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Dolphins in Hawaiian Culture

Personal Accounts condensed from NOAA's Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin Scoping Meetings

Mahealani Kuamo'o-Henry Pahoa, Big Island:

My name is Mahealani Kuamo'o-Henry. And I am kanaka maoli, cultural teacher and Hawaiian spiritual Kahu-priestess.

My Hawaiian ancestors and 'ohana members today freely interact with our ocean 'aumakua, and yes, they are 'aumakua to us, guardians and guides, our family, our ocean family.

In 1820 there was a huge, huge movement in our Hawaiian landscape. In 1820, from that period on, many of my people had practices that we did prior to 1820. We swam -- yes, we swam --with our ocean family. They were so much a part of us.

In my 'ohana alone, my mother comes from the Honu Clan. Absolutely. And my father with my grandfather, they used to have their canoes. They paddled their canoes and they called on the nai'a. The nai'a was part of our way for fishing as well, and for directing canoes. We are talking even way prior to that time frame.

For those Hawaiians who do not have that kind of mo'olelo in their 'ohana today, it is not your fault that you do not have this memory, because in 1820, with the coming of the missionaries, so many of our Hawaiian practices were deleted, were placed aside.

Please know, please know, that our ocean family, our ocean 'ohana, our 'aumakua still live within the hearts and practices of many, such as myself, who have received not only the personal experience but also the mo'olelo that was passed on from one generation to another that was not banned in certain 'ohana, and certainly not in mine.

So I simply ask you, please, aloha, aloha yourself, aloha our 'ohana of the ocean, and let's put together in one mind of aloha the kapu, if you will, certain conscious, conscious, means of education for protocol with our, our, 'ohana from the ocean. Mahalo.

Star Newland, Big Island:

I noticed when my Hawaiian ohana spoke about their cultural interactions with the dolphins, with the nai'a, they have yet to mention the use of the historical and cultural tradition to birth with them in the oceans. We know this goes back, at least the last recorded one -- actually, I met a man on Oahu who he, himself, was born with the dolphins in Kauai, his children were born, his grandchildren were born, and even before him they were born with the nai'a.

Doug Hackett.Big Island;

When we showed up we were very, very interested in learning about the Hawaiian culture and the Hawaiian traditions. So one of the first things I did was I signed up for a lecture by Kahuna Lanakila Bryant about the Hawaiian aumakuas, because I wanted to learn about the aumakua. In particular, I was most interested in how the nai'a, the dolphins, fit into the Hawaiian - - traditional Hawaiian culture. To my great surprise, he didn't address the nai'a at all in talking about any of the aumakua. So after the meeting I was very, very interested, and I asked him, what about the nai'a, you know, what about the dolphins. He said, they're not an aumakua, they are not one of the Hawaiian aumakua. I said, well, how could that be when they seem to be a very important part. He said, well, they showed up a little later. They just weren't included. They weren't part of the Hawaiian tradition. I was very surprised about that. So I said, well, what do you feel about us swimming with the dolphins. He said, well, it's your choice. I personally don't recommend it, he says, but it's your choice.

Maggie Connor - visitor

I count myself fortunate, to even be able to see the dolphins just from the shore. These pods, if you were here 15 years ago -- and I know some of you are born and raised here. Uncle Alena was telling me, you know, what's this word pods. I never even heard of pods. With us, the dolphins numbered in the thousands. I mean, can you imagine? In the thousands.

Damien Kenison, Hookena Beach

I speak for my wife and her family, the Kalina Alani Ohana (phonetic), who have lived here
for generations, who have fished there and lived off the land and who never once bothered the nai'a. Not once.

Michael Salla

I was very touched to hear some of the representatives from the Hawaiian community. I don't know too much about the Hawaiian culture so it was very good to hear what they had to say about their attitudes towards the dolphins. I've worked with indigenous communities in different parts of the world; Australia, Sri Lanka, East Timor. So I well know indigenous communities often do represent cultures that go back many centuries. But I also know that indigenous communities are not uniform. They have many diverse opinions in them. We heard from Doug Hackett that some indigenous Hawaiian community leaders do have very different attitudes toward swimming with dolphins.

Marie Burns Honaunau,

I have heard a lot of you guys lie to point out your facts. You exploit the culture. You lie about the culture. Believe it or not, Auntie that came in here, I don't know where she's from, but I'm from that ahupua'a. I'm from this island. She's another person who's using the Hawaiian culture as a Hawaiian coming in here and saying stuff. But the reality is that's not what was happening at Honaunau Bay. Maybe it happened elsewhere, but not at Honaunau Bay. Not in Puna, either. Because maybe if you -- well, maybe at Kehena, but that's fine. That's her thing.

Mikahala Roy, Kona and Oiwi

The nai'a and sea creatures longstanding in the waters of Hawaii are among our ohana.

,..as an Oiwi of Hawaii, and at the same time a member of the larger Pacific ohana, know that there is a name Teohanaonanaia. ...This name means, the family of the nai'a. ...The name infers strong connection between the people and the nai'a.

The nai'a are members of the family of Oiwi, people of the bones of our ancestors of these lands. The nai'a are esteemed, beloved family to us, and the relationship between they and our original people perhaps needs to be fully discovered, like the relationship of the stars to the lands in our Pacific and in our Hawaii. They are highly placed -- the nai'a are highly placed in a pantheon that only some of us may understand at this time. Perhaps this hierarchy of spirit is the reason that human beings of all racial backgrounds may be able to tell about our brothers and sisters, the nai'a.


Dolphin Legends in Hawaii (excerpted from Serge Kahili King)
There aren't any, or are there?

Although there are many mysteries and strange happenings to be found in these beautiful islands, one of the most mysterious and strange is the fact that there are no traditional dolphin stories.

There are two names for dolphins given in the Pukui-Elbert dictionary: nai'a and nu'ao, neither of which are easy to understand (one of these is translated as "porpoise," but "porpoise" and "dolphin" are commonly used interchangeably, even though, technically, there are no porpoises in Hawaiian waters). Nai'a quite possibly simply means "sea creatures" (na = plural, i'a = fish or any sea creature). Nu'ao has tantalizing roots that could mean "whistling multitude," but that's a stretch. <I think that is a perfect name for a large pod of vocalizing dolphiins! Not a strecth at all... editor>

Even more curiously, all the <human interaction> behaviors have been attributed to a different sea creature in Hawaiian legends. So I have a theory. In all the books I have read about Hawaiian legends and mythology, there are numerous references to sharks, but none to dolphins. This has always struck me as rather strange, but it was not until I read a shark story in "Myths and Legends of the Polynesians" by Johannes C. Andersen that I got my first clue as to why this might be so. In a story from Mangaia, the most southerly of the Cook Islands, the goddess 'Ina (the equivalent of the Hawaiian Hina) is using a shark to help her with various tasks when she cracks a coconut open on the shark's forehead, and this is why, in the words of the story, "From that day there has been a protuberance on the forehead of all sharks, known as the 'bump of 'Ina'."

Well, in spite of what the story says, sharks do not have bumps on their foreheads, but dolphins do. In re-reading all the shark stories I could find I noticed a large number of behaviors described that are characteristic of dolphins, but not sharks. My conclusion is that the most common word for a shark, which is mano in Hawaiian, was originally a generic term that included both dolphins and sharks, and that for some unknown reason translators applied it only to sharks. Mano is always translated as "shark," even though one type of shark that, by Hawaiian tradition. rested its head on the bow of a canoe and was fed and loved by fishermen, was called mano ihu wa'a, which means "Mano with a beak like the prow of a canoe." If my theory is valid, then there are many dolphin stories in Polynesian legends. Dolphins are just traveling through the literature disguised as sharks - and maybe laughing about it.

<What do you think?>

"The melon-headed whale was originally identified in Hawai‘i. The first account of the species is from Hilo Bay, Hawai‘i in 1841 where approximately 60 animals were driven ashore and harvested for their meat and oil (Wilkes 1845). According to Wilkes, “the moment a school of porpoises is discovered, it is their usual practice to drive them in” referring to native Hawaiians. This drive fishery is contrary to some beliefs that native Hawaiians held dolphins to be sacred and did not hunt them." Jessica Aschettino in "POPULATION SIZE AND STRUCTURE OF MELON-HEADED WHALES

Hawaiian Newspaper Translation Project: Fisheries
Historical accounts translated from Hawaiian to English

Translated from the Hawaiian newspaper "Ke Kumu Hawaii", March 28, 1838


"This is something amazing that took place here in Kahana on
Friday, the 14th of December, 1837. I went to Ka‘a‘awa at ten
o‘clock and I stayed there until late afternoon, around three
o‘clock. I returned from Ka‘a‘awa and reached Makaua. The
men, women and children weren‘t there. I asked two elderly
women sitting in the house, “Where are all of your people?”
“They have all gone down to look at the fish.” I asked again,
“What kind of fish?” They responded, “Dolphins.” Then my
feet swiftly carried me down to Pu‘uomahia where I watched
the canoes, crowded with people, catching the fish in the ocean.
Men, women and children were grabbing fish; a strong man
would get 12 fish, a weaker man, 8 fish, a very weak man, 4
fish, a strong woman, 6 fish, a weaker woman, 3 fish, and a very
weak woman, 1 fish, a strong child, 4 fish, a weaker child, 2 fish,
and a very weak child, 1 fish. Here is where they were speared,
the snout, the dorsal fin, and the tail, those are the places where
those large fishes were speared. Some were 7 feet long, some
6 feet in length, and up to 3 feet in circumference at the widest
point. Here is the count of these fish, there were 206 that were
killed. The people ate the meat. Another benefit gotten from
these fish is oil. Pots, jars, and bamboo containers were filled,
which are our lamps that we are burning. The people chopped
the dolphins up until they were exhausted, dogs came and ate,
and pigs came and ate. The sea, the three rivers, and even the
plains were filled with the stench. That is my friendly thought
for all of us. By me, NAILI"




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