Tamaiti Whangai

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Tamaiti whangai is the New Zealand Maori term for a foster or adopted child. "Tamaiti" (plural "tamariki") means "child" and "whangai" means to feed or nourish, in the narrow and broadest senses, so a tamaiti whangai (also known as a tamaiti atawhai) is a child who is nurtured or raised by someone other than his or her birth parents. The practice of whangai is very ancient: the first tamaiti whangai is said to have been the hero Maui.

The Maori have no term for the nuclear family as known in European societies: two parents and their children. The most restricted term in Maori for "family" is "whanau," which applies to the extended family, and even then the whanau is not an isolated unit, but part of more inclusive units, extending even beyond the tribe.

Maori children are not the property of the birth parents, but belong to the whanau as a whole, and it has always been common for Maori children to spend time as tamariki whangai in other households within the extended family: when their birth parents are temporarily unwell or overcome by circumstances, if they and their parents are temporarily on bad terms, etc. In other circumstances a child will become the more or less permanent tamaiti whangai of another adult or adults. Birth parents may give a child to a relative who is childless or has lost a child. Children may be redistributed if a birth family becomes too large and other households have more room (rural Maori families until recently commonly had 10 or more children). A child might be given to an elderly relative as company or caretaker. Birth parents may become permanently incapacitated. The whanau may decide that the birth parents are not competent and forcibly put their children with other adults for their own protection (and the whanau is a powerful enough unit for this to be enforcible). Particularly competent or experienced parents may be asked to take older children with behavioral problems. Tribal leaders may ask for or demand children from their parents to groom them as successors or to educate them as experts in various traditional skills or types of knowledge, or give them to other families to strengthen family alliances, although this last practice is now almost extinct. Tribal leaders such as Te Puea Herenga, might collect over 50 tamariki whangai. The following story illustrates how children would be taken as this kind of tamaiti whangai. It is the story of Eruera Kawhia Whakatane Stirling, 1899-1983, as told to Anne Salmond:

As soon as I was old enough and able to look after myself, when I was about two or three years old and finished with my mother [i.e., weaned], the old lady Hiria Te Rangihaeata came to her and said,
"We're taking him as our mokopuna [grandchild], Mihi [Stirling's mother], we want to take him away from you. We can see all the signs on him, he will be the one to hold the mana [respect, sacred authority] and the traditions of his ancestors in the Kirieke School of Learning."
I had two moles, one on my lower lip and one on the chin. The first was the sign of te kauae runga, the upper jaw which holds the prestige and the mana of everything, the tapu and the sacred power; and the second was the sign of te kauae raro, the lower jaw for the modern college, the knowledge coming from below. Those were the signs that I was going to take both the top and the bottom, that I should be put through the rituals of the whare wananga [school of traditional learning]. ...
When Hiria Te Rangihaeata came and asked for me my mother agreed, she had to, and the old lady took me to her whare nikau [a traditional house] in the bush. I lived there with Hiria and Pera [a relative, an expert in traditional knowledge, and Hiria's husband] until I was about seven years old.
Tamariki whangai do not lose contact with their birth parents, although they may take the name of their foster/adoptive families. Property rights devolve primarily through the birth family, but a tamaiti whangai would commonly inherit through both sets of parents. When tracing his or her ancestry in public or private (an important social activity) that through the birth family is the one which matters. However, the "mana" (respect due, social standing, etc.) of the adopting/fostering family attaches itself to the tamaiti whangai. A tamaiti whangai owes duties of filial respect primarily to the adoptive/fostering parents, and neglecting these can cause the relationship to be revoked.

Such arrangements were not regulated by tribal law, nor was there any ceremony marking the transfer of the child. The practice of whangai is still very common in both rural and urban Maori communities; in some communities the number of temporary and permanent tamariki whangai can reach 20% of all children. Today they still often take place outside the European-imposed adoption and fostering legal framework, although recently statute law has come to take much more cognizance of Maori traditional practice, and the whanau now plays a central and legally sanctioned role in decision-making where children come to the attention of the social services and need new parents.
Adoption by strangers was almost unheard-of, except in cases where child captives taken in war were adopted by members of the victorious group. These captive-adoptees would become completely integrated into their new societies.

Maori formally adopted under European law (such as Kiri Te Kanawa, Zane Te Wiremu Jarvis, and Tumoana Webster) are not usually considered tamariki whangai and are not listed below, but do have entries in the directory.

Tamariki whangai in this directory are listed below.


Griffith, Keith C. New Zealand Adoption: History and Practice, Social and Legal, 1980-1996. [1997], including the article "Tamaiti Whangai: The Adopted Child: Maori Customary Practices" by Sidney Moko Mead, and the 1987 address to the NZ High Court, "Taha Maori" by John Rangihau
Boast, R.P. "F.O.V. Acheson and Maori Customary Law." Available at: http://www.kennett.co.nz/law/indigenous/1999/41.html
Stirling, Eruera; and Salmond, Anne. Eruera: The Teachings of a Maori Elder. (Wellington: Ocford University Press, 1980)
Wheeler, Jenny. "For Eruera: A Second Graduation," New Zealand Woman's Weekly, 29 November 1982, p. 12-13

See Also

Carr, Harold Herbert
Delamere, Paora Kingi
Ellison, Edward Pohau
Faka'osilea, Lorris
Gardiner, Wira
Hakiwai, Reremoana
Hura, Maata Te Reo
Iti, Tame
Jones, Pei Te Hurinui
Mahuta, Sir Robert Te Kotahitanga a Koroki
Manuera, Eruera Riini
Parata, Tame Haereroa
Pitau, Otene
Poutapu, Wiremu Te Ranga
Poutu, Liana
Ratahi, Topsy Stewart
Ratana, Raniera Te Ao Hou
Ratana, Tahupotiki Wiremu
Ropiha, Tipi Tainui
Rua Kenana Hepetipa
Rukupo, Raharui
Stewart, Albert Oliphant
Sykes, Annette
Taare, Sonny
Takuta, Tio
Te Hau, Matiu Te Auripo
Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki
Te Kurapa, Hikawera
Te Wiata, Inia
Tonore, Airini
Whaitiri, Te Waari Kahukura


Polynesian, Melanesian
New Zealand
15th Century
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century
21st Century
Sent to Boarding School, Apprenticed or Fostered as Part of Normal Traditional Child-Rearing
To Further Family or Political Alliances
For Companionship, or for Charitable Motives
To Provide Heirs, As Protégés, etc.
Customary or Traditional Adoption, Informal and Extra-Legal Care
Always in Contact or Knew Identities
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