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Legends of Palau

Legends of Palau

Author Nancy Barbour has spent the last 12 years traveling and writing about Palau. Part of that time was spent researching not only Palau's unique coral reefs and marine life, but also the culture and history of the Palauan people. Intrigued by the nation's rich cultural traditions, Barbour focused her attentions on the Palauans' ancient art of storytelling which reveals the complexities of their society and strong sense of familial ties. Oral traditions, passed down through the form of chants, stories, dances, and legends, have kept Palau's history alive. The following excerpts and legends are taken from Barbour's book, Palau. It is her ultimate hope that her book will contribute to an appreciation of Palau and its people, and that, as a result, it will help ensure that Palau remains the unspoiled natural wonder it is today.

An Excerpt from the book, Palau, by Nancy Barbour.
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Though the origin of the Palauan people is shrouded in folklore and legend, the most accepted theory, based on linguistic similarities, holds that the islands were settled thousands of years ago by people migrating from Southeast Asia and Indonesia -- people who thought nothing of sailing hundreds of miles across uncharted seas in open outrigger canoes.

The early Palauans were perhaps once gifted navigators, but when they got to Palau they stayed. With an abundance of food from the fertile land and surrounding reef, there was no need to explore beyond the their shores. Long distance navigation skills diminished. Instead, the men became great fishermen and new more about the seasonal rhythms and life cycles of fish than is known by Western scientists today. While the sea was essentially the men's domain, farming the land was where the women excelled, primarily growing taro, a staple food with tuberous roots that are cooked in a variety of ways. The labor of the women guaranteed an adequate supply of food year round and thus gave them high social and political importance in the community.

The men, freed from the time-consuming and physically demanding task of farming, devoted their energies to other village affairs, primarily the construction of public buildings, canoe houses and elaborate stone causeways, docks and tree-lined stone paths. Politics was foremost on the minds as was inter-village warfare. Competition was, and still is, a highly motivating force between individuals, clans, villages, and states. Historically there was a great power struggle between the north and the south, a rivalry that continues to this day.

The arts flourished. Women were fine weavers and wove intricate baskets, blankets, and sails for canoes. The men worked with wood and carved elaborate bowls, plates and large, intricate food containers that were inlaid with shell. Master craftsmen built great war canoes nearly sixty feet long and sleek sailing canoes as long as thirty-three feet with a beam of a mere fourteen inches. Though these canoes were considered some of the finest in all of Micronesia, the most outstanding example of Palauan craftsmanship was the bai, a gathering place for the men of the village. The bai was a masterpiece of Micronesian architecture. Built with large, heavy planks from trees that were felled and carved without the benefit of metal tools, the high-peaked structure was held together by nothing more than the precise of fit of the wooden beams, then lashed together with coconut sennit rope. The most elaborately constructed bai functioned as a meeting place or council house for the governing chiefs of the village. Other bai served as clubhouses - gathering places for the men of the village where the traditional skills of fishing, hunting, building and warfare were learned. The interior beams and outside gables of each bai were decorated with carved and painted stories depicting historic events of the village, humorous tales and legends of importance to the community.

The early Palauans developed a complex and highly organized social system that today mystifies all but the most dedicated anthropologist. In the Palauan matrilineal system, which still exists, nuclear families and extended families, called clans, were related through the mother's side of the family. The mother's brother had a role nearly equal to that of the natural father in providing for the children. And many children were adopted, always within the extended family and often as a means to manipulate land, wealth and human resources. Men ruled as chiefs, but it was the women who chose those chiefs and had the power to rescind chiefly status. Women also held the money of the clan.

Money made from beads of colored glass or high-fired clay, substances not known to exist in Palau, was used in a complex system of exchange. Each piece was named, its previous clan owners known and its specific shape, as individual as a fingerprint, committed to memory in the minds of certain elders. Even today, much of a clan's history can be told through its money. This money continues to be used in certain traditional marriage, funeral and first-child ceremonies though, as it was in the past, it is the responsibility of the recipient to verify its authenticity.

As a result of more than a century of foreign influence, and more recently in an effort to meet the needs of a developing nation, may aspects of the traditional culture have changed. The outboard motor has replaced the outrigger canoe, much of the ancient fishing knowledge is on the verge of being lost and men now gather in restaurants instead of the bai to discuss the politics of their world. As nearly half of the work force is employed by the government, the dollar now reigns over a once-subsistence economy. Today, few young women are willing to work in the taro patches - the gardens are now tended by mostly female elders of the village. And though hereditary chiefs continue to influence political decisions, their traditional authority is often in conflict with the elected officials of the current Western-style democratic government.

Yet even though the people of Palau are very cosmopolitan, well educated and Western in appearance, many traditions remain. Most, however, involve a complex system of social obligations not seen by the casual observer. One aspect of the culture that is quite apparent is the friendly and gregarious nature of the people, many of whom continue the time-honored custom of chewing betel nut, a green palm nut sprinkled with powdered lime and wrapped in a leaf from a pepper tree. When chewed, this concoction turns the saliva red, and over time the smiles of the elderly become bright red.

In addition many of the older customs and art forms that had been slowly dying are seeing a rebirth. New bai, built in the traditional style, have recently been constructed in several villages, and traditional sailing canoes are again being built by the elders in Koror. The ancient carvings that appeared on the bai have evolved into storyboards, carved pieces of wood depicting colorful Palauan legends, which have become the most well-known art form in the country today. In the northern villages of Kayangel and Ngerchelong, the chiefs have reinstated an age-old conservation law known as bul, which prohibits fishing on certain reefs during critical spawning periods. And Palauan dance experts throughout the islands still tech their children the traditional song and dances, and on special occasions one can see young people adorned with flowers and shell jewelry perform in the traditional dress of their cultural ancestors.



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