Local healing considers all the elements of health—body, mind, spirit, environment—and recognises that when one is out of balance, the system gets sick. This knowledge reflects a deep understanding of the way the body and the world work.

For thousands of years, the people of these islands relied on healing practices fine-tuned over centuries of trial and error. Today many of us dismiss traditional medicine as backward and old fashioned. We trust in pharmaceuticals, even when their labels warn of damaging side effects or even risk of death, but we doubt the power of plants.

This section celebrates Māori healing and the principles on which it’s based—harmony, balance, spirituality, community, aro’a. We acknowledge the selflessness of medical professionals who dedicate their lives to helping others and the usefulness of western medicine in managing crises, but we also believe in values-based medicine that considers not just the body but all elements of human health.

*We have to remind you that we are not medical professionals and that you should consult your doctor before undertaking any kind of treatment plan. We also encourage you to do your own research.


‘I no‘o ana teta‘i au tangata ki teia nga‘i tikai ta tatou e no‘o nei.


“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” —Revelation 22:2b

by Miriama Arnold


Issue 01: 2018

The Maoro

Learning the hard way

That’ll be free of charge

What the experts are saying

A dose of pumpkin

Pa’s drugstore


Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

Walking to Hut 38 at Punanga Nui Market I can smell the coconut oil.

Teuvira Upokotea, his long curly black hair slicked into a ponytail, greets me with a boyish smile. A few grey streaks curl into his elastic band yet his face looks strangely smooth and youthful. I expected a master of māoro to have the wisdom of wrinkles.

“You look young,” I say, surprised.

“Coconut oil,” he says, smiling.

Beauty magazines in the U.S. recently declared coconut oil “the miracle cure” for everything from hair to skin. Polynesians have long known this ancient wisdom that western science now confirms.

Teuvira has practiced massage in one form or another for over 25 years. He also makes his own line of therapy oils, Matariki Māoro, with coconut oil and pure plant extracts, hence the pungent, slightly burnt, sweet smell radiating from Hut 38.

“Let me show you what I do,” he tells me.

Respectfully, he asks me to wrap myself in a pāreu behind a curtain and lie down on his massage table. He begins our māoro session with a prayer.

“My ancestors and your ancestors work together to heal you,” he explains.

I can feel the warmth and power in his hands. He massages me the way a baker kneads bread. He uses fingers, forearms, palms, and elbows. He kneads me down into a thinner, more airy version of my former self. At the end of the session my eyes sparkle and I’m ready to go for a run. We go outside and sit down in front of his hut underneath the native yellow hibiscus tree. He unpacks the mystery of his gift for me, although most of what he does belongs to the realm beyond speech.

“I received massages throughout my childhood,” he says. “I grew up in Arorangi and my grandmother massaged me everyday with coconut oil. Sometimes she would take me to the different ta’unga in the village. Back then, we had a lot more ta’unga, not like today.
“Massage occurred in most people’s homes,” he adds. “The kids walked on the oldies’ backs and most knew the pressure points for a headache. If someone had a more serious ailment they would go to a ta’unga who used massage and plant extracts as their primary method of healing.”

Teuvira stands up to show me his legs and feet.

“Look,” he says, “I grew up bow-legged. My grandmother’s daily massages and the visits to the ta’unga healed me.”

The bow legs have all but disappeared. Through his ailment, he became close to his grandmother, learnt her māoro secrets, and became acquainted with the world of the ta’unga. Nonetheless, Teuvira abandoned the gift. He learnt English, studied hard at school, and lived for a while in New Zealand. He left behind the world of his grandmother in Arorangi.

“In my thirties,” he tells me with a deep sigh, “I had a crisis.” A sadness passes over his eyelids. “I didn’t like myself,” he says and stops there. One morning, in Cook Islands News, he saw an advertisement for scholarships to study in New Zealand. With laughter he tells me how he called the number and told them he wanted to study massage.

“No one had asked to study massage before,” he says. “People went for accounting, nursing, or teaching.”

Teuvira became the first Cook Islander to receive an educational scholarship to study massage in New Zealand. “The practical came easily,” he says. “But the anatomy and theory killed me.”

He found a mentor who believed in him and felt he had a special gift that could not be taught. With determination, grit, and a cheering squad, Teuvira graduated and became a New Zealand-qualified massage practitioner. He went on to become certified in Atua massage as well, which seeks to combine the best of western and Polynesian practices maintaining the inherent spirituality of healing.

“Arorangi gave me the gift, but the theory helped refine that gift,” he says. “It’s important to know the anatomy and the western science behind what we do.”
We talk for a while more under the native yellow hibiscus tree, itself a medicinal resource, about the loss of ta’unga, and why the younger generation does not seem interested in the rich ancestral practice of massage.

Like Teuvira, Steve Purea in Kavera grew up with sickness on Atiu. He had childhood asthma. As his primary treatment, his grandparents massaged him daily. Even as a child, he started massaging others. He must have learnt intuitively from those who massaged him.

“I have been massaging people since 10 years old,” Steve tells me, “but what I do is different. I don’t use oil and you keep your clothes on. I do pressure points, deep pressure points to release the muscles and put them back in place. They say I have magic fingers.” When I go to see Steve at a simple whitewashed room attached to his family home, he has his colourful oil paintings on the wall: scenes of women collecting shellfish on the reef and a portrait of Tangaroa. I lay on his massage table and his fingers press into my back. When he finishes, I feel lightheaded and released. The lumps in my shoulder blades have smoothed and everything has a new elasticity. I ask him if his fingers get sore and he shakes his head. “I breathe,” he says “and it’s my gift. I don’t know where it came from. No one taught me. This is what I do.”

I ask him if he is passing on his gift. “I can’t teach this,” he says pointing to his fingers, “they just know where to go.”

Steve’s style is similar to what I found in Hawai’i and Pukapuka — massage not as relaxation with oil but as a deep tissue pressure that realigns muscles, organs, and bones. In Hawai’i, I studied lomi a’e. Using wooden sticks and floor mats we learnt to touch the body with our feet in a deep and intuitive way. We learnt prayers of healing and chanted to Hamoea, the goddess of massage. We carved our own mortar and pestle and collected medicine from the bush. We dyed our massage sheets golden yellow with turmeric, and washed them by hand.

“Massage isn’t meant to be relaxing,” my teacher Keola Chan told me.

After a session with him where I laid on the floor and all 90 kilos of him walked on my back, I felt released and bruised. He massaged as long as needed, not by the hour. Sometimes sessions lasted 10 minutes, sometimes three hours. He talked about the old days during Queen Liliuokalani’s reign, when Hawaiian families massaged one another as a matter of daily practice. From him, I learnt the long ancient tradition of massage practised throughout Polynesia.

According to historical accounts by visitors to Hawai’i — just as Teuvira described growing up in Arorangi — every family performed lomi lomi and often in public places communally. Lomi lomi remedied common illnesses such as headaches, colds, fevers, low back pain, swelling, paralysis, rheumatic joints, and more.

Throughout Polynesia families practised māoro or lomi lomi, with differing techniques from island to island. As with Teuvira and Steve, techniques stayed within families and passed down from generation to generation. Training included prayer, cleansing, and diet. Reflecting on the past, I wonder how much has been lost?

In Pukapuka today, children do still walk on their parents’ backs and in the evenings you can see kids massaging the legs of the oldies while sitting in a plastic chair on the veranda. Two ta’unga reside on the island and do everything from massage and plant medicine to the setting of bones. They work alongside western trained nurses. Sitting on his concrete veranda taking in the breeze, Bene tells me that the gift of massage came to him in a dream. He faced the choice to embrace the gift or walk away.

Sitting on the floor of a crowded village meeting, he once reset my knee and alleviated all the pain. At a church feast, our hands still greasy from the fresh fried red malau, he gave me a back massage that left me in tears.

“You needed to release,” he tells me calmly, and then carries on eating and talking. I ask if he passed any of this knowledge onto his children. He shakes his head, saying they had little interest. Knowing the dangers of losing this knowledge, he offers to share a sliver with our mapu education program. Many of the youth laugh and make jokes, but some come to learn. He teaches us how to alleviate headaches and why it’s important to always massage the stomach where digestion and emotion sit. For treatment and teaching, Bene never asks for any payment, just for the newest movies off my hard drive.
Recently I went to visit Moko, the younger ta’unga on Pukapuka. I ask if he has passed his knowledge on.

“I’ve taught my son all my knowledge. He is down in Raro now. He knows,” he says, a smile passing across his face. I don’t know if his son’s gift will get acknowledged at Tereora College in Rarotonga or if his son will choose to accept this gift.

I watch Moko treat a visitor with muscle and nerve pain. She can barely walk. We are at Papa Charlie’s 87th birthday party. The stereo pumps mostly bass and boxed red wine from the boat fills the plastic cups. Without a word, Moko motions the visitor to a back room. She lies on a deep green flowered mattress atop a bed frame made of palettes and an old fish net. He leans his head sideways and listens with his ears to her body. I look at him, my face full of questions. He simply points a finger upwards, toward the heavens.

Dr. Amelia Borofsky


Photo Homecoming Documentary




Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

It doesn’t bother Papa Teina Ataera that people say he’s crazy‭. ‬

They say he’s wasting his time‭, ‬call his ideas bullshit‭. ‬They call him a fool for refusing medication‭. ‬

A doctor threatened to sue him once‭, ‬for defamation‭. ‬Papa Teina knows this is the right word because he wrote it in his diary the day he looked it up‭. ‬He’d been caught warning other patients against pills‭.‬

Papa Teina learnt the hard way‭, ‬perhaps the hardest way possible‭, ‬that health is not something you leave to the professionals‭. ‬After his daughter died‭, ‬after he decided he had neither the money nor the English to sue the drug company‭, ‬he made a promise to himself‭. ‬He’d begin trusting more in God’s medicine than in man’s‭.‬

God’s medicines are the fruits‭, ‬vegetables‭, ‬and herbs he spends his days planting and tending‭. (‬Every day except Saturday‭, ‬a Seventh‭-‬day Adventist’s Sabbath‭, ‬when Papa Teina puts on his black shoes and his cheesecutter and drives in his little white truck to church‭.) ‬Each morning‭, ‬he rises before the sun‭. ‬Through glasses on the end of his nose he reads his Bible‭, ‬the Cook Islands Māori version‭, ‬then he puts on his gumboots and an Indiana Jones hat and shuffles into his garden‭. ‬

With the limp of an old man he moves through the soft earth‭, ‬up and down rows of kale‭, ‬spinach‭, ‬tomato‭, ‬cucumber‭, ‬courgette‭, ‬corn‭, ‬beans‭, ‬lettuce‭, ‬bok choy‭, ‬beetroot‭. ‬When the arthritis in his knees bothers him‭, ‬he crawls‭. ‬Sometimes he stops to sit beneath‭ ‬the kuru tree and survey his work—a half-acre fenced by chicken wire‭.‬

“Papa‭!‬”‭ ‬people call to him when they drive past‭. ‬“Auē‭ ‬‭ ‬te‭ ‬mānea‭ ‬ta’au garden‭. ‬Your garden is beautiful‭.‬”

“Not my garden‭,‬”‭ ‬he always tells them‭. ‬“This is God’s garden‭.‬”

Decades ago‭, ‬when he decided to move his family to New Zealand where he could find more opportunities and better pay‭, ‬his wife Rangi’s mum warned him not to leave the natural health of his land‭. ‬“Eaa tu rai teia pātireia ta kotou e kimi ana‭. ‬Mē‭ ‬tū‭ ‬koe te pē‭, ‬te tuāpara‭, ‬te mātipi mingi‭, ‬toou pātireia rai tēnā‭. ‬Aere ra‭, ‬oki mai ki runga te akau‭.‬” It was a lifetime before he understood what she meant‭.‬

Papa Teina grew up eating mostly from the land‭ ‬—‭ ‬taro‭, ‬kūmara‭, ‬māniota‭ ‬‭, ‬wild pīnapi‭, ‬tiopu-everything‭. ‬A can of corned beef was a luxury‭; ‬the whole family would share it over the course of a week‭.‬

His feeding father was a planter who made a dollar for every box of tomatoes he sent to New Zealand‭. ‬Every day after school‭, ‬young Teina helped on the plantation‭, ‬watering the plants one by one with a corned beef tin that he’d dipped into a drum transported by horse from the creek‭.‬

When Rangi gave birth to their first three children‭, ‬Teina moved the family to Auckland‭, ‬where he worked nights in a bakery and‭ ‬made four times what he’d made driving a government truck around Rarotonga‭. ‬He wanted to give his kids more than he’d had growing up‭.‬ Money became the driving force of Papa Teina’s life‭. ‬Money consumed his mind‭; ‬he needed money for the mortgage‭, ‬money for the horse races and money for buffet meals where he‭ ‬could eat three plates’‭ ‬worth of food‭.‬

He remembers those Auckland years through his diaries‭, ‬weathered black books with yellowing pages‭. ‬He wrote about the nosebleeds‭ ‬he began getting three times a day‭, ‬probably stress-related‭. ‬He wrote about how his blood pressure shot up‭, ‬causing a valve in‭ ‬his heart to leak‭, ‬and how the doctor cut him open and replaced the valve with part of a pig’s heart‭. ‬He wrote he wasn’t happy about the surgery because Deuteronomy 14:8‭ ‬says the pig is unclean‭. ‬

He wrote about his arthritis and his gout‭. ‬He also wrote about the sermon that changed his life‭, ‬delivered by Dr‭. ‬Raubane Kirimaua‭, ‬a board-certified naturopath who travels around the Pacific promoting Bible-based eating and living‭.‬ Born in Kiribati and educated in Fiji and the United States‭, ‬Dr‭. ‬Raubane spent his career in the American health system‭, ‬first earning a doctorate in public health and then working in disease prevention at state health departments in California‭, ‬Michigan‭, ‬and Hawai’i‭. ‬When he was employed by the Hawai’i State Department of Public Health‭, ‬he heard a coworker say Pacific Islanders were costing the government too much because they‭ ‬had nothing between their ears‭.‬

First the comment made him angry‭, ‬and then it changed his life‭. ‬Dr‭. ‬Raubane wrote a curriculum called Pasifika Health Reform‭, ‬which uses science and the Bible to prove that‭ ‬“the true Pacific diet”‭ ‬prevents and heals disease‭. ‬He began inviting sick Pacific people into his home‭, ‬seven nights a week‭, ‬and teaching them about the healing power of eating naturally‭.‬

Soon his home practice was so overwhelmed he had to quit his job‭. ‬Today‭, ‬more than 10‭ ‬years later‭, ‬Dr‭. ‬Raubane and his wife Tima‭ ‬operate a registered non-profit organisation through which community groups and businesses worldwide request training sessions‭.‬‭ ‬Dr‭. ‬Raubane is a quiet man who doesn’t claim to heal people‭ ‬—‭ ‬“only God has the power to do that‭,‬”‭ ‬he says‭ ‬—‭ ‬but he has watched a lot of people heal‭. ‬The SDA Church has been criticised for its position on modern medicine‭, ‬but its philosophy bears results‭. ‬In America‭, ‬Seventh-day Adventists have the nation’s lowest rates of heart disease and diabetes‭. ‬They also live a decade longer than everyone else‭.‬

After hearing Dr‭. ‬Raubane’s speech Papa Teina wrote in his books that he would stop taking the medications the doctors put him on after his heart surgery‭.‬‭ ‬He was called in for a meeting at the hospital‭. ‬The doctor said he wouldn’t live longer than a year if he didn’t go back on his pills‭.‬

In 2013‭, ‬several years after Teina’s heart surgery‭, ‬his second-born child and oldest daughter got sick‭. ‬Moeroa was 46‭, ‬a mother of two and grandmother of one who who taught delinquent kids at South Auckland schools and brought food to class because she knew most of them didn’t get fed‭.‬

Moeroa had a mechanical valve in her heart‭; ‬she had surgery after a spell of rheumatic fever gave her a murmur‭. ‬Moeroa took 13‭ ‬pills a day‭, ‬including a heavy dose of a popular bloodthinning medication that has been linked to severe bleeding on the brain‭, ‬according to medical journal Neurology‭. The U.S‭. ‬National Library of Medicine also confirms that one of the drug’s side effects is‭ ‬“severe bleeding that can be life-threatening and even cause death”‭.‬

A bleed on Moeroa’s brain sent her to the hospital‭, ‬where she spent five weeks talking to other patients about Jesus and texting scriptures to her‭ ‬family‭. ‬The nurses told Papa Teina she seemed like she was at peace‭. ‬One morning‭, ‬Teina and Rangi were eating Weetbix when the doctor called‭. ‬Moeroa was already on life support when they got to the‭ ‬hospital‭. ‬She died on their 50th anniversary‭.‬

Several weeks later‭, ‬Teina and Rangi Ataera packed up their belongings in Otara and moved back to Kavera‭, ‬back to the house Teina built out of plywood and roofing iron after he and Rangi were married‭, ‬the one with yellow walls and pāreu doors‭. ‬It was time to go home‭, ‬to eat from their trees‭, ‬to work the land they’d already divided amongst their kids‭.‬ For Papa Teina‭, ‬who was 73‭, ‬returning to the yellow house meant finally acknowledging that Rangi’s grandmother had been right all along‭.‬

Papa Teina believes God gives him what he needs‭, ‬when he needs it‭. ‬Money beyond his pension‭. ‬Rain and sunshine to make the plants grow‭. ‬Seaweed and marigolds to keep the bugs away‭. ‬A scripture when he needs it most‭. ‬Harvests‭. ‬Joy‭. ‬Song‭. ‬He likes singing‭; ‬sometimes he wakes the house up at 5am with a hymn‭. ‬But planting is his greatest act of worship‭.‬

In his garden‭, ‬Papa Teina is at peace‭. ‬He thanks his plants and pays attention to them because‭, ‬like children‭, ‬they respond to love‭. ‬He wants to buy a stereo so he can play island music for them‭. ‬He knows they’re listening‭; ‬once‭, ‬he threatened to cut down a peach tree that had never borne fruit‭. ‬The next season‭, ‬it produced so many peaches the family couldn’t keep up‭.‬

Most Saturdays after church‭, ‬Papa Teina goes visiting in his little white truck‭. ‬He stops off at the homes of people he knows are sick and talks to them about how the foods they’re eating can cure them or kill them‭. ‬He talks about pills and the dangers of depending on them‭. ‬He used to talk about suing the‭ ‬drug company for‭ $‬46‭ ‬million dollars because that’s how old Moeroa was when she died‭. ‬Now‭, ‬instead‭, ‬he goes visiting‭.

“What making us sick is eating all this papa‘ā‭ ‬food‭,‬”‭ ‬he tells people, ‬laughing when he admits that he eats it sometimes‭, ‬too‭. ‬“We used to go in the bush‭, ‬eat the mango and the uto‭, ‬and we think we are poor because we don’t have a corned beef‭. ‬Then I learn that’s the food that make us sick‭. ‬It is our food that make us better‭.‬”



Photo by Nior Photography

For three days and nights, I itched. The itch was coming from inside, crawling out of my bones. There was no rash. My teeth hurt and so did any kind of contact with water. Touching anything cold made my hands feel like they were on fire.

The doctor at the Rarotonga Hospital knew right away what was wrong.

“Fish poisoning,” he said, when I told him it hurt to shower. “Ciguatera.”

He told me mine was a mild case, wrote me a prescription, tore it out of his book and wrote another. Anti-itch creams, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories. Before I filled my prescriptions, I went to interview Mama Ngapoko Marsters, a warm woman with a wide smile. While I was there I told her about the diagnosis. She disappeared into her house, then reappeared carrying a bottle filled with liquid the colour of a river after heavy rain.
A half hour after I drank it, the itch was gone.

I had questions. My questions led me on a journey into the kind of wisdom science is just beginning to acknowledge. It’s a story about why we in the modern world doubt traditional medicine. It’s also a story that’s played out all over the world, in places where colonisers outlawed native knowledge they couldn’t understand. Recently a journalist named Thandekile Moyo wrote in an African newspaper about how his people are embarrassed to use their local medicine, even though they know it often works.

“The only time we go to our traditional healers, named ‘witch doctors’ by our colonisers, is when all else has failed and we are on our death beds,” he wrote. “This is when we finally say, okay, why not try that route. Sometimes we are saved. Unfortunately, most of the time it is too late.”

Google traditional medicine and most of the headlines that pop up refer to the dangers of, and deaths caused by, natural remedies. When Chinese actress Xu Ting died of cancer in 2016, the newspapers slammed the traditional medicine she chose to use instead of chemotherapy. A reporter at Beijing News later asked the question: When someone does chemo and dies anyway, do we assume modern medicine is a sham?

I brought up natural medicines with a friend who has a PhD in biology.

“Waste of time,” he said. “Show me the science.”

The words of Papa Ioane Kaitara, a ta’unga from Manihiki, rang in my ears. Papa Ioane, who wears untied Air Jordans and cataract glasses, learnt from his great-grandfather how to set bones with casts of coconut husks, massage arthritis away, and detoxify a breastfeeding woman’s body.
“The silly one in the family, the one they call puaka, always the one to listen,” he told me once. “The man who go to school and got the paper, he the one don’t believe until he need the medicine and he come right.”

The ta‘unga was the expert in all things health-related before Europeans showed up. Some books translate ta‘unga as priest because they were people who dealt with spiritual matters, but they were more than that. They were life coaches, psychologists, and doctors, all rolled into one. They were the PhDs of their time, more well-rounded than the PhDs of ours because they did not specialise; they were therapists, psychiatrists, spiritual advisers, masseurs, bonesetters, midwives, and pharmacists, chosen because they were smart but also because they were kind.

A Kiwi researcher named Margaret Mackenzie wrote in a 1973 paper that ta‘unga were treated with a different respect than doctors.

“People may like [doctors], feel grateful to them and their achievements, but they aren’t heroes just because they are doctors,” she wrote. “Those whom everyone respects are respected because they are good men: leaders in the community, kind—especially to the sick—responsible fathers to their children, and good to their wives.”

Ta‘unga were “morally impeccable,” she wrote. They had to be; it was their duty to treat patients at all hours, for as long as was necessary, and to do it for free. The community supported and fed its healers, but no one paid them. Every ta‘unga knew, and still knows, that accepting payment removes the mana of the treatment. They healed for healing’s sake, not for profit and not because they were particularly fond of the patients they chose to see. As Papa Ioane put it: “Your enemy sick and he come to you, you do it. The problem between you and him, you forget it. You heal him.”

The ta‘unga tested first for maki tūpāpaku – spiritual illness. He or she talked to a patient, her wife, parents, children, and relatives to discover the root of the problem. A doctor from New Zealand wrote in 1945 that he watched a ta‘unga gather a group of 10 family members to ask questions, “working right back to the patient’s childhood and digging, digging, until at last he brought the aggravation to the surface.” The doctor was shocked at how well the method worked.

To treat a spiritual illness, the ta‘unga prescribed family meetings, confessions, and forgiveness. He or she explained where the sickness came from and advised a patient to apologise for, or let go, whatever offence had caused it.

“[Ta’unga] spend a good deal of time in consultation with the sick person and his family,” Mackenzie wrote. “These consultations are not affected by considerations of time and payment. People are encouraged to air any grievances which might be causing tension and stress within the family.”

The ta‘unga were ahead of the curve; today we have science that proves stress, guilt, and anxiety can cause physical or mental illness. They also understood that for a treatment to work, you had to believe it would. Today our system treats the mind and body as separate – the workspaces of different specialists trained differently. In her book, Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, science writer Jo Marchant explores how the brain experiences pain. When the brain senses stress, it sends a warning signal to the body that feels uncomfortable.

“But if we feel supported and cared for, the brain kind of feels like the crisis is over, and there isn’t much need, then, for the warning signals,” she writes. “And so it eases off on our symptoms.”

According to the science, you really can think yourself better.

“It’s not,” Marchant writes, “all in your imagination.”

If an illness was purely physical, a ta‘unga prescribed massage or vairākau Māori – literally, water-plant of the Māori. Recipes came in dreams or from parents and grandparents. There were treatments for detoxing the body, for treating wounds and boils and fever and anaemia, for healing UTIs and septic wounds and migraines and earaches and hemorrhoids. While the Europeans were still bloodletting, the ta‘unga were consulting an enormous body of healing knowledge collected over centuries.

To the missionaries, who considered themselves more educated and more sophisticated than the natives they arrived to convert, all of this ta‘unga business was primitive hocus-pocus. Today’s ta‘unga cite verses like Ezekiel 47:12 (“And the fruit of trees will be for food, and the leaves for healing”) and Revelation 22:2 (“The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”) to support their work, but in the 1800s, the missionaries believed their practice was anti-Bible.

In 1879 came the Blue Laws, which fined ta‘unga $10 for doing “magic.” Anyone who got caught visiting them paid $5, the same amount as a convicted thief. Twenty years later there was the Medical Officer’s Inquiry Act, which declared that “unscientific treatment of disease” (and not the introduced disease itself) was responsible for increased death rates in the Cook Islands. Colonel Walter Gudgeon, a guy with a bad temper and a handlebar mustache, signed a law requiring anyone who practised healing to be listed in the New Zealand government’s medical register. The ta‘unga were quacks, he wrote, and “dangerous to the well-being of the Cook Islands.” Fifteen years later, a new law subjected the ta‘unga to six months of imprisonment if they were caught.

Doctors did not discuss Māori medicine or allow it in their hospitals. Still, locals had too much faith in their healers to turn their backs on what they knew worked. In 1983, the director of the Rockefeller Foundation visited Rarotonga and was astonished to see that people still used what he called “witch-doctor remedies.”

As far as the U.S. National Library of Medicine is concerned, there is “limited scientific evidence to establish the safety and efficacy of most herbal products.” If healthcare is among the world’s most profitable industries, why is the evidence so limited? Is there really no funding for research and development of natural remedies?

The golden rule of journalism – follow the money – leads to a simple answer. Most natural medicines aren’t scientifically proven because it’s not worth a company’s salt to make sure they are. A patent is a licence to own a synthetic — chemical — medicine and to sell it. To get one, companies spend millions of dollars on convincing governments its drugs are safe. The results of the research they end up submitting are not made available to the public.

You can’t get a patent for something that grows in the ground, so why would you spend millions of dollars on science that proves it works? There’s not much money in natural products, so they don’t get approved, and we have been taught to suspect anything not approved. And if safety is the issue, what about all the approved drugs whose labels list side effects like blindness, paralysis, and death? Do we think it’s strange that drugs sometimes have fatal consequences or that they are backed by enormous marketing budgets?

Times have changed and so has illness, but there is still plenty of scientific evidence that supports the theory that plants possess healing properties.

When people call Papa Ngarima George crazy or old-fashioned for making natural medicines, he smiles and prays for them.

“Ti vare vare, they say to me,” he says. “Means I just make up. I say okay, alright, thank you. One day you will come and see me for the vairākau, and it will be free of charge.”

Mama Ngapoko’s medicine was not a long-term solution, probably because I left the Cook Islands and did not have access to it. For about eight months after I got ciguatera, I could not eat fish without experiencing symptoms. What the mouku taatai did for my physical symptoms was short-term, but what it prompted was a revelation. Through reading books, talking to medical practitioners, and interviewing dozens of people who have been treated with Māori medicine, I learnt sometimes the official line isn’t the only one.

The New Zealand Medical Journal Digest has called natural remedies “a waste of time and money” and an Australian government study found “no clear evidence” of the effectiveness of plant-based medicines. But Dr. Tingika Tere, who spent 50 years working as a general practitioner in the Cook Islands, disagrees. In 2009, he retired from an industry that would have shamed him for speaking to a reporter about “alternative” remedies.

“I think Māori medicine got a place,” he says. “I think those who are western-trained won’t accept that. I guess they just look down upon it, say no scientific proof behind it. But the thing is, people get cured.”



Photo by Jessie Lee Cederblom

When her dad passed a kidney stone in 2010, Jeannine Daniel took him to Rarotonga Hospital for a check-up and bloodwork. The tests revealed he was at high risk for prostate cancer. Not long after, Jeannine travelled to Mauke on business. She stayed at the same hall as Teava Iro Jnr, a planter and head of the Titikaveka Growers Association. She told him one morning about her father’s health.

“Ring home when we get back to Raro,” he said to her. “Come and get some pumpkin juice.”

Teava’s father, Teava Iro Snr, had healed a prostate problem with pumpkin. He’d become known locally as “the prostate doctor” because so many of the people he’d shared his story with had seen the benefits of pumpkin themselves.

“One papa’ā man came to our home,” Papa Teava recalls, laughing. “I said yes, what can I do? He said I was told you the prostate doctor.”

When she returned to Rarotonga, Jeannine picked up a large pumpkin and began juicing it. Three times a day she’d give her father a tall glass of pumpkin juice. She also gave him toasted seeds and roasted skin to eat.

A week later, she took her dad to the hospital for another blood test. His PSA level — the amount of “prostate-specific antigen” in his blood — had decreased from 4.29 to 0.02.

“I stand by it,” Jeannine says of pumpkin juice. “I’ve seen the results and I stand by it.”

If you’re a male over 40, or if you’re urinating blood or having trouble urinating, it’s recommended that you get a blood test to check for prostate cancer. Early detection is important.



Photo by Sam Ataera

It’s Pa Teuruaa’s day off but he’s dressed the way he is every other day, when he’s guiding tourists through the bush and across the island: pāreu, rautī around his neck and each knee, thin blond dreadlocks in a bun. He’s in his seventies with no wrinkles, a spring in his step, and the muscle tone of someone who spends every day climbing mountains.

“Welcome to my drugstore!” Pa sings out when I arrive. His arms are stretched out, toward his trees. “In my drugstore, I’ve got everything!”

With the energy of a salesman, he begins talking about his plants.

“This one, the kātaraāpa,” he says. “Boil it in one litre of water. Drink it and you got healing! Four tablets for same purpose cost $180.”

Pa points to a tree behind the house. “Fig,” he says. “F-I-G. Treat lung cancer.” The nono over there is for joint pain; the pure juice relieves arthritis symptoms, he says. The tuitui tree at the edge of the property has bark that treats burns and nuts that improve vision. The kava, if you mix it with nū and miro nuts — one male and three female (“You can tell by whether it closing it legs,” Pa tells me) — cleanses a system that’s relied for years on drugs.

He has maire, too. He used it once to treat an American astronaut, who came to Rarotonga looking for the dreadlocked healer he’d seen on a travel programme on TV.

Pa learnt about the healing powers of plants when he was a young boy. Growing up, his job was to pick and prepare plants for his grandmother, a traditional healer who accepted cans of corned beef or bread as payment, but never money.

She never taught Pa how to make medicines, but through her he saw for himself that natural healing works. Instead of going to school, he collected plants for his grandmother or helped his father on the plantation. He spent his free time in the mountains. By age five, he’d climbed every peak on Rarotonga. He says that prayer, silence, and “communion with Father Heaven and Mother Earth” were his first teachers.

When Pa was 12, his grandmother explained to him that her knowledge was the product of thousands of years of trial and error. He wasn’t satisfied; her approach ignored the spiritual dimensions of healing. Today, when someone comes to him for healing, Pa asks for the information he needs — age, symptoms, dietary habits, and even level of sexual activity — and then he prays. He says plants come in visions.

There are two kinds of ta’unga: the kind that prefer not to share their knowledge, and the kind that do. Pa is the second kind. He knows the knowledge he keeps is sacred, and shares only when he trusts a person’s intentions. But his primary passion is to share what he knows for the good of his people. He wants to educate others about medicine and about food and what both are doing inside their bodies, where they can’t see it happening. He takes note of what people are eating — cakes, sausage rolls, fish fried in “the bad oils.”

“Our people have to be informed what to avoid,” he says. “The businesspeople take the money from your pocket. They not helping you. They selling you wrong food. Yes, yes. Wrong food make you sick.”

He wants to teach people about what chemicals do to their bodies. (“Kill a man slowly. Burn inside.”) This is a point that hits close to home for Pa; his brother died in the 70s from accidentally sipping Paraquat, a pesticide, because it had been stored in a beer bottle. All the planters he knew that pumped spray for years are dead now. His face darkens with sadness when he thinks of a mate who died with a can of chemicals beside him.

Pa wants to educate people about the healing powers of plants, such as garlic, which kills bacteria and lowers cholesterol. He also wants to educate people about what television and technology can do to their minds. (“Guns, killing, it pollutes the mind. Stay away. I don’t look at television. Everything is guns.”)

Pa never uses the word cure; he thinks it’s arrogant. He just wants to make medicines that “give extra joy in life”. His life’s mission is to share the gift of health. Every month, he gets a phone call from a local healer warning him to keep his knowledge to himself.
“You talking to Pa,” he replies, surprised. “You not talking to the coconut tree. I have a loving heart and my loving heart educate me to educate other people.”