UOG President Dr. Underwood stands with the traditional navigators from the Lamotrek, Yap State, Micronesia at a ceremony celebrating their voyage (link).
For centuries, the people of the central Caroline Islands have relied heavily on their voyaging canoes as their primary means of transport. They made voyages to islands near and afar to obtain necessities including food, tools, and other valuables. In some instances, following devastating natural calamities, their canoes are used to relocate to a different island as was the case for the “Carolinians” now residing in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI).
Today, the art of canoe building and traditional celestial navigations, continues in these remote islands of the Federated States of Micronesia. Although at a smaller scale than what it used to be, the important knowledge of their ancestors is being passed on to younger generations. Waa’gey is a community-based organization that is working with their island communities to promote traditional skills and knowledge transfer.
Realizing the challenges brought to the shores of Micronesia by globalization and environmental issues—including climate change and rising sea levels—the people of Lamotrek Atoll in Yap State worked with Waa’gey’s Larry Reigetal and his crew to refurbish an outrigger canoe named The Lucky Star. Using only traditional seafaring methods and no modern navigation technology, the eight-man crew (Paul Haleyalpiy, Johnny Ratigulur, Noel Ukun, Iseah Yarofyan, Jackson Mailuw, Delson Twerital, Wilson Filmwai, and documentary film producer Douglas Varchol) led by Larry Reigetal braved storms and powerful ocean currents to travel over 500 miles to Guam over five days to participate and showcase their Micronesian culture in the Festival of Pacific Arts held in May 2016. After the festival, the crew sailed over 500 miles back to Lamotrek over a period of 10 days.
The crew brought along a traditional pandanus sail woven by the people of Lamotrek to use during Guam FestPac 2016, and to display the skills used to create it. The entire process of weaving the sail took more than six months, with over 30 people contributing to its construction.
Lucky Star's arrival on Guam
Due to modern seafaring technologies, the traditional weaving techniques in Lamotrek had not been in practice for over half a century. However, through this project, Waa’gey was able to enlist the help of 95-year old Maria Labusheilam, the last master weaver in Lamotrek. She taught the skills to 20 women apprentices, led by her daughter Maria Ilourutog. The men of Lamotrek, led by Xavier Yarofaliyango, cut the pandanus leaves, and stretched and stitched the sail together. Labusheilam died two weeks after passing on the knowledge; she did not see the final outcome of her work. The sail is woven from the pandanus (or screw-pine) tree commonly grown on beaches of almost all tropical islands.
The leaves are harvested, dried under the sun, and stripped into single fibers. They are then woven into longer strips of sheets, which are then strengthened by stretching and wrapping the sheets around coconut palm trees. The sheets are then sewn together with sennit twine ropes made from coconut fibers. The weaving of sails is not the same as weaving sleeping mats, as they need to be doubled and overlapped to ensure strength and durability.
Early post World War II canoe sail, outer islands of Yap, Micronesia.
The sail was previously displayed at the University of Guam and the Honolulu Museum of Art, and will be the main art display at the UN Headquarters during The Ocean Conference from June 5 – 9. 2017. It will then travel to Europe, Asia, and Australia before it makes its final voyage to the Federated States of Micronesia capital—Palikir—in time to sail the 2018 Micronesian Games torch to Yap next summer. It has been autographed by all the people from Lamotrek and the President of the FSM, His Excellency Peter Christian.
German anthropological drawing of Carolinian Sailing Canoes, circa 1890
In the center of the sail is the phrase “Falemwaiul Lamoireg?”, which means “Survival of Lamoireg’s Glory”. It highlights the community’s own struggle to combat the negative impacts of modernization—including environmental issues such as climate change and rising of sea levels. It is the hope of the Lamotrek people that this sail travels around the world to show their cultural heritage of the past—canoe building and voyaging—are not only applicable to our societies, but are indeed conducive to the environment in which we live.
Habele, a US-based nonprofit, is a proud partner of Waa'gey, providing targeted grants and equipping master and apprentice carvers with world class, culturally appropriate, tools.