Mother died in curse ritual (New Zealand)

The Dominion Post, 11 Nov. 2007

A Wainuiomata woman died during her family’s attempt to exorcise a Maori curse, with the mother of two drowning in a lounge as up to 40 relatives watched. 

Janet Moses, 22, died in a ritual at a relative’s house as family members tried to drive out a makutu (curse).

The family believed the curse was linked to a relative stealing a taonga. Another relative becoming sick was also blamed on the curse.

Ms Moses lay dead in the house for nine hours before her family contacted police.

Her body was marked with grazes to her upper arms, forearms and torso.

Police confirmed yesterday that the death of Ms Moses, who had two daughters aged three and one, was suspicious and a homicide inquiry was under way.

The Dominion Post has learned she drowned in an “extensive amount” of water, held in plastic containers in the lounge of a Wellington Rd house. Up to 40 people were watching the ceremony when she died.

A relative said yesterday that the family believed a curse was put on Ms Moses after someone, either her sister or a cousin, stole a blessed taonga.

Another family member was sick and the illness was blamed on the curse, he said.

Inquiry head Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Levy said detectives had interviewed 100 of Ms Moses’ family and friends during the past month.

“The family have always been the central focus of the inquiry and this has not changed and it won’t change.

“Our task is to identify those responsible for Janet’s death.”

An autopsy had ruled out death by natural causes, and police believed Ms Moses had drowned, Mr Levy said.

“The next step is assessing the culpability of those involved.”

The body of Ms Moses was found on a bed at the relative’s house and was initially treated as an unexplained death.

Mr Levy confirmed that a “cultural ceremony” had taken place.

He would not comment on the family’s belief that they were victims of a Maori curse. The family was cooperating with the inquiry.

Mr Levy said Ms Moses’ paternal family was not involved in the ceremony.

Ms Moses had suffered no internal injuries, and no weapons were involved.

She had been staying at the relative’s house during the week leading up to the ceremony which started on the evening of October 11.

Though there were 30 to 40 people present at the time she died, a large number of people had come to and from the address during the day as well, Mr Levy said.

The Wellington Rd house was abandoned, with all furniture removed, when The Dominion Post visited yesterday.

One neighbour said she had heard loud noises on the night of the ceremony “like banging on a wall”.

Dr Hone Kaa, an archdeacon of the Maori Anglican Church, said he was last involved in a makutu-lifting ceremony 12 years ago, but said they were still commonplace.

“It’s a very difficult process. I’m personally very wary of removing them.”

He said while water was often used to cleanse the victim: “I’ve never heard of great gallons being used”.

Dr Kaa said there could be a physical element to the removal.

“You may have to hold the person down because the spirit may fight within the person to stay, so you need others around you to restrain them.”

At that stage, the subject of the curse could get hurt, but Dr Kaa said he had never seen cuts or grazes inflicted.

STORY SO FAR

Janet Moses, 22, was staying at a relative’s house on Wellington Rd, Wainuiomata, the week before she was found dead, last month. Family members called police to report her death at 5.30pm on October 12, but police believe she died at 8am.

Her exorcism started on the evening of October 11, with up to 40 family members present.

Police originally treated the death as unexplained and interviewed 20 family and extended family members. They have now spoken to 100 family members and friends and have launched a homicide investigation and are treating it as a drowning.

WHAT IS A MAKUTU?

Put simply, a makutu is a curse placed on somebody, usually in a spiritual manner such as prayer.

How long has it been used? 
Makutu is believed to have been practised for centuries. Warriors used curses against their enemies. A tohunga (expert practitioner, often religious) would be employed to create or remove a makutu, though others had the potential to create a curse.

What can it do? 
In extreme cases a makutu is believed to kill its victim. A victim who is told, or believes, that ill-health or bad luck is the result of a makutu would seek its removal.

How is a makutu lifted? 
The lifting of a makutu varies with each case, Anglican minister Hone Kaa says.

The process involves a lot of talking to understand the family’s history and “depth of the makutu”.

Removal includes prayer, and ceremonies often use water to cleanse – though usually in small amounts. Ceremonies usually involve numerous participants, including kaumatua. There can be a physical element, with the victim needing to be held in place as the spirit fights against its removal, Dr Kaa says.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said he had witnessed the successful removal of a likely makutu after a child started barking like a dog. “It’s not for me to say that it’s all supernatural and there’s nothing in it.

“With the right karakia (prayer), the right chanting … (the curse) can be lifted by their own family.”

– The Dominion Post

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