[Marxism] Whale Rider

Philip Ferguson plf13 at student.canterbury.ac.nz
Wed Mar 3 01:20:38 MST 2004

Louis wrote:
> Considering all the hype surrounding "Lord of the Rings", one might have 
> missed another New Zealand export that is now available in DVD/Video and 
> whose 13 year old star was nominated as Best Actress in 2004. I am 
> speaking of "Whale Rider", a Maori coming of age story with a twist--in 
> this case the protagonist is a teenage girl rather than a boy.
> Although Keisha Castle-Hughes is an Australian Aboriginal, she clearly 
> has an exceptional ability to make her character Pai come to life. 

No, she is *not* an Australian Aboriginal.  She is part Maori and part 
pakeha (white European).  Her father is a white Australian, her mother 
is a NZer (of Maori descent) and Keisha has grown up in NZ and attends 
high school in Auckland.  She's a NZer of maori descent.

Her father lives these days back in Australia and has been trying to 
claim her as an Aussie.

> When 
> Pai is born, her twin brother and mother die at the same time. Her 
> grief-stricken father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) leaves New Zealand to 
> pursue a career as an artist, leaving her in the care of her grandfather 
> Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a chief of the Ngati Kanoahi people.

I think they are Ngati Porou.  I've never heard of a Ngati Kanoahi, 
unless it is a made-up name.  (I haven't read the novel and I'm not sure 
the tribe's name is used in the film.)

> He is entrusted with teaching Maori traditions that go back for 
> millennia the 12 year old boys in the village. This consists of lessons 
> in how to chant, dance, wield a club and make fearsome warrior faces. 
> Like any other 12 year olds, their attention span is limited. In many 
> ways, their training reminded me of what it was like to go to Hebrew 
> School in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah.
> As it turns out, Pai is much more avid to learn Maori skills than any of 
> the boys. In some ways, she is overly zealous. When she encounters Maori 
> women smoking during a card game, she warns them that smoking will 
> weaken their Maori child-bearing properties. Like Lisa Simpson, her 
> conscientiousness goes against the grain of a village as laid-back as 
> Homer and Bart.
> Although she and her grandfather seem to be on the same wave-length 
> temperamentally, he is dead-set opposed to her learning Maori skills.

It's really *chiefly* skills he is against her learning, not Maori skills.

He has the traditional view that only males can be chiefs.

> Over and over he reprimands her for eavesdropping on training sessions 
> for the village boys in hopes of achieving a station that her gender 
> does not permit. Despite obvious differences with western industrial 
> societies, it is reminiscent of the kind of sexism a young girl who 
> aspires to be a football player might encounter.
> Fortunately, Pai has her grandmother Nanny's (Vicky Haughton) support, 
> who views her husband as hopelessly backward. She refers to him 
> contemptuously as "old Paka" and intercedes on Pai's behalf throughout 
> this marvelous story.

Her grandmother's name is Flowers.

> The title of the film is derived from the climactic scene in which the 
> villagers struggle in vain to get a group of beached whales to return to 
> the ocean. Since the animals are their totem, this is a matter of 
> life-and-death. Suffice it to say that Pai becomes chief of her people 
> through her heroic intervention.

The title comes from the mythical origins of the local people.  They 
believe their legendary ancestor Paikea - after whom Paikea, the girl in 
the film is named - rode a whale to the shore.  The story was that 
Paikea's craft was overturned and he had to swim for it and just when he 
was exhausted a whale showed up and rescued him and he rode it to the 

> This Sunday's NY Times Magazine had an article on "dying languages" that 
> takes a light-hearted attitude toward the efforts of such people to 
> preserve their cultural identity. From a paper on the Northern Arizona 
> University website titled "Four Successful Indigenous Language 
> Programs", we discover:
> "The Maori people of New Zealand comprise 15 percent of the New Zealand 
> population of approximately four million people. 

Depends on how Maori are calculated.  I have a Maori great granny, and 
could list myself for census purposes as Maori and go on the Maori 
electoral roll.  But I'm a pretty pale imitation, although my older 
brother sometimes got racial abuse.  NZ is an extremely highly 
integrated society, at least in the working class.  Workers here have 
been intermarrying and breeding together ever since settlement began.

As a former government minister, John Tuariki Delamere, noted a few 
years ago, the reason there have never been race riots in NZ is because 
every Maori in the country has a pakeha spouse, in-laws and/or cousins 
as well as pakeha best mates.

> At first contact with 
> Europeans, 75 percent of the native population died of disease. The 
> history of the Maori reads like the history of the Native American 
> tribes; land taken without treaties, slaughter, and subhuman treatment 
> (Holmes, 1992). 

Not entirely true.  Disease did wipe out a great many Maori, but many 
Maori had also been wiped out earlier during the 'Musket Wars', when 
European traders supplied muskets to tribes who were then able to fight 
each other with much more lethal weapons.  The Musket Wars went on in 
the early 1800s until all the tribes had muskets and so there was a 
balance of power.

There are also some important differences with the indigenous peoples of 
the Americas.  In European racist thinking of the nineteenth century and 
early twentieth century, Polynesians were regarded as the next best 
thing to whites.  This produced a strange combination of things in NZ.

On the one hand, capitlaism was transplanted here on the basis of the 
expropriarion of the land from Maori.  On the other hand, there was a 
high degree of incorporation.  For instance, Maori men got the vote here 
in the 1860s and Maori seats were created in parliament in 1867 and so 
there has been continual Maori electoral representation ever since.  The 
percentage of MPs today who are identified as Maori is slightly higher 
than the percentage of Maori in the population.  In 1873, Maori began to 
be appointed members of the Legislative Council, the upper house.  In 
fact, Maori men were enfranchised *on a slightly wider basis* than white 
males in the 1860s and 1870s.

All Maori women got the vote in 1893, the same time as white women.

Maori have not only been in parliament continuously ever since the 
1860s, but there were Maori cabinet ministers in the late 1800s and 
early 1900s and a leading Maori cabinet minister of that time was acting 
prime minister for months on end in the 1890s and early 1900s, when the 
premier was overseas.

This compares with the treatment of Chinese NZers who were denied the 
vote, denied the old-age pension, denied naturalisation and 
discriminated against in practically every area of life.

Richard Seddon, who was the Liberal/social-democratic prime minister 
from 1893-1906, said he'd rather kill any of his kids than see them 
marry a 'Chink'.  At the same time, Seddon strongly believed in 
Maori-pakeha relationships, intermarriage and interbreedng and held up 
the Maori member of his government as a wonderful example pakeha-Maori 

One of the main white racial fears of the time in Europe, and which was 
reflected in NZ, was that the 'white race' was becoming effete due to 
the softening effects of civilisation.  A good does of Maori 'warrior 
blood' was seen as important to bucking up the race and making it more 
'manly' again.

During the peak of the 'White NZ' immigration policy, Maori were 
regarded as white.  It was Chinese, 'kaffirs', 'Negroes', 'Assyrians' 
and 'Hindoos' who were regarded as being the 'inferior' races, not Maori.

The first NZ film, 'Rewi's Last Stand', made in the 1920s, featured a 
Maori and European kissing, and no-one thought anything of it.  Maori 
and pakeha have been kissing and coupling on screen ever since.  People 
in this country were bemused that inter-racial kissing, let alone 
inter-racial coupling, was a big no-no in US film and TV up until the 1970s.

This was also the reason that NZ had by far the biggest anti-aparthied 
movement in the world, in terms of size of demos and so on.  Most people 
in NZ find racial separation bizarre.

There was a quid pro quo, of course.  Namely, that under leaders like 
Seddon Maori land would continue to be taken by the government and that 
Maori language and customs would be abandoned.

That didn't change until the 1970s and the 1980s.  The advent of 
neo-liberal economics in NZ in the 1980s was coupled with the dusting 
off of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and the state making it the founding 
doucment of the country, and beginning an ongoing series of cash and 
property settlements for past land confiscations.  This has led to the 
emergence, for the first time in NZ, of a substantial Maori middle class 
and burgeoning bourgeoisie, while the average incomes of Maori workers 
have declined (as have those of pakeha workers).

In NZ, it was also the neo-liberal 'new right' of the 1980s and early 
1990s who introduced quotas and something resembling what is called 
'affirmative action' in the US.

(This is one reason why people like me in NZ and some radicals in the US 
sometimes speak at cross purposes.  A big chunk of what many American 
radicals support in the US was actually introduced in NZ by the 
neo-liberal new right and has fit very neatly with their free market 

> The Maori have a common language regardless of where in 
> New Zealand they reside. The tribes trace their ancestry to Polynesian 
> migrants about 800 AD or earlier and followed by other waves of 
> migration, the last major influx at about 1300 AD. 

Well, there's quite a bit of disagreement about this, but the general 
historic consensus now is that settlement was around 1000AD.  By about 
1200AD, the Polynesian population in NZ had developed a distinct 
culture, which was identifiably Maori.  In other words, a process of 
cultural adaptation to a new (and previously unpeopled land) over a 
200-year period led to the emergence of the Maori people as distinct 
from other groups of Polynesians in the Pacific.  By about 1500 another 
series of changes had brought about the 'classic' or 'traditional' Maori 
society which was confronted by Europeans, most especially the British, 
in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  (The first known European to turn up 
here, the Dutchman Abel Tasman, had his ship driven off by Maori and 
several of his crew died in the encounter.  Tasman made the mistake of 
having a bugle blown, which was the European signal for coming ashore, 
but which to Maori meant the signalling of an attack.)

>Tribes based on 
> family ancestry were further divided into subgroups that lived in 
> villages. They hunted, gathered, and practiced subsistence agriculture. 
> The public meeting house was the center of village life."

There were three units of classical Maori society.  Whanau or extended 
family; hapu or sub-tribe; and iwi or tribe.  The hapu was the most 
important unit and hapu from different iwi intermarried and so on, 
creating new tribal formations.  The society was quite dynamic and did 
not have rigid or fixed iwi, although, of course, European ehtnographers 
and so on, immediately, as in Africa, tried to identify hierarchies and 
fixed social formations like those in Europe.

> "Whale Rider" is a very convincing account of the Maori people to resist 
> assimilation. 

I can see why you would take this as the theme of the film.  I doubt 
many people in NZ would see this the theme, however.  You'll notice that 
the way of life of the local people is very much an integration of Maori 
and European culture.

Whiti Ihimaera, who wrote the short novel on which the film is based, is 
a gay Maori writer.  He wrote it as a work about inclusion and exclusion 
in Maori society, especially, in this case, about the position of women.

There are a number of important clues all the way through the film about 
how Pai is the one chosen by the ancestors to be the next leader, but 
which Koro, the current leader and her grandfather, is unable to see 
because of his rigid view of tradition.

When Pai's mother gives birth to Pai and her twin brother, she calls out 
the name of the founder of the tribe, the legendary Whale Rider, Paikea. 
  And and she and the twin brother die during the birth.  Her calling 
out of the name and her and the twin brother's death signify the 
importance of the girl's birth and that the ancestors are speaking 
through what the mother calls out and through the two deaths.  In the 
traditional Maori view of the cosmos, the idea of balance is vital.  So 
if someone incredibly powerful and possessing of potentially great mana 
is being born, someone else (or more than one person) must die, to 
maintain the balance.  Thus Pai's mother and her twin brother (who would 
have been the next leader as he is male) die.

So, these are the first signs that young Pai is to be a very important 

Koro doesn't understand any of this because his rigid view is that only 
males can be chief, and all he can do is be pissed off that the girl has 
survived and the boy has died.

The next sign of Paikea's importance is the scene where, years later, 
when she's 11 or 12, her and Koro are by the outboard engine and the 
chord snaps.  Koro is just explaining that the chord is like the 
structure of the tradition back to the ancestors, when the chord snaps. 
  He goes off to get some more chord, but Pai fixes the chord and gets 
the motor started.  This is the sign that while the male line has been 
broken, she is the one who is to rethread the link back to the ancestors 
and make it work.

Koro is merely annoyed that she has fixed the chord and tells her off, 
although you also gets the impression that he grasps something not quite 
right in his world view has just happened.

The rest of the film is about his attempts to find a new chief and the 
conflict between his love for his grand-daughter and his cruelty against 
her when she continuously crosses the line of 'proper' behaviour for a 
girl, and the unfolding of a further set of signs that she is the one 
who is supposed to be chief.

So, a sign of rightness for chieftainship is physical prowess.  Well, 
Pai beats Koro's favourite boy with the taiaha (a fighting stick) and 
Koro goes nuts.  He claims that by even being on the marae during his 
istruction of the boy, she (because she's a mere girl) has broken tapu 
(the sacredness of the place).

No boy is able to retrieve the whaletooth necklace from the sea, but Pai 

She beats everyone in oratory, at the public speaking contest, and 
oratory is another key apsect of chieftainship.

The night she is giving her speech and winning the public speaking 
contest, a school of whales comes ashore.

Koro misreads this as well.  He thinks they have come ashore and will 
die because Pai has broken tapu.  In fact they've come ashore because 
he's a silly old bugger who has missed the significance of every single 
sign that has so far been given that Pai should be the next leader.

While the village tries unsuccessfully to rescue the whales, and then 
retire for some rest, Pai climbs on the back of the lead whale which, it 
is suggested, is the whale that the legendary Pai(kea) rode to the shore 
hundreds of years before.  She rides the whale back to sea, and the 
other whales follow.  They all disappear, although Pai is eventually 
found at sea and taken to hospital.

Koro now realises that he has been a fool and that she has been sent by 
the ancestors to be the next leader.

I thought this was very moving emotionally and visually stunning.  Most 
of the overseas students (18 or 19 years old) whom I took to see it, 
mainly Chinese, were very moved and some even cried.  Several of the 
pakeha teachers cried.

However, there is also something quite pernicious about the film in my 
view.  This was summed up by one of my Maori fellow teachers who 
wouldn't go to see it on principle because she found it so objectionable 
and offensive: namely, the idea that it is fine for Maori to be 
impoverished because they are spiritual.  For some time, I wouldn't go 
and see it either.  However, as a teacher I got a chance to see it for 
free with my students, and eventually gave in and went to see it.)

In NZ over the past 20 years there has been a massive Maori cultural 
revival and embrace of aspects of Maori culture, at the formal level, by 
the state.  You can't swing a cat in this country without running into 
state-sponsored Maori culture.  All this has been done *under 
neo-liberal economics*.  The reason is that Maori are being fobbed off 
with (fairly reified and carefully chosen)) bits of culture and 
spirituality to make up for increased socio-economic deprivation.

It's also quite an effective tool of social control.  Instead of having 
to repress poor urban Maori youth with police batons, you entrap them 
within what you tell them is their culture.

The ruling class here is quite frightened of the specter of Maori youth 
becoming like urban black youth in the USA - who are seen by our rulers 
here as being 'decultured' - and rioting in the streets.  So the use of 
Maori culture by the state (with a gravy train of Maori and liberal 
pakeha race relations consultants, educators, lawyers and so on) is 
quite important in preventing this and exercising social control.

> The public meeting house of Pai's village is where most of 
> the dramatic scenes take place. This is a film for anybody with a young 
> daughter who might be encountering confining sexual roles in school or 
> in the neighborhood. It is also for anybody who wants to see fine 
> performances in an uplifting film. Strongly recommended.

Yes, I think this is the inspiring part of the film.  Also, I especially 
like it that the actress actually plays her own age.  She was 12 when 
she did the film and she played the part of a 12 year-old.  I find it 
bizarre that US movies and TV series continually use adults to play 
adolescents (Beverly Hills 90210; Party of Five; Dawson's Creek; etc etc 
etc).  It symbolises the way in which US capitalist culture is almost 
pathologically hostile to any sort of authenticity.

Philip Ferguson

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