Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review Essay: Race, Gender, and Tattoos in Marquesan and Māori Histories: Typee (1846); The Whale Rider (1987); and, Once Were Warriors (1994)

In a previous post, I told the story of my one-day search for histories of Herman Melville in lower Manhattan. In a Starbuck’s coffee shop, reading Melville’s Typee, I suddenly realized that Melville was all around me: in the name of the coffee shop (named after a character in Moby Dick) and in the ground below the shop where once sat the home where Melville spent his childhood.

I recently finished reading Typee, Melville’s first novel. Published in 1846, Typee is a semi-autobiographical recount of Melville’s experience on the island of Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands during his Pacific tour on a whaling boat, Acushnet, during the years 1841-1844. Melville was only in his early twenties when he had these experiences and wrote the draft manuscript of Typee. In his book, Melville (as the narrator, Tom, or Tommo, as the Taipi called him) spent four months in the Taipi valley of the island, most of the time as the only white man present. His whaling companion, Toby, mysteriously leaves the valley early in the story and despite Tom’s efforts to learn of Toby’s fate, the whereabouts of Toby are never revealed either to Tom or to the reader. Toby’s fate is just one of many mysteries permeating Typee. Indeed, the beauty of the book is in how Melville places us under the forest canopy within the Taipi valley and allows us to see the world as only Tom saw it. Event after event in the book is understood by Tom through the lens he brings to the situation: he imagines that Marquesan people are savage, violent, cannibalistic, because that is what he has been taught by European and American representations of Pacific peoples. Tom often interprets what he sees and hears around him in Taipi as corroborative evidence of these representations, only later to discover that each little thing about Marquesan culture that he perceived was actually nothing at all like how Europeans and Americans had long represented it to be. Melville’s Typee was thus meant to open American reader’s eyes to see how Westerners had long constructed identities of Polynesians that were actually more a product of their own minds rather than accurate representations of Polynesian peoples. In short, the “Typee” were just an American construction (which Melville, in many ways, continues to create); the “Taipi,” on the other hand, (the correct/current spelling), were and are the real people burdened by these representations.

Two Views of Women in Polynesia

The 2004 Riverside edition of Typee that I read contained a large and quite useful appendix of supplemental reading on four themes related to Typee: Sex, Cannibalism, Tattooing, and Tapu (Taboo). Sex is interesting because of the way that Melville constructs the female Marquesans in his story: young Marquesan girls frequently bathe and play in the water in the nude, providing erotic interest to Melville and his readers, and one young Marquesan woman, Fayaway, becomes Melville’s companion and love interest for most of the story. For Melville, just twenty-three years old (or so) at the time when he was actually on Nuka Hiva, the Marquesan girls provided a sexual diversion (whether the sex was real or imaginary). When Melville, in the end, leaves his lover, Fayaway, crying on the beach as he escapes the island at the story’s end, he is acting out a scene common across the Pacific during the whaling era: young Euro-American sailors frequently engaged in romantic and sexual relationships with Oceanian girls, and, often enough, these quick sexual encounters ended in heartbreak, while clearly, each party got something quite different out of the encounter. The issue of sexual agency – to what degree Marquesan women voluntarily engaged in these relationships for potential advantage to themselves or to their community – is a complicated one that demands further attention.

In Typee, Melville frequently makes misogynistic remarks about women back home in the United States. To Melville, American women were too civilized, too well-mannered, and too concerned with material things. He praised Fayaway and the Marquesan girls for their simplicity, for their nudeness, for being “easy,” perhaps – or for being receptacles within which Melville could place his constructed ideas of what Polynesian women represent for the Euro-American mind. In the book The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, Māori men of the 1980s applied their own constructions upon Polynesian women. The great-grandfather and leader of his community, Koro Apirana, is Ihimaera’s particular vehicle for expressing indigenous repression of Polynesian females. In The Whale Rider, Koro Apirana believes that his Māori people are losing their cultural identity; his grandchildren, for example, want to be anywhere but in Whangara, New Zealand, and they feel very few roots to their Māori past. So, Koro Apirana begins a school for teaching the Māori language and culture to the younger generation of Māoris in Whangara, but he only allows boys, not girls, to participate. Kahu (Paikea in the movie version) is the eight-year-old great-granddaughter of Koro Apirana. She is the whale rider, the descendent of the original ancestor of the Whangara people, but it takes an incredible series of events before Koro Apirana is willing to accept that a woman could fill such a special and essential role for his community. (This is a review of the 1987 book, The Whale Rider; I reviewed the 2002 film version in an earlier post.)

Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider is about the blinding power of sexism, and about how communities need everyone – both men and women – in order to be whole. The Whale Rider is a hopeful story about how men, such as Koro Apirana, can change, and how women, such as Kahu, or such as her great-grandmother Nanny Flowers, can win gender equality in their community through persistent courage and civil disobedience.

Another view of women in Polynesia comes from Lee Tamahori’s 1994 film, Once Were Warriors. Set in the early 1990s in urban New Zealand, Once Were Warriors tells the story of a poor Māori family living in the city, trying to make ends meet despite persistent barriers to their survival from both within and without their community. Few white people appear in the film at all, but for a few police officers here, social workers there, and judges and other court officials. The effect of this presentation is that we see how a Māori community lives largely segregated from the rest of urban society, in their own socio-economically and racially homogeneous ghetto. Whites are seen as symbols of authority lacking sympathetic understandings of what life is really like for a contemporary Māori family. As for the Māori themselves, the adult men are portrayed as all drunkards, spending their earnings on beer and nightlife. The young men in the community are drawn to gang life and street fashion and culture, the least fortunate of them caught in a viscous cycle of drugs and violence. The Māori family at the center of Once Were Warriors comprises an abusive, drunkard father; five children including a smart and innocent daughter, Gracie; a troubled son Boogie, who is sent away to a boys school by court mandate after engaging in criminal activity; and Nig, the oldest son, who joins a local Māori gang. And at the center of the family and at the center of the story is the family mother. She was raised in a high-class, traditional Māori family descended from chiefs, but she married a bad man and, over the course of the movie and of her life, she sees her family fall apart in horrifying ways.

Women, in Once Were Warriors, are seen as victims of contemporary male Māori misogyny, facing a battle for respect quite similar to that waged by the women in Whangara in The Whale Rider. Young Gracie, in Once Were Warriors, is continually told that when she grows up and marries, then she will learn her place. That is to say that the Māori men in the film believe that women are there to serve them, to cook for them, and to provide them with sex whenever desired. Becoming a woman, in Lee Tamahori’s Māori world, means becoming a servant to men. The solution to this problem offered by Once Were Warriors is, however, quite different than the one Ihimaera offers in The Whale Rider. The women in Once Were Warriors, especially the mother-heroine, seek not to reform men (as is the case in The Whale Rider), but to overcome them. If The Whale Rider showed how women’s unique gifts and talents could eventually win the respect of Māori men, Once Were Warriors demonstrates how women, if they can’t win the respect of the men in their community, can do without them. But raising five kids on her own would be too hard without other help, so Once Were Warriors suggests that the mother-heroine can utilize Māori heritage as another “glue” for holding her family together. Both narratives, The Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors, showcase this transformative power of Māori tradition and cultural heritage. Where The Whale Rider revolves around the story of one community’s effort to maintain a link to the past – specifically, to revive an ancient relationship with whales (a theme that is more explicit in the book than in the movie) – and about Māori women’s efforts to stake equal claim to that heritage, a side story in Once Were Warriors is the transformation of Boogie, the son sent away to the Māori boys school, who begins to learn about Māori song, dance, martial arts, and culture from a positive male figure, the school headmaster. When Boogie eventually returns to his family in the urban ghetto, he is able to use his new relationship with Māori tradition as a positive force for him and his family.

In Melville’s Typee, Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider, and Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors, two views of women in Polynesia are presented. One is the outside view: Melville’s “noble savages” in Taipi valley who have simple but pure minds and are unusually attuned to their bodies and their innocent sexuality; or the view of white New Zealanders in Once Were Warriors who see Māori women as irresponsible mothers unable to provide suitable care and love for their children. The outside view of Polynesian women has changed over time, from romantic and erotic representations of the Polynesian “other” to the racial fear and denigration of Polynesian “others” in the modern urban environment, but the one thing that has always remained constant is that outsiders will always make what they will of Polynesian women, if allowed the opportunity. The other view is the inside view: Koro Apirana’s stubborn belief that certain Māori rituals are “taboo” to women, specifically that Paikea, the whale rider, cannot be a woman; or the view of the drunkard Māori men in Once Were Warriors who believe that women are to be used and abused as desired and who persistently try to make Māori women in their community believe the same thing.

Tattoos, Bodies, and Racial Identity

Another topic explored in the Riverside edition of Typee is tattooing. Tattooing has an incredible history that must be told among and between Oceanian and European/Euro-American histories, as it is a hybrid tradition with multiple meanings among the peoples of both the U.S. and across Polynesia. The term “tattoo” is of Polynesian origin. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the tattoos worn by Polynesian peoples were noted as the most elaborate and remarkable in the world. Marquesan tattooing, for example, was noted as often covering most of the entire body. Men often wore more elaborate tattoos than women, but women also wore tattoos. In Typee, Melville notes that many of the Taipi had tattooing on their faces in addition to the rest of their bodies. The Māori were also well known in the nineteenth century for having elaborate facial tattoos called tā moko.

Image showing Māori moko (Wikipedia)

For Melville, tattooing was a desecration of the body that he rarely found physically appealing. He regretted that the beautiful Marquesan girls deformed their appearance through tattooing. He also regretted that Marquesan men and women, when they got older, could not escape the tattoos of their youth, which, as Melville noted, became misshaped and deformed over time. On his Pacific voyage from 1841 to 1844 Melville had opportunities to also meet European or Euro-American men who had received Polynesian-style tattooing on their bodies (and even sometimes on their faces). Melville noted how, in his opinion, these men could never return to Western society and still be regarded as racially pure. The very act of tattooing (changing the coloration of one’s skin) was an act of racial transformation in Melville’s eyes. Not only did tattooing darken a sailor’s white skin, but over time as the tattoo and the skin around it aged, Melville feared that these men’s skins would become totally “black,” and that their racial transformation into a Polynesian (or “negro,” as they would have been considered back home) would be complete.

Tattooing is also an important theme in Once Were Warriors. The father of the Māori family at the center of the film has a number of tattoos, but none of his tattoos involve traditional Polynesian patterns. Instead, his tattoos reflect prison, or perhaps seamen’s, cultures. It is worthy of note that European and Euro-American seamen’s tattooing was greatly influenced by the Polynesian styles encountered across the Pacific during the nineteenth century. Of course, the stereotypical ship’s-anchor tattoo, or other sailing symbols, were not distinctly Polynesian, but I wouldn’t doubt that other seamen’s tattoos are based on certain aspects of Polynesian tattooing. Once Were Warriors, set in the 1990s, documents a renewed interest in traditional Polynesian tattooing among Māori youth. The gang that the son Nig joins, for example, all wear facial and body tattoos comprising traditional Māori designs. Even the young women in the urban gang wear traditional Māori facial tattooing which involves coloration of the mouth/chin-area only. This gang tattooing is ironic because while it involves a resurrection of Māori cultural heritage, it is unaccompanied by other acts of ethnic renewal, such as the use of Māori language or the learning of song and dance, such as Boogie (not tattooed, mind you) learns at the Māori boys school. Tattooing, then, in Once Were Warriors, was not a vehicle of community renewal but rather was a gang symbol, a sign of the community’s declension. This is, of course, the beauty of Once Were Warriors, and the contradiction at the heart of the very name of the film: while Māori men of the 1990s thought that being Māori meant a particularly behavior of drinking, violence, and brotherhood, the mother-heroine of the story eventually sees these men’s behaviors not as brave and strong but as weak and cowardly, and she stresses to the men that Māoris “once were warriors,” not the fake-warrior, self-inflicted victims of drink, violence, and apathy that they now are.

For more on race, gender, and tattoos in Marquesan and Māori histories, see:

Herman Melville, Typee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).

Witi Ihimaera, The Whale Rider (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2003).

David A. Chappell. "Shipboard Relations between Pacific Island Women and Euroamerican Men, 1767-1887," Journal of Pacific History 27:2 (1992):131-49.

Nicholas Thomas. "The Art of the Body," in Oceanic Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995).

and of course, see the film Once Were Warriors (1994).


  1. I am doing a research paper on Pacific Islander women in Film and find this information interesting from your perspective. As a young Pacific Islander woman myself this brings new insight on how Pacific Islander women perceive themselves within our own culture.

  2. Dear Strength+Beauty:

    Thank you for reading my blog! And I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I took a look at your blog "Strength+Beauty." What a great idea to profile a different Pacific Islander women each day. Each women has such an interesting story! (but I can also see how that must have been a lot of work - to post something everyday!). Nevertheless, you should definitely keep on blogging: for example, I'd love to hear more about your research on Pacific Islander women in film.

    Good luck with school, and stay in touch!


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  5. Hi there,
    I was looking for information on Witi Ihimaera’s ‘The Whale Rider’ and came across your review essay - which was a wonderful read! Just wondered whether you might be interested in asking Witi Ihimaera a question about this book? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything - doesn't have to be particularly clever!), along with where you’re from/live. We can either arrange for you to talk to Witi Ihimaera himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
    Best wishes,
    BBC World Book Club

  6. Hi Karen:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. That is great that you are interviewing Witi Ihimaera! If I can come up with a good question for him, I will certainly email you.

    Thanks again.