Why Were Hair Necklaces Used in Lei Niho Palaoa?

Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa), early 19th Century

A New Addition to the Collection

When discussing Hawaiian necklaces, the topic can be quite intriguing, but not for the reasons one might assume. In this article, we’ll explore the Bowers Museum’s latest acquisition: the lei niho palaoa, a Hawaiian necklace that holds immense significance, second only to their vibrant feather work cloaks (‘ahu’ula) and headdresses (mahiole). However, this necklace stands out in several ways, so let’s delve into its unique materials and design to uncover its secrets.

Detail of 2018.5.1

Understanding the Origins

As tourists visiting the Aloha State may already know, “lei” is the Hawaiian term for necklace. The other two words in the commonly used name, niho and palaoa, refer to sperm whale teeth. These terms describe the material from which the pendant of the necklace is carved. However, this nomenclature can be misleading. Captain James Cook, in his 1778 exploration of Hawaii, collected some of the earliest examples of lei niho palaoa. At the time, many pendants were made using substitutes like shells, pig teeth, or coral due to the limited supply of whale teeth. In the Hawaiian polytheistic religion, whales were highly regarded as incarnations of the ocean god Kanaloa. Although Hawaiians never hunted these magnificent creatures, they would collect teeth from beached whales.

Boki, Governor of Oahu, and his wife Liliha wearing a lei niho palaoa after a painting by John Hayter, 1824

A Symbol of Prestige

The rarity and cultural significance of whale teeth were closely intertwined. Chiefs and priests fiercely guarded shores where whales frequently beached, and ownership of their bodies was well-established. This was reflected in the saying:

“He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwā wale ke kanaka.”

This statement holds true when we examine the material culture of the islands. Objects containing whale parts were exclusively reserved for the aristocratic class. Lei niho palaoa, worn by both male and female aristocrats during ceremonial events and battles, were no exception. In the 19th century, European artists depicted Hawaiian nobility in various paintings and drawings, often portraying them wearing their lei niho palaoa alongside their ‘ahu’ula and mahiole — essential elements of royal attire.

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The Port of Honolulu, 1849

Trading Tusks

Considering the elevated status of whales, one might wonder why this particular lei niho palaoa is not made from whale teeth. Furthermore, how did it end up being confirmed, through analysis, that the necklace is actually made from the tusk of a walrus — a creature whose natural habitat lies thousands of miles north of Hawaii? Captain James Cook’s discovery of the Sandwich Islands (as Hawaii was known at the time) marked the beginning of their role as a significant rest stop in the middle of the Pacific. In the early 1800s, American and European whalers began visiting the Sandwich Islands, trading their surplus hauls for items sailors could not easily obtain on the open ocean. Walrus tusks were among the materials exchanged, and they eventually became a common material for crafting lei niho palaoa, as they closely resembled whale teeth.

Symbolizing Spiritual Energy

Various theories propose different interpretations of the pendant’s significance. Some suggest it represents a ceremonial fishhook found on other Polynesian islands, while others see it as an abstraction of a human head with an extended tongue. However, the most likely explanation is that the pendant served as a vessel for one’s mana, or spiritual energy. While the shape of the pendant was likely of utmost importance to Hawaiian chiefs, the necklace’s band is equally fascinating. It is made from human hair. Like many cultures, hair held significant power for the Hawaiians. Sacrificing one’s hair, which would then be braided into the approximately 1700 feet of continuous braid required for an average lei niho palaoa, was a tremendous act. These hair bundles were typically secured in one or two places with fiber cords to maintain the pendant’s form. This particular necklace, however, stands out as it is bound in a total of twenty places. This could possibly represent a specific genealogical lineage or be the result of repair work conducted during the 19th century.

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Please note that text and images may be subject to copyright. Contact the Collection Department for permission to use. References are available upon request. Information is subject to change pending further research.

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