Traditionally, Māori had a complex system of property and land rights. Mana whenua means tribal authority over, and control of, lands. Within the tribal rohe (area) there were a variety of competing rights. Hapū (sub-tribes) had main or tūturu (permanent) villages near areas that provided resources such as food, often with a pā nearby. However, groups often moved between different gardens and resource areas according to the season.
Hapū or tribal collectives held the land, rather than individuals. An individual claim, even by a chief, was not independent of the hapū or tribal right.
While mana (authority) over land was held by tribal groups, individuals and families could claim the right to use specific areas for cultivating a garden, building a house, setting rat traps, snaring birds in particular trees, setting an eel weir, or cutting down a tōtara tree for a canoe. Individuals could receive use rights as an inheritance or a gift, and could pass these on to their descendants – but these rights were subject to the authority of the hapū.
Disputes arose over claims that crossed tribal boundaries, overlapping with other hapū as a result of migration, resettlement and inter-hapū marriage. These debated borders have been called whenua tautohe – contested lands. They were not uncommon, because adjacent groups were often related, and their areas of land use intersected.
In the famous Te Arawa love story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai, Hinemoa rested during her swim across Lake Rotorua on a tumu (post) erected in the lake. Named Hinewhata, it was placed there to show the mana (authority) of Hinemoa’s father, the chief Umukaria.
Land and water
Māori asserted rights over both land and water. The beds of lakes, rivers, harbours and the open sea were seen as whenua papatupu – customary land. Addressing Native Minister Donald McLean and his party in the lakes district of Rotorua in 1873, Te Arawa chief Tāmihana Korokai said, ‘Haere mai e koro mā! Haere mai ki Rotorua, te whenua o Ngatiwhakaue, moana kau’ [Welcome, my friends! Welcome to Rotorua, the land of Ngatiwhakaue, which is principally water]. 1 Rights to bodies of water were shown by posts, which were placed in particular areas and were often given names.
In the early 20th century Te Arawa tribes challenged the Crown’s claims to the beds of the lakes around Rotorua. The solicitor general sought the advice of ethnographer Elsdon Best, who quoted Te Arawa scholar Te Rangikāheke as saying, ‘When a chief of high rank gains possession of land he possesses it on shore and in the lake, hence it is said that some of his lands are ashore and some in the water.’ 2