Palaoa, Whales, whale ivory and Kanaloa


Whales, like every other creation of nature, were respected by the Hawaiian people. It was believed that deities would take the form of animals and plants, and, therefore, deserved respect. The whale, also known as the kohola, was considered to be a family deity or `aumakua. Hawaiians believed that when a powerful ancestor died, he or she took the animal form of an `aumakua and ever after guided and protected the family.

The kohola was also believed to be a manifestation of kanaloa, one of the four major demigods of Hawaiian folklore. Kanaloa was the god of the sea, and is said to be the god responsible for helping the Polynesians find Hawai`i. Some people say that the early Polynesian voyagers followed the path of the whale, which eventually led to the Hawaiian islands. Kanaloa was also the ancient name of the island of Kaho`olawe, which appears to have the profile of a whale.

The whale was first identified as the palaoa in the Hawaiian language. Palaoa originally referred to whales in general, but later came to specifically identify both the toothed sperm whale and whale ivory. Today, the word kohola is commonly used to refer to whales, and especially the humpback whale.

Throughout recorded history, several species of whales had passed through the islands, including both baleen and toothed whales. The toothed whale, or palaoa, developed an important and significant role in Hawaiian culture. 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 proverb refers to the 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. 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 was only worn by the ali`i, or the high ruling chief, and was the second most treasured artifact. The feather cloak, also worn by the ali`i, was the most highly prized possession of all. The lei niho palaoa represented strength and power. It is said 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.

This small excerpt of the history and culture of the Hawaiian Islands and its people offers a mere glimpse of the whole picture. Information about whales in the Hawaiian culture, although limited, indicates that the people of Hawai`i were always aware of the whales' presence. It is believed that the native Hawaiians neither hunted nor ate whales because the meat lacked taste. In fact, it was considered kapu, or taboo, for a commoner to possess any part of a whale.

Several views regarding the limited information about the cultural importance of whales in Hawai`i may offer insight as to why the kohola was not dominantly displayed in the culture. One view, offered by Louis Herman, Ph.D., Director of Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawai`i, suggests that humpback whales were not present in Hawaiian waters before the arrival of Captain Cook. Herman theorized that humpback whales may have dispersed from other areas after 1778 due to increased pressures from whaling and other long-term changes in the major water masses of the North Pacific.

A second view suggests that, in comparison to other animals, whales were not highly important or necessary to the native Hawaiians. Many animals, such as sharks, turtles and owls, were often depicted in Hawaiian folklore and were considered to be `aumakua. It is likely that the Hawaiians' self-subsistent life-style did not create a need for the large food supply that could be obtained from a whale.

A final view suggests that the Hawaiian culture may have viewed the whale as a very sacred creature, an animal form of the god Kanaloa. Knowledge of the whale and its connection to the culture may have been reserved for the high-ranking chiefs and their priests, and as the ancestors died, so did their special understanding.

The mystery of the importance of whales to the culture of the Hawaiian people, the seafarers of the Pacific, remains unsolved. Through cultural awareness and outreach programs in the community, the sanctuary will help to preserve the remaining knowledge and may even bring forth new and exciting information. Exploring the earth above, as well as the depths below, may give the people of Hawai`i a new perspective on how their ancestors lived, and may reveal additional secrets about their heritage.