How Māori survived the influenza crisis 100 years ago

An extraordinary memoir describes how a small Māori community protected itself during the catastrophic 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Kayne Ngātokowhā Peters reports.

A soon-to-be-published book describing how a Māori village survived the 1918 influenza pandemic provides insights that may still have relevance today.

Te Kohera: The People, The Land was written by the late Te Rongonui Hitiri Paerata, grandson of Hauhau chief Hitiri te Paerata, who fought at the Battle of Ōrākau in 1864.

Hitiri te Paerata / Painting by Gottfried LindauerCaption

Te Rongonui was from Ngāti Te Kohera, a hapū of central North Island iwi Ngāti Tūwharetoa. His book recounts stories he was told by his kaumātua of how his people survived the land wars. And it traces his life through the influenza pandemic following World War I.

Te Rongonui was born in 1911 at Mokai, a marae that six hapū belong to (Ngāti Haa, Ngāti Moekino, Ngāti Parekaawa, Ngāti Te Kohera, Ngāti Tarakaiahi, Ngāti Wairangi). He began recounting his upbringing in hand-written notes as a young adult. He then decided to collate his notes into a book in the 1950s.

Although Te Rongonui died in 1985, his descendants picked up the job of finishing the book by digitally transcribing his writings to be ready for publishing.

Te Rongonui Hitiri Paerata and his daughter. Photo: Canrinthia Priestly (nee Paerata)/Supplied

Carinthia Priestly, 79, is the daughter of Te Rongonui, and has been working with her whānau to get the 160-page book ready. She is now on the hunt for ways to make it affordable for Māori.

“I know how it made my father feel at the time and how he wanted things to be different for us,” she says. “I feel that the period straight after the Battle of Ōrakau was a huge thing to go through for Māori. They weren’t on the benefit, they didn’t get social services during that time – and with the men going to fight in World War I. Seven went from Mokai, and that was a lot.”

Priestly says her father wrote the book for the people of Ngāti Te Kohera and Ngāti Tūwharetoa. “It’s a tribute to all the kaumātua of his time. It’s not their full history. And he wanted our people to add to it, if they want to.

“He wrote after every tangi, every hui, every meeting,” says Priestly. “He would write about who the speaker was, the karakia and acknowledge the person who gave the karakia.”

In extracts from his book, Te Rongonui describes the year 1920 when influenza was rife and forced his community to evacuate their village of Mokai, north of Lake Taupō.

According to the Pan American Health Organisation, the first case of influenza was picked up in March 1918 at an army camp in Kansas in the United States of America.

When Spanish media reported an outbreak on the World War I battlefields in May and June of 1918, and after it killed millions in Spain, it became known as the Spanish Flu.

When World War I ended on November 11, New Zealand was already riddled with the virus. Worldwide, the flu killed around 50 million people. In New Zealand 9000 died, 2500 of them Māori.

“The aftermath of World War I caused havoc throughout the country,” Te Rongonui wrote. “When soldiers returned home to the open arms of family and friends, some came home infected with the unknown deadly influenza virus. The virus became a voracious killer throughout defenceless Aotearoa.

New Zealand soldiers disembarking a ship as they are welcomed home in 1918 /
Crown Studios Ltd, Alexander Turnbull Library.Caption

“There lived during this period a grand uncle Te Piwa. He was gifted with spiritual powers and became known as a tohunga. His services would have been made available to the Māori at large but, in this emergency, he confined his skills to members of the family group living at Mokai and adjacent places.”

Guided by spiritual entities, Te Piwa advised on bush medicine (rongoā), what should be done to prevent the spread of the virus, and advised that Mokai Pa was be well guarded.

“The flu struck Mokai and people died in monotonous regularity,” wrote Te Rongonui. “Families were to evacuate the district and move to Te Kakaho, a remote settlement at the foot of Pureora bounded by two rivers. It was the place for isolation. Food was plentiful, wild cattle, pigs, water cress and native pigeon – a rare delicacy worthy to grace any chief’s table.

“The people were instructed to prepare to leave by cleaning their homes, burning anything that may contain the germs, shutting up the houses and leaving the sick behind.”

Te Rongonui was only ten at the time and his mother Te Arai was instructed by Te Piwa, to stay behind and take care of the sick and bury the dead in mass graves.

Te Arai Paerata/Supplied

“My mother used a horse and sled to do this job on her own. She survived this ordeal and was admired by the community and was respectfully called Kui Koneke, the lady with the sled.”

Although the pandemic was thought to have ended by December 1918, remote Māori communities were still dying from it in the 1920s.

Members of the Mokai community who were able to escape the threat of infection were in good hands, however. They were able to seek refuge from their neighbouring whānau in Te Kakaho and Waihaha.

“Not one out of that entourage of people died during the influenza epidemic,” Te Rongonui wrote.

He described how their community slept at Te Kohera wharenui (meeting house) at Te Kakaho on the western shores of Lake Taupō.

“A fire was built in the centre out of pine wood. The kitchen and dining room were together a hundred yards from the wharenui. It was the custom to keep eating and cooking places well apart from sleeping quarters and place of worship. The fire in the centre was never allowed to go out. Pots were kept boiling and food cooking. The favourite, Māori bread, was baked in very hot ashes.

“The elders had tin plates and mugs. We children ate out of one big dish. We clustered around it and hands worked overtime between the dish and hungry mouths. Butter was scarce and pork fat was substituted for it. The food was appetising, delicious and filling.”

From Te Kakaho the people of Mokai went to stay with their relatives of Ngāti Tarakaiahi at Waihaha, an isolated paradise on the western shores of Lake Taupō. As a koha, the Mokai people had caught wild brumbies and pigs to give to their new hosts.

It is unclear how long the people of Mokai stayed at Waihaha, but by 1923 Mokai had its own timber mill. This meant the community was able to regrow its economy and prosper.

Taupo Totara Timber Mill at Mokai, 1923 / AP Godber, Alexander Turnbull LibraryCaption

Te Rongonui’s book Te Kohera: The Land The People is welcomed by whānau at Mokai, many of whose photos and archives perished when the marae wharekai (dining hall) went up in flames in 2015.

The wharekai has been rebuilt and now the marae is doing all it can to protect its people from the threat of Covid-19. The Raukawa Iwi Mobile Based Assessment Clinic Team has just completed testing of the local communities of Mokai Marae, Ongaroto Marae and Atiamuri Village, and Ngāti Tūwharetoa has set up a drop-in clinic in the nearby township of Tūrangi.

Māori across the country have been working hard to protect their communities with iwi checkpoints keeping outsiders away, an initiative that appears to be paying off, as Māori only make up 8 percent of positive cases.

Māori are still encouraged to seek testing if they are feeling unwell. But as Te Rongonui has shown, isolation and social distancing really are the answer to beating the virus.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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