Traditional crafts kept alive on Yap

Many of the people of Yap in the Federated states of Micronesia are leaving the outer islands for the more urbanised big islands at the centre of the group and in the process they can lose parts of their traditional culture

Waa'Gey incorporated is an organisation dedicated to ensure the skills involved in traditional canoe carving and weaving are passed on to future generations.

It's helped in its work by the small American based charity Habele that provides materials and some funds for its extracurricular activities for school students.

Regina Raigetal, is a Habele Director and the C-E-O of Waa'Gey and explained its work to Steve Rice.

Presenter: Steve Rice

Speaker: Regina Raigetal, the C-E-O of Waa'Gey in Yap

RAIGETAL: Ah it's currently focused on a particular weaving that we want to preserve it, and it went slowly for the past year, very few people remember all the intricate patterns that go onto this, and so we're trying to revive it and sustain it by teaching it to the younger generation, and the same idea was canoe carving.

RICE: I believe the weaving on Yap involves looms?

RAIGETAL: Well the looms are handmade and it's all manual, nothing electronic to it. The whole loom itself is made of wood and every little work done on it is done by the person who has structured the loom.

RICE: What sort of yarns do you use in the weaving?

RAIGETAL: We use banana and hibiscus fibres. For the younger girls we use cotton thread or polyester thread, because it's less brittle and we can teach it to them when they get to know that and adjust do it, then we provide them with the banana and hibiscus fibres.

RICE: How do you do that?

RAIGETAL: Well the banana, we peel the whole trunk of banana, because the banana tree the trunk is layered, and deeper within the banana tree trunk is whiter fibre, that's the ones that we use, and then for the intricate patterns that we add on and form the pattern into the actual loom or the lavalava we use the hibiscus fibre, which is soaked in water and then dried in the shade and then dyed.

RICE: What do you use to make the dyes?

RAIGETAL: Well we have natural dyes, but most recently we've been using imported dyes.

RICE: What were the natural dyes made of?

RAIGETAL: Well plants, roots and then we even used the husk of the coconut, we mash it and we squeeze the juice from it.

RICE: How old is the weaving culture?

RAIGETAL: I think the weaving actually involved in the Polynesian Islands, because there are studies of some anthropologists who've found that they have similar patterns drawn onto tapa cloths in the South Pacific.

RICE: And how many women are left that know all the skills of the weaving and how to do it?

RAIGETAL: I think less than 20, and so that is why we're working hard to preserve it and teach it to the younger generations.

RICE: And how many people of the younger generations are now interested in this art form?

RAIGETAL: A lot are interested and they are even some who are currently taking college courses, and so after their classes they come home and they join the group. And each student has their own loom. We currently have about ten students and two teachers.

RICE: Ok and what are the finished products used for?

RAIGETAL: The traditional uses are many, but this particular weaving or this pattern that we're focussed on, it used to be and still is a Chiefly, so we would call it the royal fabric and we weave it for funerals, they were used as mats and shrouds.

RICE: How many traditional patterns are there?

RAIGETAL: There are many patterns for wearing.

RICE: And that's for everyday life is it?

RAIGETAL: Yes every day. We sleep in them, we don't wear pyjamas or a nightdress, we wear the lavalava day or night, whatever in the water or on land, it's part of the culture.

RICE: And tell us about the canoe building?

RAIGETAL: Here the society has very defined gender roles and the women have their work, which is to garden and weave, and the men have their's, which is to fish, and so that's where the canoe comes in, because not everybody in the smaller islands have a motorboat, and so they still fish today using canoes. We're trying to teach it also to the younger generation so that they appreciate the art, and then also we have paddlers to come and paddle the ones that are already done carving, just to get a feel of it and know that it's usable and it's right there and it's theirs.

RICE: I believe that recently a new canoe was launched that had been carved out of a piece of Philippine mahogany?

RAIGETAL: Yes, yes, and they used that for the canoe festival. It won several races, and right now there's another log that is being carved.

RICE: So your organisation is dedicated to keeping alive the traditional handcrafts?

RAIGETAL: And the purpose for that is of course the migration of the neighbouring islanders to the main island or to the centre, and currently they choose to migrate here but soon with climate change and the sea level rising the way it is going, there'll be forced migration. And so they're coming in here and having their own settlements, they're losing their culture because they're meshing it with a more modern one here in the centre, and so I hope to pass these traditional activities so that other kids from the outer islands continue to learn it.

[This is a transcript of an interview conducted November 30th, aired on Radio Australia. The audio file can be found here].