The death of Janet Moses will not deter Maori from the practice of lifting makutu, or curses, a Maori academic has said in response to a coroner's report on the Wainuiomata woman's manslaughter.
Pou Temara, a professor in te reo and tikanga at Waikato University, said the lifting of curses was still practised among Maori but "it is not as prevalent as people make it out to be".
He said that, in Ms Moses' case, the people involved in the makutu-lifting ceremony did not seek good advice. "They took it upon themselves without having any knowledge about those kinds of processes."
His comments followed findings from Wellington coroner Ian Smith, who said in his report on Ms Moses' death by drowning in 2007 that relatives who believe a family member needs a curse lifted should consult experts.
Rawiri Taonui, head of Canterbury University's School of Maori and Indigenous Studies, said that was appropriate advice.
"One of the things in this case was they had advice from family members who said they were aware of the spiritual connotations of what was going on ... but there was an element of that being self-invented, if I could put it that way."
Dr Taonui said there were some – though not many – Maori elders with experience in dealing with makutu. "I have sought advice on different spiritual methods. I know the numbers of people to call in the first instance and it doesn't take long before you arrive at the right doorstep.
"But you wouldn't talk to your cousin, in his mid 20s, just because he happened to be into astrology."
New Zealand Skeptics chairwoman Vicki Hyde said caution was needed when heeding the coroner's advice. "There's a sense that a tohunga, a priest or kaumatua can provide an independent view.
"On the other hand we, as part of the Skeptics, would like to encourage people to be a bit more independently minded to start with. When people say so and so has got a makutu on them ... others say, `Oh, do you think so, or is she just feeling a bit down?"'
The family of Ms Moses believed she was under a makutu. They tried over several days to flush out the demons with water, allegedly having misunderstood advice from a tohunga. After she drowned, five members of her family were found guilty of manslaughter.
"One of the senses I had from this family is that they had become isolated from other parts of the community and I think that was ultimately dangerous for them," Dr Taonui said.
For those unsure where to turn for advice, Tuhoe spokesman Tamati Cairns suggested a Maori minister. "I think that is the first port of call in anything like this ... they'll know who to go to."
- The Dominion Post