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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The role of land in social relations

The role of land in social relations

As discussed earlier, each tapere of land was associated with a particular descent group which, conquests apart, traced its connection with that land back through generations of illustrious ancestors to founder chiefs who were held in such veneration that they had assumed some of the qualities of deities. The spiritual and temporal prosperity of the group was closely related to the sanctity of the local marae, the presence in the locality of the buried remains of countless forbears, and the fertility of the soil from which the occupants of the tapere derived their sustenance.

The land and the society were intricately interwoven. No rank title and no descent group was conceivable apart from the lands associated with it, and no material good could be acquired other than from the land or the sea. The recruitment of additional members and the provision of ceremonial and hospitality so vital to the continued status of the group were dependent on adequate resources of land and labour. It is accordingly understandable that land acquired a considerable prestige value and that a man was ‘great according to the number of his kaingas or farms’.1

The necessity to defend the land from those who would acquire it by aggression or encroachment necessitated joint action by those with interests in common, and this no doubt constituted a major unifying force in the society, acting as a brake on any tendency for the individual to pursue his own interests to the detriment of the right-holding group as a whole.

1 Williams, A Narrative… 215.

page 115

The exercise of land rights carried with it certain obligations to other members of the groups which held rights in the land concerned. There were obligations which functioned to maintain and reinforce social relations, such as the necessity to supply produce for marriages, funerals and other occasions of social interaction, and those requiring mutual assistance and the provision of land for the use of particular kin on appropriate occasions.

There were also obligations which functioned to reinforce the political organization. Members of the lower social orders rendered tribute to members of the higher strata within the same segment of the political structure. Two particular services which every man was expected to render were known as aratiroa (the provision of food and services for distinguished visitors) and arevananga (the construction of public buildings including the high chief's house). In addition there were various offerings, largely of a religious nature, which were known by the generic name of atinga. While particular forms of atinga were provided for particular ceremonial occasions, atinga was also payable to the head of the appropriate landowning group by persons who planted under conditions of permissive occupation.

It is impossible to determine exactly the degree to which tribute was an obligation deriving from the holding of rights in land, though there was certainly a relationship between the two.1 No single instance has been noted

1 In reply to a question about the tenure of land asked by Sir W. J. Steward, Pa Ariki said:

‘This is the custom from our fathers: The Ariki…has his land. Now, he puts that land into the hands of his people. The Mataiapo owns his land. He also has that land in the hands of his people. Following the chief [mataiapo] there is the Komono, and he also holds land, and is linked with the chief - is under the chief. The land is in his hands and the hands of his people. The word about the people on his land is with the chief to whom he adheres. Now, when the chief has any work in hand he sends his messengers to the Komono and to the Kiato under him. Then they do what the chief requires; they bring whatever he has instructed them to bring. Concerning the Arikis, they have under them Rangatiras, and these Rangatiras are usually the younger members and branches of the kingly family. And there is their subdivision of land in their own hands. But the power over these Rangatiras is with the Ariki. When the Ariki has work in hand he sends word to these Rangatiras of his, and they come at the summons of the Ariki, and do what is to be done, when anything is required in the way of food, or so on. That is our system on the land here.’ - NZPP A3B 1903:9.

page 116 in which a person rendered atinga except where the recipient held some superior rights in land in which the donor held subordinate rights.1 Furthermore, the failure to render tribute was punishable by banishment and the forfeiture of land rights.2

Non-resident members of a lineage were, it is true, entitled to food from the lands of that lineage when passing over them, or when visiting the primary group. But the right to take fruits for refreshment when travelling, and the obligation to provide food for visitors or passers-by was universal and applied to all persons, whether relatives or otherwise. Such transient acts of use thus had no necessary correlation with rights of ownership.

The status of chiefs was reinforced by making certain products their exclusive prerogative. Turtle was considered sacred and could be eaten only by men of high rank,3 as also could the head of a pig.4 Sharks and certain other fish were also rendered to the chiefs.5 The records are not clear

1 Even in the case of Makea Ariki rendering atinga to Pa Ariki and Kainuku Ariki, this was not done in Makea's capacity as high chief of Avarua, but as the holder of a portion of land in the Takitumu district. - AMB 2:58 NLC.

2 E.g. AMB 1:17.

3 Gill, Jottings… 221.

4 Buzacott, Mission Life… 110. This custom is still observed to a limited degree today.

5 Smith lists shark, urua and punupunu, and states that these fish were still reserved for the high chiefs in 1897. - JPS 12:220.

page 117 as to exactly which grades of chiefs were entitled to enjoy these privileges, though Buck states that they were formally presented to the ariki of the district, who could give shares to his subordinate chiefs and return a share to the fishermen.1 While traditional accounts do not state the principles explicity, confirmatory evidence is given by frequent references such as the following: ‘Uenuku [a high chief], and his wife begat Toroa. He was the heir to the ariki title, and he had all the great fish and all the things that are sacred to an ariki.’2

An offering of first fruits took place in December each year, on the rising of the Pleiades and a variety of other ceremonies were held on particular occasions throughout the year. All participants were expected to contribute foodstuffs for the festivities, and while the pattern of contribution and distribution differed for various ceremonies, it was usual to leave a portion on the marae for the gods, to render a share to the chiefs, and to distribute the balance to the people on a household basis.3

Within the residential core of the descent group there was a sexual division of labour for certain tasks, though the sexes co-operated in others. The construction of houses, the heavier agricultural work and pelagic fishing were the province of men. Women assisted with planting and harvesting, and weeding was considered to be primarily women's work. Some early reports indicate that cooking was the responsibility of the men.4 However, informants were unanimous in saying that this applied only to bulk cooking in

1 Buck, Arts and Crafts… 209.

2 Terei, Tuatua Taito 24.

3 Taraare, JPS 30:137–41.

4 E. g. Gill, Life… 64.

page 118 earth ovens for feasts.1 In-shore and lagoon fishing were shared by men and women, though the collection of shellfish and crustaceans was normally considered to be women's work. The preparation of bark-cloth, the plaiting of mats and baskets, and the collection of candlenuts for lighting were all women's occupations.

While the household was the elementary unit of production and consumption, nearby related households were called on to assist with heavy tasks like clearing bush or constructing taro beds, and whole lineages must have co-operated in such tasks as carrying large tree-trunks, some of which Maretu says required fifty to one hundred men at a time.2 The organizing (i.e. the assisted) group was obliged to provide food for the helpers.3

Chiefs were not exempt from agricultural labour, and were expected in this and other work to lead by active participation.4 While individuals and families undertook their own small-scale fishing activities, any large-scale operations were directed by fishing experts.

Access to land or crops could be controlled or denied by the use of the ra'ui, or customary prohibition, by the appropriate chief.5 The ra'ui was embodied in a sign - often a coconut leaf tied around a tree on the path leading

1 This form of cooking, known as ‘ta'u’, is still today done by men when pigs and large quantities of food require to be cooked for feasts.

2 Maretu, MS 50.

3 Co-operating groups of this sort are little used in agriculture today, and the last occasion my informants remember when pere vaere (a large-scale co-operative group to clear land alternately for each of the members) operated was in the 1940s.

4 ‘Chiefs and all take their portion of work. If any work public or domestic is going on the great and under chiefs are all at their post.’ - Pitman, Journal 12.10.1830.

5 It is still used occasionally on Rarotonga, and quite frequently on some of the outer islands.

page 119 into the prohibited area - and was invested with supernatural power (tapu). The breach of a ra'ui was punishable with both secular and supernatural sanctions. It was used mainly to preserve supplies of a particular crop, though it could also be used to protect lagoon fish in order that their numbers might multiply or even to prohibit the use of certain paths.1 These prohibitions were generally applied when it was intended that the supplies thus preserved be allowed to accumulate for consumption at a forthcoming feast. The same technique was used at times to stop thieving, for the thief was exposed to both temporal and supernatural sanctions by entering lands which were under ra'ui.

The settling of disputes in relation to land rights was a constant problem. Even given the system of priorities for the allocation of rights, and of conditions for their retention and loss, rival claimants did not always agree on the relative merits of their claims, and a tribunal or other machinery was necessary to give and enforce judgement in the event of dispute. This aspect of the tenure system was but little developed, and was probably its greatest weakness, being detrimental both to social stability and volume of production.

Differences could be handled by negotiation between the parties, by reference to a higher authority, or by fighting. As direct trial of strength was always possible, negotiations must have been made with an eye to the probable outcome if warfare were finally resorted to.

While there are many examples of settlement by negotiation after the arrival of the English missionaries, there are very few before but this may simply be due to the fact that if negotiations were successful, there would be nothing

1 E. g. Taraare, JPS 30:141; Terei, Tuatua Taito 30.

page 120 of interest to record. After the arrival of the mission there are many instances of disputes being referred to the ariki for settlement, but it is assumed that this was considerably less common before the arrival of the mission. It is probable that the highest effective level for settling land disputes by arbitration was usually that of the head of the major lineage. Gill considered that the settling of disputes within his lineage was one of the major functions of a chief in the pre-contact period,1 but the extent of warfare on the island shows that settlement by negotiation or reference to a higher authority was not always effective.

Those who lacked the physical resources to take direct action could resort to sorcery and invoke supernatural agencies to punish offenders. The mission so effectively destroyed the priesthood and crushed the indigenous magico-religious structure that little knowledge of these processes remains. All that can be said is that sorcery was practised and that a class of ‘priests’ specialized in the exercise of this craft.2

1 Gill, AAAS 334.

2 Sickness was sometimes attributed to sorcery in retaliation for ‘land grabbing’. - Hutchen to LMS 16.2.1891 SSR.