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SUBJECTS — New Zealand; ELA, including characterization, symbol, and foil;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Breaking Out; Female Role Model;


AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference;

Drama; 101 minutes; Color.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes; and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.


Paikea Apirana’s grandfather is the Chief of a small Maori tribe in modern-day New Zealand. Maori tradition provides that only first born sons can be chief. However, Pai’s father, the next in line, has declined to accept the role. If Pai had a brother, he would become chief, but her only brother, her twin, died at birth, along with their mother. Although Pai’s grandfather, Koro, loves his granddaughter, he is determined to find a male to serve as his successor.

When “Pai” is 12, Koro establishes a school to teach adolescent boys the ancient customs and to develop the skills to enable one of them to become the tribal leader. Pai learns the lessons on her own and knows that she is capable of being the Chief. Although Pai works hard to earn Koro’s respect, she is rebuffed each time she tries to master an activity traditionally reserved for males. Then a pod of whales, an animal revered by the Maori, beaches itself on the sand near the tribe’s home. It is Pai who saves the whales and, in so doing convinces, her grandfather that she should be Chief.

The story describes the efforts of an indigenous group living within modern Western society to continue their traditions while assimilating some aspects of the dominant culture.


Selected Awards:

The movie won many awards at film festivals. It also won the 2003 BAFTA Children’s Award. Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for the 2004 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

Featured Actors:

Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea; Rawiri Paratene as Koro; Vicky Haughton as Nanny Flowers; Cliff Curtis as Porourangi; Grant Roa as Uncle Rawiri; and Mana Taumaunu as Hemi


Niki Caro.


“Whale Rider” offers young people the opportunity to learn about a different culture and to examine the difficulties that many traditional groups experience in facing change. Students can examine their own concepts of gender roles as they watch entrenched sexism diminish through the course of the film. The importance of myth and stories which shape the lives of traditional people will become clear to viewers and will offer the perspective necessary to look at their own myths and stories.

For English Language Arts Classes, the movie offers an opportunity to explore theme and the literary devices of characterization, metaphor, symbol, and foil. “Whale Rider” also provides an occasion for research, oral presentations, and essay writing required skills in most ELA curricula.




Enjoy this movie with your children. The message is clear and requires no discussion. However, if you can relate the situation of Paikea or the grandfather to a struggle being waged by someone your child knows, it would be worthwhile to highlight the connection with a comment.



The brief introduction suggested below will orient students to the film and provide background about Maori culture. The introduction will also lead to “aha!” moments as students recognize aspects of Maori culture described in the lecture while watching the film. This will increase their appreciation for the movie. Adapt the presentation to the needs of particular classes. After students have seen the film, engage the class in a discussion about the themes of the story. Discussion questions and suggested responses are provided below. Students can then be asked to take a deeper look and research questions that have been discussed in class. The results of their research can be presented to the class in oral reports or serve as the basis for a writing assignment. See Assignments, Projects & Activities.

Before starting the introduction, on a globe or map of the world, show students the locations of New Zealand and Germany in relation to each other and to the community in which they live. The comment that Germany is just about as far from New Zealand as a person can get.



The Maori now number about 650,000 people, 15% of the population of New Zealand. They migrated approximately 1000 years ago from Hawaiiki, an unknown Polynesian island east of New Zealand. It is possible that Hawaiiki was one of the Hawaiian islands. The Maori were the first human beings to live in New Zealand and brought with them a highly evolved Stone Age culture. By the time the Europeans arrived in the late 1700s, the Maori were well-established. Like most other indigenous cultures, Maori tribes were no match for the diseases and gun-based military prowess of the Europeans. In 1840, British rule over the Maori was formalized in the Treaty of Waitangi, which granted British citizenship and land rights to the indigenous people of New Zealand, although most of the country was confiscated for European settlers.

According to myth, Paikea was the founder of the Maori people. His father was a Chief in Hawaiiki with many wives and numerous children. Rua-Tapu was the son of the Chief and a slave woman, while Paikea and the Chief’s other sons were born to women from aristocratic families. When Rua-Tapu tried to use a sacred comb belonging to one of his high-born brothers, he was humiliated by the Chief who made it clear that Rua-Tapu was of a lower caste than his siblings. In revenge, Rua-Tapu decided to kill all of his half-brothers, including Paikea. He invited them, 70 in some versions and 140 in others, for a trip in a beautiful ocean-going canoe that he had built. However, this canoe was designed to have a hole that Rua-Tapu kept sealed with the heel of his foot. When the canoe was far out to sea, he moved his foot and all aboard drowned except for Rua-Tapu and Paikea, the latter being saved by a whale who took him to New Zealand. Paikea became the ruler of the people who lived on the islands.

Maori consciousness is shaped by reverence for ancestors and the past. Before Europeans arrived, the Maori language was not written. Individual genealogy was remembered through the he rakau wakapapa-paranga, a board with a notch for each name and a blank space to denote when a male line of descent died out. Maori children were taught about their ancestors by memorizing the names of the person represented by each notch. In modern times, the interior rooms of Maori meeting houses are places sacred to the ancestors. Traditional myths and information about navigation are carved into the walls.

Maori culture was male-dominated, with women generally serving in subordinate roles. One traditional function of Maori women was the “karanga,” an exchange of calls that forms part of the Maori welcoming ceremony. As a visiting group moves into the formal meeting area, they are welcomed by a call from a woman of the household or village. The visitors respond and the calls go back and forth as the newcomers enter the location where the meeting is to occur.


Click here for a still picture of two women calling a karanga. This link will take you to a video of the scene from the movie in which a karanga is called and answered as students are welcomed to the opening of their new school. The karanga occurs in the first 60 seconds of the segment.


The Maori were fierce warriors and would, at times, dine on their conquered enemies. Many Maori carvings show fierce faces with stuck out tongues.


See Example #1 and Example #2. This will presage a scene in the film.


Maori tattoos are famous for their intricate designs, size, and beauty. Called “Ta moko,”, they consist of important symbols that help individuals express their unique identities. In the 1700s, when Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, it was common for Maori to have tattoos covering their entire face. This custom died out by the end of the 1800s, although Maori continued tattooing other parts of their bodies. The Ta moko was predominately for males and among traditional Maori it was rare that a woman would have tattoos. In recent years, tattooing has become common for both men and women.


See Drawing of Maori Face Tattoo and Modern Day Face Tattoos.


The traditional Maori greeting is to press noses. This is called “hongi,” a gesture that is the social equivalent of a handshake or a kiss on both cheeks.


See Hongi Example #1 for an image of the traditional Maori greeting. This will presage several scenes in the movie.


Cross-Curricular Note:

Gondwana, also called Gondwanaland, was an ancient supercontinent that incorporated present-day New Zealand, Australia, Antarctica, South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, and India. It was assembled from parts of previous supercontinents by the Late Precambrian time, some 600 million years ago. It started to break up about 180 million years ago in the Early Jurassic Period.

New Zealand separated from the Antarctic portion of Gondwana about 82 million years ago, becoming geographically isolated. The plants and animals in New Zealand have evolved into forms that are slightly different from those on the other land masses. Before the Maori found New Zealand and colonized it a little more than a thousand years ago, the only mammals that inhabited New Zealand were two species of bats. At that time, the fauna of New Zealand was dominated by insects and birds. In the absence of swift and agile mammalian predators, some species of birds had lost the ability to fly. The Maori found them to be easy prey and quickly killed them off. Most are now extinct.

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1. See Questions Suitable for Any Film That is a Work of Fiction.


2. How would you describe Paikea?

Suggested Response:

Pai is intelligent, patient, and fun. She respects and loves both her grandfather and Maori tribal traditions. She never lets her anger get the best of her. When Koro is cruel and refuses to respect her as a human being to be evaluated based on her character and abilities, she forgives him for his intransigence. However, Pai is strong. She persists and fights for what she wants.


3. How do the women in the film deal with the sexism of their tribe?

Suggested Response:

The women let the men think that the men are the bosses. The women carry on with their lives accepting the men, yet criticizing the men’s thinking. This can be seen when the women play cards and joke about the men. Pai’s grandmother can be highly critical of Koro, yet she tolerates him using humor. She sympathizes with the difficulty of her husband’s life, telling her granddaughter, “He’s got a lot of rules to live by.”


4. There are several symbolic meanings in the scene that starts with Koro unsuccessfully trying to use a rope to start an engine. The rope breaks and Koro leaves to find another. Pai ties the rope together and then easily starts the engine. When Koro returns he admonishes his granddaughter, telling her that what she has done is dangerous and that she should never do it again. Some of the symbolic meanings in the scene are stated by Koro while others can be recognized by the viewer. Describe the symbols shown by this scene.

Suggested Response:

The symbolic meaning stated by Koro is that each strand of the rope represents an ancestor with the rope being the tribe. He notes that when all of the threads are woven together they make a strong rope. Then the rope breaks as Koro tries to start the engine. This symbolizes his inability to lead the tribe. Another symbolic action in the scene occurs when Pai ties the rope and uses it to make the engine start. This is a symbol for her ability to lead the tribe in a way that Koro cannot. Koro’s reaction to what Pai had done is yet another symbol. He tells her that what she did was dangerous. This shows that he thinks Pai’s leadership would be dangerous to the tribe, despite the fact that she can do what he cannot. This symbol can also be seen as representing his inability to see the strengths of Pai’s character and to foresee the best path for the tribe to take in the future.


5. Why does Porourangi, Koro’s first born son and Pai’s father, leave home and live in faraway Germany?

Suggested Response:

There are several possible reasons. Germany is very far away from the life of the tribe, in terms of both distance and culture. Pai’s father can be his own person in Germany, away from the restraints of his father, the tribe, and Maori culture. Like many indigenous people, Porourangi is torn between two civilizations. His response to the strong ties that he feels to Maori culture and the pressure to be chief is to make a clean break. He needs to get far away to fully develop as an individual and as an artist. If Porourangi had tried to stay in New Zealand, he would have had to constantly face Koro’s disapproval. For example, Koro calls Porourangi’s art “souvenirs.” The old man blames Porourangi for not producing a son and heir to the chieftainship. Porourangi later tells his daughter that the old man is looking for something that no longer exists. When he tells Pai that he cannot be what Koro wants, Pai says, “Me neither.” Two other reasons are worth mentioning. Pai’s father needed to distance himself from the place where he lived with his wife and where he lost both his wife and his son. Living in the village or even in New Zealand would have reminded him of this loss. In addition, the screenwriter needed to make Porourangi’s rejection of the role of chief to be emphatic and permanent in order to make Pai’s rise to the position believable. Thus, sending Porourangi to Germany advances the plot.


6. Pai learns how to use the war sticks, the Taiaha, from Uncle Rawiri. Using this knowledge, she defeats Hemi, a boy trained by Koro himself. What is revealed about Pai and her uncle in this episode?

Suggested Response:

Pai’s defeat of Hemi is a symbol that she is the leader for whom Koro is searching. Viewers also learn that Uncle Rawiri was once a champion with this traditional Maori way of fighting, although now he appears to be lazy, fat, and a user of drugs and alcohol. His mother says that this stems from the fact that he is a second born son and therefor, according to Maori tradition, he can never become chief.


7. Hemi’s father comes to see his son for a brief part of the ceremony at the school and then leaves with his friends. What does this suggest about the tribe’s problems?

Suggested Response:

The tribe and the Maori families are breaking apart because the men are leaving. Paikea’s father, Porourangi, is the most important example of this. Hemi’s father is another.


8. Pai makes an important point that clearly establishes theme in the speech she delivers in honor of her grandfather:

I broke the line back to the ancient ones. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, it just happened. But we can learn. And if knowledge is given to everyone, we can have lots of leaders. And soon everyone will be strong, not just the ones that have been chosen. Because sometimes, even if you’re the leader and you need to be strong, you can get tired like our ancestor Paikea when he was lost at sea and he couldn’t find the land and he probably wanted to die. But he knew the ancient ones were there for him so he called out to them to lift him up and give him strength.

What idea in this speech offers the solution to the problem faced by both Koro and the Maori as a whole?


Suggested Response:

Pai argues on behalf of egalitarian leadership, asserting that anyone with knowledge can be of value to the tribe and that strength can be found in having several types of leaders rather than one. She clearly asserts that tradition can hinder progress.


9. A rope is seen in the episode in which the villagers try to help the beached whales return to the sea. This is an echo of the earlier symbol of the rope. What idea is conveyed by this scene?

Suggested Response:

The villagers desperately try to help the whales, pulling together as implied by the tribal custom, becoming the living image of the strands that make up the rope of a united village. Despite their joint efforts, the rope breaks and they walk away exhausted. However, when Paikea climbs atop the whale it responds to her and leads the other whales back to the sea. The symbol is that even with everyone in the tribe pulling together, the purpose cannot be accomplished without the proper leader. At this point, even Koro understands that a leader may emerge, not from tradition, but in the form of a young girl who has the character, skill and desire to be chief.


10. Uncle Rawiri is an interesting character and in many ways a foil for Paikea. Describe the attributes of this character, how they relate to the themes of the film, and how Uncle Rawiri is a foil for his niece.

Suggested Response:

Paikea’s uncle, skilled in the art of fighting with war sticks, is not considered fit for the role of Chief because he is the second son. However, he is a nurturing man and a leader in the community just by force of his winning personality. This is clearly shown in the scene in which he rallies the tribe to try to save the whales. There is no reason he should not be chief. In this, he is like Paikea who cannot be a chief simply because of her birth: she is a woman. Her leadership qualities, knowledge of Maori culture, and skill with the Taiaha cannot gain for her what they would had she been a firstborn son. However, unlike Paikea, Uncle Rawiri accepts his fate, becoming overweight and escaping into alcohol and drugs. This highlights Paikea’s decision to struggle against the fate that would have been hers had she not become Chief.


11. In this story, the Taiaha, the ability to fight with war sticks is a symbol. What does it symbolize?

Suggested Response:

There are several possible ways to express this. They include: leadership, unity with the Maori culture, and knowledge of that culture.


12. What important aspects of character are shown at the film’s end?

Suggested Response:

Koro acknowledges that Paikea will succeed him as Chief of the tribe. He has opened his mind and abandoned his rigid adherence to the old rules. Pai forgives him, of course, and says later that she is no prophet and that she knows the Maori people “will keep going forward all together with all of our strength.” Here she shows the value of humility.




See Discussion questions numbered 2, 8 and 10.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)


1. There are many harms caused by any prejudice, including racism and sexism. See if you can list at least four. Look at the problem from the standpoint of the victim, the perpetrator, and society as a whole.

Suggested Response:

The many harms caused to victims of prejudice can be placed into two classes. Prejudice limits the ability of the victims to the live the lives they want and to live and to enjoy their inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In addition, in societies in which prejudice dominates, the victims can internalize the prejudice against them and come to believe that they and their group are, in fact, inferior. This is especially harmful to children who grow up as second-class citizens in a society that condones prejudice. For the perpetrator, prejudice makes it impossible to have meaningful relationships with an entire class of people and deprives him or her of the satisfaction of participating in a society that is fair and just. For society as a whole, prejudice limits the contribution that the victims can make. Prejudiced societies also lack a fundamental sense of justice and fairness. This can poison intergroup and personal relations.


2. Which of the evils of prejudice are shown operating in this movie?

Suggested Response:

All of the problems with prejudice are shown in this film. Had Pai not been able to save the whales, she would not have been able to be Chief and pursue the life she wanted. Her Grandfather and other sexist men would not have allowed themselves to see Pai’s full personhood and ability. When the prejudice is gone, they can fully enjoy Paikea. The is shown by the last scene in which Pai’s grandfather, now fully accepting the idea that she will be Chief, smiles lovingly at his granddaughter. Finally, the tribe would not have had a leader that it needed, had the prejudice against having a female chief been maintained.

See also Discussion questions numbered 3, 8 and 10.


For activities specific to this film, divide the class into small groups and ask students to research one of the following topics for an oral presentation using the technology available in the classroom. They may want to freeze-frame a moment in the film to illustrate a point on cinematography or use the internet to present visuals in support of the history of a culture or a concept. Students can be assessed using the standards to which they are accustomed on the depth of information presented and on the quality of the oral report. The research topics are:


1. the history of the Maori people, including controversies and the current effort to seek redress for land confiscation;

2. the lives of whales, including the effect of the whaling industry on the species;

3. the art of tattoo, including cultural traditions as well as artistic or social customs associated with this form of body art;

4. culture conflict as it is experienced today by indigenous people, including efforts to transcend the social barriers that preclude full assimilation and any efforts of indigenous people to remain autonomous;

5. what it means to be Polynesian, including the common qualities and unique variations of the cultures of the various Polynesian Islands, paying special attention to the history and culture of Polynesians in the Hawaiian Islands;

6. myths that explain the origin and existence of a people. Show in your presentation the great variety found in the various myths and make clear what each myth attempts to explain. Review at least five different creation myths;

7. compare and contrast gender roles in a variety of cultures and seek to explain what purpose is served in adhering to a strict set of traditions in regard to these roles; and

8. investigate the sexism found in modern societies and recent changes in gender roles.


After each presentation, engage in a discussion of the information presented and how it relates to the concepts that can be found in “Whale Rider.” The students will begin to see the sophistication of the film once they thoroughly investigate any of the topics suggested for research.


Two additional interesting assignments are:


A. Plan and present a debate on the elimination of gender roles in society.


B. Invent a fictitious island inhabited by a tribe you create. Give it a location, a full geography, a population and a myth that explains how the tribe arrived on the island and what traditions it follows.


See also Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


The movie was based on the novel, The Whale Rider by Witi Tame Ihimaera. TWM has not read the book.



In addition to websites which linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Te Ika a Maui: or, New Zealand and its inhabitants, by RR Taylor, p. 379; and
  • Maori Meeting Houses In and Over Time by Toon Van Meijl, Chapter 8; in Inside Austronesian Houses Perspective on Domestic Designs for Living; ANU E Press, 2006.

This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden. It was last revised on July 21, 2011.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes; and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.


As in many cultures, the value of ancestors and a reverence for the past shape Maori consciousness. The characters struggle with several issues faced by indigenous people all over the globe as they seek to integrate what remains of their traditional ways into modern society. This conflict can be seen in Native American cultures today and is often the source of individual as well as tribal difficulties. Identify some of the scenes in which this struggle is shown.

Suggested Response:

These scenes include those that show Maori families as dysfunctional or Maori people abusing alcohol. For example, according to tradition, Paikea’s father should stay in the village and assume the role of Chief. However, he wants to be an artist and this causes conflict which he resolves by moving to Germany. Paikea’s uncle, Rawiri, is a nurturing man and a leader in the community just by the force of his personality. He is also skilled in the art of fighting with war sticks, which in the movie is a symbol for being able to be a Maori chief. (Note that Koro deems the boy Hemi to be unsuitable for leadership because Paikea, a mere girl, bests him in a contest using war sticks.) However, no matter how many leadership qualities Rawiri may possess, he can never be chief because he is a second-born son. As a result, Rawiri becomes overweight and escapes into alcohol or other drugs. Another example of family dysfunction is Hemi’s father. He can spare only a few minutes to watch his son at the ceremony and is then off with his friends. He fails to be a strong presence in the life of his child.


Maori, indigenous.

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