Story: Whānau – Māori and family

Page 3. Factors dividing whānau

All images & media in this story


Whānau is not limited by distance. While distance can pose challenges for those who have to travel to attend tangihanga (funerals) or other whānau events, it does not change the membership of whānau. Where whānau members live is irrelevant to the collective identity. Whānau have adapted to the living arrangements of Western society and their members live in houses like other New Zealanders. Outwardly they are similar to their neighbours but they retain values of whānau. Most Māori live in urban centres. They have been labelled ‘urban Māori’ but this does not sit comfortably with Māori who claim their tribal identities as mokopuna of iwi and retain the links to the places they come from.

Divorce and separation

Divorce and separation do not always break or diminish the whānau bond with former partners, especially when they have had children. For example, a father may speak of his son’s mother and her whānau as being part of his whānau, although their relationship has ended. A former daughter-in-law is considered to be the mother of their mokopuna and still part of the whānau and deserving of respect. When one former partner died, it was her ex-husband’s whānau who took care of the tangi and funeral arrangements. She was also buried in his whānau urupā (cemetery). This was done with the blessing of her whānau.

On rare occasions unrelated young people, who had in effect adopted a particular whānau, were given whānau status because of the special connection that had developed over time. They were part of the whānau in every respect except inheritance of land.


Whānau exists on a continuum that crosses many generations. Whānau does not include just those who are alive. Whānau remain together in life and in death. The connection to those who have passed on is spiritual. They are seen as still with the whānau because they live in them, through the things they heard them say. Māori society is a transgenerational one which looks back to those who have gone before for guidance, and forward to those yet to be born because decisions made in the present will impact on the mokopuna (grandchildren) of the future. Those who have died are important because they set the foundations for the whānau and the existence of the present generations.

Sometimes old people who have died are said to have sent messages to the living. People experience seeing tīpuna (ancestors) in dreams. Claiming those who have passed on as part of whānau is necessary for reaffirming relationships so that people know how they are related to each other and how they fit into whānau.

Cross-cultural marriage

Cross-cultural marriage added a different dimension to whānau. There was often a clash between a narrow view of family consisting of just the parents and children and the wider understanding of interaction with whānau – whanaungatanga (blood relationships). Clashes occurred when a Pākehā parent saw family independence as important while the Māori partner saw whānau support as crucial. Whānau in cross-cultural relationships may identify closely with the Māori side, or they may live a more European lifestyle if the Pākehā parent is not comfortable with Māori culture and whānau norms.

Research into cross-cultural experiences has underlined contrasts. Some children were brought up as part of whānau while also being mindful of their Pākehā heritage. They were taken to their home marae as much as possible to tangi, birthdays, or to spend time with grandparents, and got to know about whānau responsibilities. Others are brought up as Pākehā, are not allowed to stay at marae, and know little about whānau.

How to cite this page:

Tai Walker, 'Whānau – Māori and family - Factors dividing whānau', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

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