Story: Whānau – Māori and family

Page 4. Whānau, whakapapa and tribal structure

All images & media in this story


One of the foundations of whānau is whakapapa, which has great importance in Māori society. Whakapapa places people ‘in the whole context of relationships and therefore how we relate to each other and how we should work with each other, argue with each other, live with each other’.1

It is through whakapapa that interactions and relationships are established, developed and maintained within whānau, and with whanaunga (relatives), marae, sacred mountains, rivers and ultimately the universe. Whakapapa is an organising principle. It is through whakapapa that individuals often get their names, their identities, their sense of belonging, turangawaewae (place to stand – their ancestral land), and access to knowledge, rights and responsibilities. The policy of past governments that encouraged many Māori to move off the land and into the cities to become urbanised had the effect, in many cases, of disbanding whānau, and they no longer know who they are and where they come from. This has led to a breakdown of whānau structures.

If one cannot understand his whakapapa or genealogical line he is left wanting. Without the knowledge he is not really armed for the future to make his associations with extended whānau into the notion of whanaungatanga. So to fit into the pattern and scroll work of whakaairo, whakapapa, whanaungatanga [and] whakawhanaungatanga. Everyone has this framework the structure of whānau, hapū and iwi. You owe it to your whānau your very being here, giving you an identity, embracing you into a culture. … It is a very deep concept.2

Whānau, hapū and iwi

On its own whānau is incomplete because it is part of hapū and iwi. In one study Māori participants asserted that whānau did not stand alone and were not separate from hapū and iwi – because of whakapapa they were connected and interdependent. They thought whānau should always be qualified with hapu and iwi.

Separation of whānau, hapū and iwi has resulted in the creation of a hierarchical structure with iwi at the top, for ease of communication with government agencies, and to simplify policy making.

This hierarchy is at odds with tradition, which demonstrated that whānau could also be a hapū. For example Te Whānau a Ruataupare and Te Whānau a Umuariki are both hapū of Ngāti Porou; Te Whānau-a-Apanui is a tribe. At this level whānau defies definition because the transition from whānau to hapū and iwi is not known.

  1. Quoted in Joan Metge, New growth from old. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995. Back
  2. T. W. Walker, ‘An exploration of the evolution and application of the notion of whānau.’ PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. Back
How to cite this page:

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

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