Micronesian Diary
Felicia R. Beardsley
Yap State, FSM - January 1999
Colonia
January 2, 1999

We arrived in Yap yesterday! We had to spend the night in Guam.

January 4, 1999

Today, I get a bit more orientation. John Tharngan wants me to play out one of his desires --- he is not very impressed with the few archaeologists who have come in here to work. He says they don't want to get an appreciation of the oral history (most dismiss it), tend to work in late-period sites, then attempt to create a settlement history of the island that flies against the face of facts. So, he wants me to survey and excavate some of the oldest sites on the island, at least according to oral tradition. This, of course, sounds quite promising.

January 6, 1999

It is interesting here --- I like the people. John Tharngan is a funny guy. Watching him and his friend argue yesterday about an oral history story was hilarious. Imagine two old guys, both oral historians, arguing whether the spirit boy turned into a rooster and then introduced fire to Yap, or if the rooster introduced fire first, and that the spirit boy turning into a rooster was simply another story that got mixed up with the fire story. The two were going back and forth with this for some time. It was like something you might encounter in Bahia or one of those other enchanting places.

Our archaeological work is going to be locating these first settlement sites on Yap. Time to do this work is of concern, given the schedule ahead.

January 8, 1999

John Tharngan

John Tharngan used to be the Chief Justice of the state, for about 15 years before he took the job as SHPO with Yap in 1996. Since taking that job, he has done a lot for the office --- given it real direction, obtained a $100,000-plus grant from the state legislature to fund the construction of a traditional house on each island in Yap (there are 21 inhabited islands), obtained another $100,000 or so for the codification of traditional law (we haven't talked about this one yet, but we'll get around to it), begun the process of getting his office on track with archaeological surveys, and more. My project, as I briefly told you, is the archaeological component of the oral histories of settlement here. I am to find the sites which are mentioned as the first settled areas on Yap proper. If there is time I will try to do some subsurface work on them. This is a long-term project, but we can at least put in place the groundwork. I think I told you that he is unhappy with most of the work and interpretations of the people who have come in here to work; he thinks their conclusions are very far-fetched in some instances. And I'm inclined to agree with him. He is also a bit amused and bewildered as to how some researchers actually get their information. One guy, for example, relied solely on a rather poor interpreter for the information and ended up asking the wrong people questions. There is more to that story, of course, but good manners prevent telling it.

But, again, John is a nice guy. He sits at a table covered with stacks of papers. He doesn't have a desk, so he just uses a conference-type table. He chews betelnut one after the other, keeps a wastebasket by his side and is constantly spitting into it, and he greets people as they come in. He hands them a small branch of betelnuts or simply puts a few in front of them, and they sit there chewing, chatting, and transacting business. I am always included in the chats or introductions. He is a very congenial and hospitable fellow. And every morning or so, there are always guys who come wandering into the office.

The office itself is very dusty and appears disorganized (much like John's desk). There are five people in the office --- John, Andrew, Mario, John 2 (the Deputy SHPO), and Felisa (the secretary).

Here is a photo of John 2 (John Tun), Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer.

John Tun

We are going to try to get started on fieldwork in another couple of weeks. Next week is a series of meetings, but we also should have a better idea of what sorts of materials need to be gathered and where we can get them for our background research. And, maybe John and his friend will be able to provide agreed-upon stories for each of the areas we will be traversing. This is going to be groundbreaking work, or rather pioneering work, for Yap. There have been archaeological surveys before, but this one will be different, I think. We have the oral histories, we have the chiefs, and we will have the paramount chiefs behind it.

The American Charge d'Affaires is arriving for the inaugaration of the governor, and wants to meet with various government offices here that receive funding from the U.S.

What is interesting too is that the HPO is including Teresa in everything. John wants Teresa to see the historical sites here, even if it means pulling her out of school for an afternoon or whatnot because of the long-term educational benefit.

The people here are among the most modest and unassuming I have ever met. You don't brag here; in fact, you don't try to be better than anyone else because if you are, you will be brought down by some means or other. Apparently in the history of this place, villages that would grow to be very wealthy and brag about it were subdued through various means --- the Council of Pilung (the paramount chiefs, chiefs seen as the pillars of society, who by their union maintain the equilibrium between villages and such across Yap) would arrange to have the "high" village burned, robbed or whatever, to bring them back to where they should be. The same would be true of individuals, from what I can gather so far --- I suppose this has its good points and its bad points. But generally, if someone were good at what they did, generally of good character and worked for the betterment of their communities, then they would always have work and always find support.

January 10, 1999

We attended a dance performance. It was a stick dance, which is kind of like a battle. Two lines of kids/young people face one another, then with these short segments of bamboo (about the size of a baseball bat), they chant to a constant rhythm of the sticks banging against one another. All in traditional costume, and surprise of surprises no tops for the girls (tops are not traditional!). It was really great. Teresa said she loved it. She had to sit up really close to see the whole event. The dancers were a mix of boys and girls; one girl seemed to be the lead chanter. I don't know if there really is any differentiation between the sexes in many of the dances. Each of the dancers must chant, usually in response to the primary chanter, and they are responsible for making their own grass skirts and other decorations. Their families help, too. Then the girls put on tumeric --- some mixed with coconut oil so it looks like yellow --- then on top of this others sprinkle powdered tumeric onto themselves (this turns somewhat red to yellow). The boys don't wear the oil.

January 11, 1999

We, as the office staff, have been invited to the open house at a traditional village --- Bechiyal, I think (it's on the U.S. Register). They just finished reconstructing one of the houses blown down by a typhoon a couple of years ago. I don't know if this is a men's house or meeting house or whatever. At any rate, it is a traditional public house of some sort.

On Wednesday we meet with the Council of Pilung.

January 12, 1999

The Council of Pilung today was a bit of a wash. Only four of the ten members showed up, so they decided not to have a full meeting. Our meeting became an informal introduction and information-sharing session rather than anything else. It was still worth the time because they were introduced to me and vice versa --- I had met one of the members already, which I didn't know earlier! John did all the talking, in Yapese; they asked him questions, and only occasionally did he turn to me with a question in English, which he then immediately translated into Yapese. We have another formal apppearance at their next meeting. That will either be a special meeting called for the end of the week, or it will be at the next regularly scheduled meeting two weeks from now. They seemed interested, and there was quite a bit of discussion --- we had been scheduled for 15 minutes and were there chatting for about 45 minutes. From what I could gather, they want to know where these sites are and whether any are sacred sites.

January 13, 1999

The Charge d'Affaires is a tall woman, very calm, well spoken, and approachable --- a very nice woman. She had just come from Sierra Leone in Africa and has been in the FSM for about three months, in Pohnpei. One of the first things she said was that is was nice to be in a place of peace, where there was no civil unrest.

January 14, 1999

This morning we had a meeting with the historic preservation review board --- they are supposed to be the guys providing the oversight and review of the office and special historic preservation projects and such. They are a funny group of guys; unfortunately there was no quorum, so the meeting was cancelled (we waited for about an hour until that decision was made). In the meantime, they sat around telling stories, laughing, and chewing. When they finally cancelled, we all gathered, went off to a really great little place --- an open-air sitting place over the water that looks over the first fish trap ever built, according to mythology --- and ate cinnamon rolls (one guy had brought them to the meeting) and drank coconuts, sodas, and beer.

As we are sitting looking out at this fish trap, John starts to tell the story about it. All the board members sit and listen; they had never heard the story either.

The story has to do with an old lady who gives birth to an eel, a cat and a girl. The eel is the older sister and lives in the well; every time the girl goes to get water, the eel stands up and dances to entertain her. But she gets scared and runs to her mother complaining about the eel. The mother says don't worry, that is your sister, she won't hurt you. But the girl continues to be scared, so the eel hides every time the girl goes to get water. One day they are preparing for a picnic and the little girl is supposed to carry a bundle of firewood. She lags behind, and turns just as the eel is standing up peering out of the well. This frightens her and she drops her bundle. She grabs a stick and starts beating the eel, but the eel thinks she is playing so it doesn't really defend itself. The mother comes back to find the girl, only sees her beating her sister the eel. She pulls the girl away and scolds her, then places healing herbs in the water with the eel. But she notices that the eel is laying belly up. So she puts it on a leaf and applies more medicine. That night there is a big rain and the small creek by the house floods; the eel then slips down the creek and into the lagoon to a small island just offshore. The cat follows. The eel then takes the slimy part of its skin and creates an enclosure which traps fish, and sends this information to her mother in a dream. The next day, the mother, following the instructions in her dream, goes to the shallows in the lagoon and finds the enclosure with all these fish in it. So she begins to fill her basket. Just as she is doing that, a lady from the clan who owns the fishing ground comes up and says, What are you doing taking my fish? The mother says, It is not your fish, but mine --- here in this trap. And she told the lady the story of her dream. So they agree to share the fish, it is the only reasonable thing to do. That evening, the mother has another dream: in it, the eel tells her to mark the area with sticks, then have others form the village put up rock walls where the sticks are. And so she does. This becomes the first fish trap in Yap. The eel gets to eat out of the trap, the cat gets his share on the island, and the people of the two villages (the clan who owns the fishing ground and the mother's) share the catch.

January 18, 1999

The geckos here are a little different than in Pohnpei. They are a bit more fearless and more curious here, or so it seems. They have the most interesting way of waving their tails --- a real curve to it, with a sort of ripple effect all the way up the tail. And they just like to look at everything. They crawl all over our packages of food that are out in the open, they hang on the wall while I reach right next to them to pull something off the shelf, they duck in and out of the window blinds. They are just cute buggers.

I told John, along with the guy in charge of the Survey Office (where we get our maps), that our project here is unprecedented in Micronesia, because it is multi-disciplinary from the start --- in the planning of it, through to the fieldwork. We have historians, archaeologists, mapping guys, maybe a botanist. At any rate, you don't see this sort of thing occurring very often here; in fact, I don't recall if it ever has. I wouldn't say never, but pretty darn close.

January 22, 1999

Tomorrow we go to an open house at the Bechiyal Cultural Center. They just finished rebuilding one of the meeting houses. It is John Tamag's baby. He is a traditional architect here, and is basically contracted by everyone else who needs to build (or rather rebuild) their traditional meeting houses. I just saw photos of a meeting house he did in Maap --- unbelievable! These huge trees form the main supports, the lashings are all coconut sennit, which is hand-made. It is amazing. I can't wait to see the finished product --- the guy is supposed to retrieve those pictures by Monday. Tomorrow, I think we are going to be seeing something equally as stunning, if not more so --- that is where he lives.

January 24, 1999

Back home today. Our geckos are attracted to Teresa's Kool-Aid. I think it is because of the color --- it's tropical punch flavor, so it is red. They are always crawling into her empty glass, and at one point I caught one crawling into her full glass! I don't know if it wanted to get a drink; I just didn't want it to swim in there. These guys are really fearless; they go everywhere, and don't seem to startle when you stand there watching them. We both get a kick out of watching them climbing the wall, or staring at the bottom of a glass because it has a reddish tint, or just climbing all over anything whatsoever.

January 26, 1999

Today we attended a hearing in the legislature on an amendment to the historic preservation legislation. It is intended to exempt some WWII stuff for collectors --- like Japanese Zero airplanes. My concern is that if they decide to go this route, exempting certain properties like WWII things, that these are fully documented before removal, and that the determination of exemption be made by their historic review board or something; that the decision is not left up to any one individual. John started asking me about things like rifles, swords, and so on --- I said that I am coming from a different perspective. From my standpoint, I would prefer to see those sorts of things stay, but in archives where they can be available for research as well as exhibition. I told him that WWII is a big draw for tourism, for collectors, and that there would come a time when Yap may have no more of these things left because they let them walk away under this amendment.

This afternoon we shifted to another project --- a matching-grants program with the U.S. And there is only one project here that has that in hand --- from the Yap legislature! It is their Traditional Award program, where they set aside $100,000 each year to reconstruct traditional community houses, like the one at Bechiyal. We are talking total site reconstruction, which falls into two components: reconstruction and stabilization of the platform, and reconstruction of the building that sat on top of the platform. Nearly all the funds go for labor --- with materials donated. It is more an incentive and encouragement for each community to transfer traditional skills on to their younger members than anything else. This means making the sennit cord used for the lashings, preparing the bamboo for the flooring, obtaining the trees for the infrastructure of the building, leveling the platforms, obtaining the rocks, fitting them together, stabilizing backrests, and so on.

Tomorrow we go back to the Council of Pilung to present our archaeological project. Then, I think we can get started on it. We even found photos of one meeting house with an older structure on it, then with a new reconstructed structure on it; today (no photos of this, unfortunately) it is in the process of being reconstructed once again. So in the culture here we see a succession of reconstructed buildings on these platforms. What we start with varies --- some may have structures on them, some may have remnants of structures, and others may have no structures at all. Time, climate and circumstance have conspired to bring them into all the various states of decay.

January 27, 1999

Met with the Council of Pilung today, the whole council this time. All of them are very nice, seemed to like what we are doing, and offered whatever assistance we may need. That, I thought was very nice --- I think that is what chiefs are supposed to do anyway. We were then invited to stay through the next meeting of theirs, with one of the candidates for public office (I don't know what exactly; I think it is at the FSM level, a congressman or something). He was applying to the Council for their support. He brought with him several gifts --- shell money, fish, betelnuts and pepper leaf, beer, soda. The Council gave him their support, made speeches about the erosion of chiefly power, that they would support the guy, but when it came to the polls they could not guarantee what their people would say or do. Then we all had the food. Each of us received a branch or two of betelnut and leaf (me too). The governor cut up the fish to eat as well. It was an interesting event. I ended up giving my betelnut and leaf to the guys in the office --- Andres, Mario, and John Tun (the deputy SHPO). All three said it is not right for a man to accept betelnut from a woman --- it is supposed to be the other way around. The reason is that men normally would climb the tree to get the nuts. I said I am not from here, so it was okay to accept the betelnut from me. They did, laughing.

January 28, 1999

Fathoms: that is how traditional community meeting houses are measured. The grant money given out by the legislature for construction of these places is based totally on length, and that length is measured in fathoms. Interesting.

January 31, 1999

We have had another visitor in the house; these last couple of days there has been a lizard that runs in and out of here. One night it was blowing really hard, and a mouse came running into the house --- well, it was partly blown in. It sees me and tries to make a sharp turn to run under the stove (its hiding place). The whole thing was so utterly funny because it looked like Cookie running on ice --- trying to move to a particular point but being blown by the wind in another direction, so it was practically running in place. Its little legs were going as fast as they could, but it was moving forward in fits and starts. I couldn't stop laughing. I don't like having the mouse in here, so I usually chase it out when I see it. This, however, was utterly hilarious.

Today we are supposed to watch a dance practice. It is only on certain occasions that village dance practices can be observed by the public.

Next: Bechiyal

 


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