Into the Heart of Maori Culture



The Whale Rider is touching the world with its beautifully expressed depiction of Eastland Maori culture. The heroine Paikea's struggle for recognition and the mysticism of local legend mingle to cast a spell over people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

  Ngatapa Valley, Gisborne


Eastland Map
The movie is based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, who was born and bred in the Gisborne region.

"My early life was spent in this very special part of New Zealand. Much of it is still untamed and wild - you can lose yourself in the beaches, hills, valleys, mountains and rivers", says Witi. "Living in Waituhu, where I was born, is like living in a National Park."

Maori Crafts in Northland - click for more.
The coastal road that traces the edge of Eastland is dotted with small Maori settlements. The beautifully carved meeting houses aren't just for show, they're used every day. "The Maori people in this region are actually living the culture", says Witi.

For Niki Caro, who directed the movie, learning about contemporary Maori culture was preparation for writing the screenplay. For nearly a year, she studied te reo (Maori language) at the Auckland University of Technology. While she was studying the language and the culture, Niki had the opportunity to experience marae 'homestays'.

  Marae, Banks Peninsula, Canterbury - click for more.
Marae, such as this one on Banks Peninsula in Canterbury, are used by Maori for many important occasions.
"Traditionally, in the Maori culture, an important meeting or hui would often involve visitors staying on the marae. Firstly you are welcomed onto the marae in the traditional manner - the powhiri - then everybody gathers to do a mihi, which is a short speech about who you are, where you come from, who your parents are, your whakapapa (ancestry) and what you are interested in. It's very moving."

Marae stays are an option for visitors to New Zealand who want an altogether authentic experience of Maori culture. Tasks like food preparation are shared, then you eat together, enjoy an evening of kapa haka entertainment and sleep as a group in the meeting house.

One of the most moving scenes in Whale Rider was Paikea's song during a school kapa haka performance. The term kapa haka encompasses a wide range of Maori performance arts - from peaceful waiata-a-ringa (action songs) and waiata tawhito (ancient songs that tell of historic events) to poi dances (a poi is a swinging ball used to train for dexterity) and haka (war dances).

Traditional Poi Dance - click for more.
Nga Tai E Rua performers at the Aotearoa Traditional Maori Performing Arts Festival
Cliff Curtis, who plays Paikea's father Pourourangi, believes that the biennial Kapa Haka National Competition is the ultimate opportunity to see the leading edge of Maori performance art. Up to 40 groups, including 1600 adult performers, gather to compete in haka, waiata and poi events. "It's an amazing spectator experience, because you're seeing the best of the best", says Cliff.

Cliff also has an abiding interest in Maori fine art. "I have two significant contemporary pieces in my home. Both were purchased from Toihoukura while I was working on The Whale Rider." Toihoukura is the School of Contemporary Maori Art at Gisborne Polytechnic. It offers a range of courses in contemporary Maori art and design, and work by the students is on sale at the school's gallery. For visitors exploring the Eastland region, an original work of art from Toihoukura is the ultimate keepsake.




4 shots
View scenes from the award winning movie that was filmed in Gisborne.
View Slideshow  



Driving Route
Take The Scenic Route! Experience every kind of seaside scenery on this epic coastal journey from Auckland to Napier via the East Cape.


Video Feature
A sample of the activities The Great New Zealand Touring Route offers visitors in the Central North Island.
Open Movie  

Related Links Pages
•  Arts & Culture Activities
Other Sites
•  Whale Rider The Movie
Awards, release dates, products, cast and crew