Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa), Hawai’i


Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa), Hawai’i, early to mid-19th century, ivory, human hair, fiber, 4 1/4 x 16 in. / 10.8 x 40.6 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.206.1623). Speakers: Dr. Maia Nuku, Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Dr. Beth Harris.

This spectacular necklace pairs human hair with a sperm-whale tooth. Chiefs wore it to assert their divine right.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:00] We’re in the gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses amazing works from Polynesia. We’re looking at a necklace that dates to the early [or] mid-19th century from Hawaii.

Dr. Maia Nuku: [0:15] This is a spectacular necklace, which incorporates these heavy bolts of very finely plaited and braided human hair.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] The decorative form at the bottom that curves upward is made from whale ivory. Both the hair and the ivory are very important materials here.

Dr. Nuku: [0:40] It’s the materiality of the various elements of this necklace that really point to the deeper cosmological framework in which it operated. The sperm whale tooth, this ivory that this pendant is carved from, is a relic of Kanaloa. Kanaloa is the god that presides over the realm of the ocean, the moana. This is a tapu space.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] When you’re wearing this, you’re announcing your relationship to the god.

Dr. Nuku: [1:04] This was ceremonial regalia. Chiefs wore these to assert their divine right to rule. Chiefs really are deemed to have direct descent from gods.

[1:15] Wearing the condensed bone of the god that presides over the ocean and wearing the immaculately plaited, finely braided hair of your ancestors creates this very powerful means of asserting your legitimacy and your right to rule.

[1:32] That pendant is spectacularly carved. You can see how it tapers in gently and then flares out where it has this horizontal ridge. Then it tucks down and up into this beautifully fluid upward curve.

Dr. Harris: [1:44] That curve is very thinly carved. It looks fragile.

Dr. Nuku: [1:45] You can see that very fine rim. It’s so perfect. It looks very much like a tongue. This may have been a reference to oratory.

[2:00] And it’s the beginnings of a circle. If you imagine that this chief may well have been wearing a mahiole, or a feathered helmet, along with a feathered cape no doubt, the mahiole, or feather helmets, include a raised crest which protected the head, which is the seat of power. And so curving down from the top, it infers this full circle [in] which the head of the chief is embedded.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] The contrast between these materials is so stark. We have the matte texture of the hair and then the luminous surface of the whale bone.

Dr. Nuku: [2:26] You could really see that it’s a whale ivory. It’s a tooth of a sperm whale, because of that creamy outer layer. Then you can see this yellowy dentate core, which runs down the central part of it.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:00] It almost reads like gold.

Dr. Nuku: [2:39] It’s incredibly valuable. Whales were not hunted. Islanders would wait until they beached on the reef. Whales are the embodiment or essence of the god, of Kanaloa.

Dr. Harris: [2:56] We see this in a museum case. It’s important to remember, although we can admire this and look at it closely as an aesthetic object,that it was something that was worn, that had very specific meaning to those who looked at it and to the person who owned it and wore it.

Dr. Nuku: [3:07] These are heirlooms. These are sacred treasures. They were handed down through generations and they retain this power and vitality. They’re not static artworks. They’re really vital living objects, which link us to the past.

[0:00] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”leinihopalaoa,”]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Maia Nuku, "Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa), Hawai’i," in Smarthistory, January 17, 2017, accessed June 20, 2024,