Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Whānau – Māori and family

by Tai Walker

Whānau are part of an interconnected world of tribe and sub-tribe, of the living and the dead. Although whānau members may live far apart or even overseas, their ties remain strong.

Contemporary understandings of whānau

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 of both sexes (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

    • Joan Metge, New growth from old. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995. Back

Description of whānau

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.

Factors dividing whānau


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.

Whānau, whakapapa and tribal structure


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

Roles within whānau


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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Tai Walker, 'Whānau – Māori and family', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 September 2021)

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