When it comes to child protection & whānau, are we talking about the same thing?

The issues surrounding child uplift are complex, but we won't make progress without a better understanding of whānau and the tikanga behind it

Later this month, thousands of people are expected to march to parliament as part of the #HandsOffOurTamaraki movement. At its heart, the movement is about preserving whānau and demanding that the state stop removing children from their whānau, hapū and iwi.

But when it comes to the idea of preserving whānau, are we all talking about the same thing? Or are we sometimes talking at cross purposes?

To answer that question we need to understand three things about te ao Māori (the Māori world) prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The first thing is that pre-colonial society was grounded in tikanga Māori. The word tikanga is derived from the word tika, which simply means ‘to be right’. Tikanga, therefore, was the set of principles and customs which indicated the right way of doing things. It was the societal hook on which all of our customs, principles and ways of life were hung.

The second is that an essential aspect of tikanga was the concept of whanaungatanga. Whanaungatanga is a relational principle which defined not only how people related to each other, but also how they made sense of the world itself. As Justice Joe Williams has put it, whanaungatanga described the centrality of kinship within Māori society; the “careful attention to relationships above all else”. It was arguably the central organising principle of Māori society.

The third is that from whanaungatanga came whānau, the foundation of pre-colonial society. The whānau was far broader than the nuclear family, and played a much wider range of roles. Children were raised by whānau, disputes were resolved within whānau, and our most precious cultural knowledge was handed down through whānau. The whānau, bound by the principle of whanaungatanga and wrapped within the framework of tikanga Māori, was the centrepiece of the Māori world.

Understanding these three things - tikanga, whanaungatanga and whānau - is important because after the arrival of Europeans, everything changed. The centrality of whanaungatanga was diminished and British ways of life were imposed. Deliberate efforts to embed the nuclear family as the norm in law and policy eventually led to this becoming accepted by many Māori. It is an example of what Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls “the reach of imperialism in to our heads”.

This all happened despite the assurances made by the Crown in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Article two of te Tiriti promised Māori ‘tino rangatiratanga’, which means ‘absolute chieftainship’, over our lands, homes and treasured possessions. That promise remains largely unfulfilled, and the struggle for tino rangatiratanga continues to this day.

Calls for tino rangatiratanga gained momentum in the 1970s and 80s. The Waitangi Tribunal was established, the Māori Language Act was passed, and the treaty settlement process (flawed though it was) began to acknowledge past wrongs. However, often the more meaningful changes were achieved by grassroots Māori-led movements. The kohanga reo movement, the creation of the Matua Whāngai programme and the Māori land march were all examples of grassroots movements which achieved significant change.

Now, once again, we are at a crossroads. Those who will march on parliament later this month will call on the government to play its crucial role in upholding and preserving whānau. They are not just talking about literal whānau; they are also talking about the tikanga of whānau.

This nuance can sometimes get lost, but it is crucial, because colonisation was not caused solely by land loss. There was always an underlying loss of tikanga.

The establishment of the Native Land Court in the 1860s, for example, did not just take away Māori land. More significantly, it stripped Māori of our ways of deciding what to do with our land. It stripped us of our tikanga, and once that foundation was removed, the loss of the land almost inevitably followed.

The establishment of Native Schools did not destroy te reo Māori on its own, but it removed the right of Māori to decide for ourselves how to educate our children. The loss of te reo Māori came later, but the erosion of tikanga Māori relating to education was a necessary precondition.

The same may now be said of whānau. It is the loss of tikanga Māori in relation to whānau that may cause the most harm in the long term, not the breakdown of individual whānau themselves. When it comes to child protection, that tikanga is what many people believe to be at risk, and that is what they seek to protect.

None of this resolves the complicated issues at the centre of debates about protecting children.

The underlying issues behind New Zealand’s child abuse statistics are complex, murky and intergenerational, and resolving those issues is a massive task. But we will never make progress if we fail to understand that we are sometimes talking at cross purposes when we talk about whānau.

It’s not just about whānau, it's also about whanuangatanga, tikanga and tino rangatiratanga. Understanding those things from a Māori perspective is a crucial first step if we are ever going to make any progress.


Luke Fitzmaurice (Te Aupōuri) is a PhD candidate from Wellington whose research focuses on children’s rights within the child protection system. This piece was written in collaboration with Laura O’Connell Rapira (Ngāpuhi, Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Whakaue), Director of ActionStation.