Shark highly respected in Hawaiian culture

The Honolulu Advertiser
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

The shark in Hawai'i is more than just a ferocious ocean predator or ominous threat to surfers and swimmers. Here, the shark, or mano, is woven in the fabric of Native Hawaiian culture and history.

Some early Hawaiians worshiped, cared for and protected sharks as 'aumakua, or family gods, while many others viewed sharks an important source of food and tools.

"The strongest physical evidence today are the artifacts collected by Capt. (James) Cook," said Leighton Taylor, former director of the Waikiki Aquarium and author of the book, "Sharks of Hawaii: Their Biology and Cultural Significance."

Cook, the first Westerner known to interact with the Hawaiians, found a variety of tools made with shark's teeth as well as drum heads made from shark skins. Teeth were used in ceremonial objects, Taylor said, and feather cloaks were woven in the pattern of the teeth of the great white shark.

Shark teeth, especially those of the fierce tiger and great white, were used to craft a variety of weapons, including war clubs and knives.

The Hawaiian name for man-eating sharks, such as the tiger and great white, is niuhi. In old Hawai'i, catching the niuhi was the game of the chiefs, a dangerous sport for which special techniques were developed, according to historian Mary Kawena Pukui. Eating niuhi flesh was also taboo to women.

Some Hawaiian chiefs were believed to have acquired their premonition of future events by consuming the eyes of the niuhi. The mother of the most famous king of Hawai'i, Kamehameha I, born circa 1753, is said to have asked for the eyes of niuhi during her pregnancy to enhance the leadership qualities and bravery of the future leader she was carrying.

And a mano kanaka was a shark thought to be born of a human mother and sired by a shark god, or by a deified person whose spirit possesses a shark or turns into a shark, according to Pukui.

Those who had the shark as their 'aumakua wouldn't hunt them or eat them, either. After all, it was believed that a departed ancestor took the form of a shark after death and appeared in dreams to living relatives. These Hawaiians would feed and pet a special shark whom they believed to be a relative. In turn, the shark would protect the family.

The shark is the 'aumakua of Maui Native Hawaiian cultural specialist and kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., who helped bring awareness about the cultural importance of the mano after the state authorized a shark hunt following a fatal shark attack off Maui in 1991.

"Our people conveyed spiritual importance to animal deities that were created to protect them and their life style," Maxwell said." The most important is the shark, which is still held in reverence by our people today. From all the animal deities, the shark is the greatest 'aumakua."

While Maxwell, a Christian, doesn't worship the shark, he does respect and honor the creature. As cultural consultant to the Maui Ocean Center, he blesses each shark that enters or leaves the Ma'alaea marine park.

Shark Week

Sunday: Real-life encounters

Monday: Shark quiz

Today: The Hawaiian culture

Tomorrow: Shark-attack odds

Thursday: The media influence

Friday: The truth about sharks

Reach Timothy Hurley at (808) 244-4880 or

© COPYRIGHT 2004 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Return to News page

Ho`iho`i Mai