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Whale Rider  




     The main technique for consideration of the developmental, educational, and cultural issues raised by the depiction of Māori culture in the movie, Whale Rider, was through repeated viewings of the film. Next questions raised by depiction were investigated employing primary source references. For issues of cultural interpretation deference to statements made by Māori people were accepted as authoritative and knowledgeable.

The movie was evaluated scene by scene looking for depictions of development, education, and culture. Each scene is briefly described with accompanying notes, and a subjective indication of the overall negative vs. positive implications of the scene. Sometimes the negative implications were related to misunderstandings, poor interpersonal interactions, moments of stress; issues advancing the story-line. These negative interactions were unrelated to Māori culture.

     The entirety of the story takes place in New Zealand. With the exception of scenes in the hospital and photos of a German girl-friend presumed to be taken in Germany, the story is set and filmed in the village of Whangara. Scenes in the movie suggest a community centered on the ocean and the Māori community. Some of the harder scenes highlight problems Māori people experience including unemployment, illegal activity, drug use, and the consequences of poor access to healthcare, higher rates of infant mortality, disease, and suicide (Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the UN 2009).

     Other scenes in the movie, on the surface, seem to be depicting typical human interactions. Even these scenes include important Māori elements (Victoria University of Wellington, 2013).When Pai’s father arrives during her recitation in the marae he was careful to enter quietly, discretely, and avoids giving offense to the honored speaker, Pai. Later, Nanny’s direction to Shilo to help in the kitchen is a directive and an invitation. Including Shilo in food preparation is inviting her to be involved in creating community harmony. What seem like occurrences found throughout the world have uniquely Māori customary behaviors, takanga, in this movie.

     The clear reverence for important objects such as the taiaha is best explained by the Ministry of Justice, New Zealand. (n.d.) 


"Animate and inanimate objects have a direct genealogical link with the kawai tipuna [Revered ancestor of disaster and death], particularly Tane [a creator god], whose attempts to produce the human element resulted in all these things. The tapu [taboo] of humans, animate and inanimate objects is about the relationship between the physical and spiritual realm."


     Further exploration of Māori cultural references (Māori Organization., n.d) support the interpretation of a highly informed and respectful depiction of Māori culture. Attire, markings, traditional chants occurring for appropriate reasons in appropriate places are all supported by depictions written by Māori people about their culture. Therefore educational and developmental depictions in the Whale Rider are not invested with layers of cultural confusion and can reasonably be evaluated for their application to the human condition rather than as only unique for the Māori condition.

     Only one prominent element of Māori leadership seems glaringly absent in this film: conflict resolution. Whiti Love, M. (2007) describes the importance of a group resolution to tribal issues with extensive periods of verbal recitation making no reference to the main problem. Throughout Whale Rider, the chief carries the burden of finding a solution to the leadership vacuum by himself. Although not directly referenced in the film a reading of Whiti Love implies a leadership problem beyond the recognition of some in the audience by culturally familiar to Māori people.

     Much of the culture promulgated to the pre-teens is rooted in a framework of tradition. The Māori myths and traditions form a strong influence on cultural determined ethical behaviors. There is an undercurrent of defiance as the villagers slowly and collective come to terms with the concept of gender equality, as Paikea asserts herself in a leadership role. Even as she is gradually accepted for her wisdom, intelligence, and ability, she gently asserts an equality of collective leadership, with a shared voice for the future.

     Throughout Whale Rider Paikea respects tradition, while independently, non-traditionally pursuing her passion for the ancient ways. Her complex childhood development was influenced by conflicting gender expectations of her family, her community, and her innate ability to bring people together in traditional ways.  While ethical frameworks are built upon moral principles, Paikea was able to demonstrate, through her age-appropriate physical abilities and capable cognitive powers, that perhaps traditional ethical structures should be reevaluated for the good of the community.

The acceptance of a female chief signifies the changing anthropological processes. Students, like Paikea, are products of socialization but they also have an impact on their environment (Rogoff, 2003). As active participants children help to recreate their own environments (Chase, 2008). Thus, Paikea was able to create change in her community through her gradual testing of traditional values.  She also tested traditional gender roles in her emergent leadership assertions.

     Chase (2008) asserts that “gendered behaviors and meanings are cultural and historic creations.” p. 8 To her grandfather, Paikea represented symbolic opposition to the rigidly-held traditions of her elders.  Her accomplishments and community actions finally established the change in her community needed for restoration of harmony and group unity of purpose, an important component of Māori culture (Māori Organization. n.d.). As Paikea became recognized as leader of her community she redefined leadership to include a sharing of burdens to build a stronger society.

      Many attributes of the teens portrayed in the movie represent familiar behaviors of questioning, assertion of traditional roles, and testing concepts – sometimes disrespectfully. One teen indicated he wants to "get out of this dump," while others passively resist the teachings of the old ways. Other teens are not able or are unmotivated to seek traditional honors, culminating in refusal by two of the students to search for the whale tooth, an important symbol of leadership. Paikea is forced to learn the traditions through the school window and by engaging her uncle in lessons with the traditional taiaha. Developmentally appropriate, yet offensive to Koro, Pai “mess[ed] around with the ancient traditions" which culminated in the rhetorical question "who is to blame for the beaching of a pod of whales. Only Paikea can save the whale pod as only Pai is the rightful chief of her people. Launching her father’s completed ceremonial boat, a waka in her honor as chief, acknowledges Paikea’s leadership and equality, bringing the community “all together” once again.  




Brown University. (n.d.). Teaching Diverse Learners. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from


Chase, S.  (2008). Perfectly prep- Gender extremes at a New England prep school. New York. Oxford University Press.


Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the UN. (2009). State of the World's Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from


Maori Oranization. (n.d.). Maori Culture. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from


Ministry of Justice, New Zealand. (2001). Mana and Tapu. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from


Rogoff, B.  (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York. Oxford University Press.


Victoria University of Wellington. (n.d.). Tikanga tips for learning and teaching. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from


Whiti Love, M. (2007). A Traditional Maori form of dispute resolution. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from Reports Papers/Cultural Resources Management/dispute_res.pdf



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