Land Tenure in the Cook Islands
In the normal course of events a woman did not exercise rights of use in her own family lands after she married, but she could return to them if need be, and secondary rights to those lands passed through her to her children.
There was, however, one circumstance under which a woman who was absent could, as of right, plant, harvest and control page 94 the disposition of a section of land in her born lineage. This was in the event of land being given as a ‘marriage portion’.1 The nature of her right in the marriage portion was such that, despite non-residence, it will be referred to as a primary right. Land was set aside as a marriage portion only when the first-born daughter of a high-ranking chief married a man of similar standing.2 While such land carried great prestige value, it was not a dowry for no rights in it passed to the husband or his family. It was simply the setting aside of a portion of land for the bride, and, more particularly, her issue. She could use the land herself, or could pass it on to one or more of her children for their use. While the land was specifically set aside for the daughter, the donor lineage retained residual rights to it. Moreover, she still had to observe appropriate obligations to her lineage in other respects or her rights in the land could be extinguished.
A chief wishing to set aside land as a marriage portion was not required to consult anyone though he could only allocate it from the lands of his own minor lineage. The gift was announced at the wedding feast.
1 Such land was known as ‘enua tao'anga rima’ (it was known as ‘topenga piro’ on some islands).
2 All recorded instances of marriage gifts of land concern the daughters of chiefs. While some informants claimed that only ariki and mataiapo had the privilege of setting aside such lands, occasional examples of leading rangatira having done so have been noted.
If the bride left her husband she and her children could return to her own extended family and could use the land set aside for her. Normally though, if she was accepted back, she would participate jointly in the use of the family lands, and unless she or her children made use of it then it would lose its character as a marriage gift and become again regarded as family land. This invariably happened if she died childless. Marriage land appears most commonly to have been used by specific children of the donee. Though they could make use of it while remaining members of their father's lineage, it was more usual for the mother to send a particular child back to live with her own lineage and use this land. Here again, if the child were sent back when young, and adopted into its mother's family, he would participate jointly in the exploitation of common lands and the marriage portion would again revert to its source unless he made use of it. While no figures are available to substantiate the point, it appears that the majority of rights given as marriage gifts were little exercised, the land reverting naturally in the course of time to those who gave it.2
1 The information in this paragraph was supplied by informants in Rarotonga, who were familiar with the pre-Land Court (i.e. pre-1902) situation. (Early indigenous sources deal only cursorily with marriages.) Whether or not the details they outlined also applied pre-contact cannot be verified, though the informants considered that they did. While I did not locate any instances of marriage portions being loaned to custodians, Judge Morgan informs me that such instances have been brought to the notice of the Court.
2 This view is supported by the comments of informants, and by the fact that when the Land Court investigated the title to all the lands on the island, very few portions were claimed as marriage lands.