Land Tenure in the Cook Islands
The role of the titleholder
The role of the titleholder
The ariki was the titular head of the tribe, and in formal speech the whole of the lands of the tribe were often spoken of as the lands of the ariki. Likewise, the lands of smaller groups were referred to in the name of the lesser chief concerned. There is no doubt that the ariki were very highly respected and regarded as having considerable power, both sacred and secular. It is equally clear, however, that in regard to land these powers were tempered by the recognition of a series of other rights, and by the need to retain the support of the people.
In reading the source material it is often difficult to distinguish between the rights of the chief and the rights of his tribe or lineage, for the two are often spoken page 62 of synonymously, as exemplified in the following definition of the koutu:
The koutu is … the seat or royal court of a reigning ariki…. It was the special place where all offerings … to the ancient gods were first assembled … where all the chiefs and persons of note … and members of the ariki family were buried … where all tribal annual feasts were held…. Each tribe had its principal koutu and lesser grade koutu. At the principal koutu the ariki usually … resided with … certain members of his family. Certain other chiefs and warriors whose tribal standing and functions made it necessary to do so also resided there…. The only tribal ranks that were entitled to the dignity of holding and possessing a koutu were those of ariki and mataiapo tutara.1 The ariki would ex officio be the head of his particular koutu…. According to tribal accounts no one ariki or individual could claim the absolute ownership of a koutu, this place was in reality the property of the tribe, and the ariki as head of the tribe was the trustee….2
2 Savage, ‘Dictionary…’. Two of the most important koutu on the island at the time of first contact with Europeans were Arai-te-Tonga (the koutu of the Makeas) and Pu Kuru Vaa Nui (the koutu of the Pa Ariki).
3 Smith (quoting Tamarua), JPS 12:220.
Like other members of the tribe, the chiefs had particular lands for residence and food supply which were held in the same way as other family lands. If the successor to an arikiship was not living at the koutu, it would be necessary for him to reside there after his appointment, but he generally continued to draw on his family lands for his food supply.
1 Firth makes a similar point in reference to the New Zealand Maoris. He says ‘… the chief did not have a personal claim in all the lands of his tribe. To certain places he had an individual right, derived from his ancestors, from occupation or from some other cause, and he also possessed a claim in pieces of land held in common with his relatives. His interest in the remainder of the tribal territory is of a socio-political rather than an economic nature…’. - Firth, Economics of the New Zealand Maori 377.
There was a certain flexibility as to place of residence and as to the admission of new members or the expulsion of others. It was the titleholder who, nominally at least, was responsible for such decisions.1 Nevertheless, in the case of admissions at least, the wishes of the individual concerned were probably the dominant consideration.
1 References to admissions and expulsions in indigenous writings almost invariably describe them as being effected by the titleholder even when (in the case of eviction) it is clear from the description that the whole group participated.