Cultural Importance of Sawfish
Sawfish are culturally important to many native societies around the world. They are considered symbols of strength, spirituality, and admiration. Thinking of predators as valuable icons may seem unusual, but western cultures consider other predators as having positive qualities like the eagle (bravery), the bear (strength), and the lion (nobility) (McDavitt, 2005).
Certain clans among Aboriginal societies in Australia believe that supernatural beings assuming the form of sawfish created the land that their people inhabit. Such beliefs symbolize the tribe's connection to land and sea. According to the Anindilyakwa people of the Northern Territory of Australia, ancestral beings emerged from burgeoning lands, seas, and skies during the creation of earth. Certain ancestors in animal form, including sawfish, wandered the earth searching for a suitable place to live. The sawfish ancestors used their rostra ("saws") to gouge rivers and create landscapes. Before the ancestral animals disappeared, they gave the land to humans. The societies that reside in those landscapes view sawfish as respected beings that are models for human values and behavior (McDavitt, 2005).
The Kuna, native to the Caribbean coast, believe that sawfish protect mankind, and will help them fight off dangerous sea creatures, such as sharks or whales, or rescue people from drowning (McDavitt, 2002).
Other societies view sawfish as supernatural beings that bring prosperity and good luck to their communities. Native societies in Panama view sawfish as spiritually powerful beings that were sought out by shamans for ritual purposes. The shamans believed that sawfish harbored powerful spirits and called upon these spirits during religious ceremonies. The shaman would carve batons out of wood to protect the sawfish spirits and believed that this would assure their cooperation in defending the people against supernatural enemies (McDavitt, 2002).
Admired for their predatory behavior, the native people that live along the Sepik River in Papua, New Guinea believe that the sawfish spirits "will punish people who break fishing taboos by unleashing destructive rainstorms," (McDavitt, 1996). They also believe that sawfish control fish abundance in rivers.
The sawfish has also been a symbol of warfare. Sawfish rostra have been used as weapons in the Philippines, New Guinea, and New Zealand. A picture or drawing of a sawfish was sometimes put on German U-boats, naval ships, and American submarines during World War II (McDavitt, 1996).
In general, sawfish rostra have been used as religious symbols, offerings, and used as a defense against supernatural enemies. People nailed the saws over the doors of houses to keep ghosts out and would also hang them over cradles to keep babies from crying (McDavitt, 1996). Some cultures even used the rostrum of juvenile sawfish as hair combs.
These fascinating and sometimes misunderstood animals have instilled positive attitudes in mankind worldwide. Sawfish populations worldwide are in danger of extinction and the population of smalltooth sawfish in the United States has severely declined over the last century. They have been protected under the United States Endangered Species Act since 2003, but more information is needed to effectively manage the species' recovery. We encourage anglers and boaters to contact the sawfish researchers by e-mail at sawfish@MyFWC.com or by phone at the sawfish hotline at 844-472-9347 (844-4SAWFISH) to report a sawfish sighting or encounter for research purposes.
McDavitt, M. T. 1996. The cultural and economic importance of sawfishes. (Family Pristidae). Shark News [Newsletter of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group] 8:10-11.
McDavitt, M. T. 2002. Sawfishes in the indigenous art of Panama. Shark News [Newsletter of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group] 14:4
McDavitt, M. T. 2005. The cultural significance of sharks and rays in Aboriginal societies across Australia's top end. Marine Education Society of Australasia. 5 pp.