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  • History of Transracial Adoption:A New Zealand Perspective
  • Erica Newman (bio)

This article explores the New Zealand legal history of adoption and the effect it has had on Māori. The status of children within Māori and European societies before and during the early contact periods differed, and it is from here that I begin this article. These two societies had their own terms in relation to the care of children by those who were not the biological parents. Europeans use the term "adopt," while Māori use the term whāngai. Although these terms relate to the care of children by those who are not the biological parents, they possess different ideals. Due to these differences, European society was faced with challenges when informally adopting a child. These challenges led to the establishment of the 1881 Adoption of Children Act. While this act initially had no effect on the practice of whāngai, by 1901 the Native Land Act required whāngai to be registered and then recorded in the New Zealand Gazette.1 Over time a number of changes made to adoption laws that affected Māori were based on the issue of who had rights to land succession. In 1910, to the further detriment of Māori, whāngai was abolished by an amendment to the Native Land Act. However, Māori adoptions were still required to be registered and then recorded within the New Zealand Gazette.2 The records of Māori adoptions in the Gazette reflected the various changes in the adoption processes prior to 1955. The 1955 Adoption Act enabled many Māori children to be transracially adopted. Categorizing Māori by "blood quantum" in the 1955 Adoption Act meant that many adopted children were identified as European, although they were of Māori descent. Children who were adopted through this act had their adoption records sealed, severing all ties with their biological parents. Again, this was detrimental to Māori children who were transracially adopted. [End Page 237]

The Status of Children within Māori and European Society

From 1840 there was an influx of European settlers to New Zealand, and by the 1858 census they had become the dominant population.3 Within a European family, the child belongs to or is the possession of the parents. European families were organized as autonomous units normally consisting of the father, mother, and children-known as a nuclear family. Although some European families did include extended family members, these were often closely related, such as grandparents. A child within Māori society has always been viewed as a taonga (treasure) and cared for by the entire community.4 The members of this community, particularly the grandparents, aunties, and uncles, have the important role of guiding and teaching the children while their parents worked. Part of the knowledge that is passed on to the children is their whakapapa (genealogy). In teaching whakapapa the child obtains the knowledge of his or her family history.

Whakapapa not only provides the names of ancestors with their links to relatives but also exists as a genealogical narrative that is inclusive with each ancestor.5 Each generation learns about its ancestors, their achievements, and where they came from. For children to develop their identity they need to be nurtured, to gain knowledge of who they are and where they belong, and they need to be able to reciprocate the care that they have received. This is a difficult task to undertake without the knowledge of whakapapa.6 Within European society genealogy does not appear to have had the same kind of importance as it has always had for Māori. The importance for Māori of their whakapapa is evident even today, as it is included as part of how they introduce themselves. This may be by reciting their pepeha (tribal proverb) in order to identify which tribe, subtribe, region, marae, and land boundaries they identify with. Europeans generally do not introduce this amount of information about themselves when meeting new people.

Difference Between the European Term "Adoption" and the Māori Customary Concept Whāngai

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to adopt a child means to "legally take...


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pp. 237-257
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