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Atanraoi and Claire Baiteke of Tarawa.
Photo: Chris Johnson

January 24, 2001
Whale Legends of Kiribati: Part II
  Real Audio
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Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey.

Large whales were never hunted here by the I-Kiribati, however, there was always at least one sperm whale stranding during the annual march of large herds through Tarawa lagoon, an area once called 'the passage of the whales'. The meat from just one whale could sustain many villages for several months. The taking of smaller species however, did occur here for subsistence reasons, dolphins and porpoises were herded toward shore where they became beached. Each person in the water would receive one dolphin under their arm, they believed the dolphin that chose to go with them was a reflection of their image and that these animals were offering themselves as food for the people. When a school of dolphins were spotted, the people were summoned together in the maneaba, the local meeting place, before moving to the water where they would tap rocks together to attract the animals. Claire Baiteke recalls a childhood experience in the 1950's when she participated in what is known in Kiribati as 'the calling of the porpoise'.

Claire Baiteke:

    If I recall back the experiences that I have gone through. We were told by my great uncle that we have to be with the rest of the people to get the dolphins from the lagoon, ashore. This was back in the early 50's. The advice I was given, was that you just follow the group. You try to receive any dolphin that you come across and if they don't like you they wouldn't come with you. If you put your hand around them, they will follow you, and you just swim along with them ashore.

    I was frightened when I saw this school of dolphins because it is not small fishes, they were big ones. As we came across, I was not looking at the dolphins, I was looking at the others on how they did it. I just kept swimming back ashore. I never put my hands on the dolphins until I thought it is about time I go because the others were on top of the dolphins. I just have one [dolphin myself]. We just went until it was just so shallow. One old man in his forties, late forties, he was the first one to receive the smallest dolphin. When he got that he did not guide this dolphin ashore but he guided him back [ out to sea ]. Those dolphins were following that one. We have a special name in I-Kiribati, it's called 'taekebe', it's the pilot. That man took the pilot back in the sense that he will come back again. But the rest were poor dolphins. It was shallow so we just left them there. We just kept watching each other without knowing what was going on. After all, I saw the rest of the dolphins. Men came up and took them to the Maneaba, where these men put a mark on their heads and it was open. These [dolphins] were for the villages. I attended this three times, the latest one was in the mid-60's.

    If you have a scar, there will be a scar on that dolphin maybe. Those who are 'carrying' [pregnant], the dolphins are 'carrying' too are the ones that are like you. They say that's your image... We saw a dolphin, which only has one eye, we looked at the man. That man didn't realize it, maybe he knows, but he didn't realize it, that the dolphin only has one eye. Everyone was laughing - "look at that dolphin." [The man says] "Why yes, I have one eye, this dolphin has one eye too..."

Many I-Kiribati traditions are fading with the incoming tide of western culture, Claire explained how 'the calling of the porpoise' had not been practiced since the 1960's. Her generation was the last to have practiced the ritual. The 'passage of the whales' is also long gone, with the lagoon having been physically closed at one end.

Log by Chris & Genevieve Johnson

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