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Whānau (Māori pronunciation: [ˈfaːnaʉ]) is the Māori language word for the basic extended family group. Within Māori society the whānau encompasses three or four generations and forms the political unit below the levels of hapū (subtribe), iwi (tribe or nation) and waka (migration canoe). These steps are emphasised in Māori genealogy as a person's whakapapa.

Early Māori society[edit]

In pre-contact Māori tribal organisation the whānau historically comprised a family spanning three to four generations, and would number around 20 to 30 people. It formed the smallest partition of the Māori society.[1]

The kaumātua (tribal elders), senior adults (pākeke) such as parents, uncles and aunts, and the sons and daughters together with their partners and children. Large whānau lived in their own compound in the . Whānau also had their own gardening plots and their own fishing and hunting spots. The whānau was economically self-sufficient. In warfare, it supported and was necessarily supported by the iwi (tribe) or hapū (sub-tribe).

The whānau would look after children and grandchildren collectively, so the loss of a parent was less likely to be devastating to a child's upbringing. In the case of orphaned children, the child would be taken in by the process of whāngai adoption. This form of adoption is still practised and has some legal codification in New Zealand.

Contemporary conceptions[edit]

Contemporary conceptions offer whānau in one of two ways:

  1. An "object or construction based on descent, cause or a mix of the two"; or
  2. "A collection of ideas".[2]

As a descent construct, whānau has been variably described as 'extended family',[3] 'extended family or community',[4] or simply 'family'.[5]

See also[edit]

  • Ohana (Hawaiian equivalent)


  1. ^ Taonui, Rāwiri (8 February 2005). "Tribal organisation – Whānau". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. p. 4. Retrieved 9 February 2023.
  2. ^ Gray, K. A. P. (2008). Tāniko : public participation, young Māori women, & whānau health (thesis). Massey Research Online. p. 10. hdl:10179/640.
  3. ^ Moltzen, R.; Macfarlane, H. A. (2006). "New Zealand: gifted and talented Maori learners". In B. Wallace; G. Eriksson (eds.). Diversity in gifted education: International perspectives on global issues. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 305–307.
  4. ^ Thomas, T.; LaGrow, S. J (1994). "Whanau workers: Providing services for the indigenous people of New Zealand". Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. 88 (1): 86–90 [87]. doi:10.1177/0145482X9408800113. S2CID 220594467.
  5. ^ Pere, R. (1984). "Te orange o te whanau: The health of the family". In Maori Health Planning Workshop (ed.). Hui Whakaoranga: Maori health planning workshop, Hoani Waititi Marae, 19-22 March, 1984. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Department of Health.