While adoption in Western society is often seen as a necessary evil, in Māori society the practice of whāngai is perceived as a positive cultural practice. However, there are a number of issues with the practice, as researcher Joan Metge has noted:
It could not prevent some children from feeling rejected by their birth parents or deprived of the special love of a mother; it could not prevent siblings being split up or atawhai being overworked or abused in particular cases. But philosophically and in practice it had many strengths and advantages.1
Well-known whāngai parents include:
- Ngāti Porou leader Rāpata Wahawaha, who took Paratene Ngata, the father of Āpirana Ngata, as a whāngai
- Te Puea Hērangi, granddaughter of the Māori King Tāwhiao, who had around 50 whāngai children
- Ngāpuhi leader Sir James Henare, who had six natural children and five whāngai children.
Well-known whāngai children include:
- Edward Pōhau Ellison, one of the first Māori doctors
- linguist and writer Pei Te Hurinui Jones
- Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, the founder of the Rātana Church
- Īnia te Wīata, a famous opera singer
- Robert Te Kotahitanga Mahuta, the whāngai brother of the former Māori queen, Dame Te Ātairangikaahu
- Billy T. James, one of New Zealand’s best-loved comedians
- Wira Gardiner, a senior public servant
- Silver Ferns netballer Joline Henry.
Māori and adoption
Legal adoption can overlap with whāngai. A person who is taken as a whāngai may or may not be legally adopted. In 1997 Māori academic Hirini Mead proposed fundamental rights that should be adhered to for Māori children within the process of adoption. He noted that the child was the most important taonga (treasure) to be considered, and that the rights that should be considered included:
- the right to know about the circumstances of the adoption
- the right to know one’s whakapapa (genealogy)
- the right of whanaungatanga (kinship) – to build a relationship with the hapū or iwi
- the right of cultural integrity – a home within the same cultural group, Māori with Māori, should be preferred.
The changing practice of whāngai
A study of people who had grown up as whāngai found that dominant themes were kinship, and the resulting obligations to kin groups in later years. Some felt that the practice of whāngai was changing. One interviewee commented, ‘The practice is diluted today. It has many faces, many manifestations. Gone are the values, the history and the very essence that makes us intrinsically Maori.’2
The authors concluded that ‘[t]he preservation of this traditional practice is reliant upon Maori whānau practising and living by the values and principles that underlie it. Also seen by most to be pivotal to its maintenance are: current Māori participating in the practice; teaching future generations the values of this practice; and providing whāngai with positive environments that include the opportunity to interact in the wider whānau group.’3