The tabua (presentation whale tooth) remains the greatest of all Fijian valuable, still used on family/kinship occasions, when it is presented to validate marriage arrangements, express condolence for a death, secure assistance from kin or apologies for a misdeed. It is also used on state occasions to welcome honoured guests, pledge allegiance and express thanks. On all these occasions in presentation and reception is accompanied by formal speeches that acknowledge the participants, highlight their existing or new relationship and explain the purpose of the offering. Whale ivory in Fiji was formerly associated with divine power and with chiefs as embodiments of divine ancestors. Objects made of whale ivory include teeth cut into a crescent shape and believed to serve as shrines or embodiments of gods, and on the other as transactable tokens of good faith and indicators of chiefly status. The intrinsic potency still underlies the continuing significance of tabua as the most important means by which the seriousness of any act or enterprise can be publically expressed in Fiji.
The word tabua is actually two old Fijian words:
- /Tabu/ and
Tabu means sacred or taboo. The suffix /a/ stands for “something that is”. Hence /tabua/ literally means something that is rendered taboo or sacred. Prior to the whale tooth, certain shells were believed to be the former tabua. The whale tooth was introduced in part by Tongans trading in Fiji for red kula bird feathers, and later by European whalers and traders.
Some Words Associated with Tabua
- Drua tabua – a metaphoric expression to refer to a pair of female twins;
- Dirika/diriki – literally to counter by shattering or cracking, signifying the custom of reciprocity when a tabua is offered in formal presentation
- Kacivi/kaciva – literally to call; a term used in whale tooth presentation to refer to thanksgiving and acknowledgment. This usually follows the speech of the chief who receives the presented whale tooth
- Kamunaga – wealth or treasure
- Lakovi/duguci – the tradition of betrothing a maiden’s hand for marriage with the use of a whale tooth and its formal flowery oratory
- Masarau – another word that means tabua (from Vanualevu)
- Qalovi/qaloqalovi – to swim out towards; a formal presentation of whale tooth to a VIP guest to welcome him/her for the first time
- Reguregu – a whale tooth presented at a funeral to the deceased’s family or kin;
- Tama – a chant uttered by a group about to present a whale tooth to signify to the other party that a whale tooth is to be offered
- Tube/tubera – means to hold or clutch carefully signifying the manner in which a tabua is presented
- Vatu – literally means stone, a reference to the whale tooth for it is customary for the presenter to debase and be humble hence the reference to the whale tooth as a stone