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Whale People

Peoples of the South Pacific: Maori

In earlier times, a stranded whale would supply a Maori tribe with an enormous amount of food and other resources.

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Stylized model of the maihi (bargeboards or gables) from Whitireia meeting house. The central tekoteko (carved figure) is Paikea, the famous whale-riding ancestor of the local tribe.

© Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2008

Reproduced with the generous support of Ngäti Konohi, 2007


Pataka are storehouses for food or valuables. Customarily they were built close to a leading chief’s dwelling in a village. They can be intricately carved, often with symbols of plenty—such as whales.

The maihi (bargeboards, or gables) of many pataka have pakake—whalelike patterns. These patterns probably have their origins in the story of the chief Tinirau and his pet whale Tutunui. Tinirau offers Tutunui as transport for a guest, Kae, who in turn kills and eats the whale. The story illustrates aspects of the complex relationship Maori had with whales—as friends, guardians, and food.

Visit the exhibition to encounter some of the people whose lives have been inextricably linked with whales—from legendary South Pacific whale riders to whale scientists and former whaling families.

Peoples of the Pacific Northwest: Kwakwaka’wakw

The Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast—roughly 20 diverse communities united by a common language—share a rich oral tradition, including stories of ancient encounters between human ancestors and animals such as the bear, raven, wolf, and whale.

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This dish was collected for the Museum in 1901. (AMNH Catalog no. 16/8527 A)

© AMNH/D. Finnin


Animal imagery in Kwakwaka’wakw artifacts may serve to depict a close family association with a species. The connection is said to confer special privileges on living human kin, including rank and the right to perform certain dances and songs.

This carved feast dish, from the collections of the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, depicts the mythic hero Siwidi, who travels undersea in a canoe that transforms into a killer whale. The dish shows a killer whale with two human heads, including one within its dorsal fin.

Visit Whales: Giants of the Deep to see other whale-related cultural artifacts from the Museum’s collections, which have been added to the exhibition while it is on view in New York.

Whaling, Then and Now

Maori and other South Pacific peoples harvested food and materials from whales that occasionally stranded on their shores. This kind of low-impact ‘whaling’ changed in the early 1800s, when ships from Europe and America came to hunt the bonanza of whales in Pacific waters. Shore-based whaling stations were soon established in New Zealand.

In the 20th century, whaling became more industrialized and deadly. But during the 1970s, New Zealand’s attitude to whaling changed—from general support to active opposition. New Zealand now promotes a worldwide ban on commercial whaling.

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