Sharktooth Sword

Sharktooth Sword

Sword, late 19th century
Gilbert Islands (Kingsmill)
Palm wood, sharktooth, cord, and cane, 28 7/8 × 10 1/4 × 1 3/4 in. (73.4 × 26 × 4.5 cm)
Conserved, 2021
Courtesy the American Museum of Natural History, Division of Anthropology, New York City, ST/1298

This te unun (shark-toothed weapon) from the Gilbert Islands of Kiribati is simultaneously a witness to Indigenous ceremonies and conflicts on a Pacific island, a reminder of the commercial exploitation of marine spaces by the nascent globalization of a young United States, and the memory of a world that no longer exists. The weapon is embedded with the teeth of Carcharhinus obscurus, the Dusky shark, which is no longer found in the waters around Kiribati. Sharks are culturally significant to the Gilbertese people, for whom shark fishing played an integral role in social and ritual life. Scientists recently determined that this shark species had been driven to local extinction in the early twentieth century, possibly as a result of commercial shark-finning operations.

The static nature of this item belies its use as a touchstone for I-Kiribati people entering an uncertain future. How can its material conservation spur novel identities, relations, and actions in response to a rapidly changing world, particularly for one of the countries most threatened by climate change?

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Sword, late 19th century

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