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Kava Drink: Fijian Yaqona Bowls and Dishes

Yaqona Bowl (Tanoa), late 19th to early 20th Century
Fiji, Polynesia
Wood; 7 1/2 x 22 7/16 x 21 in.
99.43.7
Donated by Rear Admiral Ralph and Sara Garrison
Kava Chameleon
Within the last few decades, kava has found its way into the American social scene as a niche alternative to alcohol in being both a mild relaxant and an avenue to potential liver damage after long-term use. Since their humble continental beginnings, kava bars now dot the east and west coasts of the United States and news outlets like the New York Times are writing articles covering the rising trend. This week we take advantage of the Bowers Museum’s wealth of Fijian vessels used in the preparation and consumption of kava to examine how varied drinking kava traditionally was.
Fijian yaqona ceremony for tourists.
Photograph taken by Jaejay77. Covered by CC BY-SA 4.0
Yaqona From Here on Out
Kava comes from the root of the kava plant and is found and traditionally consumed throughout Polynesia and some of Micronesia. Its history dates from before the first European explorers came to the islands, so it is difficult to pinpoint the exact spread of kava consumption through the Pacific, though interestingly it is the Tongan word which is most widely used in English. The Fijian word for the drink is yaqona. On the sprawling island chain, it derived its importance as a ceremonial drink used social rituals which could vary in formality from an afternoon drink with one’s kinsmen to a state welcoming to a foreign dignitary. The ceremonial importance likely derives in some way from the anesthetic and euphoriant properties of the root which numb the mouth and purportedly give the imbiber a pleasant sensation throughout the body.
Spirits and Spirits and Headhunters
Several different dishes and bowls are used to consume yaqona. Each of these speak to the varying ceremonial uses of the drink. The largest bowls, called tanoa, are used during formal welcoming ceremonies called veiqaravi vakaturaga—or yaqona vakaturaga if the kava root drink is the only option being offered. Tanoacould be massive. The bowl on display in the Bowers Museum’s Spirits and Headhunters exhibition has a diameter of almost 23 inches, but the largest bowl recorded has a diameter almost twice as large. The drinking ritual used in Fiji throughout much of the islands’ recorded history was adopted from a Tongan one. Formal ceremonies involved parties sitting opposite one another across the bowl. A mixer from the chiefly class would be directed by a man from a non-chiefly class. After the yaqona was prepared men would take drinks in order of prestige using small half coconut shell bowls dipped into the tanoa. Multi-legged bowls such as this one with exquisite craftsmanship mostly came from the small Fijian island of Kabara. A Samoan carpenter established the trade there in the 18thCentury and since then woodworking on Kabara has become seen as a hereditary right.
Yaqona Dishes (Ibuburau Ni Bete), late 20th Century 
Fiji, Polynesia
Wood; Various Dimensions
2003.7.7-.8
Bowers Museum Purchase
To Serve, Man—And Ducks
The other major usage of yaqona was in payment of priestly activities such as answers regarding issues of health and well-being. Instead of being mixed with fresh water as is done when a tanoa is used, a highly concentrated version is poured into a shallow dish and then drunk through a straw called a burau. The resulting effect was difficult to achieve through casual consumption in Fiji or with the processed kava now sold in the United States, but was strong enough to give the priests access to powerful forces. These shallow dishes took a number of shapes. The simplest appear as small circular basins on pedestals. The most complex took the forms of men and birds as we can see with the two figurative dishes. Examples such as these were rare until an export market for reproductions began in the mid 20th Century, but originally items such as these would be seen as sacred as much due to their association with priests as their respective motifs. Interestingly, the duck was not notable in Fijian mythology except for their ability to live in air, land, and sea. The anthropomorphic bowl is a curiosity, because before the 20th Century they were found in small enough numbers to indicate that only one workshop in all of Fiji produced them.
Yaqona Bowl (Tanoa), 19th to early 20th Century
Gau Island, Lomaiviti Group, Lomaiviti Province, Fiji, Polynesia
Wood; 19 3/4 x 6 3/4 x 14 3/8 in.
98.84.8
Gift of Ms. Kristine Moe Shelton and Ms. Olise M. Mandat
Tanoa Someone, Share a Drink
Smaller tanoasuch as the double-handled bowl from the Lomaiviti Island group saw more general use, and based on the darker patina closer to the bottom of the bowl, a significant amount of it. Isevusevu were intimate exchanges of yaqona between visiting parties. Partakers traditionally traded presentation speeches honoring each other’s groups and the ancestors they embodied before drinking. Tradition is hardly static though. Even among groups less affected by the immense volume of tourists which Fiji now receives, ceremonial usage has given way to the more casual social usage which always existed. Perhaps the kava craze quietly taking place in the United States is just the next step in a long series of island hops kava has already taken.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Friday, 18 October 2019

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