Betelnut and Bureaucrats

A case study in Development of Cultural Resources by Local Peoples on Yap

Yap is one of many specks of rock and coral making up the Western Caroline Islands of Micronesia. Nine degrees north of the equator, 1,020 kilometers southwest of Guam, with a land area of only 95 km², Yap is actually four major and six minor islands fringed by a reef. Most of the land area is hilly and thickly grown with breadfruit, banyan, mango, Tahitian chestnut, betelnut, citrus and coconut. Much of the coastline is mangrove swamp, but other low-lying areas are used for growing taro, while yams are cultivated on the higher open ridges of the hills.

Since its "discovery" by Western explorers, Yap has been known as the "Island of Stone Money," a simplistic designation for a complex society formerly divided into nine hierarchical levels, each with its own rights, privileges and reciprocal obligations.

Historically, Yap has been neglected by both colonialists and scholars. With few exploitable resources but copra, it escaped the most destructive attentions of its successive foreign administrations - German, Japanese and American. At the same time, so little research has been done there that nothing definitive can be said of either the islanders' physical characteristics or their origins; the Yapese language has not even been classified into a linguistic subgroup, but merely lumped into the category "Austronesian." (To be sure, these facts are much more worrisome to outsiders than to the Yapese themselves.)

Nevertheless, Yap has certainly suffered from the predictable but nonetheless devastating erosion of traditional life and values that accompanies economic, institutional and religious change. The Yapese are aware of the threat posed by outside influences, as I learned when I first went there in 1983. As early as 1977, a series of meetings among traditional leaders, elected officials and community leaders concerned about the loss of traditional building skills and the disrepair of the few remaining traditional buildings led to a proposal for a restoration of the village of Bechiel, which would become the Maap Cultural Center. Work was begun on the project, using some small amounts of local funding, CETA workers and, later, historic-preservation money. The original proposal was to rebuild a former pebaey, or men's meetinghouse, construct and house a traditional sailing canoe and generally return the village as much as possible to the condition it would have been in before European contact. A pebaey measuring 96 feet long, 36 feet wide and 36 feet high was constructed, as was the canoe, but because of shortage of funds, no canoe house could be built and inferior materials had to be used for the roof thatch and rope lashings of the pebaey. As a result, the canoe was exposed to the weather, and the pebaey's roof quickly began to deteriorate. This was how things stood in 1983, when I first visited the island.

In 1983, the US Congress passed an act designed to provide jobs in the field of historic preservation for unemployed Americans and residents of US possessions and trust territories. Certain funds were allocated for use in the US Trust Territories of the Pacific, a large area of islands acquired by the US from the Japanese after World War II which will soon be divided into three independent nations. I became involved with the management of this program early in 1983, because there was an urgent need for an experienced archaeological and historic-preservation professional to coordinate the proposed large diversity of projects and ensure compliance with the very tight and inflexible documentation and completion requirements that were built into the legislation. Ultimately, there were six such projects in the Trust Territories. The one on Yap will be described in detail because it was successful by administrative standards, personally satisfying to me and an excellent illustration of the goals of Cultural Survival.

From the beginning, I was hopeful that these projects would not share the paternalism so commonly purveyed by colonial administrations in the past. At the same time, however, I was concerned that good intentions are all very well, but if local people are already alienated from anything proposed by outsiders, there may be no channels of communication, assuring failure.

My first indication that things might go well was the support I received from Trust Territories Historic Preservation Officer Scott Russell, who felt strongly that as much work as possible should be planned and supervised at the local level. Scott had long-time contacts on each of the islands, his local reputation being enhanced by the fact that he is a champion sailor of racing catamarans and a noted spear fisherman.

When the project on Yap came up for discussion, Scott directed me immediately to Andrew Kugfas, the island's historic preservation officer. Throughout my dealings with Yap, it was Andrew's cheerful and energetic personality, illuminated by his beaming smile, that rallied local support, kept political channels open and generally facilitated everything from transportation to the collection of raw materials.

The first task was to decide which of several possible projects should be selected for Jobs Act funding. Although Andrew Kugfas and I toured the islands, viewing traditional buildings and several archaeological sites, it was evident from the outset the Bechiel Village, because of its large scope, demonstrated community support and ongoing state of deterioration, was the outstanding candidate. In particular, it would provide the largest number of jobs, offer the best training in traditional (and later marketable) skills and provide the community with a resource that would both fulfill traditional needs and generate income to the government of Yap through increased tourism. The chiefs of Maap and the Governor concurred in the selection and offered their support.

At every stage of the proposal writing, I collaborated with both Andrew Kugfas and John Tamag, a remarkable man who is both chief of Bechiel Village and Yap's only surviving traditional architect. Together we defined tasks, estimated costs and set up time schedules in such a way that both the bureaucratic needs of the National Park Service (NPS), the supervising agency, and the priorities and concerns of the community were addressed. However, John Tamag neither writes nor speaks English, and certainly possesses nothing like that sine qua non of Western professional life, a resume! To get around this official obstacle, at one of our regular meetings we taped Andrew's translations of John's answers to my questions concerning his education, background and professional experience. Later, back in Massachusetts, I used the taped information to construct an artifact of traditional American culture - a proper, typewritten resume, complete with Name, Address, and Professional Qualifications. Thus we acquired a Project Supervisor and Chief Architect acceptable to the NPS.

The project, as finally agreed upon and approved by the NPS, contained a number of elements. In addition to completing and repairing the pebaey and constructing a thatched canoe house, it was also necessary to carry out a professional archaeological survey and mapping project. This was done by Japanese archaeologist Michiko Intoh, who was already on Yap conducting her own research. The survey was considered essential in order to define the site according to NPS guidelines and to ensure that previously unknown archaeological resources were not disturbed in the course of the rest of the project. Next came the clearing and cleaning of the village site as a whole, which contains numerous archaeological features including wells, house platforms (wunubey), paths, taro patches, cookhouses, a young men's house (faluw), dancing grounds (malal) and sacred or tabu locations (teliw). Finally, two other structures were built or repaired - a traditional dwelling house atop its stone platform and a stone fish trap (atch). This latter is an arrow-shaped device traditionally built in the shallow waters of the reef flat. Fish are trapped in the hollow "head" of the arrow by the outgoing tide, and taken at the convenience of the villagers, who can walk out with their spears and nets along the "causeway" formed by the "shaft" of the arrow.

For nine months, John Tamag supervised the day-to-day activities at the site and worked with Andrew Kugfas in the collection and preparation of native materials from all over Yap. One problem that had to be resolved was supplying the 500 betelnut logs required for the flooring of the pebaey. As the betelnut is a highly valued resource on the islands, no one district or municipality was willing, or indeed could afford, to sacrifice all the trees needed, whether or not the logs were paid for. It was only through the persuasiveness of Andrew Kugfas and the generosity of communities on other parts of Yap that enough logs were eventually collected without putting too heavy a strain on the resources of any one locality.

When the actual construction phase was reached, John Tamag not only directed the young workers in their daily operations, but passed on to them his unique knowledge of intricate tying, a craft of great beauty and functionality that provides the only means of fastening together the timbers of traditional Yapese buildings, thus lending them the flexibility to withstand the pressures of typhoon-force winds before which more rigid structures most often collapse or are carried away. In 1983-84, nineteen young people were employed, learning not only construction skills and intricate tying, but secrets of paint-making, wood carving, thatching (with durable nipa palm) and decorative painting.

Today, visitors to Bechiel experience to an extraordinary degree the sensation of leaving the modern world behind. Here is a clearing in the jungle, a place where the trees have been pushed back by a few houses, hearths and pathways. Within the encircling sea and jungle, timelessness prevails. Access is only by boat or by footpath. The austerely magnificent pebaey with the outthrust curve of its high-peaked roof, the thatched dwelling house, the young men's house, the canoe house with its superb scarlet sailing canoe, all cradle a way of life not outstandingly different from what it was fifty, a hundred, or three hundred years ago, while the arrow shape of the stone fish trap points the way to the teeming sea, from which the village men have always drawn their livelihood. They say, after all, that Bechiel is as old as the people of Yap and was founded by one of the seven original magicians who survived the Great Flood. Stand on the white sand beach, or sit silent on the edge of one of the ancient stone house platforms, and you will probably believe it.

Though visitors may view the Maap Cultural Center as a museum, to the Yapese it is a training center where young people are actively engaged in learning traditional dancing, legends, navigation and sailing. It is still the home of the large, extended Tamag family, and John Tamag and his wife are the principal motive force behind the programs of the Cultural Center.

Because the Yapese themselves controlled and were intimately involved in every phase of the project, there is now strong community and government commitment to the ongoing aspects of the project. I have no fear that, as has been known to happen with similar projects in other areas, the site will be neglected or abandoned now that construction is over. If my Micronesian experience demonstrates anything, it is that complex, lengthy and bureaucratically convoluted projects may successfully be managed at long distance without sacrificing either efficiency or local involvement.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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