Monday, September 13, 2010

A Second Coming of Tradition

The second half of The Whale Rider gives a very definite answer to the conundrum of how to keep tradition alive in a modern setting. Although throughout the presented history of the Maori tribe there is a tradition of male dominance, it takes the intervention of a young girl to save the tribe. This deviation from traditional norms is met with no resistance; only a sense of disappointment from Koro, who realizes how stubborn he truly has been only after Kahu saves the tribe. Thus, Ihimaera uses Kahu as a tool, and in many ways a female Christ figure, to delineate the need for modernization of many traditions, in particular those that involve some form of gender discrimination.

This part of the book begins with Rawiri’s return. He returns to an older Kahu, and Koro’s attitude towards her begins to reflect in how she looks at herself: “Sometimes I wish I weren’t a girl” (83). When Koro does not attend her school ceremony, she blames it on herself, not Koro: “It’s not Paka’s fault, Nanny, that I’m a girl” (87). Even though part of her is a child constantly beaten down by her own family, another part continues to show the eventual destiny she fulfills, such as when she retrieves the stone from the bottom of the ocean. When she does this, she shows a oneness with nature—as she does at other times in the book—that foreshadows her eventual importance: “Kahu seemed to say ‘down here?’ and the dolphins made a nodding motion…She kissed the dolphins good-bye” (91).

As the time draws near for the climactic event of the book, Kahu remains calm while the Koro, the old man, the traditional male leader of the tribe, is in a state of panic: “Koro Apirana was pale and upset…’something’s going on,’ Koro Apirana whispered. ‘I don’t know what it is. But something—‘ ‘It’s all right,’ Kahu soothed. ‘It will be all right, Paka’ (109). Kahu shows the type of leadership you would expect from Koro, but in this case it is coming from a young girl.

Ihimaera solidifies Kahu’s importance as a leader with the events that follow, especially in that she constantly reinforces Kahu’s identity as a Christ-like figure for the Maori people. As Rawiri approaches Whangara he sees a cloud and, much like the star over Bethlehem, he has “the strangest feeling that its center was just above the village” (111). Then, as the remainder of the village panics and wonders how they will save themselves, Kahu, as Christ does, struggles with her fate but eventually gives herself up for the good of her people: “Quietly, Kahu began to weep…she also wept because she didn’t know what dying was like” (129). But after a swing of emotions, she decides to do what she must and tells the whale to “Let the people live” (130). Koro realizes after Kahu descends with the whales that she has saved them all, and curses himself for being so foolish and stubborn with his beliefs all along. In a final Christ-like comparison, Kahu returns from the sea, the “other world” for the Maori, to earth after “Three days…after Kahu had been given up for dead” (144).

Ihimaera uses Kahu as a tool to convey that female leadership is something that can work and needs to work in order for a modern version of traditional leadership to be possible. Although she presents many struggles for Kahu and Koro, the two opposing ends of the spectrum on this topic, the debate is eventually reconciled and Koro, though he is “deaf, dumb, blind, and stubborn” (145) throughout the book, realizes Kahu’s importance to the Maori society.

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