Story: Take whenua – Māori land tenure

Traditional Māori principles of land rights could be based on discovery, conquest, gifting and ancestral rights. Rights to land also required ahi kā – literally a lit fire – meaning ongoing occupation of a place.

Story by Paul Meredith
Main image: Cloak

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Tribal owners

Traditionally, land was held by tribal groups – but individuals or families could claim the right to use an area for a garden, catching birds or fish, cutting down a tree, or building a house. Sometimes there were disputes over who had rights to an area.

Mana whenua

Mana whenua means the authority of a tribe over land. It included rights not just to the land, but also the beds of lakes, rivers and the sea.

Land-rights principles

Māori could claim land rights under a number of principles.

  • Whenua kite hou means newly discovered land. The discoverer of an area had rights to it.
  • Chiefs sometimes named areas after parts of their body. This made these places tapu (sacred), so no one else would dare to use them.
  • People recited whakapapa (genealogies), to prove they were descended from the ancestors who had first discovered and lived in a place.
  • Tribes sometimes conquered other tribes and moved onto their land. They had to be able to defend themselves in case the first group returned. Sometimes they intermarried with people from the conquered group – so children of those marriages also had ancestral rights over the land.
  • Tribes sometimes made gifts of land to other groups.

Ahi kā – continuous occupation

To prove their rights to an area, Māori needed to show they had occupied it continually. This is known as ahi kā (lit fire), because people kept fires burning for cooking. If they left the land, the fire was seen as dying out, and they could lose their rights.

Native Land Court

The Native Land Court was set up in 1865 to decide on disputes over Māori land ownership. Māori had to argue their cases in court, and the Pākehā judges sometimes simplified and misunderstood Māori customs.

How to cite this page:

Paul Meredith, 'Take whenua – Māori land tenure', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Paul Meredith, published 24 November 2008