National Geographic
Menu

Traditional Skills to Confront Tomorrow’s Challenges

A traditional men's house in Yap

A traditional men’s house in Yap

When I first arrived in Yap, an island in the western Pacific Ocean set between Palau and Guam, I thought I knew what to expect:

  • The natural beauty…check.
  • The friendly people…check
  • The blanket of humidity that envelops you the moment you step outside…double check.

However, it was very clear from my first day on the sleepy island that something was different about this place.  During the days that followed, the many memorable insights that I gained from observing one particular group of locals helped to answer why there is a special aura about this place.

Waa’gey

In 2010, Larry Raigetal and his wife Regina noticed an alarming trend in Yap: more and more people were migrating away from the outer islands in search of jobs, better healthcare, and assorted other opportunities – a microcosm of the migration trends occurring around the world in the name of globalizaton.

In response to these observations, the Raigetals decided to start a community-based organization with the intention of preserving the traditional cultural practices and values of the outer islanders of Yap.  The organization’s name, Waa’gey (pronounced Wah-gay), is intended to be a play on words.

Depending on which part of Yap you are from, it can either mean “future” or “chaos”.  As Larry calmly warns: “if we Yapese are unable to preserve our local traditions and cultural values, the idea of ‘our future’ and ‘chaos’ will be one in the same.”

Men sitting, talking, and working in the traditional men's house

Men sitting, talking, and working in the traditional men’s house. Photo by Daniel Lin

The Waa’gey “men’s house” is an open shelter consisting of evenly spaced wooden columns holding up a thatched roof.  Upon first entering, I naively expected to encounter an atmosphere akin to that of an ‘old boys’ club’ in the western world, where newcomers are greeted with apprehension and must undergo a period of ‘respect-earning’ before feeling comfortable within the herd.

Fortunately, this was not the case at all for me.  As I timidly poked my head in and asked if I could quietly observe everyone working, I was met with a chorus of warm greetings.  Within 10 minutes, all pleasantries were exchanged and I took my seat on the tree-stump chair that would become my perch.

Men of the canoe house look on as measurements are carefully made using traditional techniques

Men of the canoe house look on as measurements are carefully made using traditional techniques. Photo by Daniel Lin

For the remainder of my week-long stay in Yap, I spent whatever free time I had inside the men’s house watching, learning, joking, and clumsily participating in the day-to-day activities.  As is traditionally done in the outer islands of Yap, men and women leave their homes in the morning and head to their respective men’s house and women’s house within the village.

There, they spend the day engaging in conversations and working on projects that benefit the village.  After a long day’s work, they return home to carry out their respective roles as husbands, wives, and parents.  During the week that I was there, the big project in the men’s house was to build a small canoe for one of the nearby villages.

Through grant funding and outside donations, Waa’gey provides a space and opportunity for outer islanders who have migrated to the main island of Yap to continue on with this traditional way of life.  Members of the organization, men and women alike, work to produce items that are then sold to tourists, given as gifts, or used for everyday life.

A master fisherman builds a fish trap out of bamboo and rope made of coconut husk.

A master fisherman builds a fish trap out of bamboo and rope made of coconut husk.

A Yapese woman weaving a lavalava (traditional skirt) inside the women's house.  Photo credit: Karen Tu

A Yapese woman weaving a lavalava (traditional skirt) inside the women’s house. Photo by Karen Tu

Handicrafts made by members of Waa'gey being displayed

Handicrafts made by members of Waa’gey being displayed. Photo by Daniel Lin

In oral-based cultures, such as the one in Yap, the risk of losing traditional knowledge is much higher than in societies with an extensive written culture.  Valuable lessons and techniques that have been passed down for hundreds of years can quickly be lost if one generation does not care to take the torch from the previous generation and pass it on to the next.

This makes Waa’gey’s mission all the more important and thus, a major part of their work involves outreach to youth in schools and in communities around Yap.

Several Yapese boys take part in the canoe carving process

Several Yapese boys take part in the canoe carving process. Photo by Daniel Lin

Kids paddling outrigger canoes in the lagoon

Despite heavy rain, these kids are having a great time paddling outrigger canoes in the lagoon. Photo by Karen Tu

Moving forward by looking back

In an age where concepts like “globalization” and “connectivity” are currently “trending”, it is rare to come across societies where local knowledge is still retained and traditional practices are not merely displayed on occasion, they are lived.  The kinds of knowledges that exist in these societies can serve as a bridge between the past and the future.

Simultaneously indigenous knowledge can also serve as a companion to science as a way to address the challenges of the present day, especially climate change.  This is why such valuable knowledge must be preserved and nurtured through education and increased awareness/urgency.

So, to the groups around the world like Waa’gey and the passionate people continuing to look to the past as a way to move forward, I can only humbly offer my gratitude: thank you for safeguarding the wisdom of the ancients and making sure that the linkage between past and future remains unbroken.  Kamagar.

Men from different outer islands of Yap proudly displaying their work

Men from different outer islands of Yap proudly displaying their work. Photo by Daniel Lin.

More information about Waa’gey and ways to support www.waagey.org

NEXTRenowned Voyaging Canoe Embarks on its Greatest Journey Yet

Comments

  1. Ray Igechep
    Colonia, Yap FSM
    December 5, 2013, 7:59 pm

    Larry, I admire you and Regina for what you two have done in preserving what we can for the future. You know too well that I am an advocate of your mission and I am always available to share with you whatever aspect of culture we need to preserve and pass on so nothing is lost. The article on your work is very interesting piece of information and I enjoyed reading it. Keep up the wonderful dream.

  2. Wehns Billen
    Aiea, Hawaii
    December 4, 2013, 10:46 am

    Being on medical referral in Hawaii, I have so much time browsing the Internet and especially visiting my Facebook profile timelines. Anyway I came across this article and I found it very interesting, although slightly repetitious of what many visitors been saying about our islands and traditional customs. We too needed to do more to preserve our cultural traits because a great deal has already been altered.

  3. Susan Taylor Wehren
    Kailua-Kona, Haiwaii
    December 2, 2013, 2:46 pm

    I enjoyed your article especially in light of the current interest Chinese developers have in Yap.
    I would like to note that the picture of the woman making the lava-lava probably is from the outer islands of Yap. Women living on Yap Island wore grass skirts and outer island women wore lava-lavas. Of course it is possible that Yapese women are learning how to weave, but I sort of doubt it.
    Susan Taylor Wehren, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Micro VII from Yap District

  4. Tina Ellet
    Florida, USA
    December 2, 2013, 2:21 pm

    This was a beautifully written piece that truly illuminates a remarkable culture and the strength of thier traditions. Thank you for this post. I hope to read more on these remote South Pacifc Island communities and how they have been able to overcome the challenges they are facing in a changing world.

  5. Anne McCulloch
    Madeira
    November 26, 2013, 3:14 am

    Day rooms for creative, self-sustaining activities – wonderful. We have canoe clubs here and only a very small lagoon when the Atlantic gets rough, so use lakes in winter.

  6. Patterson K. Shed
    Pohnpei, FSM
    November 20, 2013, 1:27 am

    Larry i totally commend you and Waa’gey for your steady and steadfast commitment to keeping the heritage of canoe navigation is passed on beyond your time by looking back to honor the past in order to go forward into the future. When i last stop by the canoe house i left inspired in what you passionately treasure and working extremely firm to keeping that unique navigation culture alive at your canoe house. I think your ancestors will be glad in your efforts. I know i am glad there is a young man named Larry keeping that time honored tradition going. I think we should finish up that SGP proposal anytime now.

  7. William Kostka
    Pohnpei, FSM
    November 19, 2013, 11:47 pm

    i really enjoyed reading about this article. i am very proud to mention that i helped Waa’gey secure a small grant from the Global Green Grants to support some of the work shown in this article. it will be great if we can use the article to help promote our GGF projects to our donors so more Pacific Communities can benefit from similar projects. also will be great to get permission to use some of the photos for our Micronesia Challenge Business Plan Booklet