Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Ngalekekedung, showing respect for elders © BAC Collections

Collection and Inventory of Oral History at the National Level in Palau

Introduction

The Republic of Palau became a member of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in November 2011. As a new member, Palau has begun assessing the current status of nation’s intangible cultural heritage in comparison to the Convention criteria for nominations to any of the UNESCO ICH lists.

Palau Island Geography and Geology

The Republic of Palau, located approximately 7 degrees north of the equator, is the western-most island in Micronesia. The main archipelago consists of a chain of islands that stretch 160 kilometers in a northwest-to-southeast direction and 25 kilometers across at its widest point. Most of the islands are encompassed in a barrier reef except for Kayangel islands to the north and Angaur and the Southwest Island group to the south. The Southwest Island group is located approximately 389 kilometers south of the main archipelago. The inhabited islands of Palau included from north to south are Kayangel, Babeldaob, Koror, Ngerkebesang, Meyuns, Peleliu, Angaur, and the Southwest Island group. The Southwest Islands are made of two states—namely, Hatohobei and Sonsorol. Palau islands are of several geological formations, including volcanic, atoll, raised coral, and high limestone (Snyder et al, ND). Babeldaob is the largest island with an approximate area of 363 square kilometers that amounts for about three-quarters of Palau’s total land area. Babeldaob is a volcanic island that reaches an elevation of 242 meters above sea level. Kayangel and Helen Reef are the only true atolls. The southwest islands are raised coral islands that have elevations of a few meters above sea level.

Role of the Bureau of Arts and Culture

First established in 1978, the Bureau of Arts and Culture—then called the Division of Cultural Affairs and later renamed under the Executive Order No. 203 in 2001—is a Palau government entity under the Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs, which mandates a framework for the adequate protection of archaeological sites and tangible and intangible cultural resources (Emesiochel, 2008: 4). The mission of the Bureau is to protect and preserve all the Republic’s cultural and historical resources to enhance, enrich, and foster Palauan heritage now and into the future. To achieve this mission, the Bureau has four main goals. First, to preserve and foster cultural and historical resources for the benefit of Palauan people; second, to preserve and educate Palauan tradition that are threatened with extinction; third, to protect cultural and historical resources from destruction; and fourth, to preserve culture and tradition in the face of inevitable increasing foreign contact and interaction. The Bureau of Arts and Culture has five main sections that work in unison to achieve its major goals. These are the Administration and Planning Section, Survey and Inventory/Archaeology Section, Oral History and Ethnography Section, Palau Register of Historic Places Section, and Public Education Section.

Collection and Inventory of Oral History

Oral histories or intangible heritage are crucial to any understanding of Palauan cultural heritage. Oral histories are fluid, flexible historical narratives that are shaped by each generation. A story, any story, appears in many variations, with no one variant considered the true version; it serves to mediate knowledge of the past as well as to provide organizational diagrams necessary to understand complicated actions of one’s ancestors (Parmentier 1987). Yet, these histories are a valuable augmentation to the archaeological record as they provide a context and an understanding of the motivations behind the social structure responsible for material remains. (Tellei et al. 2005: 15; Olsudong 2002).

The Bureau recognized the need to document and publishes oral histories and traditional knowledge, especially when considering that many knowledgeable elders are dying and that if their knowledge lost, it cannot be retrieved. In addition, there are also concerns that traditional Palauan life ways must be preserved due to the many encroachments upon their culture by tourist activities and Western influence. Therefore, the oral history and ethnography projects have focused on documenting the life histories of certain village elders, oral historians, cultural experts, and village titleholders as well as younger, middle-aged village members (Kihleng 1996: 22). An important component to this methodology is the inclusion of members of the Society of Historians. They are chosen from Palau’s sixteen states and are considered an integral component to Palau’s oral history program.

Moses N. Sam, the former Division Chief, originally established the Bureau’s Oral History Program in 1984 with its main objective being the documentation of Palau’s traditional culture and oral histories. Ngirkungiil Moses Mekoll, the former Staff Historian, conducted most of the initial work with the Society of Historians. As a result of these and other’s efforts, the Society released two written volumes entitled Rechuodel I and II (Rechuodel roughly translates as “Ancient Ways”), detailing traditional cultural knowledge and practices. Later on, the retired Staff Historian Florencio Gibbons, and the former Senior Archaeologist at the Bureau, Dr. William Adams, edited these volumes. DeVerne Reed Smith also completed an English translation of Rechuodel I as part of the Micronesian Resources Study that was printed in 1995. In 1996, two pamphlets entitled Ulekerreuil a Kldiull Ma Cheroll and Ulekerreuil a Kodall Ma Kemeldiil were produced that detailed some of the childbirth practices and funeral customs found in RechuodelI.

These volumes are considered to be highly informative on matters of traditional Palauan culture and serve as a medium for preserving traditional Palauan life ways and culture as well as the Palauan language. The Rechuodel volumes also contain an extensive glossary of older Palauan words not commonly used, resulting in the development and use of a revised orthography for written Palauan.

Today, the Oral History and Ethnography staff continues to produce booklets and reports and gathers oral history of the archaeological and historical sites that are surveyed in the states each year.

The program area of Oral History and Ethnography has the following objectives:

  • To document and publish oral histories, customary practices, and traditional laws of Palau with the assistance of the Klobak er a Ibetel a Cherechar (Society of Historians).
  • To conduct ethnographic research and document oral histories and information of historic and cultural sites in the nation.
  • To keep and maintain the Oral History and Ethnography section databases—photography, video, audio, and state surveys.
  • To seek opportunities to digitize the audiocassette recordings in the oral history collection.
  • To keep and maintain close consultation and working relationship with the Klobak er a Ibetel a Cherechar and provide staff support for their work.
  • To develop stakeholders’ capabilities in identifying and documenting their own oral history or intangible cultural heritage.

To date there has been eighteen published booklets on Palau Customary Practices. All this information on Palau’s intangible heritage is made possible through the hard work and assistance from the sixteen-member Society of Historians who are the custodians of traditional knowledge. These elders assist the Bureau by documenting various ICH so that is written and is available for use.

Contact Information

Sunny O. Ngirmang, Director of Bureau of Arts & Culture, Ministry of Community & Cultural Affairs at e-mail address bac_reg@palaunet.com or histpres@palaunet.com for more information.

References

Emesiochel, Calvin T. Palau County Report: Training Course on Cultural Heritage Protection: Research, Analysis and Preservation of Archaeological Sites and Remains. ACCU Nara, Japan 2008.”

Kihleng, K. S. The Palau Oral History Program: An Inventory, Evaluation, and Research Design for the Future. Final Report for the Palau Historic Preservation Program, Division of Cultural Affairs, Republic of Palau 1996.

Olsudong, Rita “Oral Traditions and Archaeology in Micronesia. An Attempt to Study Past Ideology in a Built Environment.” Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Bulletin 22, 2002 (Melaka Papers, Volume 6)

Palau National Code Title 19 Chapter 1 Historical and Cultural Preservation Act

Parmentier, Richard J. The Sacred Remains, Myth, History, and Polity in Belau. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1987.

Snyder David M, W. Bruce Massee, and James Carucci. “Dynamic settlement, landscape modification, resource utilization and value of oral traditions in Palauan archaeology.” Terra Australis 35. 155-180

Tellei, Julita., U. Basilius, and F. K. Rehuher. “Palau Compact Road Archaeological Investigations, Babeldaob Island, Republic of Palau, Phase I: Intensive Archaeological Survey, Volume III: Oral History Documentation.” Prepared for the Department of the Army, U.S. Army Engineer District, Honolulu, Hawaii, by the International Archaeological Research Institute, Inc. Honolulu, Hawaii 2005.