The Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors: Maori identity in modern New Zealand

The Whale Rider, Witi Ihimaera, 1987

  • New Zealand, # 8
  • Paperback, borrowed from Brent Library, London
  • Read June 2015
  • Rating: 5/5
  • Recommended for: optimistic environmentalists

Once Were Warriors, Alan Duff, 1990

  • New Zealand, #9
  • Kindle, £7.19
  • Read May 2015
  • Rating: 4/5
  • Opening line: Bastard, she’d think, looking out her back kitchen window.
  • Recommended for: pessimistic social justice warriors
  • Not recommended for: The faint of heart

California, 2005

OK, this has gone on long enough. Probably no one has noticed that it’s been two months since the last time I wrote a blog post, but it’s become a source of great angst and stress. I have an excuse: right after the last blog post, I found out I was pregnant, and then almost immediately after finding out I started feeling wretched and tired. I’ve spent a very large portion of the last two months sleeping and watching old episodes of The X-Files on Netflix. But now I feel better and have no excuse except that the longer it goes, the more pressure I feel to make this blog post AWESOME so it will have been worth the wait. But you know what, that’s not working for me. So I’m just going to bang it out, and this blog post probably won’t be awesome, so I apologize in advance. Just in case it’s so bad that nobody wants to read beyond this paragraph, I want to say now: These two books are fantastic and I highly recommend them to everybody (except probably don’t read Once Were Warriors if you’re feeling depressed (unless reading about other people’s misery makes you feel better about your own situation, which I never found true for me when I was depressed–thinking about how much worse things could be just made me feel panicky–but to each his own)).

Anyway. Stylistically, these two books have little in common. Once Were Warriors is a depressing work of gritty realism that deals with poverty, racism, physical and sexual abuse, juvenile delinquency, and gangs. The Whale Rider is a fable about a young girl who inherits the ability to talk to whales from a mythical tribal ancestor and must convince her traditionalist grandfather that being a girl does not disqualify her from being her people’s next leader. But despite the differences in tone and tack, at the heart of both works lies the same issue: how to preserve and restore Maori identity in the face of the displacement and change of the modern era.

California, 2004

These two books follow on from Maori Girl, showing the results of several generations of oppression and unequal opportunity. Once Were Warriors takes place in the slums of Auckland, centering around the alcoholic, fight-loving Jake Heke (nicknamed “Jake the Muss” for his strength and ferocity in bar fights), his abused wife Beth (and incidentally I found this a much more believable portrait of an abusive relationship than we had in The Bone People), and their children. It’s pretty much unrelentingly tragic. The people in this book are so disenfranchised and divorced from their own culture that they are lost and loveless. Gangs provide the only sense of belonging; fighting is the outlet for instincts that used to be vital to Maori warriors; singing (an essential element of Maori culture) is too embarrassing to do unless dead drunk. I won’t go into all the terrible things that happen to the central family, but the picture that emerges is one of a society broken almost beyond repair. When we get a glimpse of the possibility of redemption, it comes in the form of a complete rejection of European values and traditions, a return to tribalism and the traditional Maori way of life. Belonging, companionship, singing, dancing, traditional religious rites–these are the things that seem to save some of the characters in this book. Yet it is an incomplete solution. It is too late for some. And Duff himself brings up the fact that pre-European Maori society was also strictly stratified. Families were enslaved, whole generations, with no hope of social mobility. Is this a price that must be paid for the greater good of peaceful and functioning society? Or is Duff proposing a neo-tribalism, with new ideas of justice and equality applied over the traditional ways of life? It isn’t clear. Perhaps it isn’t meant to be prescriptive, but rather descriptive, a documentation of the sufferings of a subjugated people. It’s not a hopeful book; some of the characters end with lives marginally improved, and some are much worse off.

The Whale Rider, on the other hand, is fairly optimistic. It’s the story of a young girl called Kahu and her great-grandfather, Koro Apirina, the leader of her tribe. When Kahu is born, Koro Apirina is disappointed that she is a girl and enraged that her father Porourangi has the audacity to nevertheless name her after the tribe’s mythical founder, the whale rider. Without a male heir to lead the tribe in the future, Koro Apirina attempts to find a successor from among the young boys in the tribe, fighting against encroaching modernity that makes tradition more and more difficult to uphold. To the reader, it is immediately obvious that Kahu is destined to be the next leader, and that she has inherited the whale rider’s legendary abilities. But Koro Apirina, blinded by traditionalism, cannot see that a girl could be his true heir.

Anaheim, 2005

The Whale Rider has been marketed as a children’s or young-adult book, and you can see why someone might think that at a cursory glance. There are sentient animals! The main character is a young girl! It has positive messages about environmentalism and gender equality! But there is a lot of depth here, and some very adult issues being grappled with (not to mention quite a bit of bloody death–both animal and human–that I think makes it pretty inappropriate for anyone under a mature 10). Kahu’s uncle Rawiri, the book’s narrator, muses about some of the issues:

In his later letters, Porourangi wrote about the problems he felt were facing the Maori people. He had gone with Koro Apirana to Raukawa country and had been very impressed with the way Raukawa was organizing its youth resources to be in a position to help the people in the twenty-first century. ‘Will we be ready?’ he asked. ‘Will we have prepared the people to cope with the new challenges and the new technology? And will they still be Maori?’ I could tell that this last question was weighing heavily on his mind.

The issue of how to embrace tradition–how to preserve one’s national and tribal identity–while moving forward with the changing world is at the heart of this story, and one that I think many indigenous peoples face in the modern world. How much do you integrate? How can you take advantage of the benefits of modernity without losing what makes you unique, and without adopting the negative aspects of a colonizing culture? Rawiri travels to Papua New Guinea and compares the struggles of the indigenous peoples there (having to advance, as he puts it, thousands of years in a single generation) with those facing the Maori at home:

In many respects the parallels [of Papua New Guinea] with the Maori in New Zealand were very close, except that we didn’t have to advance as many years in one lifetime. However, our journey was possibly more difficult because it had to be undertaken within European terms of acceptability. We were a minority and much of our progress was dependent on European goodwill.

And European goodwill is a tenuous thing. While staying with a white family in Papua New Guinea, Rawiri witnesses them run down a local Papuan in a car. While he mourns the man, who he viewed as an adopted uncle, the family refuse to stop the car for fear of retribution from the dead man’s people. For the Maori to adopt these “European” characteristics of cowardice and inhumanity would certainly be a great cultural loss.

Oxford, 2012

But trying to cling to the ancient traditions without allowing for change is not working. The tribe is in trouble, and the whales to whom they are profoundly linked (and who serve as a metaphor both for the tribe and for the Maori people as a whole) are also faltering. The seas are empty; humans, who were supposed to be their protectors, have become exploiters and destroyers. The whales’ ancient nursery grounds are destroyed by nuclear blasts, and their leader is as bull-headed and traditionalist as Koro Apirina himself. When the whales begin beaching themselves along the shores of New Zealand, it becomes clear that change is necessary.

The Whale Rider is not prescriptive. Talking to whales and getting their advice is hardly practical for most modern-day Maoris. But it seems to offer a glimpse of a solution—to simultaneously embrace change and to go back, more deeply, more thoroughly, to one’s roots. Kahu is the ancient chief reborn and in this way she embodies a deep traditionalism; and yet she is a girl, and so something entirely new. To refuse to accept change is a kind of death—like the bull whale, who pines for his former master, who refuses to see that his new rider is something different entirely, who would cause the death of his entire herd if he weren’t made to see and embrace the differences. We see some of this in Rawiri’s motorcycle gang. Gangs are a malevolent presence in Once Were Warriors, a perversion of the Maori sense of community. But in Whale Rider, Rawiri’s motorcycle gang becomes a literal force for good, riding their bikes to the rescue of the beached whales, fighting off both whites and Maoris alike who would seek to exploit and destroy the animals.

Embracing change is what allows tradition to continue. Koro’s insistence that things remain as they have for centuries, that a boy must carry on the tradition of his people, nearly causes the culture to die out. It is only when he is finally able to accept Kahu, a girl, as a viable leader that he can see that she embodies all of the ancient tradition and knowledge of the tribe. It is an important lesson somehow, and yet difficult to grasp. Like trying to understand the words in the song of a whale. That you must look at change, without being threatened, and see the ways in which this change can help preserve your history. To adapt and grow and yet never to forget the old ways, the history, the stories, that make your people who they are.

Seychelles, 2007

5 thoughts on “The Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors: Maori identity in modern New Zealand

  1. Love the blogs. I watched the movie Whale Rider when it was required for a daughter’s class long ago but now must read the book.
    When I was in New Zealand in ’79 it seemed that rugby was a common bond for many of the Maori men. I wonder if women’s rugby has been accepted in New Zealand as it has in the states.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s