Beth Heke and Female Strength in Once Were Warriors

Phoebe Koch, English 27, Brown University, 1997

In the works of Ishiguro, Desai, and Duff, women symbolize hope for change. In In Custody, Imtiaz Begun embodies the potential revival of Urdu culture and provides a (short-lived) hope for Deven's redemption. In The Remains of the Day, Miss Kenton represents the possibility of human emotion in Stevens' existence. In Once Were Warriors, Beth Heke is a strong figure who introduces pride to the Pine Block community. Strength in the Maori culture lies in a of community and in the celebration of the Maori warriors of the past. These themes are evident throughout the Duff's book, perhaps most clearly during Grace Heke's funeral service. Beth is filled with pride as she watches her Maori elders sing the waiata tangi; the death lament.

Ah, would ya look atem: raptures. They're in raptures. Half ofem with their eyes closed. In joy, pure joy at being Maori. Oh aren't (they) we a together race when (they) we're like this? History, thas what they are. They are history and therefore so are we, and who needs anything else when you got the strength of history supportin ya? (121)

Beth finds strength in a sense of community. For the first time in the book it seems that men and women are able to come together. Beth watches in wonder as "the sweat dripped-- it flew-- from them, men and equally encrazed women" (122). The scene is a powerful one because for the first time the reader witnesses Maori culture through a positive lens. Instead of a child living in a junk car, a girl raped in the middle of the night, or a man beating his wife, we begin to develop a positive image of the Maori. Our experience is mirrored in that of Beth Heke:

Skin on fire with jolts of electric excitement. At the sight. This sight of what (she) they all must have been. Her mind no longer able to think-- not in words. Filled that she was with this sense of. . . STRENGTH. (Strong. I am made strong again.) (123)

After throwing Jake out of her house and devoting herself to helping the children of Pine Block, Beth gains self-fulfillment through helping others and bringing the community together. She promises "Gonna do my best to give you kids your rightful warrior inheritance. Pride in yourself, your poor selves. Not attacking, violent pride but heart pride" (161). Like Jake, Beth finds strength in her warrior ancestry. However, unlike Jake and other male protagonists, Beth constructively merges the past with the present. Her newfound sense of pride infects the Pine Block youth, for whom she becomes a symbol of all that is powerful and good in Maori culture.

From a newly inspired Beth, along with this chief fulla inspiring ya with his speeching and his words of history like he's showin ya the light but without the Jesus saves ya crap. And as if Beth Heke is some kinda saint but without a god hovering there behind her: you feel if she can do it, more or less alone, then dammit, maybe you, a previously hopeless Pine Block case, can too. (177)

Both Beth and chief Te Tupaea come together to educate the Pine Block community about the glories of Maori heritage. Unlike Jake and other male protagonists, however, they are able to find strength in the past and apply it to the present.

The success of Beth and the chief is grounded in their emphasis on the ability to both recognize and let go of the past. Deven's hopelessness is grounded in his inability to perceive of a future "We have no future. There is no future. There is only past."(186) Jake, too, is a prisoner of the past. As an adult, he is consumed by an overwhelming anger, largely resulting from the rejection he suffered as a child of slave origins. Jake cannot seem to rid himself of the pain and humiliation which he experienced in the past. His violent nature and feelings of hatred represent his inability to come to terms with the past and find peace. Like Deven, Jake is too consumed by the past to realize the future. Chief Te Tupaea realizes this problem within the Pine Block community, and urges the Maori to abandon their past grievances and look instead towards the future.

Nor was Chief into blamin people, the Pakeha, the system, the anything for the obvious Maori problems; you know, our drop in standards just in general. He didn't care bout no damn white people ta blame, no damn systems meant to be stacked against a people, he just toldem: Work! We work our way out." (185)

In addition to stressing the "proud history" of the Maori, Beth and the chief preach the importance of looking beyond the past and facing the present. Thus by bringing hope to the Maori community, Beth and the chief make the community aware, perhaps for the first time, that there is indeed a future. People must be willing to accommodate change in their traditional image of the Maori warrior of two hundred years past, and create a more modern, twentieth century version. In addition to this adjustment, the Maori must adopt a change in their perception of traditional gender roles. An important part of the chief's insight lies in his recognition of women. He speaks not only of the Maori warrior, but also the "Maori warrioress," telling his pupils, "After all, we ain't nuthin without our women" (176).

Overview In Custody Remains of the Day Once Were

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002