The Marshall Islands, also known as Ralik-Ratak, is made up of twenty-nine low-lying atolls on two archipelago chains. Its history can be traced back to the second millennium BCE when early Marshallese traveled among islands in canoes with stick charts as a navigation aid.
Stick charts, which are known locally as meto, help master navigators (rimedo) mark out travel routes. The charts are made of palm leaf midribs with small snail sells tied to them to indicate the islands. It is important to note that stick charts do not indicate an exact location of the islands; they illustrate the sea and swell conditions (swell strength, direction, persistence, and other measures) between islands and other relevant information related to the course.
It is important to note that there is no standardized system of stick charts and that no school knows the teachings of another school. Therefore, a stick chart must be interpreted and explained by the person who made it. This means that an expert seaman from one school would be unable to read the stick chart of another school without some additional information. Despite the individual differences, however, there are some common that go into making the three basic types of stick charts—instructional charts, summary charts, and special charts.
Instructional charts (mattang or matang) demonstrate the voyage between two or four islands, or even simply demonstrate the conditions around a single island. A chart of two islands, which need not necessarily be named, is a lance-shaped structure with a frame and crosspieces showing the swells, knots and roots that lead to the islands (the points). A chart of four islands (me doemenani), on the other hand it exhibits the form of a Maltese cross set diagonally in a square frame. The four islands, which also need not be named, are located at the ends of the cross arms. Only the voyage through the middle of the cross between two opposing islands can be demonstrated. A short crosspiece is almost always located on the eastern arm of the cross, marking the eastern side (rear).
Summary charts (rebbelib or rebelip), as the name suggests, summarize either all or just the most important the islands of one or both Ralik-Ratak’s archipelagoes. Some other summary charts focus on just the northern or southern areas of both chains. In general, summary charts indicate only information about the swells between the islands whereas the actual geographic location is of no importance. Additional details about knots, current conditions, sighting distances, etc. are rarely if ever included.
Special charts (meddo or medo) give a detailed representation of the sea conditions between a few islands. These charts are made up of various shapes depending to the areas being depicted and the methods of the navigator. Canoe captains consult with these special charts for pertinent information prior to setting out to sea. Once underway on the journey, however, they do not continue to consult with charts since it is considered scandalous to do so.
Stick charts and their many forms have a history dating back thousands of years. Today, the traditional knowledge of master navigators is still being transferred from one generation to the next. However, with the effects of modernization and the introduction of western navigation techniques, many of the traditional forms have been falling into a state of neglect, so it is important to continue to raise awareness of the valuable library stored in the minds of master navigators.