Chapter 24: Ownership of Land

In the beginning, as far back as is known from our oral stories, there was a vast land mass and few people on it. Howsoever he began, man wandered freely on the land, and he hunted, fished, and gathered what he needed to survive. In time he began to make permanent homes and villages, places he could call his own. For centuries, having a permanent home was not a great issue. But as soon as people began to make permanent residences, the question of who had control over the land or water arose. As a result, rules began to evolve to establish the owners. Here I will talk about some of the main ways land or water may come to be owned.

Hunting, Gathering, or Fishing

One of the most basic ways of asserting control and ownership of land is by regular or repeated hunting, gathering, or fishing over the same area for a period of time. If no objections are raised, either by direct confrontation or by another form of protest, then ownership may be assumed. If protest is encountered, then either the property will be abandoned, or ownership will be asserted. In that case it will have to be debated or a physical fight will result.

Usually an individual gardener, hunter, fisher, or gatherer is the landowner. But there have also been times when some land or water is kept for common use by all the people of a village. In such a case, the whole village owns the land and water in common.


Inheritance is by far the most common way that land comes to be owned. Inheritance among Wautogigem is through the father or father’s brother. If, for any reason, there is no living father or father’s brother, then a mother, regarded as the custodian of the land, will have the rights to pass the land on to its inheritors. Inheritance of land is usually natural and automatic within the nuclear family, but in some cases, it may be passed on through the extended family. Much depends on the circumstances of how the land was acquired in the first place.


Gifting of land is possible. At some point in time the gift is announced or made public for all to know. Brothers may gift land to their sisters, nephews, or nieces with their father’s consent. Maternal nephews, as a rule, have no right of inheritance from their mother’s brothers (except where gəbə is not paid).1 So, if maternal uncles wish to pass on land to their nephews or nieces, they must do so as an active gesture during their lives. It can also be done upon their death as part of the funeral rites. Women acquiring land in this way may keep the land and pass it on to their sons or daughters, but it does not become their husband’s.

Purchase of land among the Wautogigem is unknown. As far as I am aware, no one can purchase land as a commodity. No one can go to a landowner and say, “Here is a string of shell money, take it and give me that piece of land.” However, land can be given away to another person, always to a member of the family. Then the giver will be said to have natərɨgumon əmənəb ‘sold him land’. Usually when land is given in this way the recipient will give something of value, like shell money, in exchange as a recognition of the giver’s gift of land. Pigs may be given in exchange for the gift as well.


Land may be acquired through conquest. In the past, conquest could mean different things. I could be success at war, either through winning a physical fight or through assisting another who led the war and won. Or it could mean overcoming another significant barrier, like cutting down large virgin trees.

In the context of war, the conquered people will either have run away or abandoned the land, or they may have all been killed. The conquerors would then take over their land. Where giant trees or forests were burned or cut, the conquerors’ claim to ownership would override that of the original claimants.

Chap16 Insert General Principles of Inheritance

It is accepted that the woman follows the husband. Where her husband eats, she eats, and where her husband gardens, she gardens. She automatically becomes a member of her husband’s clan. If a woman outlives her husband, her rights to all the lands, water, and sago of her husband continue until she dies. But she cannot dispossess or sell those rights, except within her own family and clan.

In other words, Wautogig people are patrilineal. We inherit through our fathers. But where there are no direct descendants, then the nephews or even nieces are allowed to inherit land and other forms of wealth. Women are also allowed to own property including land if it is given to them by their brothers, fathers, or grandfathers. Where there are no male descendants, the female descendants are by right entitled to all the land, even taking precedence over any nephews of the deceased.

While it is rare for women or girls to be given land by their maternal uncles or by their father and their parental uncles, it is not irregular, especially if the daughter or granddaughter is greatly appreciated by the family. Justina Narokobi was given customary land on Kwingara by her maternal grandfather and his sons. She was given the name Parasingien when she was given the land. Land given to the woman is considered her own. It may pass from her into the hands of other clans or a local village.

Justina did not have to do anything to earn that land. She was given a clan name and that was enough to give her rights to the land. But although it was a gift, I sealed the transaction with a pig and K700. It is now accepted that my daughter can use the land and call herself Parasingien, an ancestral name of Kwangen village. This was the village of my wife and the village that Meliawi came from.

Chap 22 Insert What Ownership Means

For Wautogik, ownership means total claim to all that is in, on, or under the earth. All water from the rivers, creeks, lakes, and sago swamps are also owned. Some clay, especially the red clays, are edible. They are believed to possess medicinal value. They are owned by those who own the topsoil. Holes for digging soil for paint or for making clay pots are also owned, usually by those that own the land.

Land ownership sometimes raises the question of mineral ownership. He who owns the topsoil also owns what is underneath the soil. Thus, caves are almost always owned by those who own the land above the cave. As a rule, if you own the land, you also own the rocks, boulders, trees, and all that plants that grow on the lands. You also own the water that flows through or covers the land.

In the case of water, it is not always true that he who owns the land connecting the water, also owns the water. Sometimes, it happens that one person owns the terra firma while another may own the river, lake, or other static body of water. Anything that grows in water, like sago, may be owned by someone else.

The owner of a body of water has the first right to what is in or on the water. For example, one person might own a river in which another person has planted sago palms. If the owner does not protest by cutting the sago down, then the sago grower owns the sago. He has the right to the sago because the owner of the river gives him that right. Subsequent inheritors of the river cannot claim ownership of the sago. But if for any reason the sago dies, the water owner may deny the sago owner the privilege to grow new sago. If the river owner does protest the planting of sago, the water owner will remove or cut up the sago and there would be no basis for argument.

Growing edible plants or trees, like breadfruit, coconut palms, or galip follows the same rule. Whoever owns the land owns everything that grows up naturally on the land. But if someone plants a mango tree or a betel nut palm on land that he does not own, the landowner is free to cut it down. On the other hand, if he should allow the plant or a tree to grow to maturity, then the rule is that the grower of the tree will own it and is at liberty to harvest it. The right to harvest or take from the planted tree lasts for as long as the tree lasts or survives.

The cutting of gardens and the making of settlements or hamlets always represents a strong claim of possession. It is an exercise of the power that comes with ownership. If you make a garden or a hamlet on land you do not own, you will attract opposition. Sometimes, the opposition is based on misinformation about who the true owner is. Other times, the opposition is based on true ownership. Disputes will emerge and discussions or debates will take place until the truth is established and the claims are settled.

Hunting and gathering have laws of their own. As a general rule, a person will hunt, gather or fish on land or on water of his own. Hunting, gathering or fishing on another person’s water, tree or land will attract the wrath of a spear.

Ferae naturae, or wild animal or fish that move around freely, are regarded as ownerless. However, when they are located on someone’s land or water, they have right of protection from the owner. Consider an animal like a pig or a cassowary that is being hunted on my land. If it escapes into another person’s land and is killed on that person’s land, the rule is that I should report the hunt or the catch to the landowner and a portion of the meat should be shared with them because they own the land on which the prey is slain or the catch is caught.

In reality, however, many hunters and fishermen do not report their catch. If the true owner finds out about strangers hunting or gathering on their land, quarrels are likely to ensue and efforts will be made to trace the footsteps and identify the offender. If the search for the offender is unsuccessful, the land or water owner will loudly express anger and warn that if the hunter is discovered, he should prepare to be wounded or even killed in revenge for his violation.

Gathering of forest material for house building follows similar laws. Whoever owns the land also owns what grows on the land. The general rule is that you cannot fell trees or cut plants that grow on someone else’s land. You cannot cut wood for timber or limbum palm trees for flooring that were not grown on your own land. In this way, an element of conservation is imposed on the environment.

In reality, however, the trees are often cut and later reported to the true land owner. Rarely is this protested. It is possible to protest: the true owner could cut up the fallen tree or state clearly that he will not allow trespassing or the cutting of the timber again on his land. But good wood from trees is rare. So in general people are generous in allowing trees to be cut by others for housing.

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