Unlike the indigenous cultures of the far north, the Polynesia cultures did not typically hunt whales, although they did greatly revere them and utilize any that were beached in the islands. Maori and Hawaiian legends both speak of being led to their island homes by whales. The Maori have many legends of whale riders – individuals who were saved from ship wreck, storm or attempted murder by whales. Both cultures traditionally view the whale as a manifestation of the sea god – Kanaloa in Hawaii, Tangaroa in Maori tradition.
Although not as common as the owl, hawk, turtle, shark, or gecko, the whale – kohola – is also a form of ‘aumakua, or family guide and guardian manifesting the spirit of a powerful ancestor. There were a number of terms for whale, some reflecting different species, but kohola was the most common, usually referring to the humpback whale, while palaoa was used to refer to the tooted whales, and also to whale teeth and whale ivory. Particularly prized were the teeth of the sperm whale, and beached whales were reserved for the ali’i.
The Hawaiian proverb, “`O luna, `o lalo, `o uka, `o kai, `o ka palaoa pae — no ke ali`i ia” translates to “Above, below, the upland, the lowland, the whale that washes ashore–all belong to the chief.” This refers to the absolute authority of the royal class. On rare occasions, the carcass of a toothed whale would wash ashore, and immediately became the possession of the chief.
The ivory of the palaoa was removed and made into a niho palaoa, a whale-tooth pendant. The ivory was carved into the suggestive shape of a tongue, which may have signified someone who spoke with authority. It might also represent a container for the mana or spiritual power that the necklace represented. The niho palaoa was then strung through strands of braided human hair from an ancestor, and the entire piece was known as a whale-tooth necklace, or lei niho palaoa.
The lei niho palaoa could only be worn by the ali`i, or the high ruling chief or chiefess, and was the second most treasured possession after the feather cloak.
The lei niho palaoa represented strength and power, and the belief was that the mana, or spirit of the gods, would be passed on to the wearer of the lei niho palaoa, as would the mana from the ancestor whose hair was used, the carver who made the piece, and all those who wore it beforehand. The carved hook was strung on finely braided strands of human hair, up to 1,700 feet long, gathered into two large coils. Hair, coming from the head, the most supernaturally powerful and sacred part of the body, was a sacred substance that enhanced the mana of the necklace, and enhanced the power of the wearer. The places where the whales washed up – called wahi pana or sacred places, were considered important areas to control, and in some cases, the chief who controlled these spots, such as Kualoa on O’ahu, might also control the entire island.
It is not known why the Polynesians, unlike the native peoples of Alaska and the Northwest, never hunted whales nor, typically, ate whale meat, but it might be as simple as they felt that the meat lacked taste. It is also likely that the Hawaiians’ subsistence life-style, coupled with a benign climate did not create a need for the large food supply that could be obtained from a whale, and it could have been more trouble than it was worth to hunt, butcher, and preserve the meat when there were so many other food sources readily available.
It might also be that the animal was considered too sacred to exploit in this way, and, indeed, it was kapu (forbidden) for commoners to possess any part of a whale. The Hawaiian culture did view the whale as the animal form of their sea god, and knowledge of the whales’ place in the culture may have been reserved for the highest ranking chiefs and priests, as, certainly, the products of the whale that were evident in the culture were.