Story: Whānau – Māori and family

Whānau are part of an interconnected world of tribe and sub-tribe, of the living and the dead. Although whānau members may live far apart or even overseas, their ties remain strong.

Story by Tai Walker
Main image: Māori toddler Dante Davis

Story summary

All images & media in this story

Description of whānau

Māori whānau traditionally:

  • were a family group of parents, grandparents, children and uncles and aunts
  • lived in the same buildings
  • worked together to support the whole whānau
  • had common ancestors.

Although not many people live like this now, whānau ties are still very strong.

Individual members of whānau are encouraged to express themselves, and the strength of the whānau is the contribution that all the individuals make.

Whānau can be ‘whānau ake’ the immediate family, or a whole extended group of great grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts and children and grandchildren.

People who have died, or ex-partners of divorced people, are still seen as whānau members.

Whānau is also used as a name for friends, or for a group with a common purpose.

Whānau, hapū and iwi

Whānau, hapū (subtribe) and iwi (tribe) all depend on each other, and there was traditionally no hierarchy. Governments often prefer to negotiate at iwi level and this changes traditional practices.

Whānau, hapū and iwi are joined together by whakapapa (genealogy).


Tuākana are the older brothers of a male or the older sisters of a female. Taina are the younger brothers of a male or younger sisters of a female. Tuakana–taina relationships are an important aspect of whānau.


Whāngai is a Māori form of fostering. Children may stay with another whānau for months, years or for good.

How to cite this page:

Tai Walker, 'Whānau – Māori and family', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Tai Walker, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 June 2017