“Traditional Skills to Confront Tomorrow’s Challenges.”
-Waa’gey Mission Statement
By Katie Cheney
Micronesia has been in the climate change spotlight often over the past several years, and for good reason – sea level around Micronesia is rising by 10 millimeters per year, more than 3 times the global average. Coastal erosion is widespread, and climate change is the country’s biggest challenge according to President Mori. Reports of marginal islands disappearing over the next century due to the rising sea level rarely give a history, voice, or context to the island people that are the most threatened.
Zoom-in on Yap, the western-most state of Micronesia. Yap is a group of islands about 8,410 miles away from the California coast, home to 11,000 people. 65% of the population lives on Yap Proper, four large islands connected by roads, waterway and bridges, centered around the capital city of Colonia. The rest of the population lives on the Outer Islands, 78 islands scattered up to 600 miles east of Yap Proper, of which 18 are inhabited. 3 of these Outer Islands are close enough to be reached via airplane, and the rest are serviced by a cargo ship that runs about every 6 weeks from Yap Proper. There are four Indigenous language groups in Yap State: Yapese, Ulithian, Woleaian and Satawalese.
As sea levels rise and globalization continues, more and more Outer Island Indigenous peoples are permanently moving to Yap Proper for better medical care, education, and an ever more present cash economy. Not only do the Outer Island communities face the challenges of climate change, the rise of a cash economy and urbanization in Yap has put a lot of stress on traditional practices – for example, fishermen preferring gas-motor boats instead of their traditional, more energy-sustainable canoes. As more people move to the main island, they face a new culture, different lifestyles, more imported foods, and the risk that their cultural traditions will be lost forever.
Indigenous cultural traditions and local knowledge of the Outer Islands, such as canoe building, weaving, navigation skills, or stone money, were traditionally passed down from elders to youth in the Outer Island communities. As migration to Yap has persisted, Outer Island youth have become more and more disconnected from their cultural traditions. Waa’gey has found a way to reverse this disconnection, by organizing community elders to pass specialized local knowledge to young people.
Waa’gey, founded in 2010, is a community-based organization that uses traditional skills to confront the social, economic, and environmental challenges faced by the people of Micronesia’s most remote outer islands. In pursuit of preserving native technologies and arts of the Outer Island cultures, Waa’gey works with foreign development agencies, international non-profits, and local clubs, schools, and organizations.
With a grant from First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund in 2013, Waa’gey engaged community elders in training 40 Outer Island youth on Yapese traditional knowledge, including canoe building, fish trap-making, rope-making, and weaving traditional lava lava mats and sails.
Throughout the program, Waa’gey emphasized the traditional way. The master carver first showed youth how to identify the best-suited log for canoe carving, then how to take measurements using coconut fronds. Carvers learned how to use traditional adze tools for carving the canoes, simultaneously learning respect for the environment and its resources. Canoe-building, like weaving and fish trap-building, is a traditional skill that has been passed down through family, clan, and community, suited to the specific environment of the Outer Islands. These traditional skills are thus considered to belong to the community as a whole, encompassing the basic fundamental values that have kept the community intact over generations.
The grant from First Peoples Worldwide was used to pay the master weavers, fish-trap instructors, and canoe carver, and to purchase project materials like twine ropes, oil paint, silicon, and polyester thread for weaving. While carvers taught youth traditional forms of paint that their ancestors used, modern oil paint has been found to extend the life of canoes. Similarly, carvers traditionally used breadfruit sap as a sealant, but have switched to silicon as it is more effective.
By the end of the project, Indigenous youth began to place a value on their cultural heritage and started educating others about it. A few Yapese youth from the Waa’gey project formed a carving club in the community, which now has 20 members from the local high school. Girls who learned weaving from community elders started generating a small income by selling their products through Waa’gey.
Waa’gey’s work is spreading in other ways too. Waa’gey’s training on traditional fish traps has caused a “comeback” of traditional fishing methods throughout the Outer Island communities. Traditional fish traps, which are conservatory by nature, are permitted for use in marine protected areas, unlike commercial fishing mechanisms. Waa’gey recently received a grant from the UNDP’s GEF Small Grants Programme for a project that promotes weaving shopping bags and the use of canoes in sustainable fishing methods, and the US Embassy of Micronesia has extended a small grant for cultural preservation. Waa’gey is also working with the Department of Education in Micronesia to have traditional knowledge keepers work with two elementary schools.
Waa’gey in the languages of those living on the Outer Islands means “future”, but on Yap Proper, Waa’gey translates to “chaos”.
“The steady changes taking place in Yap…will impact our culture and traditions, which are the bedrock on which our social and community foundations are built. I see our culture as our way into the future. If we lose it, we can expect a chaotic future at best.”
– Larry Raigetal, Founder, Waa’gey
- Kara Murphy, “Stones and Paddles”, Adventures in Micronesia, Showboats International, 105-109.
- Waa’gey Keepers of the Earth Fund Application and Due Diligence
- Waa’gey Keepers of the Earth Fund Grantee Report, November 25, 2014