Story: Take whenua – Māori land tenure

Page 4. Gift and occupation

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Take tuku

Take tuku was the claim to land by virtue of a gift or grant. Anthropologist Raymond Firth wrote that ‘the cession of land to another tribe seems to have been regarded as one of the most valuable of gifts, to be made only on occasions of great significance.’ 1

Ngāti Kahungunu leader Īhāia Hūtana gave four examples of tuku whenua (the transfer of land): ‘1. He ngakinga-a-mate [payment for a death], 2. He pa-kuha [betrothal], 3. He kai-haukai [a return feast], 4. He whanaunga i tono kainga mahinga kai ranei [a relative has requested a house or an area for cultivating food].’ 2

Tāpae toto

Transfers of land were not always permanent. They were commonly accompanied by specific conditions, such as a requirement to supply food or other resources to a chief, or an expectation of support in times of conflict. Often a public ceremony recorded the grant.

The Hauraki chief Pāora Te Putu transferred lands around Kennedy Bay to Ngāti Porou. After his death, a mere (club) known as Whaita and a cloak were presented to Ngāti Porou as a tāpae toto – a present given in connection with a chief’s death. This, along with intermarriages, served to confirm the tribe’s occupancy. Paki Harrison of Ngāti Porou comments that the presentation of the taonga (treasure) made the land transfer permanent:

[I]t gave us the descendants, the right to argue the permanence of our tenure, not only in terms of the tāpae toto but in the preceding whakapapa that linked us through to Ngati Maru from Ahuahu right through Ngati Maru and all coastal people. 3

Gifts of land confirmed rights and cemented relationships – and signified the giver’s mana whenua (authority over land) in the area.


Ka wera hoki i te ahi, e mana ana anō.
While the fire burns the mana is effective.

Continuous occupation, ahi kā or ahi kā roa, was a vital part of land rights.

Every right to land, whether it rested upon discovery, ancestry, conquest or grant, had to be kept alive by occupation, or by some act such as seasonal visits, which signified a claim and use.

However, simple occupation, without any other right, did not confer a right to land. This was simply squatting – known as poka noa (without authority) or noho tikanga kore (settling without right).

The principle of keeping fires burning on the land symbolised long-standing occupation. The Hauraki chief Te Horetā Te Taniwha commented about one area of land:

Our tribe was living there at that time. We did not live there as our permanent home, but were there according to our custom of living for some time on each of our blocks of land, to keep our claim to each, and that our fire might be kept alight on each block, so that it might not be taken from us by some other tribe. 4

Loss of ahi kā

The legitimacy of any claim diminished over time if the land was abandoned and the fire allowed to die out. Initially, the right started to wane and became ahi tere (unstable fire) – and eventually ahi mataotao (cold or extinguished fire). Maintaining ahi kā was important for both individuals and tribal groups.

  1. Raymond Firth, The economics of the New Zealand Maori. 2nd ed. Wellington: Govt. Print, 1972, p. 390. › Back
  2. ‘Mo te tuku.’ Te Puke ki Hikurangi 5, no. 1 (30 August 1902): 3. Translation by Paul Meredith. › Back
  3. Quoted in Alex Frame and Paul Meredith, Performance and Māori customary legal process. Paper prepared for Symposium on Concepts and Institutions of Polynesian Customary Law, University of Auckland, 2004, p. 15. › Back
  4. Quoted in John White, The ancient history of the Maori, his mythology and traditions. Vol 5. Wellington: Government Printer, 1887, pp.121–124. › Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith, 'Take whenua – Māori land tenure - Gift and occupation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2021)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 24 Nov 2008