Iwi revives ancient whaling traditions

By Te Kāea
  • North Island: East Coast

When a whale dies, traditions are upheld. Descendants of Rongomaiwahine in Mahia have taken the opportunity to revive ancient whale preservation practices almost lost through generations. 

Arthur Williams, one of few Rongomaiwahine elders with traditional whaling knowledge said, "The last time I saw this being done, I was ten years old. My whānau had been doing it for centuries."

A 16.1-meter long sperm whale weighing 40 tonnes died on Saturday morning after stranding itself on the northern point of the Mahia peninsula late Friday night. 

Mahia Māori Committee chairman, Paora Ratapu said the phenomenon is common in their area. "We had another big sperm whale stranding about two years ago."

Members of Rongomaiwahine applied their traditional practices and appointed guardians to watch over their "ancestor" until its burial. 

"This is an opportunity to educate the next generation and they're willing to learn," said Williams. 

Rongomaiwahine has always shared a close connection with whales.

Once a thriving whaling community, Mahia is also home to Te Pakake a Ruawharo and Te Ara a Paikea, two routes frequent by whales in the past. 

"There was a gap here between the peninsula at Mahia mai Tawhiti and Te Ara a Paikea that went through Maunga Whiu. So the whales only knew one point to cross through here and this is where they would come."  

Women sang and performed karanga while Williams and other men recited prayers. 

"The karanga is to appease Tangaroa. These processes were lost over the last 50 odd years. 60, 70 years."

Williams says another tradition they hoped to revive was the naming of the mammals. They named the sperm whale Tuamokotahi. 

"It means to stand proud. This hill behind us it's called Mokotahi."

"We give it a name because we don't want people to take blubber, we don't want them to take meat. We want to make sure that it doesn't happen. That we treat it with the respect that it deserves. It's one of our tupuna."

The whale was buried on the beach on Sunday evening after the removal of the jaw bone. 

The jaw and teeth will be cared for by Rongomaiwahine.