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  • Mouria Ngati Au

Sovereignty: Ariki vs. Mataiapo Tutara

Today the Ui Ariki are typically defined as "kings" and "queens" of the Cook Islands, a designation not at all compatible with their customary roles. This paper examines the Ui Ariki's "traditional" claim to sovereignty by comparing their assertions with the observations of Frederick J. Moss, first British Resident of the Cook Islands, and others regarding the Mataiapo's role in ancient Rarotongan polity. If you have not done so already, reading "Peu Maori: Understanding the Relationship between Enua, Taonga, and Marae" is highly recommended.

In 1893 Frederick Joseph Moss, first British Resident of the Cook Islands, published an article with the Fortnightly Review detailing his observations of Rarotongan society. In the succeeding year, Moss again published an article, this time with the Journal of the Polynesian Society, focusing his remarks on Rarotongan polity. Of particular interest is Moss’ source on the matter of native government, an ariki named Manarangi who held the title Makea Vakatini after his father, Te Pou, who was a staunch supporter of the Tahitian missionary Papeiha. At the time of the London Missionary Society’s (LMS) arrival at Rarotonga, Manarangi was himself a young man. His perspective is exceptional given his direct knowledge of pre-1823 Rarotonga.

The details recorded by Moss regarding native polity given in both publications agree closely and exhibit a remarkable degree of impartiality despite the fact Manarangi was an ariki. His insights lack a distinct “ariki-centricity” apparent in the views expressed by future Ui Ariki, a view heavily influenced by the fact that ariki were erroneously made synonymous with European monarchy and afforded privileges of power and authority by missionaries and colonial administrators beyond the scope of those bestowed upon them through native custom. Indeed, the LMS viewed “ariki” as a species of “king”, something Col. Gudgeon lamented, noting that they “[had] been taught to regard [themselves] as king by divine right” (Gudgeon 1908:5). This view of the ariki would prove fatal for native Rarotongan polity, laying the foundation for an artificial narrative of Peu Maori which would influence the fledgling nation immensely. In 2008, a significant portion of the Ui Ariki attempted to dissolve parliament, dismiss the Queen’s Representative and establish themselves as “Hereditary Kings and Queens… Sovereign Heads of State and Native Sovereign Proprietors of the Cook Islands” ex officio. Ultimately a failure, the Ui Ariki withdrew their “Royal Proclamation to the World” and once again took up their constitutionally appointed role as the House of Ariki.

Despite lackluster public support, this attempt was inevitable. By 1903, taonga ariki had evolved beyond their customarily defined roles, amassing political, judicial, economic, and executive powers at the expense of taonga mataiapo who were eventually made functionally redundant by the Native Land court. From that moment onward, all taonga other than ariki were identified as subordinate thereto, mere satellites caught in the gravitas of the artificial “kings” and “queens” of the Cook Islands. Moss’ record of Rarotongan polity sharply contradicts this characterization and challenges the distribution of power and authority among taonga today. However, his observations, and those of Makea Vakatini Manarangi Ariki were rejected entirely by the 5th House of Ariki in the 70’s despite the fact they harmonize exceptionally well with custom defined by the triadic system of enua, taonga (ngati), and marae implemented by Tangiia Nui (cf. Ngati Au 2019). Understanding the evolution of taonga ariki reveals the disconnect between the Cook Islands and Peu Maori.

The relationship between enua, taonga (ngati), and marae created a robust, but exceptionally liberal system of government and customary law which endured for more than 500 years. “[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). Stephen Savage recorded that the marae was “e ngai iriirianga taonga, a place wherein, or whereon a title was vested, therefore it can be said that the marae was the chief’s ‘Letters Patent’” (Savage 1962:144; emphasis added). No high chiefly, or as Moss described “noble”, title could exist without the proper investiture upon the appropriate marae; no marae, no title–no title, no land–no authority. Dr. James Baltaxe illustrated this point by showing the “mataiapo… was the one in the most direct relationship to the land, i.e. the territorial units called tapere” (Baltaxe 1975:139). Moss explained that the mataiapo was chief of the ngati, a social order comprised of “various… kindred families” who were collectively known by the mataiapo’s “ancestral name” (Moss 1894:21). Indeed,

the family… was then… the unit in the State. The authority of the head of the family over the lands and possessions was absolute and carried with it as absolute a control over the whole of the members. Community of property was the family rule, though a member might cultivate for himself any particular portion and keep the produce for his own use…” (ibid).

Although what Moss describes here might appear to lend credence to the current tenure of land, his description of delegated authority through what he described as “the rule of the father” reveals a very different depiction of ancient Rarotongan polity and land tenure (ibid:21).

Mistakenly interchangeable with kopu tangata, a ngati is an independent, corporate landholding group, membership thereof determined primarily by tracing decent unilaterally, always from a founder chief. Until 1845, no woman held a chiefly title. Moss observed that “In a community so organized… the rule of the father” prevailed. This rule describes far more than filial piety but demonstrates the virilocal, patrilineal biased nature of ngati. The term ngati is itself a patronymic tribal prefix, positively identifying a group of people as the patrilineal descendants of a founder chief, i.e. Ngati Vaikai named for Vaikai Mataiapo Tutara, further evidence that the male link, in every case, was indispensable. Therefore, the term ngati cannot be synonymous with kopu tangata as kopu tangata is simple bilateral (paternal or maternal) reckoning of descent to any common ancestor, not necessarily a founder chief. The “rule of the father” also reveals how the territorial rights to tapere were inherited, i.e. from the founder chief through their fathers. Ultimately, the authority to administer and preside over the tapere was vested in the mataiapo via the investiture rite or akamarokura wherein he undergoes ritual transformation, becoming a living effigy of the founder chief and formally taking upon himself the ancestral name/title by which the entire ngati was known. More importantly however, the “rule of the father” establishes the fundamental tribal boundary, a corporate “unity of interests, [and] binding obligations of kinship to each other and to the chief” (Baltaxe 1975:106). This tribal boundary was reinforced by the tapere and the marae. There are a few cases where ngati membership is traced through a woman, if only to link back to an eligible male. Moss recorded that “if a daughter marry, she enters her husband’s family… if the husband be of a different island, he may be taken into the wife’s family during her life” (Moss 1894:23). Again, the patrilineal boundary of ngati is clearly demonstrated.

As previously stated, the authority to administer the territorial units of land, i.e. tapere, was ultimately vested in the mataiapo, the “great chiefs”, “highest chiefs” or “nobles” as Moss defined them: “The highest chiefs or nobles owe certain well-understood services to the ariki… but have held the land in their own right since the first migration to the island”, “first” referring to Tangiia Nui (Moss 1893:777). Moss demonstrated that not even the ariki could alienate the land from the ngati; though a “possessor may, for just cause, be deprived by the ariki of rank and land… both must remain in the [ngati]” (ibid). At least until 1903, such alienation was only possible through conquest. Prior to the establishment of the Native Land Court, the basic unit of land division was the tapere. Dr. Ron Crocombe explained that,

… 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 and were registered to the relative few as opposed to the corporate landowning groups. The remarkable distinction of title and family land was introduced by the Land Court through which vast quantities were claimed solely by ariki as personal property. Succession was determined by tracing a blood connection to a registered landowner, or in the case of title land such was inherited by the next title holder. Not only did this make ngati redundant, it usurped the customary defined role and authority of the mataiapo–two birds with one stone. Moreover, despite the triadic enua, taonga (ngati), and marae system no longer being effective, virtually all land claims would appeal to it hoping to extract credibility. In 1970, the Ui Ariki recommended to Parliament a previous Federal Parliament decision made in 1894, which stated “the use of the land to remain with the Head of the family and also descendants who have not entered other tribes” (n.a. 1977:18; emphasis added). Here, the “rule of the father” is obvious–the right to land was inherited from the founder chief through patrilineal descent, a “boundary-forming criteria of participation and acceptance” which was eliminated by the introduction of individual ownership (Baltaxe 1975:123). However, it is immediately apparent when examining the 1970 recommendations that the Ui Ariki took little notice, perhaps even ignoring, the qualification “who have not entered other tribes”, for in 1977 they would go on to “declare that the only qualification to land ownership is blood right” (n.a. 1977:51). Despite claiming that ariki or mataiapo were the “Landlords”, the Ui Ariki contradict themselves by defining ngati as “everyone with a blood connection”; one needs only to trace themselves to a “common ancestor”, a reckoning not unlike kopu tangata or the system implemented by Gudgeon (ibid:22, 51). If such were true, it would be impossible to define the boundaries of a “tribe” much less cross them into another given the fact inter-tribal marriage was and is common. This definition, among other things, reveals that the Ui Ariki were fundamentally flawed in their assessment of Peu Maori, their recommendations based upon demonstrably colonial concepts.

What is ironic about this system is that Gudgeon believed by introducing this “fair division of land” the common people had gained “absolute security of tenure… [and] immunity from that curse of the pacific, mana Ariki” (Gudgeon 1908:6). In reality, the system was not the least secure and easily exploitable purely because it was based solely on genealogy. Gudgeon understood perfectly well that as a result of being taught they were “kings by divine right [the ariki] have all seen clearly enough that to make themselves absolute they must assert a right to all the land” (ibid:5; emphasis added). Gudgeon recorded a shocking example of the lengths some ariki went to assert their claim:

[For] the last seventy-five years the chiefs and Arikis of Avarua and Arorangi 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, violent suppression is tried and true. If one is unable to enumerate the correct ancestral link to enua, taunga, and marae, one cannot assert a legitimate claim under Peu Maori. Gudgeon also recorded a less overt, but equally insidious tactic employed by ariki:

On the death of any leading mataiapo… and excuse has been found for placing the family title and lands in charge of some creature of the Ariki… the pretense 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 (ibid).

Contained in their 1970 recommendations, the Ui Ariki flatly stated “the land belongs to the Ariki” (n.a. 1977:21) In 2008, the Ui Ariki again claimed to be the “Sovereign Proprietors of the Cook Islands… in the name of, and by authority of Almighty GOD and in accordance with the prophecies of the Prophet Isaiah of old…” (n.a. 2008:2). A similar claim to sovereign propriety was made before Wilson Isaac, J., in 2013 by Marie Peyroux, incumbent Pa Ariki, who stated “I’m the paramount chief from Matavera, Rangiatea to Teimurimotia” (n.a. 2013:27). This claim is in stark contrast to Moss’ assertion that “the sovereignty of an Ariki was not and is not territorial” (Moss 1894:22; emphasis added). Moss made it abundantly clear that the mataiapo tutara were not vassals of a king, rather they were the true “Sovereign Proprietors”, having “held the land in their own right since the [Tangiia] migration to the island” (Moss 1893:777; emphasis added).

It would not be the first time the Ui Ariki were selective in their assessments of Peu Maori. As far as hierarchy is concerned, the Ui Ariki maintain taonga ariki is paramount, the powers thereof being “greater than those of the Ui Mataiapo” (n.a. 1977:17). In their recommendations to Parliament, the Ui Ariki present a revised version of Peu Maori and history, stating “In the days of the ancestors, the Ariki was the sole judge in any case where a person had been charged with a crime he was alleged to have committed” and that peace and harmony was the direct result of ariki leadership (ibid). The only time ariki had sole authority to adjudicate began after the arrival of the LMS. “Ariki courts” existed until 1904 after which they were replaced by the reconstituted Island Councils previously established under Resident Moss.

The sovereignty of both ariki and mataiapo tutara is demonstrated through the custom of atinga, which is typically described as a transaction between an inferior and superior title, i.e. the former rendering an obligatory service to the latter in exchange for security of land tenure. In 1977, the Ui Ariki defined atinga as “an offering or contribution to a chief for the use of lands or other privileges”. This characteristically feudal definition of atinga, a type of “nominal rent”, is no doubt derived from the contractual obligations established between a corporate, independent landholding title (mataiapo tutara) and a personal, dependent one (rangatira or mataiapo akarava). Moss and others are clear that property rights of dependent titles are delegated through the “the chief from whom he holds the land” (Moss 1893:778). Rev. William Gill similarly described personal titles as “a kind of dependent tenantry” (Gill 1856:27). However, where service is rendered between a corporate, independent landholding title and an ariki, the nature of atinga takes on a far more nuanced role–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 and much less inferiority. Thus, Moss’ statement holds true that the sovereignty of the ariki was not territorial, but “claimed over all his… people”, predicate upon maintaining the contractual relationships established between them. One of Moss’ most outstanding observations concerns the rank and power of the mataiapo, specifically mataiapo tutara. Of them, he said:

The Ariki is supreme, but largely controlled by the Mataiapos (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. They regard the Ariki as only the first among equals […] The Mataiapos are the most powerful class. Their families have held the land from time immemorial…” (Moss 1894:24).

The Ui Ariki rejected this statement outright, recommending its deletion from the 1977 Koutu Nui report. Regarding the election of an ariki, the Ui Ariki asserted their claim to absolute power rejecting any participation from the mataiapo beyond accepting the kopu ariki’s decision. However, guided by Manarangi, Moss recorded a very different election process:

A curious feature is the election of a successor on the death of the ariki. He or she is chosen, almost invariably, from among the nearest of kin… the electors are the arikis of the other tribes, but the election must be confirmed by the nobles of the tribe of the deceased ariki, for with them the formal installation rests” (Moss 1893:778).

While Moss attributed the installation to the “nobles” of the deceased ariki, interestingly he made no mention of taunga, the priestly class primarily responsible for performing the investiture rite and other marae-oriented ceremonies. In fact, he makes no mention of taunga or their role in Rarotongan polity in either publication likely because taunga by then were redundant, having been superseded by Protestant Christianity which is to say nothing of the aggressive actions taken or inspired by the missionaries. Notable examples include the destruction of the marae and the creation of a new road aptly named Ara Tapu (lit. sacred/holy road) away from the ancient inner ceremonial Ara Nui o Toi which connected the “heathen” marae. It is also likely that he was more concerned about gradation of rank and native polity than specific customary practices; knowing that the mataiapo held significant influence in the election and installation of an ariki for him may have sufficed.

However, the custom regarding high chiefly investiture, or akamarokura, reveals much concerning ancient native polity. Although the confirmation of the ariki-elect was contingent upon the support of the deceased ariki’s nobles, the investiture was performed by a permanent institution comprised of at least three individuals who each held taunga and mataiapo tutara titles simultaneously, namely: Potikitaua (Tara’are), Au (Tangiiau), and Taurua (Vaikai). In a letter addressed to Resident Commissioner John Hewitt signed by the ariki Pa, Kainuku, Karika, Vakatini, and Tinomana, as well as the taunga Potikitaua in 1921, Potiktaua, Tangiiau and Vaikai were identified as the “mataiapo” who held the authority to properly install ariki. A similar document addressed to Commissioner Hewitt signed by several mataiapo also named these specific mataiapo as those authorized to perform an ariki’s investiture. Another document dated 29th September 1948 signed by Pa and Kainuku ariki detailing the Takitumu custom of an ariki’s election and investiture named both Au and Taurua. The existence of this institution, properly Kau Taunga, i.e. priesthood is also recorded in stone. In 1897, S. Percy Smith visited the koutu Ara I Te Tonga accompanied by Tara’are mataiapo aka. Potikitaua, and recorded three of the six akinanga present belonging to Potikitaua, Au and Taurua. 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 is Au, and one is Taurua” (n.a. 1932). In 1950, Roger Duff conducted an archaeological examination of Ara I Te Tonga and was able to confirm Smith’s akinanga 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).

Evidence suggest that the investiture of an ariki was processional. During Smith’s visit, it was revealed to him by Potikitaua that once the proper investiture rites 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…” (Smith 1903:219-20). “Pukura-nui” is no doubt a spelling error as no marae of that name exists–no doubt, Smith is referring to koutu Pu Kuru Va’a Nui.

Tara’are aka Potikitaua recorded the settlement of Rarotonga by Tangiia Nui sometime in the 1860’s. His manuscript was copied by a young man trained by the Rev. Chalmers named Tauraki who was killed in New Guinea in 1887 (Cousins 1894:196). It is Tauraki’s manuscript which survived and was collected by members of the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1897 including S. Percy Smith who began publishing the material in 1899. Smith records a recommendation of Tara’are by Dr. Wyatt Gill, of whom he said was “the last of the priests and sages, and the last to offer human sacrifices, was always deferred to by Manarangi, as a final authority on Rarotonga antiquities, as I have witnessed” (Taraare 1899:61). A prominent feature of Tara’are’s record is the construction of at least 41 marae, koutu and other significant structures which were placed under the charge of individuals identified by Tara’are as tiaki, generally translated as “guardian”. Baltaxe noted,

that none of the names appearing as guardians, of whatever sort, appointed by… Tangiia are included as names of the ‘heads of the tribes and subtribes’ of Rarotonga as listed by J. T. Large… These latter names appear to be a virtually complete list of the ariki and mataiapo on the island in 1892” (Baltaxe 1975:87).

By this comparison, Baltaxe inferred that the “guardians” were perhaps rangatira and therefore dependents of Tangiia Nui. As reasonable as this explanation may be, it fails in at least one case, that of Nukua-Ki-Roto who was in fact Tangiiau Mataiapo Tutara and founder chief of Ngati Au, listed by J. T. Large as "Ngati Tangiau" (Te Aia 1893:271). According to Ngati Au, Nukua-Ki-Roto received the name and dual title Au (aka Au Puru Ariki) accompanied by Tangiia Nui’s own name in recognition for building marae in his behalf. As Tangiiau (a contraction of Tangiia Au), Nukua-Ki-Roto was recognized as a mataiapo tutara and received the lands in connection with the koutu placed under his charge. As Au Puru Ariki, Nukua-Ki-Roto was appointed to the kau taunga responsible for the investiture of ariki, along with Taurua and Potikitaua, a fact corroborated by the Ui Ariki of the early 20th century.

It is important to understand that the mataiapo have historically outnumbered the ariki significantly. Yet, the mere existence of taonga ariki despite this historical skew demonstrates that power in ancient Rarotongan polity was not derived from superior numbers but predicate upon a system which defined and governed the boundaries of authority. At Rarotonga, it was the Enua, Taonga (ngati), and Marae that determined those boundaries. The evidence is emphatic: land was the primary source of power. While loyalty and reverence have their place, “the power falls to the landowners who become the real rulers of the tribe. The [mataiapo tutara] owe certain well-understood services to the ariki and to the tribe, but have all held the land in their own right since the first migration to the island” (Moss 1893:777). For any who would claim such a rank, they would need to establish the origin of their title which must include an irrefutable claim to the appropriate marae, such as were constructed and delegated by Tangiia Nui.

Taken together, the evidence establishes that under Peu Maori the ariki’s sovereignty is not territorial but political, dependent upon the support of their confederate landed mataiapo and the kau taunga responsible for akamarokura. Further, the Ui Ariki’s claim that “All Sovereign power and authority, and or, plenipotentiary power within the independent Native Sovereign Kingdom of the Cook Islands… resides entirely and exclusively” within them as “Sovereign Heads of State and Native Sovereign Proprietors” is categorically untrue and based upon an understanding of ariki completely incongruous with recorded history and preserved evidence (n.a. 2008:4). The evidence also establishes Enua (Tapere), Taonga (and Ngati), and Marae as the three pillars of Peu Maori and reveals a very different picture of ancient Rarotongan polity, one in which the mataiapo feature prominently as independent, sovereign proprietors and rulers in their own right. Any legislation which would endow the ariki with the power and authority they claimed in 2008 would be an infringement of Peu Maori, the “ancient [native] custom” codified by sec. 422 of the Cook Islands Act 1915 and reinforce the Cook Islands’ dependency upon what Albert Henry called a “foreign backbone”.

Mouria Ngati Au

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Literature Cited

n. a. 1932. Visit by People of Muri-enua to Araitetonga. Avarua: Makea Ariki tribal title file, Land (Titles) Division of the Cook Islands High Court, Rarotonga.

n. a. 1977. A Report by the Koutu Nui of the Cook Islands on Lands and Traditional Titles of the Indigenous People of the Cook Islands. Avarua, Land (Titles) Division of the Cook Islands High Court, Rarotongan.

n. a. 2008. Royal Proclamation of the Kings & Queens of the Cook Islands. Retrieved from

n. a. 2013. App. 32/2013 and 112/2013 in the matter of an Application for Succession to the interest of Terepai Maoate deceased, by virtue of his office as Maoate Mataiapo. Avarua: Land (Titles) Division of the Cook Islands High Court, Ministry of Justice, Rarotonga.

Baltaxe, J. B. 1975. The Transformation of the Rangatira: A Case of the European Reinterpretation of Rarotongan Social Organization. University of Illinois, USA.

Cousins, Geroge. 1894. The Story of the South Seas Written for Young People. John Snow & Co., London.

Crocombe, R. G. 1964. Land Tenure in the Cook Islands. Melbourne: Oxford university Press.

Duff, R. 1974. Prehistory of the Southern Cook Islands. Christchurch: The Canterbury Museum Trust Board.

Gill, Rev. W. 1856. Gems from the Coral Islands; Volume II, Eastern Polynesia. London: Ward and Co.

Gudgeon, W. E. 1908. Cook and Northern Islands Report for the year ending 31 March 1908. AJHR A-3. Wellington.

Moss. F. J. 1893. A South Sea Island and Its People. Fortnightly Review, New Series Volume 54:775-786.

Moss, F. J. 1894. The Maori Polity of Rarotonga. Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 3:20-26.

Ngati Au, Mouria. 2019 Peu Maori: Understanding the Relationship between Enua, Taonga, and Marae. Retrieved from

Savage, S. 1962. A Dictionary of the Maori Language of Rarotonga. Department of Island territories, Wellington.

Smith, S. P. 1903. Arai-te-Tonga, The Ancient Marae at Rarotonga. Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 12:218-220.

Te Ariki Taraare. 1899 History and Traditions of Rarotonga. Translated by S. P. Smith and others. Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volumes 8-30.

Te Aia. 1893 Genealogies and Historical notes from Rarotonga. Translated by S. Percy and others. Journal of the Polynesian Societ, Volume 2:271-279.

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