by Mark Mentzer, Brian Brown,
Ashley Tipton, and Ann Gallagher
Paikea. Rider of whales. Founder of an island people. His legacy has been passed on generation after generation, father to son, in an unbroken line of chiefs. But what happens when that line is broken? Can a young girl overcome ancient tradition to carry on the legacy of her ancestor and her namesake? In the movie Whale Rider, adapted from the book written by one of the most prominent Māori authors, Witi Tame Ihimaera-Smiler, the future clashes with the past as young Paikea challenges her traditional grandfather by demonstrating her desire to follow in his footsteps as the next chief. With the support of her grandmother and uncle, Paikea covertly learns the ways of being a leader while her grandfather stubbornly tries to find a boy from the village worthy to be the next chief. But it isn’t until a group of whales gets beached on shore that Paikea proves herself. Paikea’s journey to bridge the gap between the traditional and modern worlds is difficult and full of conflict, but through perseverance and drive, she is able to unite her family and her people.
Whale Rider is not simply a compelling coming of age story, however. Serious social issues and complex characters provide a realistic balance to the mystical aspects of the story. One of the dominant themes found in Whale Rider is that of gender bias. Koro’s refusal to acknowledge Paikea’s ability to be a leader most clearly reflects his bias favoring male leadership. Other themes include exploring the untraditional skills that children learn in their community known as “Funds of Knowledge” and comparing the effectiveness of different teaching styles (Moll et al, 1992). Adding to the movie’s substance is the complexity given to the characters. Paikea, Koro, and Nanny can each be described by various theories of development including Kohlberg’s stages of Moral Reasoning and Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development (Snowman and McCown, 2015).
Compelling, provocative, and inspiring - Whale Rider is a movie that entertains while providing a realistic, but optimistic reflection of the Māori people’s struggle to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity.
Moll, L.C., Amanti, C, Neff, D., and Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2): 131-141.
Snowman, J. and McCown, R. (2015). Addressing cultural and socioeconomic diversity. In Psychology Applied to Teaching (pp. 150-190). Stamford, USA: Cengage Learning.