Protected Species Community Issues

Cultural Significance of Green Turtles in the Pacific Islands

Pacific Islanders have a strong cultural relationship with green sea turtles.

  • Turtles are an intrinsic part of the traditions and folklore of the region.
  • Turtles played important roles in religious ceremonies.
  • Community relationships and cultural integrity were perpetuated through the exchange of turtle meat and turtle artifacts.

In Hawaii, green sea turtles (known as honu) are featured in:

  • The fourth verse of the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant;
  • Petroglyphs, legends, myths and stories as helpers, demigods and heroes.

For example:

  • the hula honu is a dance to honor the turtle aumakua (family god);
  • the folklore of the goddess Kauila, the mystical mother of all honu, relates turtles to ancient Hawaiian culture; and
  • Provided meat and eggs for food, oil to treat skin ailments, and shell and bone for tools and weapons.

Traditional Management

Turtles were historically part of the diet of Pacific islanders. It is believed that traditional management provided a buffer on the number of turtles harvested based on kapu [rules] or ‘taboo’ system. For example:

  • Hunting was undertaken ceremoniously and feasts were communal events;
  • In some communities, only certain members (chiefs, priests, or men) were permitted to eat turtles; and
  • Turtles were harvested for specific circumstances, such as weddings, funerals, religious ceremony, fiestas, canoe building and navigational celebrations.

Current Cultural Issues

The legal harvest of green sea turtles in U.S. Pacific Islands ended in 1978 when they were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Following a status review, sea turtle populations nesting in American Samoa, Guam, and CNMI were uplisted to Endangered in 2016. Under the ESA, it is illegal to harass, harm, harvest, or sell sea turtles. This application of the ESA, barred Native Peoples from including green sea turtles in traditional practice. Traditional utilization of green sea turtles became illegal and conceivably marginalizes traditional Pacific Island cultures.  

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