• Mouria Ngati Au

Ahupua'a and Tapere: The Cornerstone of Peu Maori


There is much we can learn about our identity through our neighbours across Te Moana Nui a Kiva in contrasting and comparing our respective custom, tradition, and history. As is often the case, significant cultural overlap exists within Central and Eastern Polynesia. For example, Hawaiian Ahupua'a and Rarotongan Tapere. As in Hawaii, the ancient customary social structure of Rarotonga reinforced land management and vice versa. The following commentary stems from a Facebook post about Hawaiian Ahupua'a found here.



Like Ahupua'a, the shape and size of Tapere varied and was largely determined by the island’s natural topography. Typically, the boundaries organically followed streams, mountain ridges, and spanned from the lush and fertile mountainous interior to the teeming ocean ridge. This meant that most Tapere would have everything a Ngati needed, consisting of diverse soils, fresh water, building and craft material, and a section of reef. The name of a Tapere is generally associated with the Ngati which occupies it, particularly with its titular head or Mataiapo


The Tapere land division is typically credited to Tangiia Nui ca. 1250. Several sources credit him not only with the division of land but also the people, as well as the construction of a significant number of sacred spaces and structures (marae, a'u, ta'ua, koutu, rua-atu, etc) within many of the Tapere. Together, the land and sacred sites are entrusted to the dominion of certain of Tangiia Nui's retinue who were already of chiefly rank and/or ancestry or made so concurrently. The narrative of Tangiia Nui’s settlement of Tumutevarovaro reveals the interdependent relationship between Enua (land: tapere), Ta'onga (title: mataiapo tutara & ngati), and Marae (sacred space/structure) which is Peu Maori: Ancient Native Custom.


Until the establishment of the Native Land Court in 1902, the Tapere was the fundamental unit of land. Like Ahupua'a, access was tied to residency. At Rarotonga, Peu Maori dictated residency status: one Tapere, one Mataiapo/Ngati. The Tapere was conceived of as the sovereign domain of the Mataiapo/Ngati that occupied it. Briefly, the Ngati was a corporate, land-based, patrilocal kinship led by the Mataiapo as its “elder”. This meant that for a valid connexion to be established, decent was traced in an individual’s paternal line back to the founding titleholder or chief. A valid connexion may also be established through a female if necessary, such as in the case of a couple having only daughters, so long as the female individual in question was unwed. This also meant that for women, getting married meant either leaving her father’s Ngati for her husband’s, or in certain cases bringing her husband in – either way, one of them would forfeit the rights usually afforded them through their respective Ngati because pre-contact Rarotongan society was virilocal by nature. In essence, one could not be a member of two Ngati simultaneously. Peu Maori prohibited “multiple residency” status which ensured the Ngati’s principal asset (land) remained intact, and fundamentally protected and strengthened the Ngati’s rights. Above all else, this is what distinguishes Ngati from Kopu Tangata.


The rights of the Mataiapo/Ngati associated with the Tapere as a "corporate" interest were administered by the Mataiapo, ex-officio. A Mataiapo's litterae patentes was properly twofold: marae and land, his title being derived from the marae(s) and/or other sacred structures situated within the sovereign, geographical domain of the Ngati i.e., Tapere. Thus, the justification for any Mataiapo's/Ngati's authority is tripartite: he/they must at the very least be able to enumerate the correct connexion to land, marae, and title to establish the veracity of his/their claim and assert territorial rights.


As is the case with Ahupua’a, the Ngati through the Mataiapo controlled the Tapere’s resources. They also assumed rights which include (but are not limited to): the right to control their borders and regulate the flow of people and goods, the right to defend their territory against outside aggression, the right to make war and peace, to conclude treaties, and enter into alliances (ariki-ship). There are several recorded instances of Mataiapo refusing entrance or passage through their Tapere by standing at the border of their territory when an individual or group approached. However, an important fact to remember when considering the sovereignty of a Ngati: not all Mataiapo are equal. Without exception, all Mataiapo Tutara (ta'onga conceived independently) and their Ngati are sovereign and are functionally identical to ariki (which is properly a “species” of Mataiapo). In the case where an ariki has been elected, the supremacy of that ariki is political not territorial because it is largely dependent upon maintaining a healthy relationship with the Mataiapo Tutara (or “nobles” as Moss called them) who have assented regardless of whether that ariki is landed or not; the ariki is Primus inter pares or first among equals.


The only time an ariki’s supremacy is absolute over another ta’onga is if that ta’onga was created by the ariki himself. Consequently, such are designated “akarava”. The same principle applies to ta’onga ranking under the Mataiapo i.e., Rangatira, Komono. These titles are “personal” as opposed to “corporate” because their authority does not come from landholding but is delegated via the corporate landholding agent, the Mataiapo. Thus, unlike the rights of the Ngati which are inalienable, the rights afforded a mataiapo akarava, rangatira, or komono, can be withdrawn by those to whom their title belongs. Ariki were not immune to and were liable to be overthrown if they were perceived to be tyrannical.


The central and fundamental right of a Ngati was the right of jurisdiction, which is the right to create and enforce laws within their domain. Land was in many ways the cornerstone of Peu Maori, and in many ways remains essential to our current land tenure. Without the land, there is no marae; without the marae, there is no title. Unless all three can be adequately evinced, such a claim is dubious for as Crocombe observed “there was no land which was not associated with a particular title and no title which was not associated with certain areas of land”.


No one in the Ngati need fear being turned off the land, for each had an indissoluble right to occupy and use the land so long as they remained in good standing. Not even an ariki could legally or lawfully remove title or land from a Ngati, an exception being if that title originated with that ariki. The rights of an individual were only threatened in cases of murder, incest, and other heinous crimes. Acquisition by conquest was not altogether uncommon, and there are notable examples such as the conquest of Ava'avaroa (Tamaariki) by Mataiapo from the area known today as Ngatangiia.


Ancient settlement in Rarotonga was often scattered and tended toward to interior. The arrival of the LMS heralded a shift in dwelling patterns, the people being gathered into condensed settlements toward the coastline, concentrating at the new chapels built on the new road. After 1902, this presented many issues, chief among them the deterioration of customary boundaries between Ngati. This shift set in motion the decline of our traditional land tenure and heralded the interpolation of what would become a deep well of pain, lust, greed, vanity, and pride: “individual” and “title” land ownership. Consequently, over time terms like Ngati and Mataiapo have been forcibly ripped from context and redefined.


As far as Tumutevarovaro is concerned, Peu Maori in its true form was/is a robust and incredibly liberal polity. F. J. Moss observed even during his time that although “gradations of rank were definite” and authority “was strictly maintained”, association "between persons of all classes was, and still is, marked by the most perfect freedom". It is hoped, with a resurgence of interest in our ancient native custom, and with more and more people having the courage to speak out, calling not only for accountability, but for clarity, we may begin the return to what is so often professed to be our foundation, and unite past and future in a way that best represents, harmonizes, and advances the interests of te iti tangata as individuals and Ngati.



Mouria Ngati Au.


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