Geography, tattoo and the human face are the three first signifiers to identifying meaning and expression and the human. Witi Ihimaera, in “The Whale Rider uses all three to depict the story of a young female Maori who’s been born with the gift of the tribe’s founder for communicating with nature, more importantly with whales. Kahutia Te Rangi, the whale rider, is the ancestor of the Maori and Kahu his direct descendent.
Through the history of when and how Whangara, where the Maori’s reside, was founded and established the imagery of the setting gives insight on the impact it has on the importance of Kahu to the Maori people.
Our genealogy is the genealogy of the people of Te Tai Rawhiti, the people of the East Coast. Far away beyond the horizon is Hawaiki, our ancestral island homeland, the place of the Ancients and the Gods, and the other side of the world. In between is the huge seamless marine continent that we call Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, the Great Ocean of Kiwa.
This is the indication of many islands and clusters of land surrounded by heavy tropical bodies of water; bodies of water with an abundance of wildlife inhabitant. The Maori are a deeply spiritual and traditional tribe that relies on the healthy relationship they establish with nature to continue to help the people prosper. Kahutia Te Rangi settled in Whangara, upon his whale, “and brought with him the life-giving forces that would enable us to live in close communion with the world.” Maori respect what the land and sea has to offer and in turn remain grateful for them. The presence of the abundance of land and sea aides in the understanding of the importance of communication and oneness in tribal culture. But, in the recent years around the birth of Kahu, the Maori have lost their ability to communicate successfully with nature and the whales. Kahu who possesses that innate gift helps to reestablish this connection.
For Kahu getting the tribe, and more importantly the chief, her great-grandfather Koro Apriana, to accept and recognize her gift is complicated because of gender signifiers. Koro Apriana is a strong traditional believer that the descents of the hierarchy be male, unless the tribe will perish. When first finding out that Kahu was female he disgustedly proclaimed, “A girl. I will have nothing to do with her. She has broken the male line of decent in our tribe.” Koro Apriana at that time was unaware of Kahu’s gift and his attitude towards her stayed unchanging throughout. In fact the gender of Kahu was the primary cause of distress for Koro and the entire tribe. It was because of Koro’s rejection of Kahu that threw off the balance of sea and human kind. Others in Kahu’s family, her Uncle Rawiri and her Nanny Flowers, Koro’s wife, saw the potential in Kahu but were never successful in convincing Koro. Instead Koro blamed Nanny Flowers for the reason the tribe may parish because of her strong female side. Kahu’s gender is a representation of her human face. Her face, as well as her body, is female however she proves to be a cohabitation of male and female. She’s kind, gentle and carrying but has the ability to be a leader and a ruler of the sea. In Kahu is the oneness that the Maori ancestors believe produces a great communion.
Koro’s inability to look past Kahu’s gender is because of his traditional tattoo. Koro is one of the eldest in the tribe. He strongly believes in the male influence as the determiners of the Maori and offers instructions on Maori tradition as well as language to only males in Whangara. A tattoo is permanent so Kahu’s birth didn’t hold any value to Koro because she was female she did not fit into tradition; she was not a part of the tattoo. Koro also often dismisses suggestions from Nanny Flowers because she is a women and he looks strongly to the males of the tribe to satisfy his need for the men to stay strong. In one of Koro’s instructions he took the young men out on a boat, past the bay where the water would suddenly turn dark green. Koro dropped a carved stone into the ocean and proclaimed, “One of you must bring that stone back to me.” None of the young pupils were able to retrieve the stone for Koro and his hope was lost and he was broken from not being able to see a powerful future for the Maori. Koro was looking for the next generation of the tattoo among his pupils but they were not there. The significant detail apart of tradition was Kahu; a communion of male and female and nature and humankind. Shortly after seen Koro upset Kahu set out and retrieved the stone for him. This marked the first of a series of miraculous things Kahu would do for Koro and the tribe.