Shamanism makes comeback in New Zealand

November 9, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Yes, there are some sensible advocates of Māori knowledge, which of course becomes part of scientific knowledge in general. Here’s a quote from an article by three Māori who are able to separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of superstition ideology, undocumented tradition, morality, and religion:

“In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection.”

—Nā Dr Michael Stevens, Emeritus Professor Atholl Anderson and Professor Te Maire Tau

Sadly, too many Māori as well as sympathetic descendants of Europeans can’t seem to grasp this simple distinction, which explains why in NZ, more than in any other country, “indigenous ways of knowing” are valorized.  In that country, there appears to be no stopping Mātauranga Māori—the gemisch of trial-and-error empirical fact, woo, and rules of conduct that constitutes the indigenous “way of knowing”—from snuggling in beside science, the only real way of knowing we have.

Now we have news of the convening of a conclave of tohunga, the Māori equivalent of the “medicine men” of indigenous North American tribal groups—or “priests” of religious groups:

It was the role of tohunga to ensure tikanga (customs) were observed. Tohunga guided the people and protected them from spiritual forces. They were healers of both physical and spiritual ailments, and they guided the appropriate rituals for horticulture, fishing, fowling and warfare. They lifted the tapu on newly built houses and waka (canoes), and lifted or placed tapu in death ceremonies.

I refer in this piece mainly to the role of tohunga in curing physical ailments, which, before science-based medicine arrived, was based largely on herbal medicine. Some may have even worked, but we don’t know as they were never tested, and they are powerless against ailments that can be cured by scientific innovations like antibiotics or antivirals.

But this traditional “way of healing” may be coming back.

Click to read this article from the NZ site, 1News:

The gist:

Some of the country’s top experts in mātauranga Māori, known as tohunga, have gathered in Whakatāne for a symposium on the present and future of its role.

Held at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, the event is being led by Tā Hirini Moko Mead and Tā Pou Temara, two leading mātauranga experts.

Sir Hirini said: “Tohunga were the experts who helped the people maintain a balance between the human world and the spiritual world.”

Sir Pou said: “[The tohunga] was not able to cure everything, but because they were the educated person of the tribe he or she knew where to send a person to get satisfaction for the affliction.”

The role of the tohunga was almost completely stamped out by laws like the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act, which was intended to stop traditional Māori practices.

Sir Pou said it was an attempt to wipe out an entire knowledge system. He said that in some areas it was driven underground, but in others, it ceased to exist entirely.

The penultimate line is a gross distortion bordering on a lie. First, the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act wasn’t designed to “stop traditional traditional Māori practices”, but rather to replace dangerous and ineffective Māori ways of healing (and unfounded prognostications) with scientific (called “Western” medicine). Here’s the Wikipedia description of the Act (which, by the way, was wholly repealed in 1962, so that now Māori can subject themselves at will to the dangerous ministrations of tohunga)

The Act contained only four clauses, the first of which simply gave the short title. The second clause stated that “Every person 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 possess supernatural powers in the treatment or cure of any disease, or in the foretelling of future events, or otherwise” was liable for prosecution. The first offence could be subject to a fine of up to 25 pounds or up to six months imprisonment. Subsequent offences could lead to a prison term of up to a year. However, no prosecution under the Act could be commenced without the consent of the Minister of Native Affairs.

The third section enabled the Governor of New Zealand to gazette regulations to enable the intention of the Act to be carried out. The fourth section repealed subsection 5 of section 16 of the Maori Councils Act 1900, which allowed Maori Councils to license tohunga.

See also this paper recounting the history and intent of the Act, which was concentrated on healing.

More important, the Act was promoted not just by one Westerner, but by a whole passel of Māori advocates who wanted the benefits of modern medicine for their people (my emphasis):

It was introduced by James Carroll who expressed impatience with what he considered regressive Maori attitudes.  Officials had been concerned for years about the sometimes dangerous practices of tohunga. The Act was introduced in part to target Māori prophet, faith healer and land rights activist Rua Kenana, but it was never used against him.

It was praised by many influential Maori at the time, including Māui Pōmare and all four Maori MPs (Āpirana NgataHōne Heke NgāpuaTame Parata and Henare Kaihau). According to Willie Jackson, the prevailing concern raised by Ngata was the harm arising from improper medical practices, rather than the destruction of Matauranga Maori.

Particularly important here was Sir Māui Wiremu Pita Naera Pōmare, trained as a physician in the U.S. and then returning to NZ to improve Māori health and to serve as a member of Parliament and as Minister of Health.

For this article to imply that Westerners suppressed native culture when in fact this was largely a Māori initiative and was aimed at health and superstitious prognostication, not an entire culture, is the kind of distortion we’re used to in NZ reporting.

As I said, this Act is no longer in force, so healing can proceed on the basis of MM or other superstitions.

At any rate, the tohunga are making a comeback. From the article above:

[In] 1984, when Sir Pou credits Sir Hirini Moko Mead with beginning the revival of tohunga, when he arranged for tohunga to take part in the Te Māori exhibition.

. . . . Forty years on from those discussions, Sir Pou said Māori knowledge systems had come a long way.

“The tohunga who are now leading out and teaching their own cohorts of tohunga, these tohunga are beyond colonisation.”

“They’ve gone through that and they’re now reclaiming what is rightfully their heritage and their right to practice,” he said.

Right to practice woo, that is—and the right to deprive credulous people from the benefits of scientific medicine.

Now there’s one sentence implying that maybe the tohunga might learn something about modern medicine, but it’s misleading:

As well as upholding Māori knowledge systems, they now have access to the knowledge systems of the entire world, Sir Pou said.

Does that mean scientifically based medical knowledge? Not a chance. It means religion and philosophy. 

“They can draw upon Confucius, they can draw upon Buddha, they can draw upon the great philosophers of the world, of Greece.

“And then relocate it back into Aotearoa [the Māori word for “New Zealand”] into their Māori world, they marry that up with the mātauranga Māori that must be the bedrock of their tohunga knowledge,” he said.

Sir Pou Temara said he was pleased to see the students that he taught now teaching students of their own, a web of reclamation that continues to spread.

Yes, a spreading web of ignorance and credulity that will doom some Māori to illness or death. Applauding the spread of the tohunga is like applauding the spread of faith healing. Indeed, that’s much of what the tohunga do!

14 thoughts on “Shamanism makes comeback in New Zealand

  1. Related? “Norway’s Princess Märtha Louise has relinquished her royal duties to focus on her alternative medicine business with her fiancé, a self-styled shaman.”

    1. Having been told of Märtha Louise’s business plan, my husband reminds me that he is the scion of a Shaman line of the Yörük nomads and jokes whether we could use that as a money making scheme. Under Islamic and/or modern influence (says my husband said his mother), there was some rebranding of the “profession” as art/poetry.
      I do wish dying traditions would be recorded in some way.

  2. In their original ‘Joint Statement’, RSNZ rejected “the narrow and outmoded definition of science” used by the 7 authors of the original Listener letter. I asked RSNZ for their (presumably broad and contemporary) definition, but received no response (other than acknowledgement of receipt). Does anyone have the definition of Science according to RSNZ?

  3. Sangomas (traditional healers/diviners/”witch doctors”) now have official status in South Africa. I am afraid homeopathic therapists also have some official status/registration in Germany, although I believe that is now under review.

  4. It’ll be ironic if all the (sensible) Māoris opt for science-based medicine while white woke New Zealanders opt for tohunga. Sadly, they (the woke whites) will dispense with their virtue signalling when it matters.

    1. My co-worker (who’s Māori) fondly remembers my mother (cancer nurse) when she was having treatment for cancer some years ago. She is one of the toughest and levelheaded persons I know and takes no shit from anyone, me, our boss, elected leaders and anything else.

  5. Some of that herbal stuff does the job alright, no question about it. But it sure as hell won’t cure cancer or blood poisoning.

  6. I took care of an 8 year old with unstable 5th and 6th cervical vertebral body fractures from a car wreck several years ago. We recommended surgery to stabilize the fractures which were a constant risk for a high spinal cord injury.
    The family asked for time and flew in a witch doctor from Jamaica. He did some ritual and said the spell would take two weeks to work. When nothing changed after the two weeks the family again asked for time and flew the witch doctor back in. He did another ritual and again said wait two weeks.
    After the time, a MRI showed the bones had formed a callous and the cervical fractures were no longer unstable.
    Poor kid had severely reduced range of motion in his neck and was almost guaranteed to need surgery for cervical stenosis in the future, all avoidable.
    However, the family left feeling vindicated because they avoided surgery.

    I would bet there will be many similar stories coming from NZ in the future with both sides claiming victory. At least in the US, criticizing such practices for having worse outcomes is acceptable. Sounds like similar criticism in NZ would be condemned.

    Will be interesting to see how the inevitable decline in health outcomes gets explained there.

  7. Remember that our own NIH had a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which changed its name to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Let us offer a silent whakapapa that this agency never solicits advice from Sir Pou. [I cannot tell whether this NIH Center is still operating, but perhaps one has to eat, drink, or smoke certain special herbs to find out.]

Leave a Reply