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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

The koutu then may be regarded as ariki land or as tribal land, and indeed it was both. While koutu were always referred to as the koutu of the ariki concerned, it is apparent that the rights of the ariki and the tribe were closely interwoven and the right of the tribe or lineage was symbolized in the name of its chief. An example of this symbolic ownership is given in a description of the pre-contact ceremony for the investiture of a new ariki which says: ‘At this time also is delivered over to the ariki the supremacy over the lands…’. A little further on the author notes that the ariki must also be given a ‘small piece’ of land at the koutu.3 In other words, the ariki's right to the whole of the lands of the district was primarily a symbolic one, for these lands were already

1 A mataiapo tutara is a mataiapo of very high standing who has some degree of influence over other mataiapo in the vicinity - see page 37 footnote 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.

page 63 divided among the chiefs and again among the minor lineages and households, and only the specific ‘small piece’ pertained to the ariki personally as the holder of the title.1 The Land Court has repeatedly referred to the chiefs as trustees for their people and this notion of trusteeship is particularly appropriate, for a chief's actions were, ideally at least, actions for the group as a whole, on whose behalf he acted and spoke after due consultation. The question of chiefly rights in land, which was probably not very significant during the pre-contact era with its subsistence economy and segmented social groupings, became an issue of considerable importance after commercial agriculture began and land assumed a cash value.

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.

Should any family die out, the land reverted to the source or line from which it had come - in practice to the chief of the line from whose lands it had originally been allotted. The chief (probably after consulting other members of the group) could either reallocate the land to some family which needed or wanted it, or he could leave it unoccupied, in which case it would be under the direct

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.

page 64 control of himself or his successor chiefs until such time as it was reallocated. If he needed the land he could, of course, allot it to himself for use, but a distinction must be made between such lands as were taken over by the chief for the personal use of his own family, and those unused lands which he administered on behalf of the group for collective use, or for subsequent reallocation. Unallotted land of this latter type could be used to provide new areas for the settlement of families which had split as a result of increase in numbers or domestic dispute.

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.