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The long journey from beached whale to bone carvings

May 8th, 2013 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, Front Page Layout

ABOUT 300 people watched as members of Ngati Toa iwi, knee-deep in blood, cut out the jaw bone from a sperm whale washed up on Paraparaumu Beach in January.

Among the onlookers, children cried and adults shouted out in anger, accusing iwi members of “butchering the animal”.

Members of Ngati Toa iwi were exercising their right as tangata whenua to first dibs on any whale carcass that washed up on local beaches.  Ngati Toa spokesman Nelson Solomon says iwi members were just doing what they thought was best.

If people didn’t like what they saw, they should have walked away, says Mr Solomon. “We didn’t want to put on a gory show.”

The 15-metre-long whale had washed up in the middle of the night, and the tide had left a pool around it, which made the operation very messy.  “When you cut an animal it bleeds. Blood went into the water, and unfortunately that’s where the work had to be done to extract the jaw bone,” Mr Solomon says.

Kapiti bone carver and teacher Owen Mapp believes the onlookers became emotional because they are too detached from

Bone carver Owen Mapp and wife

where meat comes from.“New Zealanders nowadays are too urban-based. They think their meat comes from the supermarket. That’s why there was so much shock and emotion.”On the day of the jaw bone removal, police and Department of Conservation (DOC) staff tried to keep things under control as iwi members got stuck into their work, but there was some confusion.

“The policeman was telling people one thing, and the DOC representative was saying something different,” Mr Solomon says.  “Everyone tried their best and did what they thought was right.”

He says the whale should have been moved to private land earlier so theiwi could do their work without the public watching. There they would have been able to take their time with the whale.

Instead, he says, iwi members were put under pressure by workers in trucks waiting to move the whale from the beach to DOC land where the carcass would be buried.

DOC also denied the iwi access to parts of the whale, says Mr Solomon. “We were denied access to the oils from its head, used mainly in cosmetics. We were denied access to the ribs and the head, which is  the densest bone in the entire whale.”

Dougal Austin, a curator of Maori artefacts at Te Papa, says the sperm whale’s jaw bone is stronger than other whales’.

As well as the bone, Maori historically used the oil, meat and teeth of a whale.  The meat was food, the oil was used to help preserve wood  and the teeth and bone were carved.

Before Europeans came and wrote them down, carvings were used to tell tribal histories, so carvers were held in high esteem, being not only master craftsmen but also historians.

It took months or years to finish a whale bone carving when sculpted traditionally, with stone hand tools.Even today,  carvings have their own story or meaning.

In the Maori belief system,  when bone carvings are worn, they become part of the person.  The bone absorbs the skin’s oil and therefore takes on some of the wearer’s spirituality, or essence.

Whale bone objects which have been passed down from generation to generation have their own story to tell, says Mr Mapp, who was early on the Pakeha carving scene bringing whale bone carvings  to the market in New Zealand.

“I feel that a carving which has been handed down through families develops its own spiritual whakapapa.”

In the 1960s, the only way to obtain a bone carving was to be given one, Mr Mapp says.  “In the 60s you couldn’t buy whale bone carvings anywhere in New Zealand.”

New Zealand lies on a major migration route for sperm whales, and there is  a history of strandings.  Maori rely on these strandings to retrieve materials such as bone, but as they are infrequent events,  whale bone carvings are rare and can be expensive.  A 13-centimetre whale bone tikican reach up to $300.  Mr Solomon says some carvings can fetch  up to $5000.

Nelson Solomon with the teeth of the Paraparaumu sperm whale

Despite the high prices that can be gained from selling whale bone, Mr Solomon(left) says any objects  made from the Kapiti whale’s bones will be given away as a gift.“None of what we do is for gain.  [The whale] is a gift to us, so it’s a gift to whomever we give it to, and I think that’s rather beautiful.”

Later this year, Mr Solomon says, local bone carvers and student carvers will be allowed to have a go at the whale bone or a tooth.

Whales are sacred to Maori, and their bones have been used by Maori for centuries. Bone carving techniques were passed down through the generations from family to family.

Mr Austin says that in the Maori belief system  Tangaroa is the god of the sea and his children are the marine life.  Because of this, whale bone carvings have a more spiritual meaning – as  a way to connect with Tangaroa.

“It’s through his many children, the fish, and whales. We are still connected with him,” Says Mr Austin.

The ocean is a dominant force for Maori both because of their god, and because of their history.  Legend says Paikea rode a whale from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. Others followed Paikea, but in waka,  across the Pacific.

Once the jaw bone of the Kapiti sperm whale was removed, it was placed in the ocean.  Iwi members clean it first and remove the teeth, and then leave it in the water for marine life to clean the rest.

Mr Solomon camped out at Hongoeka Beach, just north of Plimmerton, for two weeks while the bone was being cleaned.  “In the wind and the rain, it gets cleaned and bleached ready for carving.”

Once it had been taken out of the water, one half of the jaw went north to Waikanae iwi members and the other half went to Mr Solomon’s house.

Though whale bone carvings connect the owner to Tangaroa, it is the design that gives the carving its meaning.

Typical designs that might be depicted on the Kapiti sperm whale bone are the koru, the hei-matau and the tiki.  The koru, or spiral, represents new life, peace, tranquillity and spirituality.

The hei-matau, or fish hook, represents strength, prosperity, abundance and fertility and a great respect for the sea. These are often given as a good luck charm to people who are travelling.

The tiki is an ancient symbol and has many meanings. He is also often depicted with webbed feet, suggesting a link to the creatures of the sea. This symbol is said to give the wearer clarity of thought, loyalty, great inner knowledge and strength of character. The tiki is also regarded as a good luck charm, and in some areas as a fertility symbol.

Whale bone, like jade, is a precious element to Maori, says Mr Austin. It was used for tools and weapons as well as needles for sewing, and hair pins.

Mr Austin says whale teeth were traditionally hand-carved into pendants, and the jaw bone was carved into weaponry such as patu.

Hand tools are still the best tools to use when carving bone, according to Mr Mapp.  “For all of my finished ivory and bone carving, it is all hand carving using gravers (small chisels) and scrapers.”

With today’s power tools, and the availability of hand tools, it takes days or hours to create carvings, depending on the size of bone.  Mr Solomon says traditional Maori weaponry is still made and used ceremonially, for example on marae and  at tangi.

Whale bone carvings are rare, and being given one is considered an honour.

However, as times have evolved, so have the carvings.  Carvings these days can be more decorative.

Mr Austin says he can tell at a glance if a carving is modern. “The style is quite contemporary. It’s very rare for someone to do a copy of an older carving. Artists make it their own creative work.

“Today, tools make it easier for the carvers, drills and the like. Today things can be more intricate as art forms are evolving.”

Unlike today, Mr Mapp says, there were very few bone carvers in New Zealand in the late 20th century.  “There was no bone carving being done apart from objects being made by Maori for Maori families.”

He says he became the first professional bone carver in New Zealand.  “I was the first on the scene to regenerate the interest in bone carving. I’ve influenced and taught a lot of people bone carving using hand techniques.”

Mr Mapp says his designs are Maori or nature-influenced, and also influenced by his own past. He says bone carving is a New Zealand art, not just a Maori cultural occupation. Early Europeans settlers carved objects from bone for the home.

“I don’t teach my students bone carving per se, I’m teaching bone carving culture of New Zealand.   I teach New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha.”

These days, as many Pakeha can be seen wearing bone carvings as Maori, though these may often be from beef bone. It has become a way to express pride in New Zealand and its history.

Mr Solomon says there will a tribal hui in June about the future of the whale jaw bone hanging from his front deck.

The iwi hopes to have local carvers and teachers with their classes working with the materials. “We’re going to let our carving teachers share their knowledge with the young people who want to learn their skill.”

When the work is completed,  it will be exhibited in 2014, first at Pataka then at Te Papa. After that, says Mr Solomon, “maybe they’ll go overseas, I don’t know, but the end of the journey is giving it to the people, the different families. They will get something nice like this to have forever.”

Mr Solomon with the left half of the sperm whale’s jaw hanging from his deck to be dried and cleaned

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is a Whitireia journalism student.
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  1. Wonderful story thank you Nicole. You did very well gathering all of this information much of which I didn’t know myself even though Nelson is my relative. I know many readers will be most interested in what you have here. Good work.

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