By the early 20th century about 2 million hectares of land remained in Māori ownership. Māori leaders repeatedly petitioned Parliament to take action to protect their people from landlessness, and to make better use of Māori land regarded as unoccupied and unproductive. James Carroll, native minister from 1899, tried with little success to slow the rate of Māori land loss under what was known as the ‘taihoa’ (wait a bit) policy.
Maori Land Administration Act 1900
Carroll’s attempts to reserve remaining land for Māori included the Maori Land Administration Act 1900. This established a Māori Land Administration Department and several Māori Land Councils. The councils were empowered to recognise specific areas of Māori land as papakāinga blocks, which could never be sold. A combination of inadequate financial resources, unwillingness on the part of Māori to commit their land to the councils and settler impatience with a system that slowed their access to Māori land led to the councils ceasing operations within five years.
A long time coming
The complexities and inequity of the law governing the Native Land Court are shown by the sale of Tūtira, a hill-country block north of Napier. This land, belonging to a hapū of Ngāti Kahungunu, was leased to Herbert Guthrie-Smith (who later wrote Tutira, a famous account of his efforts to develop the property). The owners offered the land to the Crown in 1917 but the sale was not completed until 1941. Owners unwilling to sell their shares not only did not benefit from their land, they also had to pay major surveying costs.
Maori Land Settlement Act 1905
The Maori Land Settlement Act 1905 replaced the Māori Land Councils with seven Māori Land Boards, each consisting of a president and two other appointed members, at least one of them Māori. Māori could voluntarily vest their lands in these boards, which operated only in the North Island. If owners were in arrears with their rates, or their land was infested with noxious weeds, the Crown could compulsorily vest their lands in the land boards. Land that was considered ‘surplus’ (not required or suitable for occupation by its owners) could also be compulsorily vested. The land boards administered the lands on behalf of the owners, and could lease out blocks for up to 50 years. They also oversaw the sale of more than 930,000 hectares of Māori land in the following 20 years.
As board members were usually the judge and registrar of the local Native Land Court, the courts took on administrative as well as judicial functions in regard to Māori land. The land boards formed an administrative arm of the Native Land Court until 1952, when their functions were transferred to the Māori Trustee.
Native Land Act 1909
The Native Land Act 1909 consolidated a complex mix of legislation into one comprehensive law. The act prevented the Crown from buying Māori land unless a meeting of all owners had agreed to accept the Crown’s offer. Crown pre-emption was again removed. The Native Land Court was empowered to set up consolidation schemes to regroup adjacent blocks of land into larger blocks, which were often then sold to the Crown. The jurisdiction of the court was extended to include social functions such as:
- making orders for the adoption of children by Māori
- appointing trustees for Māori who were unable to manage their own affairs
- the incorporation of the owners-in-common of native land.
This act did little to restrict Crown purchases of Māori land, and over 800,000 more hectares, almost all in the North Island, were sold in the following 14 years.