Analysis of Witi Ihimaeras 'The Whale Rider' on the basis of Postcolonial Theory

Term Paper, 2009

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Colonial and Postcolonial History of New Zealand
2.1. New Zealand literature

3. Construction of the Novel
3.1. Main characters
3.2. Structure of the novel

4. Analysis on terms of Postcolonial Theory
4.1. Translation and memory.
4.2. Identity, diaspora and hybridity
4.3. Aspects of gender

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Maori writing of Aotearoa/ New Zealand is considered as a distinct category on its own, inflected by its unique relationship with the Pākehā (European) settler culture, whose continuing presence in Aotearoa denies Maori `postcolonial´ status.”[1]

According to this there are several famous Maori writers who introduce their culture and traditions within their writing.

Witi Ihimaera is one of these Maori writers who was born in 1944. His work includes novels, short stories, and anthropological works. Central to Ihimaera’s fiction is the examination of the concerns of the Maori culture and the return to traditional values. Therefor he sensitivly captures the particular nuances contained within Maori society. In 1987 Ihimaera wrote the novel The Whale Rider which was turned into a movie in 2003 by Niki Caro and opened a huge acclaim and interest to Maori culture throughout the world. Ihimaera himself said his novel to be a “a modern retelling of a Maori legend” creating the central figure as a female “in response to his daughter's complaining about the boy always being the hero”[2]. The Whale Rider novel appears somehow like a modern tale.

The story is about a young Maori girl called Kahu who is the granddaughter of Koro Apirana, chief of a Maori tribe. While Koro is desperate about not having a male grandchild he starts to look for a male successor amongst his tribe, unaware that Kahu has the aptitudes which a chief requires. Because of his blindness and frustration Koro abandons Kahu. For the action the story of the whales plays an important role. The whales are strongly connected with Koro´s Maori tribe by his ancestor and whale rider Paikea. A herd of whales which is leaded by the ancient whale which Paikea rode is heading towards New Zealand troubled by changes in their environment. They stranded on the beach in front of the Maori village and the people tried to get the whales out to the sea again but they fail. Kahu manages to lead them back to the sea by riding the ancient bull whale. Koro now realizes that Kahu is the true successor with the right characteristics to be a leader, regardless of age and gender and ensures the salvation of her village.

The Whale Rider novel is a positive and sensitive representation of Maori culture and several terms from the postcolonial theory can be determined within the novel. That is why it appears to me worth analysing this text in the context of postcolonial literary studies which is the purpose of this term paper. In chapter 1 I will give a short summary about the colonial and postcolonial history of New Zealand and its postcolonial literature tradition. Chapter 2 deals with the novel´s main characters and the narrative structure while Chapter 3 detects the features of postcolonial theory which are embedded in the story.

2. Colonial and Postcolonial History of New Zealand

Although the history of New Zealand is rather short, nonetheless it was very rapidly. Within 1000 years two peoples appeared on the islands: the Polynesian Maori and later the New Zealanders originated in Europe.

Archaeological records date the landfall of the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori back to the time between 800 and 1300 AD. It is not quite clear where the ancestors exactly came from but the racial, mythological and linguistic resemblance to Polynesian nations such as Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands are obvious. The Maori called the discovered country Aotearoa which is commonly translated as `land of the long white cloud´, according to the legend, Maori explorer Kupe and his wife Hine-te-Aparangi discovered the country after catching sight of a long plume of cloud hanging over the land.

The first contact between Maori and the `world outside´ occurred in the year 1642 when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman `discovered´ New Zealand. As it was the case in many other parts of the Pacific, early encounters between Europeans and Maori were often marked by misunderstanding and mutual hostility. When Abel Tasman and his crew first visited Golden Bay (on the South Island), Maori interpreted a trumpet call from the Europeans as a formal challenge and killed four crew members before Tasman retreated and sailed away. Not till 1769 the contact between Europeans and Maori was renewed when British (leaded by James Cook) and French (leaded by Jean de Surville) discoverers landed. James Cook established comparatively good relations with Maori, but his first contact with Maori at Poverty Bay was also marked by bloodshed: in this case, Maori were killed after Cook´s crew misinterpreted Maori ceremonial protocol as hostility. The early decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the arrival of increasing numbers of European missionaries and traders in Aotearoa. In 1837 a colonization scheme was founded which transported large numbers of Britons ton planned settlements throughout Aotearoa. The venture was threatened by a developing French interest in colonizing the country and pressure from settlers and missionaries which persuaded the British government to annex Aotearoa in 1840. The Europeans needed the protection of the Maori, their food and their manpower while Maori needed European goods, foremost musketry. On February 6th in 1840 45 Maori chiefs and the British government signed the Treaty of Waitangi in which the Maori would cede sovereignty to the British monarch and channel all sales of land through representatives of the Crown. In exchange, Maori would be guaranteed full proprietorship over their remaining lands, and would enjoy the same rights and privileges as all British subjects. Those Maori who signed the treaty were unaware of the fact that there were significant differences between the English- and Maori-language versions of the Treaty `text´.

Increasing numbers of European settlers arrived throughout the 1850s, outnumbering the Maori population by 1858. Because of the growing number of settlers the demand for land was growing while the reluctance among Maori to sell their land increased. A series of battles culminated in 5 North Island `land wars´ which raged between Maori, settlers, and government between the 1840s and the 1870s which was not solved until a final peace agreement was made in 1881. “By the 1870s, when Maori military resistance to colonization had virtually collapsed, most remaining land was in European hands, and by 1890 the few remaining pockets of Maori land were located mainly in isolated Maori rural communities in the North Island.”[3] Until the 1890s the number of European settlers increased to more than 500.000 while the Maori population was reduced by war and diseases from 100.000 (in 1769) to 42.000. Yet Maori military resistance during the land wars also produced some positive effects. A variety of legislation was passed in the mid-to-late 1860s aimed at bringing Maori within the same property and legal codes as settlers: a Native Land Court and Maori justice provisions were established; special English-medium schools for Maori were founded; and 1867 saw the granting of Maori male suffrage and the provision of four Maori seats in parliament. These measures clearly afforded Maori a degree of participation in the settler state and polity which was much more progressive in comparison to Australian Aboriginal politics.

Not only in Maori politics New Zealand acted in a progressive way but also by political equality of woman and national welfare reforms. The Liberal government which was elected in 1890 served to promote an image of New Zealand as a progressive socio-political laboratory both at home and abroad. Already in 1893 woman were granted the right to vote and various welfare reforms like minimum wage structures, child health services and old-age pensions were introduced from the 1890s.

From the beginning of the 20th century a `process of indigenization´ of the settlers[4] arose. It was marked by the evolution of the term `New Zealander´[5] and the implementation of a national flag, “thus introducing one of the most iconic symbols of national identity”[6] in 1901. Six years later, in 1907, New Zealand gained Dominion status and in 1947 complete independence from the British Crown but remained a member of the Commonwealth with the British Monarch as constitutional but not governing head of state. After its history as colonized country New Zealand also operated as colonialist force within the Pacific by the annexation of the Cook Islands and Niue in 1901, and later acquisitions of Western Samoa in 1914 and Tokelau in 1925. All these facts together with a growing economy and the involvement of New Zealand troops (of both settlers and Maori people) in the South African, First and Second World Wars were sources of a growing national pride and identity.

Since the beginning of the 19th century and thus the increasing number of European settlers and their requirement for land there has been Maori resistance to Pākehā (Maori word for white European settlers) political hegemony. Beginning with the King Movement in 1858, when the first Maori-king was determined and later followed by several prophets who drew a direct parallel between the colonial oppression of the Maori and the persecution of the Israelites in Egypt and established new religious movements such as the Ringatū faith[7]. The most important Maori movements emerged after the Second World War and later on in the 1970s when the Maori population increased again. The 70s movement became known as the Maori Renaissance. It was caused by the process of urbanization which led to a large-scale migration of Maori from their rural communities into Pākehā-dominated cities and thus creating a number of social pressures as discrimination in employment, housing provisions and public services. Maori activists advocated the concept of biculturalism instead of the governments `integration´ policy of cultural assimilation. One of the most remarkable protests was the Maori Land March of 1975 when thousands of Maori walked 640 kilometres from the far north to New Zealands capital Wellington in protest against continuing expropriation of Maori land. In 1977 the Waitangi Tribunal was formed under the Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975 to investigate accusations of the governments handling with Maori land claims. Until the beginning of the 21st century several amends for Maori people were made by the Pākehā government such as reparation payments for removed Maori land or the cultural integration of Maori traditions into New Zealands society which is known as the concept of `Maoritanga´ (Maoriness).


[1] Keown, Michelle (2007): Pacific Islands writing. The postcolonial literatures of Aotearoa/New Zealand and Oceania. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press (Oxford studies in postcolonial literatures), p. 110

[2] Mottesheard, Ryan (June 6, 2003): Girl Power: New Zealand Writer/ Director Niki Caro Talks About `Whale Rider´. Interview with Niki Caro., p. 1

[3] Fischer, Steven Roger (2005): A history of the Pacific Islands. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave (Palgrave essential histories), p. 127-8.

[4] Williams, Mark (1997): Crippled by Geography? New Zealands Nationalisms. in: Murray, Stuart (Ed.): Not on any map. Essays on postcoloniality and cultural nationalism. Exeter: Univ. of Exeter Press (Exeter studies in American and Commonwealth arts), p. 19–42 p. 22

[5] Ibid.

[6] McLeod, John (2000): Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press (Beginnings), p. 69

[7] The Ringatū faith was established in the 1880s by the healer and prophet Te Kooti. In 1905 he was followed by Rua Kenana

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Analysis of Witi Ihimaeras 'The Whale Rider' on the basis of Postcolonial Theory
Technical University of Darmstadt  (Institut für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft)
Postcolonial Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Analysis, Witi, Ihimaeras, Whale, Rider, Postcolonial, Theory
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Nancy Reinhardt (Author), 2009, Analysis of Witi Ihimaeras 'The Whale Rider' on the basis of Postcolonial Theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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