Story: Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption

Page 2. Traditions and history

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The demigod Māui is one of the most famous whāngai in Māori tradition. When he was born, his mother believed he was dead so she wrapped him in her topknot and cast him onto the sea. Māui, however, survived and washed ashore. He was found by his grandfather, Tamanui-ki-te-rangi, and was raised as a whāngai and trained in his whakapapa, tribal traditions, haka and waiata. He eventually returned to meet his birth mother and father. This is a common type of whāngai, where a child is raised by a grandparent and schooled in tribal traditions.

Uenuku and Ihuparapara

In one tradition Uenuku, a personification of the rainbow, took the form of Tamatea-arikinui, the father of Kahungunu, and slept with Tamatea’s wife Ihuparapara. She became pregnant and had a daughter, whom she believed was dead. The child was taken to the tūāhu (place for sacred rites) and left there. Uenuku returned from the heavens and took his daughter across the sea, where she was raised as a whāngai by Te Tini-o-te-petipeti, who lived upon the great ocean of Hinemoana. She later returned, and after the pure and tohi rites (performed for children) was renamed Uenukutiti. At the ceremony a rainbow appeared over the tūāhu, indicating that Uenuku was present.


Tūtānekai is famous for his relationship with the beautiful Hinemoa. However, he started life as a pōriro (illegitimate child). His mother was Rangiuru, who was married to the chief Whakaue. She had an adulterous affair with Tūwharetoa, and gave birth to Tūtānekai. Despite discovering the adultery, Whakaue treated Tūtānekai like his own child. Traditional elder Te Rangikaheke describes Whakaue as a ‘matua whāngai’, and says, ‘Ko Tutanekai ka atawhaitia e Whakaue, ano ko tana tamaiti tupu ake’ (Tūtānekai was looked after [atawhai] by Whakaue, and raised him as though he was his own).

Tāmati Wāka Nene

In the mid-19th century Ngāpuhi chief Tāmati Wāka Nene travelled to Tauranga, where his relative, Matetakahia, had been accused of killing a Pākehā. Nene accused Matetakahia of the crime and shot him dead. When he discovered he was mistaken he took Matetakahia’s son, Timoti, under his care as an atawhai. When Nene later died, Ngāpuhi chief Eruera Patuone then took on Timoti as an atawhai. However, the nature of the atawhai relationship meant Timoti never inherited the lands of either Nene or Patuone.

Queen Victoria as matua whāngai

Hariata Pōmare and her husband Hare were in England with a Māori tour party in 1863. The party met Queen Victoria who, observing that Hariata was pregnant, asked to be the child’s godmother. When the baby was born he was named Albert Victor, and along with his parents was presented to the queen. It was later noted, ‘Kaore pea etahi tangata i te mohio he tamaiti whāngai Maori ta te Kuini, ko te tamai a Pomare, no Ngapuhi’1 (few are aware that Queen Victoria has a Māori child as a whāngai, a child of the Pomare family, from Ngāpuhi).

Ingoa mana – namesakes

Ethnographer George Graham wrote that in one type of whāngai, a chief would choose a mokopuna (grandchild or great-grandchild) to be an ingoa mana (namesake). This would indicate that the child was his, even if it was raised by its parents.

Ngāti Pou

A Ngāti Pou chief from Waikato requested that his granddaughter’s child be named Huiawa-rua if it was a girl or Te Horeta if it was a boy. The baby was a girl and was named Huiawa-rua. She grew up and married a relative by the name of Te Horeta.

Ngāti Whanaunga

A Ngāti Whanaunga chief asked that his granddaughter be named Kahupeka after his grandmother, and gifted her a piece of land. Her family settled there, building a house and cultivating the land. The chief then sold the land to a Pākehā without consulting the girl or her parents. They left after burning down the houses and destroying everything they had put on the land. Though the old man later tried to reconcile with the family, he died before this happened. Kahupeka was then sought as a bride (tomo wahine) for the chief’s grandson, due to the chief’s ōhākī (deathbed request). This, and a subsequent request, were refused with the saying, ‘He tara whai ka uru ki roto, e kore e taea te whakahokia’ (the barb of a stingray, once inserted, cannot be withdrawn).

  1. Te Pipiwharauroa: He Kupu Whakamarama 27 (May 1900), p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption - Traditions and history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

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