Whale tooth tales: Fijian language week 2013

The first-ever Fiji language week begins today with the theme Noqu Vosa, Noqu iYau Talei: My Language, My Treasure. The Pacific Cultures curators will be blogging daily with Fiji related stories from the collections and exhibitions at Te Papa.

This is a tabua, a type of Fijian cultural valuable, made from polished whales’ teeth attached to a braided cord. They were originally taken from the lower jaw of sperm whales found stranded on beaches. Because whale strandings are relatively rare in Fiji, whale teeth are highly valued.

In Fijian society, tabua are objects that have a spiritual value that far outweighs their market value. Fijians consider tabua to be kavakaturanga (chiefly items) and iYau (treasures). They are not worn, but are presented at important ceremonies, including weddings, births, and funerals. Tabua used to be the most effective way to give weight to an apology or atonement. The occasion that tabua are presented at also determines their spiritual value.

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To make tabua, people would polish the whale’s teeth and sometimes rub them with coconut oil and turmeric to darken them. In some cases, the teeth are smoked in a small tent-like structure covered in barkcloth in order to turn them a rich tobacco colour. Ceremonial tabua have holes drilled through the tip and the butt, and a magimagi (braided coconut husk fibre) cord is attached.

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While tabua are a uniquely Fijian object, whale teeth are also important in other societies. In the nineteenth century, European sailors used to carve and colour them in their spare time (this was called scrimshaw). Whale teeth were shaped into necklaces and other ornaments in many parts of the Pacific, including Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai’i, and the Marquesas Islands. Māori also used whale teeth to make rei niho (whale tooth pendants), which were worn by people of high rank. However, nowhere else in the Pacific do whale teeth have the power or meaning of tabua in Fiji. In this Youtube clip listen to Fijian artist and researcher, Susan Elliott, talk about the significance of tabua.

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