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Tangaloa: Reviving the Path of a Moana Deity on Winter Solstice Featured

Near Kalaeokaunaʻoa (The Bay of the Mollusk), Kahuku, O’ahu, Hawaiʻi. Photo by Tevita 'O Ka'ili Near Kalaeokaunaʻoa (The Bay of the Mollusk), Kahuku, O’ahu, Hawaiʻi. Photo by Tevita 'O Ka'ili


Tangaloa: Reviving the Path of a Moana Deity on Winter Solstice. By: Professor Tevita 'O Ka'ili

December 21st, marks the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere as the sun rises and travels on the Tropic of Capricorn, a path known in Hawaiian as Ke Ala Polohiwa a Kanaloa, the Black Shining Path of Kanaloa. But, as the sun rises on the path of Tangaloa/Kanaloa, I am sadly reminded of the unprecedented destruction of our oceans. In the Moana region, this is an annihilation of both environmental and ancestral seascapes. It is a cataclysm that was ushered in at the advent of European colonization and perpetuated today within the “logic of erasure”, a core feature of settler colonialism (Wolfe 2006). In spite of this onslaught, there is a hint of hope on the horizon with the re-emergence of Tangaloa in Oceania.

This article floats on the sea of Tangaloa while firmly anchored on the Indigenous-based Tā-Vā (Time-Space) Theory/Philosophy of Reality (Māhina 2010; 2017); specifically, the Moana configuration of time-space to honor the deep history and ancestral geography of foremothers and forefathers. This tā-vā, time-space, orientation is at the heart of the contemporary rising of the ancestor Tangaloa. Ancestors are at the core of Moana spirituality because they are tempo-spatially located at the front as leaders to guide the present and future (Kameʻeleihiwa 1992; Māhina 2010). They are also the origin of mana (spiritual power) and the creators of deep genealogical ties to all elements of the ecosystem. This extensive kinship ties give rise to sacred responsibility, fatongia, to care and protect all elements of fonua (nature); particularly, elements that are ancestral, like Tangaloa and his ocean (see Lafitani 2011).

Tangaloa, Tangaroa, Tagaloa, Taʻaroa, Tanaʻoa, Tanaloa, and Kanaloa

For the Moana region, a place where diverse cultures have intimate relationships with the ocean, it makes sense that the ocean would give rise to sea deities such as Tangaloa, Hina, Maui, Sinilau, and a concourse of others. Tangaloa, in Eastern Moana (Polynesia), emerged as the god of creation and the ocean. He is widely regarded throughout Eastern Moana as one of the primordial gods of the ancient religion. He is venerated throughout the region by the divine title of Tangaloa, Tangaroa, Tagaloa, Taʻaroa, Tanaʻoa, Tanaloa, and Kanaloa. Even in places outside of Eastern Moana, for example the Philippines, it is believed that Tangaloa was worshiped as Angaro (Lane Wilcken, personal communication, March 15, 2017).

The expansive scope of the spread of Tangaloa points to him as one of the founding ancestors, at least in Eastern Moana. His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Taʻisi Efi refers to Tagaloa as “a very important founding ancestor” who is mythology, history, culture and heritage; and, that all lands and chiefly titles link back to him. (2009: 191; 2014: 42-44). In Tonga, the current king, Tupou VI, and the houʻeiki (chiefs) are all descendants of Tangaloa. Fundamentally, Tangaloa and other deified ancestors are the origin of chiefly lineages (see Lafitani 2017). In certain parts of Eastern Moana, Tangaloa is the creation god, who brought forth the ocean and the islands, and in other parts, he is the god of the ocean, the master navigator-astronomer of long-distant voyaging. He is also the avatar of all forms of marine life and migratory winged creatures.

In Tonga and Sāmoa, he is linked to the Pacific Golden Plover bird (Tulī, Tuliʻone), and in Hawaiʻi, he is the embodiment of the Hawaiian hoary bats (ʻŌpeʻapeʻa) and marine life, such as octopuses, whales, dolphins, corals (also an incarnation of the goddess Hina), and other oceanic creatures. In some islands, Tangaloa is multiplied into several deities who are responsible for different divine realms. Tonga, for example, has at least seven Tangaloa deities. They are Tangaloa ʻEiki (ruler of Langi-Skyworld), Tangaloa Tufunga (deity of material arts), Tangaloa ʻAtulongolongo (divine messenger), Tangaloa Tamapoʻulialamafoa, Tangaloa ʻEitumatupuʻa (divine father of the 1st King of Tonga), Tangaloa Langi (ruler of natural forces), and Tangaloa Mana. It is Tangaloa Mana, or Powerful Tangaloa, who is the specific god of the ocean in Tongan lore (Moala, 1994: 4). By naming the god of the ocean, Tangaloa Mana, it points to the mana, spiritual power/potency, of the sea. Although there are various aspects of Tangaloa, such as his important link to kava, I will limit my focus to Tangaloa Mana and his ocean sphere.

In reality, Tangaloa is an actual ancestor who was divinized as a result of his vast knowledge and profound relationship to the ocean. He was a leading indigenous scientist of ancient times who gained empirical knowledge after generations of observations of the ocean; hence, he became legendary and mythical. Today, most islanders from Eastern Moana, trace their genealogy to Tangaloa. As for me, Tangaloa is my 36th great-grandfather.

Eradication of Tangaloa and His Ocean Realm

The eradication of Tangaloa and his oceanic realm began with European imperialism; particularly, the pernicious extraction of resources from the ocean for the sole benefit of the imperial center. European whaling, for example, hunted and killed whales to near depletion to obtain meat, oil, and blubber for Europe. While resources were being squeezed out at an alarming rate from the sea of Tangaloa, Christian missionaries mounted a frontal attack on Tangaloa and all indigenous Moana deities and labelled them as “paganism”. In Tonga and Sāmoa, Tagaloa was de-divinized and relegated to superstition. In Hawaiʻi, Kanaloa was recast by missionaries as Satan. This dethroning of Tangaloa led to all forms of desecration by colonizers and settlers, from the demolishing of sacred Tangaloa stones to the defilement of carved images of Tangaloa. This iconoclastic ideology led not only to the loss of beautiful arts but also indigenous scientific knowledge. Today, in Tonga, not a single carved image or even a replica of a carved image of Tangaloa survived the onslaught of colonization. Other places, such as Hawaiʻi, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Niuē, and Aotearoa, were more successful in protecting their carved images of Tangaroa from overzealous missionaries, both foreign and indigenous.

Once Tangaloa was weakened, it was just a matter of time before other debasement followed. As Tangaloa waned into obscurity, the ocean was no longer viewed as an ancestor, a spiritual place, or a source of mana, but a raw material to be extracted for colonial and corporate greed. Over years of intense colonization, the ocean began to suffer immensely from the pathologies of modernity. First, the devastation from the nuclear testing (Marshall Islands, Christmas Island, Johnston Atoll, Muroroa, Fangataufa), military weapon testing (Kanaloa-Kahoʻolawe, Guam), and the corporate drilling for oil. Followed, by the pollution from the ubiquitous plastic of modernity and noise from industrial and military ships. Single-used plastics and discarded nets/ropes choked the life out of Tangaloaʼs marine life.

Noise from seismic surveying for oil and military sonar testing (i.e., U.S. Navyʼs sonar testing in Hawaiʻi) deafened and disoriented ocean life, which led to numerous whale beaching and other problems. In addition, depletion of fish stocks, particularly tuna, due to over-fishing. Next, destruction of the ocean floor and killing nearly all living creatures with deep-sea trawling nets that “bulldoze” the seabed. Deep-sea bottom trawling is essentially oceanocide. Then, acidification of the ocean due to high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the over-consumption of fossil fuel. Following that, killing of sharks for their fins (shark fining), killing of turtles for their shells, over-harvesting of sea cucumbers, bleaching of corals as a result of the high usage of oxybenzone sunscreen products, depletion of sea sand because of sand mining to feed the voracious appetites of concrete construction (i.e., mining of sand from Maui for constructions on Oʻahu). Now, the world is on the brink of another marine life decimation with the beginning of seabed mining (in Papua New Guinea) for minerals to keep up with the demand of modern life (technology, development). This is a result of nations and corporations nearly exhausting the minerals on land in their unsustainable development projects.

This depressing story only accounts for the oceanic realm of Tangaloa. On land, Tangaloa is also under attacked. Two examples will suffice. First, the slaughtering of ʻŌpeʻapeʻa (Hawaiian hoary bats), a symbolization of Tangaloa (Johnson 2000: 78), by the operation of industrial wind turbines throughout Hawaiʻi (and all bats throughout the world). Second, the demolishing of historical sites associated with the chiefly descendants of Tangaloa for modern development. Case in point, the destruction of the culturally significant sia mounds in Tonga for a modern golf course.

The heartbreaking account of the colonial destruction and settler erasure of Tangaloa is not the end of story. Fortunately, certain groups within Oceania and their allies are mounting an ambitious effort to revive Tangaloa and his creation. His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Taʻisi Efi and others are at the forefront of resuscitating Tagaloa and the Indigenous religion of Sāmoa (Tui Atua 2014; see video below by Pouesi 2017).

Whether you agree with Tui Atua and his approach to reconcile Tagaloa and the Christian God, his work is noteworthy in raising awareness of Tagaloa and the Indigenous spirituality of kinship with all living things. Tui Atua maintains that Tagaloa is the “progenitor of all living things on earth (humans, animals, plant, cosmos, sea, land, etc.) and that as such all relationships between these living things are governed by the imperatives of being kin” (2014: 43).

This Indigenous cosmology (worldview) of being kin with all living things is advanced by several groups in Oceania, for instance, Te Ikaroa - Defending Our Waters in their opposition to seismic testing in search for oil in their ocean territories. Other individuals and groups emerged as defenders of the ocean and Oceania, for example, Tagaloa Nation, The Non-Plastic Maori, Ban Experimental Seabed Mining in the Pacific, Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific, and Kiwis Against Seabed Mining. Even “traditional” voyaging double-hulled canoe groups, such as Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust, Tongan Voyaging Society, Polynesian Voyaging Society - Hōkūleʻa Crew, Okeanos - Foundation for the Sea, Micronesian Voyaging Society, and many others, have also risen to the protection of the sea. Some 23 Pacific island nations and territories have come together to create the Pacific Oceanscape, a vast area of the ocean for conservation and a sanctuary for marine life. In terms of cleaning up beaches, 808 Cleanups, a local group in Hawai’i, has engaged in the painstaking work of removing discarded nets, ropes, and plastic products from the beaches throughout Hawai’i (see photo below).

Groundbreaking works are happening in the arts in reviving motifs, such as Fata-ʻo-Tuʻi-Tonga pattern, that are associated with the chiefly descendants of Tangaloa. The beautiful art work of Tavakefaiʻana Sēmisi Potauaine, Uili Lousī, and Vīsesio Siasau comes to mind. In my local community, there are people who are preserving sacred structures and protecting creatures that are connected with Tangaloa. Here are two great examples: The unique community partnership by Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (HILT), Koʻolauloa Hawaiian Civic Club, and Hauʻula Community Association to do conservation work and mark the solar calendar at Maunawila Heiau - a sacred Hawaiian place that is linked to Kāne and Kanaloa (see photo below) - and the courageous work by Keep the North Shore Country (Gil Riviere), Kahuku Community Association (Kent Fonoimoana), and Mothers Against Industrial Turbines in Kahuku (Elizabeth J. Rago) to protect ʻŌpeʻapeʻa (Hawaiian hoary bats) and defend Kahuku’s bats (see photo below) against wind turbines.

Finally, there is the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana, a grassroots organization dedicated to the island of Kanaloa-Kahoʻolawe and the principles of Aloha ʻĀina (Love the Land) throughout Hawaiʻi. There are numerous examples of work done by the great people of Oceania to revive Tangaloa. They are all quite inspirational.

So, on this day of marking the Winter Solstices, the movement of the sun on Ke Ala Polohiwa a Kanaloa, The Path of Kanaloa (Johnson 2000: 194), I hope that we commit ourselves to caring and protecting Tangaloa, and to following the wisdom of the eminent Oceanian scholar Epeli Hauʻofa that “our most important role should be that of custodians of the ocean...” (2008: 55).


Hauʻofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean: Selected Works. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Johnson, Rubelite Kawena Kinney. 2000. The Kumulipo Mind: A Global Heritage In the Polynesian Creation Myth. Rubelite K. Johnson.

Kame‘eleihiwa, Lilikalā. 1992. “Traditional Hawaiian Metaphors.” In Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea La E Pono Ai?, 19–33. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.

Lafitani, Siosiua F. P. 2011. “Moanan-Tongan Fatongia and Denotic of Greco-Rome: Fiefia, Happiness, of Tauēlangi, Climactic Euphoria, and ‘Alaha kakala, Permeating Fragrance—Mālie! Bravo!” PhD diss., Australian Catholic University.

Lafitani, Siosiua F. P. 2017. New Loʻauan Philosophio-Social Theory on Tongan Vavanga about blood in Modern Lineages, Society and Nature. Loʻau University.

Māhina, ʻŌkusitino 2010. Tā, Vā, and Moana: Temporality, Spatiality, and Indigeneity. Pacific Studies 33 (2/3): 168–202.

Māhina, ʻŌkusitino 2017. Time, Space, and Culture: A New Tā-Vā Theory of Moana Anthropology. Pacific Studies 40 (1/2).

Moala, Masiu. 1994. ‘Efinanga: Ko e Ngaahi Tala mo e Anga Fakafonua ‘o Tonga. Kolomotu‘a, Nuku‘alofa, Tonga: Lali Publications.

Pouesi, Daniel. 2017. The Search for Tagaloa (Video Documentary)

Tui Atua, Tupua Tamasese Taʻisi, 2009. Suʻesuʻe Manogi: In Search of Fragrance. Lepapaigalagala, Samoa : The Centre for Samoan Studies, National University of Samoa.

Tui Atua, Tupua Tamasese, Taʻisi Efi, 2014. Whispers and Vanities in Samoan Indigenous Religious Culture. In Whispers and Vanities: Samoan Indigenous Religion and Knowledge, edited by Tamasailau M Suaalii-Sauni, Maualaivao Albert Wendt, Vitolia Moʻa, Naomi Fuamatu, Upolu Luma Vaʻai, Reina Whaitiri, Stephen L Filipo. Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand: Huia Publishers.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research 8(4): 387-409



  • Hufanga (Okusitino Mahina)
    Hufanga (Okusitino Mahina) Wednesday, 27 December 2017 20:16 Comment Link

    What a truly enlightening read too Professor Maui-Tava-He-Ako! Your creative and reflective elaboration and articulation on Tangaloa as your subject of historico-cultural ('ilo moe poto) and linguistic (tala, lea) investigation having socio-ecological (fonua, kakai-moe-'atakai) significance are well-taken. It surely provides more food for further critical thought.

    The word Tangaloa (literally meaning "long-jawbone," that is, "long-mouth" or "long-tongue") symbolically points to the deified ha'a Tangaloa clan as the actual "speakers/ orators/ tellers-of-the-future" (kaha'u/ kahoko, "kuongamui"), which is put behind people in the present (lotolotonga/ hoko, "kuongaloto"), informed by the past (kuohili/ kuohoko, "kuongamu'a"), also situated in front as guidance.

    This runs parallel to the deified ha'a Lo'au clan -- who were considered as tufunga fonua (material artists of social architecture/ social engineering) -- as well as having "long-eyes" (namely, toka-i-Ma'ananga) -- thus symbolising their being "seers-of-the-future" (where the past and future are commonly yet constantly mediated in the present).

    It is said in oral/ spoken history that the common place of abode of the deified ha'a Tangaloa clan was the Langi (Sky), as in Maama (Earth) and Lolofonua (Underworld) as the common abode(s) of the deified ha'a Maui clan and Pulotu, the Ancestral Homeland and Afterworld of Moana hihifo (western Moana) as the abode of the deified ha'a Hikule'o clan.

    The deified ha'a clans of Tangaloa, Maui and Hikule'o were merely differentiated by their respective fatongia (functions), which represented different major departments of culture (coordinated differently in terms of their totality), as in the Langi (Sky) above, Maama (Earth) below, and Moana (Ocean) at their interface, as well as the Lolofonua (Underworld) down under and Pulotu as repositories/ depositories of refined 'ilo (knowledge) and poto (skills) of the past (and of the dead).

    As for the ha'a Tangaloa clan, the political and ceremonial duties were assigned to Tangaloa Langi, priestly and godly duties to Tangaloa 'Eiki, funereal and death duties to Tangaloa 'Eitumatupu'a, artistic and land-based (kaifonua) duties to Tangaloa Tufunga, diplomatic and social duties to Tangaloa 'Atulongolongo and oceanic and marine-based (kaimoana) duties to Tangaloa Mana.

  • Tēvita O. Kaʻili
    Tēvita O. Kaʻili Wednesday, 27 December 2017 11:11 Comment Link

    Mālō ʻaupito Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, Tualiku o Vavau, and Fakalalafu for taking the tā and vā, time and space, to read my article and for writing supportive comments. I am also grateful to Nepituno Tonga Online News for sharing my article to a wider audience. As descendants of Tangaloa, I hope we continue to advocate for the health of our ancestral ocean.

  • Tualiku o Vavau
    Tualiku o Vavau Tuesday, 26 December 2017 11:20 Comment Link

    'Oku kau eni he talanoa malie pea fakamalo atu kia Tevita Ka'ili. 'Oku mahu'inga foki ke 'uluaki mahino ki he kakai 'o e Pasifiki 'a Tangaloa kimu'a pea malava kenau tu'u fakataha ke teke 'a e mahu'inga 'o 'ene ngaahi ngaue ki he kakai fakalukufua 'o e Pasifiki kae lava ke mobilize kinautolu ke fakafepaki'i 'a e ngahai ha'aha'a 'oku hoko 'i he fakalakalaka. 'I he keisi 'a Tonga ni, ko Tangaloa koe fananga pea koe ma'u ia 'a e tokolahi 'o hange ko 'ene nofo 'i langi pea koe tamai ia 'a 'Aho'eitu. Kpauu 'oku 'i ai hano hako pe ko hano mo'oni pea 'oku fiema'u ke 'ilo kiai 'a e fonua kae malava kenau fakamahu'inga'i. 'Oku totonu ketau fakatokanga'i 'oku kehe 'a e mahu'inga'ia 'a e kau fakatotolo hisitolia mo 'atolopolosia pehe ki he kau 'akatemika mei he mahu'inga'ia mo e mahino 'a e tokolahi taha 'o e fonua 'a ia 'oku ou tui kapau na'e tatau 'e lava 'anoa ketau tu'u ke fakafepaki'i 'a e ngaahi ngaue pango kuo hoko ki he 'oseni moana he koe lata'anga 'o Tangaloa.

  • Kolokesa Mahina Tuai
    Kolokesa Mahina Tuai Monday, 25 December 2017 23:00 Comment Link

    (W)hat a wonderful read Maui-Tāvā-He-Ako! It provides such a relevant and important insight for the general audience into Tagaloa’s historical lineage, status and significance; but also it’s relevance and significance today from a Tongan perspective, and also from the perspectives of the wider Moana! And while it is sad to see the current destruction of Tagaloa’s ocean and land realms it is definitely inspiring to read of the many activists and positive disruptors being the ‘voice’ for Tagaloa all over the Moana and worldwide!

  • Fakalalafu
    Fakalalafu Monday, 25 December 2017 10:28 Comment Link

    Malie lahi

  • Tēvita O. Kaʻili
    Tēvita O. Kaʻili Saturday, 23 December 2017 08:21 Comment Link

    Thank you Nepituno for sharing my article. Tangaloa is an important ancestor and a scientist for all of us. I look forward to reading the comments from your readers.


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