The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Roles 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.
From 1920 to 1940, in Outer Reef Islands, there was a woman who was a Captain and a Wayfinder. Her name was Hoakena, she was a cousin of Joslyn Sale, and she owned a Te Puke that she bought from Basil Tevake. She used to transport food and passengers between Santa Cruz Island (Ndeni), Vanikoro, Outer Reefs, and Taumako.
In Satawal, girls used to be trained as wyfinders, but now it is mostly a male activity. However, girls whose fathers are wyfinders still learn many things. This way, they can help to guide a vaka if a navigator becomes confused. It is 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 vaka 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 wayfinders), hundreds of tur were given to the reb (master wayfinder) who taught young wayfinders. A community that didn’t have a vaka builder could use tur to buy a vaka from another island.
Mau Piailug removes each tur and calls out the star path
In June 2002, a shortened version of the pwo ceremony to initiate wayfinders is performed on Satawal for the first time in over fifty years, as part of celebrations for Kenneth Urumolug's ordination as a Jesuit priest. During the ceremony, Mau Piailug, master wayfinder, removes the tur one by one as he calls out star paths. It is the women who weave these tur on their looms for special occasions such as this. They use fibres from the bark of the banana tree, a very challenging material to work with. Below the stack of tur is a bowl filled with pounded breadfruit or taro, also prepared by the women.
From Becoming a Wayfinder, Becoming a Priest © UNESCO 2004. A film by J. Blumberg, R. Hunter-Anderson, R. Apusa, and B. Feinberg.