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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The tribe (vaka)

The tribe (vaka)

While larger units were at times formed for warfare and other ad hoc purposes, and there were some ceremonial occasions on which all the people of the island assembled together, the tribe was the largest social group coming under long-term unitary leadership.3 In conception it was composed of all those who traced their descent from persons who had travelled to the island on the same canoe.4 The rigidity of interpretation of the term vaka as a social unit was modified over time, such that a group absorbed into a

3 Gilson argues that these units were sub-tribes rather than tribes and that the whole island constituted a single tribe. However, as the three sections functioned generally as separate units, it has been found more convenient to refer to them as tribes. - ‘Administration…’ 19.

4 The term ‘vaka’ means canoe as well as tribe.

page 32 page 33 tribe became referred to as part of the vaka. For instance, though Kainuku Ariki traces his descent from people who lived on the island in the pre-Tangiia period, he and his followers allied themselves with the Tangiia people and became figuratively a part of the vaka of Takitumu. Again, while Arorangi originated as a segment which broke away from the other tribes, it is nevertheless referred to as a vaka (under its ancient name of Puaikura). The people of Avatiu, a segment of Avarua, migrated to the island about 1600 A.D., and while they are generally accepted on formal occasions as forming part of the vaka of Makea, they at times assert their independence on the grounds that, having come by a separate canoe, they constitute a separate vaka of people.1
Ideal Structure of a Rarotongan Tribe

Ideal Structure of a Rarotongan Tribe


The head of each group was also the head of one of each of the groups below him, e.g. the ariki was head of his own nuclear family, of his own household, of his own major and minor lineages, as well as being leader of the tribe as a while.


Specialists (e.g. priests, tattoo experts, fishing masters) occurred at the levels of chief of major and minor lineages

Titular headship of the tribe was vested in the ariki who, due to their descent from the gods and their super-natural powers, were treated with great veneration.2 Ariki were descended from founding ancestors, ideally in the direct male line, though the extent to which this ideal was achieved can only be a matter of conjecture, for while the recorded genealogies usually show descent as being from father to son this was not always in fact the case. The number of titles of the ariki class seems to have fluctuated from time to time. For example, until Makea Te Pa Atua Kino conferred the title of ariki on the eldest son of each of his three wives, there was only one ariki title in the Make a line. However, within two generations of his doing this, one of the titles (that of Vakatini) was sufficiently inactive to go unnoticed by Williams, Buzacott, Gill and other early

1 E.g. Patu Tita in evidence. - MB 19:167 NLC.

2 Gill noted that a commoner would not look Make a in the face ‘lest the regal glance should devour [him]’. - AAAS 629. Heirs to the ariki title invariably had several wet nurses. - Williams, A Narrative… 515. The sacred nature of the head of an ariki is indicated in Terei, Tuatua Taito 46–7.

page 34 writers who lived in that very district in close contact with the chiefs; and Maretu, himself a Rarotongan, does not include Vakatini in his list of recognized ariki on the island at the time of the introduction of the gospel.1 Terei speaks of a time when there were seven ariki in Avarua alone, and of another period when there were none.2 Again there are instances of titles which were once rated as ariki, but are now regarded as mataiapo.3 Maretu claims that only ariki could make wars but there is ample evidence to show that intratribal skirmishes took place in which the ariki was not involved, and though ariki were involved in wars between tribes, none of the records speak of them engaging in actual combat.4
The vaka was both a social and a territorial unit. In the latter sense it referred to the area inhabited by the tribe, and for this use of the term we have chosen to use the word ‘district’ (of which there were consequently three). Matters of interest to the whole tribe were discussed on the tribal koutu,5 but little knowledge remains of the matters dealt with at these meetings. Within each koutu there were one or two marae, where tribal ceremonies of a religious nature took place and where the ceremonial installation of an ariki was performed. War parties were sometimes organized on a tribal basis, but it appears to have been more common for them to have been arranged by some rather than all of

1 Since that time, however, this title has again regained ariki status.

2 Terei, Tuatua Taito 28–9. Numa also refers to seven ariki at a time prior to the division of the Makea title. - MS 14.

3 E.g. Tamaariki and Kaena. - MB 1:114 and 199 NLC.

4 Maretu, JPS 20:201. It is possible that war (tamaki), in the sense in which Maretu is using the term, refers only to inter-tribal conflict.

5 The ‘royal court’ of a reigning ariki. For a fuller description see page 62.

page 35 the lineages within a district. There is little evidence to indicate the nature of judicial processes operating at the tribal level.1

1 Maretu quotes an instance shortly after the arrival of the first Tahitian missionary, but before conversion to Christianity had been effected, where in the ariki ordered an offender to pay an idol and a pig as compensation to an injured party. - MS 81. This is the only pre-Christian reference of this sort noted.