Story: Whānau – Māori and family

Page 1. Contemporary understandings of whānau

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Whānau is often translated as ‘family’, but its meaning is more complex. It includes physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions and is based on whakapapa. Whānau can be multi-layered, flexible and dynamic. Whānau is based on a Māori and a tribal world view. It is through the whānau that values, histories and traditions from the ancestors are adapted for the contemporary world.

Lived experience of whānau

Whānau relationships include those with whāngai (foster children) and those who have passed on. There are roles and responsibilities for individuals and for the collective. The structure of whānau can vary from immediate family to much broader collectives. The most important features of whānau that distinguish it from family and other social groupings are whakapapa, spirituality and the responsibility to marae and hapū.

The historical whānau

Early anthropologists had a common definition of the 18th-century whānau characterised by:

  • a family group usually comprising three generations – an older man, his wife and some or all his descendants and in-married spouses, or some variant such as brothers, their wives and families
  • a domestic group occupying a common set of buildings
  • a social and economic unit responsible for the management of daily domestic life, production and consumption
  • the lowest tier in a system of socio-political groups defined by descent through common ancestors traced through links on both sides (the middle tier was hapū and the highest tier was iwi).

Historical, traditional and classic models

The historical whānau existed in a period of time when Māori lived a subsistence lifestyle and contributed labour to the welfare of the whānau. The historical whānau is also referred to as the ‘traditional Māori family’ – anthropologist Joan Metge described the whānau of the late 18th and early 19th century as the ‘classic’ whānau. In the 21st century there are whānau who still have three generations in one household for a period of time, but it is no longer as common. Whānau members no longer usually share a common set of buildings, and many live in different parts of the country or in different places in the world.

Whānau are now dependent on a cash economy and the adults go out to work to support the household.

Whānau online

In the 21st century many whānau with members living around the world kept in touch through social networking sites and other websites. Family networking site had a name which punned on the English phrase ‘know my place’ (in Māori naumai means welcome). Visitors to the site were asked ‘Why Naumaiplace’? with the answer ‘It’s about Whānau Ora’ – it’s about living family.

Categories of whānau

As well as descent-based whānau, there are also whānau who come together for a common purpose. Metge defines the two kinds of whānau as whakapapa-based whānau and kaupapa-based whānau. Kaupapa-based-whānau ‘place particular stress on the other characteristic feature of the whakapapa-based-whānau, that is, whānau values and the ways of working derived from them.’1

  1. Joan Metge, New growth from old. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995. Back
How to cite this page:

Tai Walker, 'Whānau – Māori and family - Contemporary understandings of whānau', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

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