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Another indigenous presence at the Oscars in 'The Last Samurai'

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LOS ANGELES - Maori from New Zealand played a role, although much behind the scenes, in another big entry in the Feb. 29 Oscar awards, the historical epic "The Last Samurai."

To find a pristine setting for the outdoor action, set in 1876 - '78 Japan, filmmaker Edward Zwick scouted much of New Zealand. He finally settled on a plateau in the Taranaki region of the northern island dominated by Mount Taranaki (formerly Egmont), an extinct volcano very similar to Mount Fujiyama. But local Maori consider Mount Taranaki a deity. Some leaders asked the filmmakers to propitiate the mountain before starting production.

Even more, the region was the site of bloody warfare between English settlers and the Maori iwi (tribes) in roughly the same era. Keith Manukonga of the Nga Mahanga a Tairi iwi, complained that one of the film's battle scenes took place on a real Maori battlefield and contained an urupa, or burial ground, and the site of the house of a tohunga (priest).

Although the production company and its Maori liaison downplayed the controversy, it made an ironic counterpoint to the Tom Cruise character in the movie, Captain Nathan Algren, a disillusioned former Seventh Cavalry officer. As part of his backstory, according to the published screenplay, Capt. Algren supposedly participated in the Washita River massacre of Black Kettle's band on Nov. 27, 1868.

In sailing to Japan to help put down the Samurai rebellion against the Meiji Restoration, the Cruise character muses, "I have been hired to help suppress the rebellion of yet another leader. Apparently this is the only job for which I am suited. I am beset by the ironies of my life."