Micronesian canoe reassembly highlights interwoven FSM-US ties

Reprinted with permission from the Kaselehlie Press

Micronesian citizens living in Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, gathered in South Carolina in mid-May to reassemble a traditional paddling canoe. The boat was crafted in Yap and serves as a symbol of the interwoven history of the American and Micronesian Peoples.

Gift of this one-of-a-kind craft was prompted by support from private citizens across the United States –and in particular South Carolina– following Super Typhoon Maysak, a record-setting storm that ravaged the Micronesian States of Yap and Chuuk in 2015.

Canoe delivery was organized by “Habele,” a South Carolina headquartered charity serving students across Micronesia. Habele had solicited, coordinated, and delivered relief supplies to pupils and educators in the wake of the storm. “Waa’gey,” a Yap-based community preservation organization, crafted the canoe, also working with Habele to identify Micronesians in the United States who could reassemble the craft once it reached Edisto Island, south of Charleston.

"The canoe is the central object of Pacific Island cultures, and preserving the knowledge of its construction and use is essential to cultural preservation in the region,” explained Douglas Herman, Senior Geographer, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “It is exciting to see this knowledge being shared and perpetuated.“

The westernmost state in Micronesia, the tiny islands of Yap are scattered across 500 miles of ocean, just south of the US Territory of Guam. An American protectorate following liberation in World War Two, Micronesia is now a sovereign nation in a special “Compact” with the US.  Through that status, many Micronesians come to study, work, and live, in the United States. Reassembly of the canoe offered some of these Islanders a chance to reconnect, and preserve their distinctive cultural skills.

“The practice of building and sailing canoes is an essential component of Micronesian culture,” says Barbara Wavell, an anthropologist and author of “Arts & Crafts of Micronesia.” “Canoe building requires many important skills including woodworking, lashing. These skills can also be applied to other cultural activities such as house construction and the making of bowls and tools. The Habele canoe project is a significant step in the promotion and preservation of this important cultural knowledge.”

Among the Micronesians who gathered to reassemble the canoe using distinctive and complex lashing techniques were Camilius Epoulipiy, John Salmai, Marino Yarogimal, Ralph Tawerilig, Richard Yangitelmes, and Troy Hasugulut. American born relatives of Island descent joined as well as American volunteers.

The canoe’s point of origin and its new berth share historical ties with the Spanish Empire. In 1686, the Islands of Yap were sighted and first claimed as Spanish colony. That same year -over 7,000 miles away- Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto was burned by Spanish raiders from Florida hoping to expel English colonists from present day South Carolina.

“This canoe is authentic enough for museum display, and functional enough to take shrimping in South Carolina’s tidal creeks,” explained Larry Raigetal of Waa’gey. “It’s made from local materials, with traditional tools, and we are excited about our friends at Point of Pines putting it to good use.”

“I join our elders and young men of Waa'gey in extending our heart felt appreciation and congratulations to our partner, Habele and those who have helped to assemble the canoe,” continued Raigetal, the "Senap," or master carver. He was supervised by his late father and master canoe carver Peter Pakemai  “This is a proud moment for us and we are humbled with the opportunity to play a small part of this achievement.” Organizers hope to formally commission the canoe in mid-June.

“I was grateful to be a part of this,” said Cam Epoulipiy, who drove more than seven hours to attend. “To reconnect with Islanders living in the States, to practice and preserve important skills, and to see that others outside our Islands also value these things of such importance to us.”