New Zealand has been going through a rare state of popularity with young Americans of late. The Lord of the Rings saga has been filmed there, and I have even seen some contests on television offering trip to New Zealand to be a part of that epic work.
Whale Rider involves a more realistic presentation of New Zealand, and, at the same time, is a great story with multicultural themes.
What you get to see is Whangara on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. This is a small Maori community that enjoys one wonderful view of the ocean. The hills have some roughness to them, and the view of the world is widescreen in nature. The Maori, being Polynesian, have a traditional focus on the ocean. Their whole culture is based on its relationship to the sea.
What you get to enjoy and appreciate is the story of a Maori girl who challenges the gender and historic circumstances of her family and people. Her grandfather is a Maori chief. He is troubled by the loss of concern and respect for the traditions of his people. His son is an artist involved in marketing Maori art in Germany. The son seems to have no interest in his potential tribal position and in village life. There are few of postmodern economic prospects to be found in the remote village. Also, his son died at birth. In sorrow he left his son's twin sister to be raised by the Grandfather. The daughter is interested. Her name is Piekia.
Piekia is drawn to her culture. She embodies everything the chief seeks, but is a twelve-year-old woman. The Grandfather has trouble accepting her role in the group's future until several whales are beached. While this process is not understood, and research continues on this phenomenon, the whales have a traditional importance in Maori culture. Peikia understands this and takes over to save the whales, finally riding one back to the sea. This is so significant to the village as it recalls that the Maori came to New Zealand guided by another Peikia riding a whale.
The issue, which few Americans would know, is that the Maori are a Polynesian group that reversed the route by which they penetrated the Pacific. Arising out of Southeast Asia, the Polynesians settled the South Pacific migrating from island to island as their population reached its maximum on each progressive island. Eventually they turned north and settled Hawaii. Around 1000 AD, the Maori settled New Zealand by reversing that path. From "Hawaiki" they sailed to the southwest. However, "Hawaiki" is a little mysterious. Once I read it was Hawaii, but the Cook Islands seem to be the more current choice.
Whale Rider is a great story, with great geography. It links feminist issues with geography, anthropology, and multiculturalism. It illustrates the limited postmodern futures of native cultures caught in remote locations without good prospects in the global economy. It also shows the beauty and flaws of a far off place.
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2003. Geography in Media: Whale Rider. Dakota Alliance XIII(5): November-December 2003: 7.