Ali Haleyalur of Lamotrek Island, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia, is one of the few remaining people with the knowledge and skills to journey long distances on the open ocean in traditional voyaging canoes without using modern instruments. He and the small community of palu (Carolinian master navigators) alive today learned this wayfinding knowledge through years of apprenticeship with the master navigators throughout the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. Customarily, the knowledge and practices required to navigate over what can be treacherous waters have been passed along to only a few select descendants of ancestral lineages that have protected the valuable practice for thousands of years.
Navigation between the small inhabited islands continues to be a valuable practice that helps islanders sustain clan ties and obtain resources for survival. Traditional navigation is also seen as a vital form of intangible cultural heritage since it is a distinct facet of many Pacific Islander cultures and identities. Unfortunately, however, the knowledge and practices associated with traditional navigation are disappearing rapidly mainly because modern technologies and lifestyles make it much more difficult for palu to find young apprentices. With only a handful of master navigators still alive today, it is crucial to find new ways to safeguard this precious cultural practice.
Haleyalur understands how much more challenging it is to preserve traditional navigation today than it was when he went through his training. He is also keenly aware that the secretive nature of his knowledge makes it even more difficult to keep this form of intangible cultural heritage alive. This is why Haleyalur took the unprecedented step of working with the Traditional Navigation Society (TNS) of Yap State to design and implement a nine-month navigation course that was open to all interested applicants in the state. This was the first time this traditional knowledge had been offered in this way.
Haleyalur held daily traditional navigation classes with a small group of students at the Yapese Living History Museum. He designed his course to adapt as many of the traditional instruction methods as possible into a tailored, updated format that respects and honors protocols and restrictions connected with the sacred aspects of Carolinian navigation. This was no easy task as it required complex determinations of what needed to be taught and what needed to remain private. The goal was to ensure the survival of both traditional navigation and, more importantly, the lives of his students who would rely upon what they have been taught to survive on the open ocean. In the summer of 2015, his course culminated with the pwo initiation ceremony—a multi-day event where apprentice navigators go through strict ritualized activities while being tested on the knowledge they obtained. It was a truly historic event as it had been years since a pwo had been performed and the first time in living memory it had been conducted on Yap’s Main Islands.
In late May of this year, Haleyalur and several of his apprentices will also voyage to Guam for this year’s Festival of Pacific Arts. This will be a great opportunity for initiates to practice their new knowledge and gain valuable experience on the open ocean. The historic festival will also bring together the small community of the few remaining traditional navigators in the region, creating an opportunity for all to share insights on innovative approaches to effectively keep their art alive. Ensuring that the wisdom of past ancestors lives on today, the safeguarding efforts of Haleyalur and others should be commended for finding new ways to share their incredible knowledge.
Stefan Krause (Applied Cultural Anthropologist, University of South Florida)