Story: Whānau – Māori and family

Page 5. Roles within whānau

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Māori society had its own real hierarchy with a chief – however a chief was a chief only as long as they got the job done.

Relationships were important in Māori society, for example tuakana–taina. Tuākana are the older brothers of a male or older sisters of a female; taina are the younger brothers of a male or the younger sisters of a female. A younger or older female sibling of a male is a tuahine; a younger or older male sibling of a female is a tungāne. There are roles associated with these relationships. Tuakana–taina are interdependent roles and the existence of one is dependent on the other.

Sometimes a tuakana would give his speaking rights to his taina. It is for the taina to whakanui (elevate) the tuakana, but not for the tuakana to whakaiti (put down) the taina. For example Ngāti Porou always acknowledge Te Whānau-ā-Apanui as the tuakana as they descend from an older ancestral line.


Whānau members have roles on the marae, and with hapū and iwi as well as the whānau. One elder stressed the importance of relationships – if you understand the relationships the roles are easy. Roles were also for people with the ability to perform them, for example if a person from one marae or hapū could not undertake a role someone from another hapū would. Marae and hapū are pragmatic and if they need a particular task done they will find someone to do it rather than wait for the person whose role it is.

Everybody should play their part in whānau in whatever capacity they can, for example pakeke (elders) have the task of passing on knowledge of whakapapa and whaikōrero (speechmaking) to mokopuna (grandchildren), performing the whaikōrero on marae or acting as advisors to local youth.

Unity of whānau

Roles within whānau are related to age – whether a person is a kaumātua or pakeke, a wife, mother, father, husband, grandparent, child or mokopuna. A grandparent might help raise mokopuna, provide leadership for the whānau, teach skills such as weaving, and pass on tribal knowledge to the younger generation. One of the most important roles was to create unity in the whānau so they would not split and go in different directions. Older people kept the whānau together, making sure cousins knew one another.


Whāngai is a Māori form of fostering. A child may be brought into a whānau, or parents or grandparents may decide to whāngai a child to another whānau. The adoptive parents are sometimes referred to as mātua whāngai, and an adoptive mother is known as kōkā whāngai. The length of time a child is with another whānau varies from a few months to several years to a permanent stay.

The circumstances in which the whāngai arrangement is made governed the experience for the child. When the child was wanted the experience was positive, but if the child was placed with a whānau who already had several children and the child became an ‘extra burden’ the experience could be difficult.

How to cite this page:

Tai Walker, 'Whānau – Māori and family - Roles within whānau', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

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