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Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption

by Basil Keane

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.

The custom of whāngai

What is whāngai?

Whāngai is a Māori customary practice where a child is raised by someone other than their birth parents – usually a relation. The practice is similar to both adoption and fostering, as a whāngai placement may be permanent or temporary. A parent who takes on a child as a whāngai is called a matua whāngai, while the child is known as a tamaiti whāngai.

Other terms with similar meanings include tamaiti atawhai and tamaiti taurima. All these words have literal meanings referring to the welfare of the child – whāngai (to feed), atawhai (show kindness to) and taurima (treat with care or tend). In English, a child who becomes a whāngai is often described as having ‘been whāngaied’ or ‘whāngaied out’.

Whāngai and atawhai

For some people tamaiti whāngai and tamaiti atawhai mean the same thing, but for some iwi the terms ‘whāngai’ and ‘atawhai’ have slightly different meanings.

Professor Wharehuia Milroy has explained that ‘"atawhai" tends to equate more with "fostered child" and "whāngai" with adopted child. Other synonyms which are used to describe an "atawhai" child … are tiaki (look after) and taurima (to treat with care) and whakatipu (to make grow).’1

Situations where whāngai happens

There were a number of reasons that children were taken as whāngai, including:

  • finding homes for an orphaned child (pani)
  • taking a child from a large family that was struggling to support all the children
  • taking in a child who had young parents
  • taking in an illegitimate child
  • finding a child for people who cannot have children
  • finding a child for older people whose children have grown up
  • strengthening whānau, hapū or iwi ties by strategically placing children within selected whānau.
  • particularly in the case of kaumātua (elders), taking in a mokopuna (grandchild) to pass down tribal traditions and knowledge
  • taking children in as whāngai so that they could inherit land.

Differences from adoption and fostering

The whāngai system was open. It was done with the full knowledge of the whānau or hapū, and the child knew both their birth parents and whāngai parents. Rather than being the sole decision of the mother or parents, a wider community was involved in the decision.

Adoption and fostering are ways to find homes for children who are unwanted or whose parents have died, whereas in the case of whāngai, parents often gave up children to comply with the custom. Whāngai children were often wanted by both families. While whāngai has received some legal recognition at various times, it has largely operated outside the legal processes of adoption.


Traditions and history


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).

    • Te Pipiwharauroa: He Kupu Whakamarama 27 (May 1900), p. 4. Back

Whāngai and the law

Legal recognition

Whāngai is a customary practice that has been used from time immemorial to the present, though its status within the legal system has varied over time. In legislation it has variously been ignored, recognised and rejected. In the 19th century whāngai was recognised. The Adoption Act 1881 did not affect the status of whāngai children. In the 1919 case of Hineiti Rirerire Arani v Public Trustee, it was observed that the customary right of whāngai was recognised within the New Zealand legal system.

Whāngai and dual inheritance

One of the major issues around whāngai was the land rights attached to the whāngai. In 1900 Hōne Heke Ngāpua, the member for Northern Māori, raised the issue of whāngai and land in Parliament. He noted that the institution of whāngai was quite different to Pākehā adoption, and spoke about a concern of Māori relating to land inheritance. He observed that some whāngai might receive shares in land from both their whāngai parents and birth parents. In cases like these it seemed unfair that a whāngai might effectively be ‘double dipping’.

Modifying customary rights

The process of bringing whāngai into the legal system began with the Native Land Claims and Adjustment Act 1901, which required that whāngai be registered with the Native Land Court in order to be able to inherit the lands of their whāngai parents. This became more prescriptive under the Native Land Act 1909. The customary practice of whāngai was no longer recognised in law. Instead Māori had to adopt through the Native Land Court.

Transcultural whāngai

The issue of transcultural whāngai was raised at an April 1909 meeting of the Tūwharetoa tribe, where it was stated: ‘Mo nga tamariki whangai: Kaua e whaimana te tamaiti whangai pakeha, ahakoa i rehitatia ki nga rawa a te matua whangai Maori’1 (regarding whāngai children: Don’t give legal recognition to a Pākehā child who has been taken as a whāngai, even though the Māori parent has made provision for the child to get his or her assets).

Under the Native Land Act passed later that year, only Māori children could be adopted through the Native Land Court.

Secrecy and closed adoption

From 1915 most adopted children were re-registered with the names of their adopted parents, and secrecy became more important. However, Native Land Court adoption hearings remained open, as Māori adoptions were published in the Kahiti (Māori Gazette) and the New Zealand Gazette.

The Adoption Act 1955 implemented closed adoption. The principle of a clean break from the child’s birth family was considered paramount. The act also stated that ‘no person shall be capable of adopting a child in accordance with Maori custom and with certain exceptions, no adoption is of any force or effect, whether in respect of intestate succession to Maori land or otherwise.’ Māori customary whāngai was no longer legally recognised, and the philosophy of open adoption was rejected. By the late 1980s whāngai practice began to be worked into legal adoption. Although whāngai is not recognised by the Adoption Act 1955, Māori have continued with this customary practice into the 21st century. It is sometimes described as informal adoption.

Te Ture Whenua recognition of whāngai

Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 provides for whāngai to succeed to land, and defines whāngai as ‘a person adopted in accordance with tikanga Māori’ (Māori customary practice).

The nature of whāngai has been explored in contemporary cases. In one case, Wharehuia Milroy gave evidence on the practice within the Tūhoe people. The whāngai would be a blood relative of the adopting parent, and the hapū (and sometimes iwi) would give consent, particularly where a share in land was at stake. A whāngai who looked after their matua whāngai would receive their whole land interest.

In another case, relating to Ngāti Mahuta, Fred Kaa and Ngāpare Hopa observed that whāngai relationships – while usually based on the same bloodline or extended family – could also exist between non-kin. Whāngai usually started at birth, but sometimes children were taken at a later date.

    • Quoted in Te Pipiwharauroa: He Kupu Whakamarama 134 (May 1909), p. 8. Back

Whāngai in modern times

Whāngai issues

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

Well-known whāngai parents include:

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 Atairangikaahu
  • 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


How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Whāngai – customary fostering and adoption', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

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