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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Rights of the tribe

Rights of the tribe

The rights of the tribe may be more properly described as those rights of its component individuals which were held in common or exercised collectively. Though the tribe was a significant unit in political affairs, tribal rights in land were limited.

Firstly there were rights of access. In daylight and on approved activities members of the tribe could move freely within the area provided they kept to the appropriate pathways and were on friendly terms with the lineages whose lands they were crossing.

Secondly there were rights to those lands specifically set aside for tribal use. These were small in area and page 65 restricted to particular functions. There was the koutu of the ariki, and within the koutu there were one or more marae or sacred grounds. Marae were centres of religious activity, and the marae within a koutu was the centre of religious activity of the tribe.

The third tribal right was that to produce of all tribal lands for feasts involving the whole tribe. To these every household was expected to contribute. While this was a social obligation deriving from membership of the tribe, it was closely related to the occupation of land, for every primary member of the tribe was occupying his own portion of the lands within the tribal district;1 permissive members also drew their sustenance from specific tribal lands, and contingent and secondary members contributed in recognition of their relationship to that tribe and to a specific lineage and tapere within it.

The existence of tribal meeting places and records of tribal meetings indicate that there was some system of consultation about affairs of common concern but there is no evidence to suggest that land rights were discussed at these meetings. Tribal aid was probably expected in the defence of tribal lands, though it was not always forthcoming and the available evidence shows that tribal unity was much more often achieved for defence than it was for attack. It might be expected that the forest lands would be held by the tribe in common but this was not so. By dividing the island into triangular segments running from a peak in the mountains

1 An exception to this rule occurs in the relatively few cases of persons exercising primary land rights in districts other than their own. In such cases they did contribute to certain functions organized by the tribe in whose district the land was situated, and their doing so was stated explicitly to be due to their land rights. In this sense they can be regarded as primary members of the tribe to which they made the contributions.

page 66 to a strip along the edge of the lagoon, each lineage had access to the trees and other products of the mountain soils,1 and every segment of the land was identified with a particular lineage.2

1 The main products obtained from the mountains were building materials, berries, plantains and wildfowl.

2 There is in fact some land within the core of the central mountain complex which is not identified with any particular lineage. There are claims to its ownership in the literature based on ancient native myths, but the Native Land Court has never been called on to determine its ownership. It is not in use, and according to informants never has been. It was considered to be an area frequented by spirits.