Tribal to individual ownership
Māori rights of land use and occupation were traditionally held communally. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, only the Crown could buy Māori land, which was then resold to settlers. From 1863 individuals could buy land directly from Māori. Māori could be issued with legal title to their ancestral lands after proving ownership to the newly established Native Land Court.
‘Te kōti tango whenua’
From 1865 a system of land courts covering the whole country was set up, and land titles could include no more than 10 owners. The Native Land Court became known as ‘te kōti tango whenua’ (the land-taking court) because it provided the means for land to be transferred out of Māori ownership. The court was also involved in confiscating Māori land after the New Zealand wars.
In 1873 the ’10-owner’ rule was abolished, and titles had to list all the owners of a block.
Costs to Māori
The Native Land Court could be expensive for Māori. The court could only investigate land that had been surveyed, and owners had to pay for surveys. Court hearings were often long and complex, so travel and accommodation costs were high. Concerned Māori petitioned Parliament about the court.
By the early 20th century only about 2 million hectares (out of a total 27 million) was still in Māori ownership. Māori petitioned Parliament, and Native Minister James Carroll tried to slow the rate of land loss. However, land continued to be sold.
Native to Māori Land Court
From the 1920s the government showed less interest in buying Māori land, and more concern that poor Māori might be a burden on the state. The Native Land Court tried to help Māori develop their remaining lands.
In 1947 the court became the Māori Land Court. From 1953 Māori could be forced to sell land worth less than £25 to the government.
Change in focus
From the 1970s Māori issues – including land issues – became more prominent. After 1993 the Māori Land Court’s objectives were to keep Māori land in Māori ownership, and to promote its use and development. In the 21st century all Māori land transactions must go through the court, which also regulates a number of other aspects of Māori life.