Story: Whānau – Māori and family

Page 2. Description of whānau

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Different meanings of whānau

The word whānau has a number of meanings, one of which is to give birth. In the sentence Ka whānau mai he whakaaro (an idea is born), it means to produce (an idea or thought), for example the inspiration for an art work such as a carving, a song or a book.

Whānau is also used as a metaphor for close friends or associates, intended to be inclusive and build a sense of group unity. For example Te Whānau a Waipereira is the name of a pan-tribal organisation. In another example, many hospitals have a ‘whānau room’ where unrelated people with a family member in hospital support each other. Some schools have whānau reo classes – Māori language classes. These interpretations and reinterpretations of whānau shift its meaning.

Whānau and the individual

Whānau begins with the individual. The relationship between the individual and the whānau is subtle and complex. Individuals have rights of their own, but they exist because of the whānau and have responsibilities to the whānau. People are expected to express their individuality within the context of the whānau framework and whānau do not set out to create clones. Respected Ngāti Porou elder Merekaraka Ngarimu explained the significance of the individual using performance of the haka ‘Ruamoko’ as an example. The individuals in the haka party will perform the haka differently according to their own natures and styles. In doing so they contribute to, support and strengthen the whole. The aim of their teacher was not to standardise the performance but to allow the uniqueness of each individual to emerge. This pepeha (saying) encapsulates the essence of the individual within the whānau:

Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi engari he toa takitini taku toa.
My strength does not come from my individuality, my strength comes from many.

Immediate whānau

Whānau ake describes an individual and their immediate whānau. In a relationship couples will come with their own whānau ake. If they have children this becomes tō māua whānau ake (our immediate whānau). This can refer to a large group as it may also include friends. Learning to be part of whānau prepares members for their wider responsibilities to marae and hapū. It is the role of the parents to teach their children how to work on the marae. This is captured in the saying He tawheta haere koe i ngā waewae o ō mātua (get under your parents’ feet) meaning you might be in the way but learn at your parents’ side.

From narrow to wide

Whānau can mean immediate family or much wider family. Sometimes a person could describe their whānau as consisting of mum, dad, grandparents, brothers and sisters. On another occasion the same person may include great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, grandchildren and everyone they are related to. The context in which a whānau member finds themselves governs the response they give. It can depend on who asks the question, why they are asking the question, who else is present at the time and the occasion.

How to cite this page:

Tai Walker, 'Whānau – Māori and family - Description of whānau', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

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