Story: Take whenua – Māori land tenure

Page 2. Take whenua – principles of land-use rights

All images & media in this story

There was a long list of take (principles) on which a claim to use land and its resources might be based. An editorial in an 1878 issue of the Māori newspaper Te Wānanga noted:

The Maori not only claims land by right of discovery and occupation … but he also claims by right of conquest, gift in marriage, gift for help in obtaining food for feasts, help in time of sickness (or payment to priests for supposed protection from the power of witchcraft), for the dead being carried over the land, for relations murdered on the land, and a thousand other claims of such nature. But there are other claims even more complicated than these. Gifts of chiefs of certain blocks to pet grandchildren; also, the claims to land by the offspring (male line of descendants) of daughters (to land of their grandfathers) who have married chiefs of other tribes. 1

Principles of land rights

Major Rāpata Wahawaha, a Ngāti Porou leader, outlined some 28 variations of take whenua (principles of land rights) in a letter to the ethnographer Elsdon Best in the 1890s. Generally these can be organised under four main principles:

  • discovery and exploration – whenua kite hou (discovery), and taunaha or tapatapa whenua (claiming the land by naming it)
  • ancestral rights – take tupuna (ancestral right) and ōhākī (dying bequest)
  • conquest – take raupatu
  • gifting and transfer – take tuku.

Burning fires

To maintain their rights under one or more of these principles, individuals and groups needed to show continuous occupation of an area, known as ahi kā (lit fire) or ahi kā roa (long-burning fire). Māori scholar Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa) noted, ‘So long as a people occupied the land, they kept their fires going to cook their food.’ 2

I kā tonu taku ahi, i runga i tōku whenua.
My fire has always been kept alive upon my people's land. 3

Take whenua in the Native Land Court

Take whenua and other customary practices were not applied strictly – they were fluid, accommodating changing tribal relationships, which led to shifting claims and rights to land.

The Native Land Court (now the Māori Land Court) was established in 1865 to determine land rights under Māori custom. Māori were forced to argue their claims to lands before the courts, and Pākehā judges tried to interpret Māori custom. Judges often simplified and distorted those customs, and seemed to show a preference for claims based on raupatu (conquest), followed by ahi kā. The court also allowed children to succeed to lands no matter where they lived – setting aside the principle of ahi kā.

  1. Te Wānanga 5, no. 1 (5 January 1878): 1–2. › Back
  2. Peter Buck, The coming of the Māori. 2nd ed. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1974, p. 380. › Back
  3. A glimpse into the Māori world: Māori perspectives on justice: he hīnātore ki te ao Māori. Wellington: Ministry of Justice, 2001, p. 65. › Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith, 'Take whenua – Māori land tenure - Take whenua – principles of land-use rights', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2022)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 24 Nov 2008