The people who first discovered an area held general rights over it – known as whenua kite hou (newly discovered land). Land features in newly discovered territory were often formally named. Chiefs invoked their personal tapu (sacred authority) by naming a portion of land after part of their body, in order to reserve it for their use, or for gifting or allocation to others. This was known as taunaha whenua or tapatapa whenua.
Māori scholar Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) wrote that when the Te Arawa canoe landed at Maketū, Tamatekapua, the captain, named a promontory after his nose, and two other chiefs named portions of land after their abdomens.
Thus Tamatekapua pointed to the point now known as Maketu Heads and called out, ‘I name that place Te Kuraetanga o te ihu o Tamatekapua’ (The projection of the nose of Tamatekapua). Tia identified the place now known as Rangiuru with the abdomen (takapu) of his son Tapuika, and Hei named Otawa the abdomen of Waitahanui a Hei. This ceremony effectively reserved the land indicated for those whose anatomical parts had been publicly announced, for no one would subsequently dare to cultivate on Tamatekapua’s nose or build a house on someone else’s abdomen. 1
In 1847, Chief Justice Sir William Martin commented, ‘So far as yet appears, the whole surface of these Islands, or as much of it as is of any value to man, has been appropriated by the Natives.’ 2 Every hill, valley, stream and forest had been named by Māori.
Take tupuna – ancestral rights
The right of first discovery merged over time with take tupuna (ancestral rights). Ancestral rights strengthened claims to land, as long as it was still occupied by the descendants of those early ancestors who had first cleared and cultivated the land, or made use of its resources.
Take tupuna were expressed through whakapapa (genealogies), which identified the line of descent and succession. To recite the descent of names was to make a claim to the land in question. Take tupuna could also include take ōhākī – when a chief allocated land rights on their deathbed.
A tribe might also claim land through take raupatu – having conquered and subjugated or displaced the original occupants. However, raupatu was generally considered a less secure form of right than ancestral rights. Sometimes the victors intermarried with the conquered group, so children of those unions could claim rights both of conquest and ancestry. At other times, the subjugated group might return or reassert themselves over their former land.
Maintaining rights over conquered land also depended on ringa kaha (strength of the arm) – the ability of the victors to defend the land against challenges.
Any claim to raupatu also needed evidence of subsequent undisturbed occupation. In 1843 George Clarke, New Zealand’s chief protector of aborigines, investigated customary rights among Māori, and reported that conquest did not imply title unless it was followed by possession.