Colonia, Yap - A group of young men in Micronesia are putting the final careful touches on a traditional dugout canoe they built.
The teenagers, who have been working in Gargey on Yap, are Lamotrekese. They’re the sons of families who’ve migrated to Yap Proper from the much smaller islands and atolls further to the east known as the “Outer” or “Neighboring Islands.”
“As far as we know, this is the first time Outer Islanders have ever built a canoe on Yap for our own use,” proudly observes Larry Raigetal, one of the men who helped establish the project. “That makes this really special.” Raigetal is also from Lamotrek, a tiny coral atoll of 400 people about 600 miles from Yap.
Historically, Outer Islanders traded finished goods such as woven skirts and mats for canoes built on Yap Proper. This was part of a far-reaching pattern of trade and tribute that spanned hundreds of miles across the Caroline Islands in the Central Pacific Ocean. Raigetal explains how the promise of healthcare, education and employment has drawn more and more Neighboring Islanders to the larger, more developed islands in Micronesia that serve as that nation’s four state capitals. “One of the complications of the move is the break that many people -especially the young people- have with their families’ traditions. Those traditions are based on the routines of social life in the isolated Outer Islands.”
The project, which goes by the name of “Waagey” (an Outer Island term for “future”) has been a partnership between young and old; between those who’ve come to call Yap Proper home and those who remain in the Neighboring Islands. One of the more experienced canoed builders from Lamotrek named Xavier Yarofaliyango travelled aboard a state owned cargo vessel to Yap. Yarofaliyango and the traditional navigator Ali Haleyalur served as mentors and guides for the young men.
“This is a journey, which is how we think about canoes and travel in our islands, but this is also a return” says Ali Haleyalur. Waagey complete its first small canoe (roughly 15 feet long) in early March.
The group has also fallen and dugout logs for a second, much larger canoe, which may be in the 30 to 35 foot range. The makings of that larger canoe, which could ultimately be among the longest traditional Caroline Island canoes in existence, will be sent to Lamotrek aboard the state vessel soon. It will be completed in the Outer Islands, giving more young men a connection to the project.
“This is a great locally grown effort,” explained Scott Leis, a volunteer with the US-based Habele Outer Island Education Fund. Habele is a group of former Peace Corps volunteers and other Americans working to support K-12 aged students Micronesia. They provided Waagey with chainsaws and money for paint and other supplies. “Not only does this revive an important traditional activity and sense of cultural identity,” said Leis, “it also gives young men a sense of belonging and accomplishment. That seeps through all aspects of their lives.” Leis, who was in Yap to help with the project last month, explained that Habele also supports low-income Outer Island students at the small private schools on Yap through tuition scholarships.
Raigetal sees these two canoes as a solid first step. His wife, Regina, is working in parallel with young Outer Island women on Yap. They’ve begun to pair older women with young girls and teens, passing on the intricacies of traditional weaving techniques used to create Lava Lavas (distinctive skirts with horizontal lines) and handicrafts. Regina, a native of Fais Island, is also patterning with the Yap State Women’s organization and women’s groups in the Outer Islands. They are hoping to someday market some of the finished goods. “These items, with such a history and so much importance to our culture, can also be such a tool for the younger generation, to learn who they are and what they can accomplish.”