In Pacific Island society, some objects can have a 'spiritual' value that far outweighs their actual ‘market’ value. In Samoa, ‘ie töga (fine mats) and in Cook Islands, tïvaevae, are exchanged as gifts on special occasions. Tabua play a similar role in Fijian society.
Tabua are pierced and braided whales teeth, originally taken from the lower jaw of sperm whales found stranded on Fijian beaches. As whale strandings were relatively rare, so were whale teeth more valued as a result.
Tabua are considered by Fijians as a kavakaturanga or ‘chiefly thing’. 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, in the same way the presentation of ‘ie töga strengthen an ifoga in Samoan society. The occasion where tabua are presented also determines their spiritual value.
Ceremonial tabua have holes drilled through the tip and the butt, and a braided sennit cord is attached. To make tabua, the whale teeth are polished and sometimes rubbed with coconut oil and turmeric to darken them. In some cases the teeth are smoked in a small tent-like structure covered in bark cloth to turn them a rich tobacco colour.
While the tabua is a uniquely Fijian object, whale teeth are used in other societies. European sailors used to carve and colour whale teeth 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. Mäori 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.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2003)