• Mouria Ngati Au

Peu Maori: Understanding the Relationship between Enua, Taonga, and Marae

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

Mr. Wynne’s piece “In Sickness and in Health” states “one cannot look at our history from 1915 to 1965 and dismiss the critical role… our Ariki and Mataiapo have played in where we are today”. Mr. Wynne has written a couple pieces recently concerning the relevance of taonga ariki. However, if we are to truly examine their relevance today, we must understand who they were within the system which created them, i.e. Peu Maori­–ancient custom. Although much of what I say may be applied generally, my primary concern is with the comparison of Rarotongan ariki as presently constituted vs. what they were anciently. I will also compare ariki to the other taonga, particularly the mataiapo, within the framework of Peu Maori or the lack thereof.




There has been a significant focus on the aronga mana in the “Cook Islands News” national newspaper, particularly the ariki, and their relevance as leaders in the country. Mr. Thomas Wynne has raised a pertinent question concerning their validity in a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, but does so through the lens of presupposition, namely: the ariki are the traditional representatives of the people, ex officio. Taonga ariki today is synonymous with “royalty” and seems to have the Midas touch: “royal” koutu, “royal” marae, “royal” lineage; “kings” and “queens” of the islands. Therefore, it is only natural that he, and the vast majority, would conclude that the ariki as presently constituted are “pivotal” to society. However, when examining this attribute through an historical and customary lens, it becomes glaringly obvious that the position afforded them today is incongruent with true and ancient custom–Peu Maorisomething which was codified by the Cook Islands Act 1915 (although never explicitly examined by the administrative powers to date).


Indeed, the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries and early colonial administrators were charged with upholding “native custom” despite the reality of their actions. The Rev. John Williams was strongly criticized for his intervention into civil matters, who defended his position by claiming his hands were tied given “[the natives’] ancient usages were interwoven with their superstitions” (Williams 1838:139). A proclamation by New Zealand Governor Onslow, dated April 4th, 1891 stipulated “all laws and customs at present recognized will remain in force and… [the ariki’s] administration over the district (or island) will not be interfered with…” (AJHR 1891 A-1; emphasis added). Herein lies the issue: the absence of any explicit attempt by the LMS, the colonial administrators, and judges of the Land Court to understand the underlying principles of Rarotongan social organization proved favorable for the synthesis of artificial, self-serving models of ancient custom. By 1891, the power of the ariki at Rarotonga was already exaggerated well beyond its customarily prescribed limits to the extent that they were the only chiefs to whom any power was given to act for and in behalf of the island.


One cannot speak of ancient custom independent of land tenure–land is a fundamental element. “[There] was no land which was not associated with a particular title and no title which was not associated with certain areas of land” (Crocombe 1964:61). Likewise, “no rank title and no [corporate] descent group was conceivable apart from the lands associated with it…” (ibid:114). The fact that virtually all land claims heard by the Native Land Court frequently alluded to land in association with title, lends credence to the assertion that Peu Maori is predicate upon three pillars, namely: enua (land), taonga (title) + ngati (corporate descent-based group), and marae: a structure of religious but, more importantly, social significance. It was at these structures that taonga were formally and ceremonially recognized. For this reason alone, the marae was of great importance for it legitimized the authority of a title and the customary rights and interests of the corporation i.e. ngati, which it represented (a legal entity, separate and distinct from its owners who have a shared interest in the corporation’s common stock, e.g. land).


The location of a marae determined the location of the ngati, a term which is today mistakenly interchangeable with kopu tangata. Whereas kopu tangata is simply bilateral reckoning of descent to a common ancestor (paternally or maternally), ngati is a corporate entity, membership thereof determined by tracing decent unilaterally–traditionally (though not strictly) this has been patrilineal, although there are a small number of cases where the line was reckoned through a female ancestor if only to link to a male–in every case, the male link proves indispensable.


Eligibility was also considered by marriage and adoption, or by any criteria deemed suitable by the ngati and its leader(s). Moss recorded that no child, or equally adult, can “become a member [of a ngati] till formally admitted” (Moss 1894:28). “If a daughter marry, she enters her husband’s family if of the same island. If the husband be of a different island, he may be taken into the wife’s family during her life” (ibid). Evidently, the purpose of reckoning decent patrilineally was security: the membership of the chief’s daughter in the ngati was guaranteed until her marriage at which time she would enter her husband’s household, or the husband was integrated into hers. Crocombe noted the first occasion on which a woman had held a rank title was in 1845 when the Makea title passed to “the sister of the deceased… the wife of Rio, one of the original Tahitian teachers”, a symptom of European cultural influence (Crocombe 1964:180). This is the key difference–ngati represented a corporate “unity of interests, [and] binding obligations of kinship to each other and to the chief” (Baltaxe 1975:106). Whereas one cannot “choose” kopu tangata nor be removed–one is simply tracing genealogy.


Ngati, by definition, presupposes boundaries (illustrated above) which in turn includes the reserved right to admit or deny participation therein. It was this body corporate, not the individual, which traditionally controlled land through the taonga, which in most cases was mataiapo (whose role will be discussed further on). By its very nature, the ngati mitigated issues inherent in the current tenure system–in short, it precluded the concept of individual ownership of land; territorial, not property, rights are what this term represented given the fact ngati were traditionally organized upon what was the basic unit of land division, i.e. tapere: a division of land consisting “of a single radial valley, from ridge to ridge, and the land fronting it” (ibid:51). Due to Rarotonga’s generally uniform topography, each tapere included access to each soil type from the reef and lagoon, to the coastal strip fronting the fertile ground in the valley, to the mountainous interior. Dr. Crocombe also illustrates the interdependency of the three pillars of Peu Maori:


“… each tapere of land was associated with a particular descent group, which, conquests apart, traced its connexion with that land back through generation of illustrious ancestors to founder chiefs who were held in such veneration that they had assumed some of the qualities of deities. The spiritual and temporal propensity of the group was closely related to the sanctity of the local marae…” (Crocombe 1964:114; emphasis added).


However, with the establishment of the Native Land Court, the basic unit of land was drastically altered from tapere to individual parcels of <1 acre to sections exceeding 100 acres. Ownership was determined piecemeal despite the consistent appeal to the above-mentioned pillars. This change effectively invalidated the ngati and mataiapo; “… the groups originally represented [by those terms] were reduced to simple, ancestor focused bilateral kindred [kopu tangata]; in short, they ceased to be corporate groups. The Land Court effectively removed the boundary-forming criteria of participation and acceptance by the group itself, which had allowed the ngati to operate as discrete groups in the first place” (Baltaxe 1975:123; emphasis added).


Thus, it is strange why Col. Walter Edward Gudgeon, second British Resident of the Cook Islands, would seek to alleviate the people from the burden of ariki rule and not mataiapo given the mataiapo have historically outnumbered the ariki significantly. While his motive for introducing fee-simple and lease tenure was primarily economic, he no doubt saw himself the liberator, believing “the people have gained that which is the breath of life to any village community–namely a fair division of land among the various families, and absolute security of tenure; they have… by virtue of these two facts, obtained immunity from that curse of the pacific, mana Ariki” (Gudgeon 1908:6; emphasis added). What Gudgeon saw as a “village community” was merely concentrated settlement surrounding the new LMS chapels and mission schools and did not reflect the reality of ancient land tenure.


Furthermore, it should be noted that no upstanding member of a ngati need fear alienation from ngati land for it was his customary right–Peu Maori was his “absolute security of tenure”. Notwithstanding, Gudgeon appears to have understood the tenure system as one where land was vested with individuals, namely chiefs. Undeniably, he saw land as a commodity as well as personal property. Yet, even Gudgeon was forced to recognize that even in cases where individuals were granted the right to occupy or cultivate land which they would not ordinarily be afforded by ancient custom, i.e. non-ngati members, while they were “indeed liable to be turned off… it never happens” (Gudgeon 1904:68) except where individuals had broken customary laws e.g. murder, incest, etc. Ironically, “Vindex” Gudgeon’s system of tenure would prove a bulwark to true landowners for years to come who were supplanted by the ariki and others; “absolute security” came by way of the Register of (Land) Titles (ROT) but only for those individuals so determined by the Court and not for ngati–“Remember that only those whose names appear in the grants of the Court can be recognized as owners” (Gudgeon, in MB 11:197).


Although Col. Gudgeon was exceptionally critical of “mana Ariki” in his 1908 report to Wellington, the following year he sharply contrasted mataiapo from ariki by comparing their relative social standing:


“I will now speak on the subject of the status of the Arikis at the present day. The Ariki is an hereditary member of the Federal and Island Councils, therefore he is one of those who alone can make laws for the Group. In addition to this he has the old rights of the Are Wananga [sic.] and the Are Tiroa. These two are the special privilege of the Ariki and no Mataiapo has this right…” (ibid; emphasis added)


The new status of the ariki, which Gudgeon himself was instrumental in creating, compared to his “immunity” remark made in 1908 is particularly odd when considering an ariki had been appointed to serve as judge of the High Court in 1899 (cf. Cook Islands Gazette 22 April 1899). Ariki were until 1904 judges of “ariki courts” then replaced by the reconstituted Island Councils which they dominated.


Col. Gudgeon was by no means informed sufficiently to determine the rights of the mataiapo, let alone determine rights to land. This was not the first time, and certainly would not be the last, that the mana of taonga mataiapo and ngati would be degraded. Rather, the erosion of their unique status within Rarotongan pre-contact polity was a gradual process and coincided with the elevation in status of the ariki. Unsurprisingly, and of necessity, the mataiapo’s status and the collapse of the customarily defined ngati eroded in tandem, just as their customarily derived rights to administer land were usurped by the Native Land Court (cf. MB 11:197).


To say that the collapse of the customarily defined ngati and the overthrow of the mataiapo has been a major factor in the promotion of false narratives regarding ancient custom is a gross understatement. It is a well-documented fact that Col. Gudgeon believed individual ownership trumped corporate interests:


“That the chiefs have rights over land cannot be denied, but that they should have exclusive rights to the injury of the people… is absurd; no improvement can be hoped for until each cultivator has his own plot of land assured to him either in fee simple or by perpetual lease at a nominal rent” (Gudgeon 1902:48; emphasis added).


Gudgeon clearly did not understand the nuances of land tenure as they were defined under ancient custom–he did not understand ancient custom at all. While recognizing as early as 1902 that the “chiefs” had a customary right concerning land, he was by no means prepared to understand why or make good on those claims, preferring instead under the pretense of social equality and liberation to distribute land as he saw fit. But his perspective, though uniformed, was in no small part influenced by the actions of the ariki who by this time had aggrandized their social status largely at the expense of the mataiapo. However, Gudgeon’s motivation for restructuring land tenure was primarily economic:


"... the Titikaveka lands have for years been lying waste and unoccupied, and, worse still, unimproved. It is this latter fact that has induced me to select the coast-line from Papua to Titikaveka as the scene of the first regular and continuous survey of the island; it being obvious that unoccupied lands would be more easily acquired under lease from the Native owners than the occupied lands nearer the shipping port... 273 acres, have been leased to the Europeans" (Gudgeon 1904:69).


In 1908, Gudgeon reported to Wellington that "all the land of Rarotonga of economic value or capable of occupation has been surveyed and awarded to the owners as far as they can be ascertained" (ibid 1908:5).


The continued exchange between the LMS and ariki had a measured effect on their social status and it wasn’t until this period that ariki was made synonymous with “royalty”. As a matter of administrative expediency, the LMS and colonial administration tended toward centralized power as opposed to a segmented social structure, i.e. independent ngati and mataiapo, their interpretation of Rarotongan social organization took on patently “monarchical [feudalist]” characteristics (Newbury 1967:7). The LMS tended toward stratification–arrangement of something into categories or groups–rather than gradation–organization by successive degrees. As such, they perceived the mataiapo as a subservient class to the ariki, the supreme ruling class, who were perceived to be “kings”. In the absence of Peu Maori, it is easy to see why Gudgeon and the LMS interpreted ancient Rarotonga as feudal: atinga (broadly “tribute”) in conjunction with service of some kind, e.g. labour, rendered to the ariki by the mataiapo or lesser title in exchange for land which in turn created a relationship based on fealty. Rights traditionally held by corporate ngati were ascribed to the taonga solely, ex offico. This attribute has since remained unquestioned and unchallenged although many find it difficult to reconcile the independence of mataiapo and the supremacy of ariki.


The introduction of trade and the direct control of market houses by the ariki (through which all trade flowed) gave them unprecedented economic power; “once produce acquired a cash value… the land on which it grew acquired capital value” (Crocombe 1964:185; cf. Gilson 1955:270). Consistently, the ariki were favored by the LMS, who “had little, if any, concern for the natives’ traditional hocus pocus” (Baltaxe 1975:125). Rather, the missionaries were “devoted to controlling the power of the chief so that it could be used” to persuade the people to adopt their image of God (Beaglehole 1957:175).


Gudgeon recorded that the ariki “[had] been taught to regard himself as king by divine right and they have all seen clearly enough that to make themselves absolute they must assert a right to all the land” (Gudgeon 1908:5). Gudgeon gives a shocking example of the lengths some ariki went to make good their claim:


“[For] the last seventy-five years the chiefs and Arikis of Avarua and Arorongi have lost no opportunity of depriving the people of all knowledge of their genealogy and family history, even fining those old men who, by means of their grandchildren, attempted to write a record of the family history, and confiscating the books for their own use” (ibid).


As far as undermining competition is concerned, forced suppression of the opposition is tried and true. If one is unable to enumerate, let alone has the knowledge to enumerate, one’s correct ancestral link to enua and taonga, one cannot assert a legitimate claim under Peu Maori. However, efforts to undermine opposition is not always overt:


“On the death of any leading mataiapo or rangatira, an excuse has been found for placing the family title and lands in charge of some creature of the Ariki... the pretence was that the young heir was wanting in ability or too young to govern his people and therefore until he had reached the age of reason he was to be governed by a mentor appointed by the Ariki during his minority or alleged incompetence... the rightful heirs have never been reinstated. The usurper became the humble servant of the Ariki and paid atinga for the land which had never paid this tribute while in the hands of the rightful owners, and the Ariki knowing that the man in possession dared not dispute his claims now, asserted that the land had always been Ariki land. If the dispossessed man tried to assert himself, he would probably be reduced to the position of a pig feeder and his descendants would never learn that their ancestors had been men of rank and influence” (ibid).


Jock MacCauley, a former judge of the Cook Islands High Court, likewise found:


“Many chiefs claimed large areas for themselves solely, and in most cases the occupiers were too ashamed (and afraid) to raise a voice in protest… The end result was that many people had a freehold interest in land that they had never occupied and in many cases had never seen…” (MacCauley 1969:5).


Moss recorded that there was a time when police, “appointed by the Ariki […] incessantly spied upon and harassed the people. The fines that they could extract from delinquents formed their sole pay and were divided at stated intervals between Ariki, the [judges], and the Police” (Moss 1894:22).


Is it any wonder then, why the ariki were so opposed to the first British Resident F. J. Moss? Moss recognised the inordinate amount of power accrued to the ariki and attempted to implement a system that would redistribute said power to a larger portion of the people, including both mataiapo and elected representatives. To do so constituted, in a small but profound way, a return to a time when ariki were not “kings”. The ariki themselves upon petition for “annexation stipulated that the Federal Parliament [est. 1891] be replaced by a council of ariki only” (Baltaxe 1975:115).


The following explanations of Rarotongan social organization by Moss are in stark contrast to both current and past preconceptions of “traditional” custom. Understanding his observations in context of enua, taonga and ngati, and marae as they are defined here is the only way statements like “the land is owned by the tribe” constitutes a meaningful phrase (cf. Declaration of the Federal Parliament of the Cook Islands 1894). Of the mataiapo, Moss observed:


- "The Mataiapos are the most powerful class. Their families have held the land from time immemorial, on conditions of public service well understood. If, for any reason, one be displaced, a successor must immediately be appointed from the members of the family. The title and the tenure of the land are perpetual and cannot be disturbed or interrupted” (Moss 1894:24; following citations, emphasis is my own).


- "The 'komana' [sic. - properly: komono] stands next, the only difference being that his services must be rendered through one of the nobles [mataiapo] to whom it is credited, and never directly by himself. After him come the rangatira, a tenant at will of the ariki or the chief from whom he holds the land, but irremovable, by time-honoured custom, so long as the due services are performed" (1893:778).


- “Rangatira hold under the Mataiapos, under the Ariki, or other independent land owner. Their services are public and honourable, but rendered at the call of the owner of their land and given to the public in his name” (Moss 1894:24)


- "The Ariki is supreme, but largely controlled by the Mataiapo (or nobles). A new Ariki is named by the Arikis of the other tribes from the Ariki family of the deceased's tribe. But the confirmation depends on the mataiapos as the installation rests with them. [The Mataiapo] regard the Ariki as only the first among equals. The Ariki of one district may, through land tenure be a Mataiapo in some other" (1893:778).


- “The gradations of rank were definite. Authority was strictly maintained but intercourse between persons of all classes was, and still is, marked by the most perfect freedom. Every one knew and kept his own position, but to outward appearance… the Ariki in a mixed assembly was scarcely to be distinguished from the humblest of the people” (1894:20)


The first of the glaring inconsistencies between Moss’ observations and the accepted narrative is power. As previously stated, the mataiapo have historically outnumbered the ariki significantly. However, the mere presence of taonga ariki demonstrates such power was not derivative of the ratio mataiapo:ariki. Instead, it was Peu Maori–ancient custom–which gave them, and their ngati, mana. This fact cannot be overstated: The mana of a title is derived from the land which in turn is determined by the marae and its location. By virtue of being the titular heads of the land controlling descent groups, “the mataiapo title was the one in the most direct relationship to the land, i.e. the territorial units called tapere” (Baltaxe 1975:139); just as the ROT gives registered landowners legal power, so too did the land and marae give the mataiapo power for land usage was predicate upon his and the ngati’s express consent.


A secondary but equally important distinction Moss makes is the relationship between mataiapo and rangatira (including komono which is a species of the latter). Neither of the latter titles are associated with land directly, but through “the chief from whom he holds the land”. The Rev. William Gill similarly described the rangatira as “a kind of dependent tenantry” (Gill 1856:27). In each case, at least until the registration of land owners by the Native Land Court, the rangatira are defined consistently as dependent, personal titles. However, another consequence of the implementation of the ROT was the creation of new corporations– “the Land Court also introduced a remarkable distinction between land owned personally by a title holder and land which was specifically associated with the title…” (Baltaxe 1975:124). Baltaxe concluded that such was impossible “in the context of the traditional land tenure system since it presupposes individual land ownership” (ibid:125). As a result of the failure to understand this principle, the rangatira (and titles generally) were being granted “title land” where none such distinction before existed; the registered landowners constituting new corporate groups, the distinction between mataiapo and rangatira was erased.


Yet Moss and others are clear that the rangatira were personal, not corporate titles–their power was not derived from land-holding, rather through the “independent land owner”. In this context, the nature of atinga takes on a far more nuanced role than what is typically ascribed: a transaction between an inferior title to a superior one as obligatory service in exchange for land (cf. feudalism). It also clarifies the relationship between mataiapo and ariki–to take produce from the land which symbolized one’s mana and to offer it to another is a tangible representation, a gift, of mutual respect and synergy, not subservience much less inferiority. However, the prevailing interpretation of atinga as “nominal rent” is no doubt derived from the relationship between a corporate title and a personal one, i.e. mataiapo and rangatira–in short, a rangatira could not present a gift of produce to his mataiapo from land that the mataiapo customarily owns. In such a case, the atinga is properly a customary obligation. It is abundantly clear why atinga was so often used to distinguish the superiority or inferiority of any given title when assessing land claims in the early 20th century. The idea of atinga as an obligation solely, fits perfectly into the “feudal model” of Rarotonga.


The direct relationship between the mataiapo (and ngati) to land renders the synonymous relationship between ariki and “kingship” as mere flattery. Ariki supremacy cannot therefore be derived from exercising control “by divine right” over all the land of a particular “district”, and by extension the peoples and titles associated thereto. Any relationship between ariki and mataiapo must therefore take on a strictly voluntary, political and/or militaristic character (except where such title is created by an ariki, i.e. rangatira or mataiapo akarava). “The title and tenure of the land are perpetual and cannot be disturbed or interrupted”, unless that system was replaced entirely which, as Mr. Wynne correctly pointed out, was the case in 1903 (cf. Wynne: “What should be clear is that despite the dismantling of… Mataiapo structures…”). Indeed, it would be nigh impossible under Peu Maori to displace a mataiapo and his ngati who was able to enumerate their link to the “founder chief” and the marae or koutu established concurrently. Herein is the true definition of a mataiapo tutara.


What then is taonga ariki? Where is his supremacy derived and what form does it take? Baltaxe suggested “that the ariki is a particular type of mataiapo” (Baltaxe 1975:139). Moss’ statement is explicit, leaving no doubt such was possible “through land tenure”. There is no question that the land tenure he was referring to was defined under Peu Maori given these statements were recorded before the implementation of Gudgeon’s own brand. Through Moss’ statement concerning the installation of ariki in conjunction with evidence recorded by the Court, the supremacy of the ariki takes form. While the new ariki can be selected via lineal or collateral descent, the confirmation and installation rests with the mataiapo. In the absence of Peu Maori this statement is ambiguous: which mataiapo? Also, to what extent do the other ariki have in the selection of an heir?


Logic dictates the answer to the first would be those mataiapo directly affected, i.e. the mataiapo “bound” to the ariki. In Rarotonga, one is easily tempted to conclude that it would be the mataiapo of a particular vaka, e.g. Takitumu. However, the division of the island into three groups, i.e. Takitumu, Te Au o Tonga, and Puaikura has not always existed. In 1904, evidence was given in the Native Land Court of a battle which took place prior to the arrival of the LMS known as Te Papaka, wherein the ariki Tamaariki” and his people were overthrown, and tapere Avaavaroa distributed among the conquerors (MB 1:114). A notable feature of this account is a statement by Samuel Terei, showing the relationship between taonga and marae: “Tamaariki was the Ariki. Paengataua was his Marae. That was his sign of mana over this land” (ibid emphasis added). Again, this pattern of enua, taonga, and marae emerges–indeed, the Court’s records are saturated with it. Therefore, while the most obvious answer is correct, it is important not to conflate it with the present division, at least at Rarotonga. Moreover, it is important to distinguish the difference between the confirmation and the installation of an ariki.


While the mataiapo of a deceased ariki, as a confederate, can lend or rescind support for the ariki-apparent, the installation or investiture historically has not been performed by them, something which Moss fails to clarify. However, his words are not entirely without merit. Under Peu Maori, the investiture of any rank title is to be performed by the kau ta’unga, i.e. the “priesthood”. Stephen Savage defined ta’unga as “a priest: a name applied to any person who was appointed to, or held the office of priest, or any person who was skilled in any special art” (Savage 1962:367). It is perhaps for this reason that Moss credited the installation of an ariki to the mataiapo as taonga ta’unga have been known to be held simultaneously with taonga mataiapo. A notable example is that of Potikitaua, which has been held concurrently with the mataiapo title Tara’are. Evidence suggests that the investiture of an ariki was perhaps processional. In 1897, Percy Smith, accompanied by Tara’are mataiapo, visited koutu Ara I Te Tonga and recorded that after the necessary investiture performances were observed at Ara I Te Tonga, the ariki was taken “to another marae at Pureora” where further ceremony was conducted. “After this the Ngati-Tangiia clan take the ariki to another marae, named Pukura-nui… before being finally taken to Vaerota” (Smith 1903:219-20). “Pukura-nui” is no doubt a spelling error as no marae of that name exists–he is no doubt referring to koutu Pu Kuru Va’a Nui.


During his visit, Smith recorded (albeit with inaccuracy as subsequent visits would prove) the names associated with the stone seats, akinanga, at Ara I Te Tonga. Of those so named, four are traditionally associated with Takitumu, namely: Pa, Kainuku, Au, and Taurua. In the 1960's, Roger Duff conducted an archaeological examination of Ara I Te Tonga and was able to confirm Smith’s seating record. However, he notes:


“… the discrepancy between the eleven or twelve visible today and the six or seven recorded by Smith in 1897. Although Smith’s plan is notoriously imperfect, it is difficult to account for the number being doubled, unless we grant the claim by Te Puretu that the present arrangement dates from Makea-nui Tinirau about 1930. Having seen sketch plans from Potiki-Taua and Charles Cowan… made after a ceremony in 1932, when the present alignment was shown, one can agree that the Te Puretu claim is most plausible” (Duff 1974:33).


In 1932, Makea ariki and Potikitaua hosted a visit “by the People of Muri-enua” at Ara I Te Tonga. During his speech, Potikitaua “faced the North East and pointing out four stones immediately to his front said, “one stone is Pa ariki, one is Kainuku ariki, one is Au, and one is Taurua” (n.a. 1932). The intertribal role of the koutu Ara I Te Tonga is undeniable. Likewise, the same can be justifiably said of koutu Pu Kuru Va’a Nui by virtue of the presence of the four abovementioned taonga at Ara I Te Tonga.


The presence of Au and Taurua is peculiar especially as they appear in Smith’s 1897 sketch whereas the additional seven seats representing the seven mataiapo of Tupapa are absent. According to Ngati Au history, Au aka Au Puru Ariki is the ta’unga title by which Tangiiau performs the duties of investiture, Taurua likewise being the ta’unga title of Vaikai. A document titled “Royal Proclamation” registered with the Cook Islands High Court in 1998 by Makea Nui Sataraka Nooroa Ariki invited “AU ma TAURUA vis-avis Tangiiau and Vaikai” to officiate at their investiture (Sataraka 1998:1). Concerning the kau ta’unga of marae Paeta’a, Savage recorded that Tangiia appointed More Ta’unga and Maoate Atua, “and at a later date… appointed two other priests to also officiate at this marae i.e., Tangiiau and Taurua” (Savage 1962:221). However, the appointment of the former pair is questionable considering the 1899 account of the settlement of Rarotonga by Tara’are which records the marae Paeta’a and its associated rua atu Kau Tapa Kau being appointed to Nukua Ki Roto who is the founder chief and priest of Ngati Au. Likewise, Savage’s account of the appointment at Pu Kuru Va’a Nui corroborates Tara’are’s 1899 account which states “Tangiia placed [Pu Kuru Va’a Nui] under the charge of Te Nukua-ki-roto” while naming More “high priest” (Taraare 1899; Savage 1962:280). Given the fact that Au aka Au Puru Ariki (which is held concurrently with Tangiiau) performs all the duties of investiture with Taurua and is likewise represented at koutu Ara I Te Tonga where More and Moaote are not, the claim that they served as priests is untenable especially considering the preeminent roles attributed them.


It is possible that Moss was aware of this information when he stated the confirmation and installation of ariki depended upon the mataiapo. In 1912, a similar claim was made by Tara’are in Court although he seemed to indicate it was the prerogative of the “priests of Tangiia [to appoint] the arikis” (MB 5:125). In 1921, a letter addressed to Resident Commissioner John Hewitt signed by the ariki Pa, Kainuku, Karika, Vakatini, and Tinomana, as well as Potikitaua and others intended to clarify the custom regarding the “election of an ariki for Rarotonga […] these are the mataiapos whose duty it is to perform the ceremony, Potikitaua for Avarua, Tangiiau and Taurua Vaikai for Takitumu, and Vaimotu and Kaena for Arorangi” (n.a. 1921). A separate document dated 29th September 1948 titled “Ko te Akonoanga teia no runga I te iki anga Ariki I roto I te mua vaka ko Takitumu” signed by Pa and Kainuku stated “teia te au Taunga no te rave i te angaanga ‘aka tainu’, e te ‘maro’ ma te ‘aka pare’ e te ‘pure’ i te Ariki te ka iki ia: ko Au, e Taurua, e Keu” [these are the priests who perform the anointing, the girding, the crowning, and the prayers: Au, Taurua, and Keu] (n.a. 1948).


The remarkable consistency which Au and Taurua are mentioned by documents from 1899–1998 in connection with the marae and investiture of ariki lends credence to Moss’ assertion that “the confirmation depends on the mataiapos as the installation rests with them”. The close association between the kau ta'unga of both Ara I Te Tonga and Pu Kuru Va'a Nui represented by the akinanga at the former, in conjunction with several testimonies suggests collaboration. Furthermore, the involvement of other ariki cannot be denied, but it is clear that theirs is a decidedly peripheral role. This evidence also supports Baltaxe’s conclusion that:


“in spite of the fact that the ariki was defined by the earliest missionaries as ‘king’, and accorded special priority in civil matters by both missionary and administrator, a picture emerges from the evidence of the ariki as primus inter pares among the mataiapo; accorded a special name and deference in theoretical regard to his ritually important position […] The distinction between [mataiapo and ariki] may in fact have been no more than the recognition of leadership of a confederation of autonomous corporations represented by their respective taonga…” (Baltaxe 1975:193).


If the Native Land Court’s annexation of power to determine land interests was a hammer, the LMS’ encouragement to destroy the marae was a proverbial “nail in the coffin”. Furthermore, the establishment of settlements around the LMS chapels and mission schools and the concerted effort of the early missionaries to distance the people from “heathenism”, i.e. Te Ara-nui a Toi which linked the marae, would prove fatal to the concept of tapere. Indeed, the marae and the marae’s location indicated territorial boundaries as much as it served a religious purpose. The combined effect of their destruction and the resettlement of the people dismantled this basic territorial unit of land division and the customary land holding groups.


Another “nail” is the well-established sentiment that the past should be left in the past. Pr. Rau Nga of the Cook Islands Christian Church was quoted saying as much in an article about marae Vaerota: “The London Missionary Society changed the beliefs of our people […] It is a dark age of the Cook Islands–a memory of the past, leave it there” (Ratana 2019).


A similar sentiment was expressed in a notable 2003 court case involving the Terei and Maui titles. A witness for the applicant stated in relation to the marae and associated custom of investiture that he believed that it was time to move forward not seeing any reason to return to the marae or its custom. The witness testified consistently that it was the prerogative of individual tribes to determine custom, “there is no set of principles that each tribe follows, there are some we follow and some we don’t” (n.a. 2005:13). When pressed by the Court if he were asked to conduct an investiture on the marae, the witness responded by saying they would appeal because “the legislature does not say to make it law”. A second witness for the applicant was asked whether they were “prepared to treat or describe the way you succeed to the title as Maori custom” to which they responded, “We no longer live in the past, we live with a different God, we have to change with the times” (ibid:24). In a similar fashion, the first witness stated, “we go back 200 years ago, we leave our custom” (ibid:16). The inherent issue with their statements is glaring–in every way, they have denied the Court’s attempt to hold them accountable to ancient custom. The first witness’ assertion that marae investiture was not legislated is patently false: “Every title to and interest in customary land shall be determined according to the ancient custom and usage of the Natives of the Cook Islands” (n.a. 1915:101). Although not explicitly stated, sec. 422 comprehends the investiture of land-holding taonga considering that such is intrinsic to ancient land tenure. It is a demonstrable fact that “there was no land which was not associated with a particular title and no title which was not associated with certain areas of land” (Crocombe 1964:61). Both witnesses attempted to impose a statute of limitations on the grounds that marae and Peu Maori was incongruent with a Christian-based society.


Prior to 1982, one could apply under sections 387–390 of the Cook Islands Act 1915 to seek recourse in cases where court orders were defective. However, sec. 390A, which was inserted by sec. 16 of the Cook Islands Amendment Act 1950, replaced the aforementioned sections when in 1982 they were repealed. However, subsection (10) of sec. 390A included a statute of limitation just as the witnesses for the applicant in the Terei and Maui title case attempted: “This section shall not apply to any order made upon investigation of title… save with regard to the relative interests defined thereunder…” (n.a. 1915:88). Effectively, sec. 390A (10) is a passive declaration that native custom began in 1903 with the establishment of the Native Land Court.


As this paper has demonstrated, the social organisation of Rarotonga at the dawn of the 20th century is far cry from ancient custom which prevailed at the arrival of the LMS. Beginning with the LMS’ establishment of chapels and the relocation of settlements around them, the accrual of power and economic strength by the ariki; the missionary and colonial perception of Rarotongan society as feudal coupled with the perception of ariki as “king”, and the tyranny and exploitation of the people at their hands; the administrative oversight in understanding Peu Maori as it was; and finally, the establishment of the Native Land Court in 1903 nearly 80 years since the LMS landed at Rarotonga–this has been the “hammer” for each of these proverbial “nails”: each has contributed to the collapse of the traditional ngati, the seizure of mana mataiapo, and the degradation of the symbolic and social significance of the marae. However, it wasn’t until 1982 that the “final nail in the coffin” was secured, when a statue of limitation was imposed preventing any recourse for ngati who have been displaced.


This is a call to action for the elected members of the Parliament of the Cook Islands, the Minister for Justice, the Judges of the High Court of the Cook Islands; the New Zealand High Commissioner, and the Queen’s Representative; the House of Ariki and Koutu Nui; but more importantly Te Iti Tangata: This country has been operating under the false pretense of upholding and assuring Peu Maori–nothing could be further from the truth. We are living in an artificial world of contradictory laws and practices. The authorities as presently constituted must form an independent tribunal to examine Cook Islands history as it pertains to Peu Maori and to repeal and replace sec. 390A (10) of the Cook Islands Act 1915 if we are to move forward with an identity that is uniquely ours. Otherwise, there is no point changing “Kuki Airani” because as it stands, we are just as plastic.



Mouria Ngati Au



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