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.
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
There was a long list of take (principles) on which a claim to use land and its resources might be based. An editorial in an 1878 issue of the Māori newspaper Te Wānanga noted:
The Maori not only claims land by right of discovery and occupation … but he also claims by right of conquest, gift in marriage, gift for help in obtaining food for feasts, help in time of sickness (or payment to priests for supposed protection from the power of witchcraft), for the dead being carried over the land, for relations murdered on the land, and a thousand other claims of such nature. But there are other claims even more complicated than these. Gifts of chiefs of certain blocks to pet grandchildren; also, the claims to land by the offspring (male line of descendants) of daughters (to land of their grandfathers) who have married chiefs of other tribes. 1
Major Rāpata Wahawaha, a Ngāti Porou leader, outlined some 28 variations of take whenua (principles of land rights) in a letter to the ethnographer Elsdon Best in the 1890s. Generally these can be organised under four main principles:
To maintain their rights under one or more of these principles, individuals and groups needed to show continuous occupation of an area, known as ahi kā (lit fire) or ahi kā roa (long-burning fire). Māori scholar Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) noted, ‘So long as a people occupied the land, they kept their fires going to cook their food.’ 2
I kā tonu taku ahi, i runga i tōku whenua.
My fire has always been kept alive upon my people's land. 3
Take whenua and other customary practices were not applied strictly – they were fluid, accommodating changing tribal relationships, which led to shifting claims and rights to land.
The Native Land Court (now the Māori Land Court) was established in 1865 to determine land rights under Māori custom. Māori were forced to argue their claims to lands before the courts, and Pākehā judges tried to interpret Māori custom. Judges often simplified and distorted those customs, and seemed to show a preference for claims based on raupatu (conquest), followed by ahi kā. The court also allowed children to succeed to lands no matter where they lived – setting aside the principle of ahi kā.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Asher, George, and David Naulls. Maori land. Wellington: New Zealand Planning Council, 1987.
Boast, Richard, and others. Māori land law. 2nd ed. Wellington: LexisNexis, 2004.
Kawharu, I. H. Māori land tenure: studies of a changing institution. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.
Smith, Norman. Native custom and law affecting native land. Wellington: Māori Purposes Fund Board, 1942.
Stokes, Evelyn. Maori customary tenure of land, Hamilton: Department of Geography, University of Waikato, 1997.