Story: Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption

Whāngai is a customary Māori practice where a child is raised by someone other than their birth parents – usually a relative. Common types of whāngai include a grandchild being raised by grandparents and taught tribal traditions and knowledge, or an orphan or illegitimate child being taken in by a family.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Rewi Maniapoto and whāngai son, 1879

Story summary

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Whāngai is a customary Māori practice where a child is brought up by someone other than their birth parents – usually another relative. Whāngai may be temporary or permanent. A parent who takes on a child is called a matua whāngai, and the child is a tamaiti whāngai. The child knows both its birth parents and whāngai parents, and the whole community is usually involved in the decision.

Reasons for whāngai include:

  • finding a home for an orphan
  • taking in a child from a large family that was struggling to support all the children
  • taking in a child whose parents were young
  • grandparents taking in a mokopuna (grandchild) and teaching them tribal traditions
  • allowing children to inherit land.

Whāngai traditions

The demigod Māui was raised as a whāngai by his grandfather, who taught him tribal knowledge.

Uenuku, the personification of the rainbow, tricked Ihuparapara into having sex with him by taking the form of her husband. Ihuparapara had a daughter, whom Uenuku took away and had raised as a whāngai.

Tūtānekai was born after his mother Rangiuru had an affair outside marriage. Her husband, Whakaue, acted as a matua whāngai and treated Tūtānekai as his own child.

Whāngai and the law

The practice of whāngai has often happened outside of Pākehā law. From 1901 whāngai children had to be registered with the Native Land Court so they could inherit the lands of their whāngai parents. The Adoption Act 1955 promoted secrecy about adoption and a complete break between birth and adoptive families. It rejected the open practices of whāngai. However, Māori have continued to practise whāngai.

Well-known whāngai

Well-known whāngai parents include:

  • King movement leader Te Puea Hērangi, who had around 50 whāngai children
  • Ngāpuhi leader Sir James Henare, who had six natural children and five whāngai children.

Well-known people who were raised as whāngai include:

  • Tainui leader Robert Mahuta, the whāngai brother of the former Māori queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu
  • netball player Joline Henry, who was brought up by her grandparents.
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 June 2017