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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Rights of the lineage

Rights of the lineage

The major lineage was the largest and most permanent unit having control of the allocation and use of land. Tribal units expanded and contracted with the exigencies of warfare and the occasional transfer of political allegiance by some lineages from one tribe to another. The larger major lineages each occupied a whole valley and most of them trace that occupation to the time of settlement by Tangiia about 1200 A.D. As noted earlier, the original mataiapo were each allotted a tapere on which they settled with their families.3 The boundary of each tapere ran from two points on the outer reef, across the lagoon and the adjacent lowlands, up two flanking ridges to end at a point in the central mountain core.4 As the occupying lineages grew and split into separate minor lineages it was the duty of the mataiapo to allot to each segment sufficient land on which to live and plant its crops.

3 See page 18.

4 There are a few atypical tapere (e.g. Tauae) which do not extend from the sea to the mountains.

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Once allocated to a minor lineage, the rights of the major lineage over the land were limited to four - the symbolic right,1 the right of reversion in the event of the line dying out,2 and the right to participate in decisions involving the tapere as a whole, and rights to the lagoon. The tapere marae were held on a major lineage basis, and ceremonial at this level required contributions from the whole lineage. It should be made clear that whereas the minor lineage derived its right from the mataiapo or ariki concerned, the major lineage almost invariably held in its own right and not from an ariki.

Most of the tapere lands were subdivided among the minor lineages, each of which was headed by a rangatira or komono, or by the mataiapo himself. The minor lineage was the most important landholding unit in the system, its lands having clear-cut boundaries which were intended to be permanent, though reorganizations no doubt occurred. Such of the tapere lands as were not occupied by or allotted to particular minor lineages remained the common property of the major lineage; however, according to Land Court investigations, such lands were but few.

The most common indigenous pattern of division within the tapere was to take the central stream-bed as the basic boundary, then allocate sections of land running at right angles from the stream-bed back to the flanking ridge which formed the boundary with the next tapere. On the flat lands the ancient inland road was taken as the starting point lands were allocated at right angles to the road running either seaward to the lagoon or inland to the hills. This pattern of land division is illustrated by the attached map of Turangi and adjacent tapere.

1 As discussed on pages 62-3.

2 See pages 92-3.

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Turingi & Adjacent Tapere

Turingi & Adjacent Tapere





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In some cases the minor lineage was allocated a ‘slice’ of the tapere running from the sea to the mountains, and in others it was allocated particular separate portions of land such that it held sufficient of each category of land for its particular needs. In the case of the valleys, while the lands allocated ran from the stream-bed to the ridge-top, the only lands planted were close to the stream-bed. Coconut and other trees might be planted on the gentle slopes, but the steep hillsides, which constituted the bulk of the land area, were not planted. On these hillsides, despite the nominal allocation to a particular minor lineage, members of the major lineage could collect wild fruits and hunt wildfowl. The extent of this right to forage is not known but present-day informants say that it did not extend to the cutting of trees for building purposes without permission.

Rights to the lagoon and its products were generally exercised by the matakeinanga occupying the tapere, but the extent of subdivision within the tapere is not clear, for while the boundary point on the outer edge of the reef was known for district and tapere boundaries1 there was some uncertainty as to whether or not internal boundaries ended at an identifiable point.2 There was certainly no system of artificial marking within the lagoon, though named coral rocks were often quoted in early Court cases as being boundary marks.3 Informants gave conflicting accounts of the rights to fish and other produce within the lagoon, some considering that these rights belonged exclusively to

1 Informants today still claim to know these boundaries, but as all land below high water mark has since 1915 been vested in the Crown and is accessible to all, there has been no occasion to test the accuracy of these claims.

2 Though in some cases they did so.

3 E.g. MB 1:107 and 163 NLC.

page 70 the major lineage which owned that portion of the lagoon, and that any others wishing to fish there would require the prior permission of the mataiapo concerned. Others, however, claimed that one could fish or collect seafoods in any part of the lagoon fronting the tribal district. All were of the opinion that this right lay only within the tribal district, and that any person fishing in a tapere to which he did not belong should send a token of the catch to the head of the owning lineage.1

The right to take coral rock for building marae or other purposes, or to take pebbles for making pathways, lay only with the lineage which owned the portion of lagoon concerned. For any others to make use of these materials required prior consent. Wyatt Gill describes public fish poisoning drives which used to be held in Rarotonga and in which the whole island participated.2 This, however, was some time after the introduction of the gospel and there is no indication to show whether or not drives on this scale took place in the pre-contact era. Fishweirs belonged to the extended family whose ancestors had built them, and the use of them without permission was regarded as theft.3

Reef passages giving access from the lagoon to the open sea were associated with the senior title of the major lineage of the tapere in which they were found.4 Buck claims that the titleholder could claim a portion of the catch from any fisherman using that passage.5 Traditions amply confirm

1 This custom has long since ceased on the island.

2 Gill, Jottings… 140–2.

3 Buck, Arts and Crafts… 217. This remains the case today.

4 Confirmatory evidence is given by witnesses in the Land Court in AMB 1:15 and MB 19:170 NLC.

5 Buck, Arts and Crafts… 210.

page 71 this, and there is a legend of a greedy chief who, too demanding in the exercise of this prerogative, was banished by his people.1 The passage can be regarded as belonging either to the lineage or the chief, but it appears more reasonable to assume that a lineage member made his contribution to his chief as head of the social group, than to regard it as payment for the use of his reef passage. Likewise the contributions of strangers using the passage were presumably to the chief as head of the owning lineage and not personally in his capacity as ‘owner’. It is very doubtful, indeed, that a chief could deny any kinsman use of the passage, and quite impossible for him to reserve the use of it to himself alone. The rights in the passage then, were of three kinds - the right of use by all members of the lineage subject to appropriate contributions to the chief; the right of ownership by the lineage which was vested in the chief as head of the lineage, and substantiated by the fact that non-members required permission and were required to render tribute to the chief as representative of the owning lineage; and the right of the chief to demand a proportion of the catch.

Separate treatment of the kiato does not appear to be merited, as they functioned in the same way as the minor lineages of which they were a part, though necessarily on a smaller scale.

1 Taraare, MS 112–13.