Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Sonsorol State

Sonsorol State, one of the Republic of Palau’s sixteen states, is one of Palau’s most remote and inaccessible states. Almost five hundred kilometers south of the Palau’s main islands and a two-day boat journey away, Sonsorol is composed of three island groups (Sonsorol and Fanna, Merir, and Pulo Anna), each approximately a hundred kilometers from each other.

Sonsorol State Islands Characteristics

Sonsorol, Fanna, Pulo Anna, and Merir are low coral islets ringed with coral sand and surrounded by fringing reef between 200 and 500 meters offshore. At low tide the entire reef is exposed above water. The islands vary in size, with Merir being the longest at 2.2 kilometers and Fanna the shortest at 0.5 kilometers. Because of the islands’ size and their openness to strong ocean currents and strong westerly winds, it is impossible to build docks or anchorage on the islands.

People and Culture

Twenty people currently reside on Sonsorol; ten on Pulo Anna, and two on Merir. Two people resided on Fanna but were brought to Koror in December 2016 due to family obligations. The global population of Sonsorolese is estimated between 400 and 450, with the majority (95 percent) residing in Eang Village, Koror State, or abroad. People have migrated to Koror for their children’s education, others for health care reasons, and many others for employment.

The people of Sonsorol are culturally and lingustically related to the Yap Outer Islands and the Caroline Islands, speaking a language different from the majority Palauans.

There are two elementary schools, one on Sonsorol Island with five students and another on Pulo Anna Island with the same number of five students. Currently, there is no health care nurse on any of the islands. Adult residents get basic healthcare needs through traditional herbal medicine practices. For other medical care, a report is made through radio communication via the Sonsorol State Office in Koror; the report is sent to the attending doctor of the emergency room at the National Hospital in Koror who then diagnoses the disease and prescribes further care or refers the patient the National Hospital in Koror as needed.

Traditionally, the islanders’ beliefs were rooted in spiritualism, but in the 1900s with the introduction of Christianity, people were converted to Roman Catholicism. Today nearly everyone belongs to the Catholic Church. There are Catholic churches on Sonsorol Island and Pulo Anna Island.

Economy

The municipal and state governments employ most adults for two projects—the road and grounds maintenance program and the coconut beetle control program. For additional income, people produce coconut syrup while others harvest and sell coconut crabs and salted fish. In the past people used to make dried fish (katsuobushi). People generally live subsistent lifestyle, relying on land and sea resources.

Transportation

The Sonsorol state government charters a ship four times a year to travel to the four state islands. These field trips are the road to bring government and other services to the islands—education, health, communication, and NGOs. Additionally, they are the only link that brings people of Sonsorol to visit families and relatives. These are the only means of transportation for construction materials, food, school, and other supplies. The state’s goal is to be open for local visitors and tourists, but space on the ships is always limited.

The Young Historians

In 2014, two young women from Palau Community College conducted interviews on cultural subjects. With the help of two younger cousins, they conducted interviews with the Sonsorol community elders. Through these interviews, they realized how much they didn’t know about their own island culture. Having been born and raised in Koror, they were displaced from the Sonsorol Island and its culture. This realization motivated their desire to continue the effort.

Other youth heard about their project and decided to join. As a result, the group grew to eighteen members, ranging from 16 to 35 years old. They organized and called themselves Young Historians and listed their goals and developed plans.

Young Historians’ Plans

  • Collect and preserve the history (culture, custom, heritage, etc.) of Sonsorol State for the youth and future generations
  • Help educate Sonsorol State youth about our culture, customs, and heritage
  • Create programs that teach about our traditions, customs, and history.

Young Historians’ Short-Term Goals

  • Document and collect data (pictures, videos, documents, etc.) through research and interviews
  • Present collected data to the youth through forums, seminars, and workshops
  • Record family trees for every hamlet, clan, and island
  • Conduct youth cultural projects during summer trips or whenever possible

Young Historians’ Long-Term Goals

  • Publish a Sonsorol history book for the youth
  • Publish an illustrated children’s book
  • Build a museum to store, preserve, and display collections, such as history books, storybooks, pictures, audio recordings, and other artifacts that contribute to our history

Young Historians’ Special Projects

  • Document all flora and fauna
  • Develop signs to stand at every hamlet on every island
  • Build fare (canoe/men’s house)

Young Historians’ Strategic Plans

  • Choose one general topic each month for research
  • Assign a task to each group (three groups)
  • Develop a questionnaire should be set and reviewed by the group prior to interview
  • Ensure that each member submit at least one fiyango (story), haping (chant), hasiwesiw (lullaby) each month.

The group was excited to begin, but while planning, they realized they needed resources and support. They recruited the representative of Sonsorol in the National Congress for help. The congressman, a citizen of Sonsorol himself, was encouraged by the project idea. He gave support by purchasing four digital recorders, a camera, and computer accessories for digital storage. The Young Historians also solicited help from the Sonsorol State Legislature and were granted office supplies. With these items, the group carried out their plans. The first three projects were to collect data on funeral processes, stories, and traditional chants. The second took place on Sonsorol Island. A five-member group traveled there in 2014 to collect plant samples for the Palau National Museum.

Before their trip, they solicited help from the museum for training on plant pressing and were able to borrow the museum’s press. The group also visited the Bureau of Cultural Affairs to introduce themselves and discuss their plans. Both agencies welcomed the group and expressed their support.

Facing Challenges

These youths were enthusiastic and motivated to move forward; they had the desire, energy, and skills as well as support from the Sonsorol community, two government agencies, and others. But they lacked office space, adult guidance, and, most importantly, financial support. Additionally, this being a small community, every activity, be it a funeral, church feast day, or community clean up, required the involvement of all youths. Eventually, some of the leaders began families of their own, which diverted their energy and attention away from group activities, and after a while these changes weakened the group. The group essentially dissolved in the middle of 2016.

The group planned to conduct their activities voluntarily. It would have helped if there was adequate financial support to compensate members, rent adequate space, and purchase additional supplies to facilitate continued participation.

Collaboration Efforts with the Elder Women’s Organization

From June to December 2016, the Young Historians collaborated with the Sonsorol State Women’s Organization on a cultural project to publish an illustrated storybook of traditional children’s stories. The Young Historians interviewed and collected stories from elders and drew the illustrations. This was made possible through a youth grant funded by the Indian Grant Aid through the Office of the President, Republic of Palau.