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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga

Population And Land

Population And Land

The growing needs of the increasing population led to the planting of Manihiki with coconuts and puraka. When food supplies ran short on page 66 Rakahanga, the whole population voyaged across to Manihiki to partake of the food which had been planted there. It is evident that the migrations to Manihiki took place regularly after the population had increased sufficiently to necessitate such a step. On Rakahanga, sentimental considerations probably induced the four tribes to remain in the one village of Te Kainga. All had an equal right to it, and the law making the other islands tapu for food had been enacted before the development of the four tribes. Manihiki, however, had no sentiment attached to it, so that when the four tribes went there they founded two separate villages on different islands. Each village was occupied by an ariki and his two tribes.

The islands were distributed among the tribes and subtribes and they planted them with coconuts. Certain parts were also excavated for the growth of the puraka (species of taro) in the brackish subsoil water. When the mature tubers were dug up, the tops were replanted. The tribes continued in occupation until the puraka and coconut supplies were depleted. They then returned to the other atoll, on which the food supplies had matured during their absence.

The distribution of land had come about by a gradual process of evolution with the growth of population. When Toa, the first settler, established his family at Te Kainga, the problem of land distribution did not obtrude itself. In the 6th generation, however, the need of defining spheres of influence had evidently become necessary, and the office of land distributor (tuha whenua) was given to Huku-potiki, whose elder half-brother, Kaitapu, retained the rank of ariki. Power over the land thus became early disassociated from the office of ariki. It must be assumed that successive families under their respective heads had planted in the near-by islands that they considered suitable. There was room for all and no cause for trouble, as there were no previous settlers. The creation of a specific land officer led to organized disposal of the available lands. The land distributor, taking into account the planting that had already been done, associated certain families with particular localities. Probably the heads of families threshed out their arguments in public meetings. The official land distributor had the final word, and what was decided upon by him became established. As the families developed into larger groups, which subsequently became tribes, the tribal boundaries simply included the lands of the families comprising the tribes. With the increasing complexity of social structure to meet the growth of population, the power over tribal lands passed from one individual into the hands of the tribal heads, or whakamaru.

The functions of the whakamaru with regard to land have already been defined (p. 55). He acted as public custodian over tribal lands, settled disputes within the tribe, and prevented outside interference from other tribes. page 67 Thus the tribes had their tribal lands on both atolls, and the problems of partitions and adjustments were settled within the tribe.

Within the tribe itself, secondary groupings that resulted in subtribes also naturally led to the defining of subtribal lands within the tribal area. These subtribal problems were settled by the heads or leading families within the subtribe acting with the whakamaru. Within the subtribe, every individual had a right to a share of land, but the individual shares were grouped together in family holdings. The location of family shares was guided in later years by the inheritance of the areas planted by ancestors. In the beginning, however, the families were probably well-spaced in the lands that were being planted for the first time. In that period there were evidently no exact boundaries defined by equivalents of survey pegs or boundary stones. The boundaries between neighboring families were, to a certain extent, created by the spreading and meeting of the coconut trees that had been planted by successive generations. The self-planted trees that grew up naturally from the nuts that fell in an outward direction from marginal trees were claimed by the owners of the trees from which the nuts had fallen. The boundaries between neighboring family properties are thus often irregular. The evolution of irregular family boundaries is exemplified by a case that came up before Judge Ayson during our stay on Rakahanga. Two families desired a survey to define the boundary between their respective properties. As defined by the coconut trees claimed by each party, the boundary was marked by curves and projections of which the government surveyor, who naturally desired straight lines between angles, despaired. Each party claimed coconut trees that had encroached beyond the natural line. Neither would give way. A compromise was eventually made on the advice of the Court by the exchange, or even sale of trees, in order to get a satisfactory survey boundary. The fairness of the survey line with regard to the land was admitted by both, but the coconut trees were the bone of contention.

The influence of the ownership of coconut trees in establishing a right to land is shown by the case cited above. The rights to the immovable property combined in the coconut and the land on which it grows is further exemplified by the pakewa custom. As defined by Mr. Savage in correspondence, it is a custom under which a person with no rights to land is given

… the right to the use of a certain tree or trees, that he may pick the fruit thereof and use same as refreshment in his passing over the land. This custom gave only the right to use the tree but no right whatever to the land.

The value of the pakewa custom will be fully appreciated by those who have experienced the heat of a tropical sun while walking over atoll islands. Out of the dual feelings of kindness of heart combined, doubtless, with the page 68 idea of protecting one's trees from indiscriminate picking, the originators of the pakewa custom allocated a certain tree or trees to the use of the outsider. The tree was vested in the individual by name and could be used by him and his family. The use was enjoyed by his descendants, who traced their rights to the original agreement. The recognition of the equity of the custom has survived, but it has caused complications, owing to the increasing commercialism engendered by Western culture. Where self-grown trees have sprung up around the pakewa tree, these have been claimed by persons entitled to use the nuts. The need of the nuts for drinking while passing over the land may be rare, yet the mature nuts are gathered for the modern commercial purpose of making copra for sale to the traders. Some tree-owners accuse the landowners of having, in their turn, gathered the mature nuts for making copra. The situation is extreme when the owners of the pakewa trees deny that the trees were given by the pakewa custom and claim the land because their ownership of the trees is admitted.

An interesting modification of the custom occurs. Visitors are sometimes asked to plant a coconut so that the tree may serve as a memorial of their visit. An old lady persuaded me to plant a nut in front of her house at Rakahanga and referred to it as my tree. Should it grow and bear nuts, I should on a subsequent visit probably be given drinking nuts from it to quench my thirst while there, but my courtesy rights would end at that.

Property rights in land and coconut trees were definitely recognized. The loose attribution of commercial rights over property and land to Polynesian communities cannot be upheld. When within the subtribal areas, the land was distributed (tuha) among families. Each individual had a right to a share in the land, but the individuals were grouped in families of which the heads were the administrators. The members of each family lived together, worked together, and shared the produce of the land allocated to them. The things made by the individual were private property that he could dispose of as he deemed fit. Land and coconut trees, however, were family properties that descended by inheritance and were transmitted by inheritance. An individual had no right to dispose of land to outsiders without the consent of the family. He or the family had no right to dissipate the inheritance of posterity.

Although the boundaries between tribal lands became more or less fixed, the boundaries between family holdings were not fixed immutably for all time. The shares allocated to families within the larger family groups comprising subtribes were subject to change in each generation, in accordance with the ebb and flow of population. Just as the small family group interested in a family holding was constantly changing from generation to page 69 generation, not only in personnel but in numbers, so the shares within the family area required redistribution from time to time. It was part of the duty of the whakamaru to see that these redistributions and readjustments were conducted with equity.

Owing to the recognition of bilateral descent, children could inherit a mother's share in her paternal estate, and families came eventually to have holdings of land in more than one district. How far this system of multiple holdings extended can only be fully decided when the Land Court investigates the land titles of the atolls. It is likely that the islands nearer to the villages were planted first, when the population was small. As the population increased, other islands were planted successively, and it is extremely probable that the descendants of the first planters have had a share in the planting of these islands. If so, it is extremely likely that the different tribes may have shares in a number of islands instead of having their shares consolidated in separate and adjacent islands, as they would had the families moved off and settled upon the lands they cultivated. This would further increase the number of holdings to which a family is entitled. The subject is one for further investigation.

In the Cook Islands the dominant ariki, when they established themselves, took care to reserve definite areas of land for themselves. Such lands went with the ariki title and were inherited by the successor to the title. I am not sure whether or not specific lands went with the Whainga-aitu and Whakaheo titles. It was definitely stated, however, that when the office of land distributor was conferred upon Huku-potiki, he was given the special grants of Paerangi in Rakahanga and Haroi in Manihiki to go with his office. It is probable, therefore, that special grants of land were made to the holders of the two ariki titles.