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Atanraoi and Claire Baiteke of Tarawa.
Photo: Chris Johnson

January 23, 2001
Whale Legends of Kiribati: Part I
  Real Audio
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Log Transcript

This is Chris Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey.

I-Kiribati tradition has always been strongly linked to the ocean environment. Historically, whales played a vital role in not only the survival of the people, but their legends and beliefs. 'Whales' is a generic term in Kiribati, meaning all porpoises, dolphins and large whales. The other day we were kindly invited into the home of Atanraoi Baiteke, a retired diplomat, ecologist and Kiribati historian. Atanraoi shared with us some of the myths and truths of the close-knit relationship between the people and the whales of Kiribati.

Atanraoi Baiteke:

    "Whales in general are regarded as people who went away, the 'lost tribe' sort of. Whenever people traveled out to the inter-islands, sometimes the people changed themselves into whales or into turtles. If they want to cause mischief then they change themselves into sharks or other man-eaters. If they want to be friendly, they will change themselves into whales simply to guard the canoes as they sail from one island to another and another. When people have to travel in bad weather mainly in the months of October, November, December and part of January, then they needed to be guided by something friendly, hence - the whales.

    Now take for example, a fishing competition, you go out fishing; say, two well-known fisherman. They go out, and one has to be the winner. You don't want to lose your self-respect because you were beaten by another fisherman. In these competitions, ancient rituals are practiced. So as apart of that, the teams also practice 'witchcraft' to make sure that you won't be able to fish and get plenty of fish, because my totem god, the shark, will destroy your canoe. Then, in order to combat the force of the man-eating shark destroying my canoe, I had to find something more powerful than the man-eating shark. Those who have friends, say the whales and the porpoises, they will call upon these animals to ward off the sharks. Sharks, you don't find them just as single sharks, you find hundreds of themů Say between here and Maiana, you may find on a calm sea, something 'bubbling up'. If you come close you find a wall of sharks enclosing, in the middle, tuna. So, in order to keep away from the angry sharks, you have to have a big friend to protect you, hence - the whale. That whale could be your old friend, your old uncle who died ten or twenty years back changing himself or herself into a whale to come to your rescue."

In our next log, listen for Atanraoi's wife Claire who will share with us the memories of her childhood experience when she helped herd dolphins into the shallows of Tarawa atoll, a tradition known to the I-Kiribati as 'the calling of the porpoise.

Log by Chris & Genevieve Johnson

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