The folks at Waa’gey were kind enough to write us, telling us what was happening on Lamotrek – this revival of traditional cultural heritage is spreading and we are extremely proud of the Pacific Islanders that are behind this incredible and powerful movement.
Canoe building and sailing remains a staple of life in the remote outer island of Yap State, Micronesia.
Islanders on these remote coral atolls have little contact with the outside world and even fewer modern day resources. Now, their complicated and time-honed crafts are being used to pursue a broader social agenda. A small group in Yap by the name of “Waa’gey” has begun to pair master carvers, weavers and other skilled mentors with post secondary school aged boys and girls. They hope to support those students’ academic and personal development. The exciting side benefit is the preservation and revival of a distinctive and technically rich tradition of craftsmanship and navigation.
Voyaging canoes in the Caroline Islands (modern day “Micronesia”) are made from hollowed-out tree trunks for the keel. Planks are then fitted and tied in with rope made from coconut fibers to complete the sides. These graceful crafts appear symmetrical. Both sternposts and stems protrude up from the keel in forks that shoot up like lizard tongues. Their striking image adorns the Yap State flag and serves a national symbol for the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
The process of crafting these complicated vessels is passed on from a handful of elderly experts, one generation to the next. The seemingly tenuous oral link with the past is kept vibrant through practice and observation. Waa’gey sees this as a chance to build bonds between generations and develop a positive work ethic among young islanders, particularly those who now reside in the more dense and developed state centers.
As with many canoe designs across Oceania, an outrigger is used to steady Micronesian canoes but the mast and sail are adjustable, rather than fixed. Remarkably, this allows for sailing to windward up to 75 degrees off the wind. The design used today is identical to that detailed by Spanish missionaries in the early 1700s who called the Carolinian canoes “flying proas.”
Waa’gey’s approach has been to work with master carvers across the Outer Islands and coordinate projects among teams both on Yap Proper and back on the smaller outer islands where the practices remain more vibrant. In the process they’ve revived a centuries old process of obtaining trees on Yap Proper (where they grow much taller) and exchanging the logs for specialty items only produced in the Outer Islands. That form of tribute and barter stopped when the Japanese ordered an end to the practice of inter-island canoe voyages in the 1920s
The program has earned interest from far beyond the Caroline Islands. The US-based charity “Habele” has provided financial support to cover the transportation costs of sending carvers and materials aboard the state supply ship. They’ve also helped Waa’gey establish a partnership with master metal smith Jim Wester, who is crafting specialized adze blades for Waa’gey’s carvers.
The biggest project for Waa’gey today is a massive canoe (GuamPDN) being completed on the remote atoll of Lamotrek. They hope to complete the craft this summer. Volunteers and supporters from both Waa’gey and Habele plan to attend. Once the traditional vessel has completed its sea trials, plans will be made for longer-distance sailing. “I’ve heard rumors and rumblings about an eventual open ocean voyage from Lamotrek to Saipan,” reported one source close to the project. “Just the fact that such a journey would be possible is a big deal!” Such a trip would serve to reenact a well-documented voyage in 1787 when three chiefs from Lamotrek made the journey north to meet with Spanish Missionaries.