The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Satawalese Lourdes Lepanemai talks about the story of her ancestor Ukura, who helped to navigate
Ukura went on a canoe trip with her father, Suk. Coming home from Saipan to Satawal, Suk lost his way. They were drifting until they saw the white-tailed seabird also called Suk.* The crew all wondered where the bird had come from. Ukura called out, “Father, why do you say you donít know where that bird is coming from? You told me that Suk lives north of Fais, under the star of Weno!” So they turned the canoe to where the bird came from and sailed until they saw Fais.
*Many Carolinians have names that relate to navigation, like in this story.
Role of Women
Old stories tell of the special role of women in navigation. A Micronesian story tells how the kuling bird (sandpiper) gave the knowledge of navigation to the people of Pulap by teaching the chief’s daughter. A story from the Marshall Islands tells how Liktanur passed on the knowledge of sails to her sons.
In Satawal, girls used to be trained as navigators, but now it’s mostly a male activity. However, girls whose fathers are navigators still learn many things. This way, they can help to guide a canoe if a navigator becomes confused. It’s like a safety net.
Women prepare the food for navigation rituals GLOSSARY rituals - ceremonies and voyages. Another important contribution GLOSSARY contribution - thing that is given is their weaving. In the past, women wove not only pandanus canoe sails but also special tur (valuable weavings). Carolinians carried valuable tur to their relations in Yap on sawei voyages (a traditional ceremonial voyage in Micronesia).
In Carolinian pwo (initiation ceremony for navigators), hundreds of tur were given to the reb (master navigator) who taught young navigators. A community that didn’t have a canoe builder could use tur to buy a canoe from another island.