5 Nov 2022

Tohunga: rekindling the knowledge that was nearly wiped out

9:01 am on 5 November 2022

By Pokere Paewai

Professor Pou Temara at his office, University of Waikato

Tā Pou Temara will lead a symposium on tohunga in Whakatāne alongside Tā Hirini Moko Mead. File photo. Photo: RNZ/Justine Murray

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.

That was until 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.

Bringing together those last remaining holders of Māori knowledge kicked off a wānanga, much like the one happening in Whakatāne this weekend.

"That was the first recorded meeting of tohunga of the country coming together," said Sir Pou.

"We found that many of the tohunga that took part in the openings of Te Māori exhibition were highly colonised."

"There were great arguments and debates when they reached America as to why we should be using ancient karakia when those were pagan practices, and why aren't we using Christian rituals to open the 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.

The role of the modern tohunga has changed from the time of our tipuna, but they still clearly have a place.

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

"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 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.

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