Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Hanging pieces of cloth for wospwij launching ceremony © Takuya Nagaoka

Sailing Canoe Building on Mwoakilloa Atoll

Asailing canoe was a material symbol of men’s skill and their pride on Mwoakilloa (formerly Mokil) Atoll in Micronesia. Acquiring the techniques to build a sailing canoe was difficult, and this is why learning the techniques was a rite of passage into manhood and criterion for marriage. At a marriage proposal, the man proposing used to be asked if he could make a paddle or bailer, implying a sailing canoe. The accomplishment of building one’s first sailing canoe was celebrated by a special launching ceremony called wospwij. The late Boaz Poll stated that “men used to have sailing canoe races as contests of manhood.” Even today, for those who remember the olden days, the Mwoakillese sailing canoe symbolizes traditional standards of men: competitiveness, cooperation, and hard work.

The Mwoakillese people are known as an enterprising group, being skilled at fishing, carpentry, and cooking using traditional and modern methods. This enterprising nature can be seen as having originated from the considerable cultural changes Mwoakillese people have undergone since the nineteenth century when early beachcombers influenced the small atoll population. This enterprising spirit also led to them adding new features to sailing canoes, which enabled the Mwoakillese to create the most developed canoe in the early historic period.

Oral traditions relate that the styles and building technology of the Mwoakillese canoes originated in the Marshall Islands as did several traits of Mwoakillese culture through their long-term interactions from the prehistoric period to today. Present sailing canoe building techniques were derived from the stranding of Marshallese, which occurred in 1865. After the introduction of the Marshallese canoe, the Mwoakillese people improved the structure and refined the building technique. The new Mwoakillese canoe was a simplification from the original, and it led to the creation of a structurally and stylistically superior canoe that was more suitable for new toll environment.

The art of canoe building was of great significance, and due to the competitive nature of Mwoakillese society, the art was passed down secretly and only to close relatives. However, when the Christian Endeavor, an association of evangelical Protestant churches, was established on Mwoakilloa in 1920, the Mwoakillese people became more faithful and cooperative. Men began to allow others to watch their work, except for the most secretive part of making a sail. The technique was passed on to relatives and friends so that by the beginning of World War II, most families possessed the knowledge.

However, sailing canoe production declined during the 1950s while the production of local wooden boats increased. The prevalence of wooden boats and outboard motors in the 1960s drove the sailing canoe from the mainstream. Boat production became prominent in the late 1960s, and mass production for consumer markets made the island the center of boat manufacturing in the region until the mid-1980s. This greatly influenced the penetration of the money economy into island society and diminished the degree of cooperation. The use of wooden boats, however, has declined since the 1980s due to the popularity of imported fiberglass boats. Thus, the same enterprising spirit has enabled the people to make a speedy transition to locally made wooden boats and, after World War II, imported boats.

Today, only one paddling canoe is still in use, but there are no sailing canoes left on the atoll. Only two canoe builders are capable of constructing a sailing canoe, and they are in their seventies, although many middle-aged to elderly men know some parts of canoe-building work. Some Mwoakillese men have talked about the need to revive sailing canoes due to the recent rise in gasoline price and lack of canoes, both of which have reduced the number of men’s fishing trips. There have been several attempts to revive the sailing canoe building on Mwoakilloa in the past two decades, although they achieved very limited success. Today, some elders discuss their strong interest in revival and are willing to pass down this dying art to succeeding generations without guarding their knowledge. Time is limited for the Mwoakillese people.