imported ideas of superiority and race led to Māori being dispossessed of their lands and resources, thousands of Tiriti breaches, and legislation to weaken the position of tangata whenua. Measures such as the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act were introduced, undermining Māori culture and wellbeing, and enabling disharmony and inequity to persist until now.”


Again, Foon made no mention of the inconvenient truth that the law was promoted by Māori leaders. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet the Race Relations Commissioner doesn’t read much history because it’s unlikely he intended to lay the burden of persistent “disharmony and inequity” at the feet of Sir James Carroll, Sir Māui Pōmare or Sir Apirana Ngata.


Last December, a Metro magazine writer went further in his assessment of just how pernicious the Act was. In an article (supported by the government’s $55 million media fund) titled, “Should Māori trust the public health system?”, Haimona Gray described the Tohunga Suppression Act as no less than an “original sin”.


Under a heading: “We take their ‘cures’, while they suppress our medicine”, he wrote: “If there can be an identifiable ‘original sin’ which began the distrust [of health authorities] we find ourselves dealing with today, it would be the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907.


“The Tohunga Suppression Act was created to discredit and criminalise traditional Māori health practices. The intended effect of this was to ensure the government’s health system faced no competition or alternatives. The Act was not very effective in its prosecutions — only nine convictions were ever obtained — but it was highly successful at sowing the seeds of distrust in traditional Māori values.


“In effect it ensured that Māori gave up on our own conceptualisations of ourselves — Māori well-being traditionally required more than just a single healthy body with no connection to the health of the whānau and environment.”


To not record — or perhaps not even know — who drove the passage of the Tohunga Suppression Act and why they did shows an astonishing lack of historical rigour for any writer, let alone one described as “a former Ministry of Health official and DHB spokesperson”.


It certainly makes a mockery of Metro billing the article as: “Haimona Gray looks to the past to understand the present.”


A further inconvenient fact for those who prefer a black armband view of New Zealand’s colonial affairs is that any prosecution under the Act required the assent of the Minister of Native Affairs. James Carroll held that position from 1899 to 1912, which meant he, or his successors, could ensure the law was not used to unfairly punish or persecute Māori. And, of course, to approve its use where they thought it was warranted.


As Māmari Stephens notes: “In January 1910, Carroll approved the first prosecution under the Act of Paku Maki and his wife Hera… after the death of a young women at Castlecliff.”


Stephens added: “There appears then to have been a ‘strong Māori movement’ to get rid of the couple” — including reporting them to the local Native Sanitary Inspectors.


Not only was the legislation used sparingly, but prosecutions included a “White Tohunga”, Pakeha nurse Mary Anne Hill, of Grey Lynn, Auckland. Several of her patients — presumably Māori — died after she had treated them.


Some MPs argued that measures against tohungaism should apply in equal measure to Māori and Pakeha alike. As a result, the delightfully named Quackery Prevention Act was passed in 1908. It banned publication of untruthful claims about medicines as well as taking aim directly at Pākehā faith healers and fraudsters.


Parliament, you might conclude, was less racist and more even-handed on this issue than we are encouraged to believe.


What may help restore at least some confidence in our leaders’ grasp of our nation’s past are the views of the Minister for Māori Development, Willie Jackson.


In an article in Stuff in 2017, Jackson acknowledged that Apirana Ngata took a bold stand in backing the Tohunga Suppression Act — and pointed out that the influential politician was “more concerned about mortal risks posed by charlatans dispensing lethal concoctions than any diminishment of Māori traditions and knowledge”.


Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published at The Platform

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