Who’s sailing now? Women and the revival of traditional polynesian sailing in the Solomon Islands
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Solomon Islands: The Story of Lata
“The Story of Lata” explores the efforts by a group of remote Solomon Islanders to preserve their ancient traditional boat building and navigation culture and traditional Polynesian voyaging among the people who still practice these ancient traditions. In a region where the knowledge and skills are slowly dying out, there is a younger generation who are working to preserve these practices. Outer Voices meets some of the last women who lived the voyaging way of life and the days of sailing, and their special roles boat building and navigation. “The Story of Lata” also shares the pressures of modern life – of traditions being lost, and the pressure to join the market economy. The myth of Lata guides us on our journey to the Pacific islands, and offers a profound understanding of the limitless ways we can navigate both space and time, as well as how the patience and durability of the ancients can benefit our lives today.
The Solomon Islands form an archipelago of far-flung and scattered mountainous islands and low-lying coral atolls. Six major islands are interspersed by another 900 or so smaller islands, amid reefs, covering over 11,000 square miles of land, in over 250,000 square miles of ocean. Surrounded by sea, there is no way to separate the people of the Solomon Islands from the sea – social, economic and cultural practices have all been created by the ocean water that surrounds them.
It will likely always be difficult for outsiders to truly understand the history of the Solomon Islands and the rest of the Pacific Islands. While initial contact with the Pacific Islands was commercial and colonial, it is only relatively recently that academics have studied the clues provided by archaeology and biological anthropology to uncover centuries of information which has never been shared with the outside world.
While James Cook was the first to provide complete maps of the region, it was Dumont D’Urville who classified the people of the Pacific Islands into three distinct groups. The Polynesians, found in the east – Tahiti, Hawa’ii, Easter Island and New Zealand – are light skinned, and found on the “many islands” denoted by the name Polynesia. Micronesia is comprised of many small islands – mostly uninhabited northern atolls. Melanesia denotes the “dark islands,” signifying the dark skinned people of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. Though these are crude, and somewhat inaccurate designations, they have stuck, and continue to be used to this day.
While debates still rage on as to the origin of these three groups, “lapita” pottery has been used as evidence to date progressively older and older pottery as evidence of migration eastwards from Asia to the Pacific Islands. The origins of the pottery can be found in the South East Asian archipelago – though debates continue as to whether it is from Taiwan or perhaps Vietnam.
History of Solomon Islands
In the early 1980s, the Solomon Islands became a British protectorate, officially known as British Solomon Islands Protectorate. A resident commissioner oversaw law and order, and British political, legal and justice systems were established as the local governance system.
Some of the most bitter fighting of the Second World War – between the British and the Japanese, occurred in the Solomon Islands, with the British eventually forcing out all foreigners, leaving the islanders to face the Japanese alone. Before the Japanese were finally defeated, the Americans faced one of their worst defeats. By 1944, over 80,000 European and Japanese men had waged war on the island, and at least 39,000 Japanese, and another 7,000 American lives were lost. Numerous Solomon Islanders and Papua New Guineans were also killed while aiding the Allied Forces as coast watchers or guerrillas.
After the war ended, few British people returned and economic recovery was slow to begin. A new capital was established at Honiara and seeing that the nationalist movement amongst locals was increasing, the British began the process of handing over government power. The democratically elected Local Council was established in 1952, and self-governance came into effect in 1976. The Solomon Islands became the 37th member of the Commonwealth of Nations after achieving independence from the British in 1978, and the two countries retain close ties.
The country came to the brink of civil war in 1998, when conflict arose between native and migratory ethnic groups in and around Honiara. The “tension,” as it is commonly referred to, lasted for five years, and disrupted social, economic and political activities in even the most remote parts of the Solomon Islands. This led to the intervention of the Australian led peacekeeping force (the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, or RAMSI) in 2003.
While active fighting has stopped, the conflict left the country almost bankrupt and tensions still exist between different groups. Democratically held elections, in both 2003 and again in 2010, have been contentious.
Despite political and economic upheaval, the country has maintained many of its cultural roots. Familial and clan ties remain strong, and life is shared communally. The Pidjin word “wantok” means “one talk” and signifies a group of people coming from the same dialect, usually blood relatives from an extended family. Subsistence agriculture and fishing form the backbone of communal living practiced by extended families, and relationships to the land and sea also form the roots of the human culture of the Solomon Islanders.
The sea is an integral part of the daily lives of the Solomon Islanders. Without sea faring, the people of the Pacific Islands could not have settled so many islands, and would not have become such a culturally distinct people. The development of the art (or science) of canoe construction and navigation are the backbone of the history of the Solomon Islanders – though their continuation into the present and future are increasingly threatened. Navigation without instruments or written charts have astounded outsiders, but an oral tradition, passed down through generations, has taught Solomon Islanders how to navigate using a systematic wind pattern system, ocean swells, birds, stars, currents, and “te lapa,” bolts of light that emanate from the land.
This knowledge, crucial for islanders to travel between islands in order to trade food and other goods, visit family and exchange information is at risk of being lost. Traditionally handed down orally, from generation to generation, the pressures of the modern, globalized economy have weakened the reliance on the practice of inter-island sailing. As children from the small islands go away to school, and adult islanders move to larger cities for work, no one is left to pass these traditions down, and children do not grow up with the knowledge and skills needed to sail.
While traditionally relying on subsistence farming and fishing – and on trading and bartering with nearby islands, since the 1970s the economy of the Solomon Islands has slowly entered into the global economy. After the conflict, debts to international creditors rose, public funds were mismanaged and exports of fish, timber, copra and palm oil dropped. Islanders were introduced into a cash economy, and people increasingly relied on cash, rather than the traditional trading economy. People began travelling by ship (both government and commercial), which cost money, children moved to the capital to study, and required tuition, and other commodities also became available. A growing number of Islanders moved overseas for work and this newfound access to money brought an increased dependence on Western commodities.
But this has brought a strain on traditional social systems, which prohibited charging cash for food. It has also brought conflict, and the introduction of Western principles of individual autonomy, socio-economic mobility and competition.
In addition, new labels were being applied to the Solomon Islands – under development, and impoverishment among others. The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index ranked the Solomon Islands 135th out of 182 in 2007. Their data indicates that poverty is increasing, especially amongst those displaced by conflict, the unemployed and youth, and that inequalities between urban and rural populations are also growing.
These designations are new to the Solomon Islands – while people may have always been seen as poor by outsiders, due to their lack of hard cash, outside of urban areas, food has rarely been scarce and everything the Islanders have needed has usually been available.
The pressures of globalization has resulted in a reliance on government or commercial boats to transport people from one island to another, and has meant that traditional boat building and navigation knowledge and skills are being lost. But a movement is afoot.
On the island of Taumako, a remote island in the eastern part of the Solomon Islands, roughly 500 Polynesians maintain some of their traditional boat building and navigational practices. Taumako is remote even to other Solomon Islanders, and is far from any of the major shipping lanes. Without roads, electricity and phones, contact with outsiders is limited, and the people of Taumako have for decades relied entirely on farming and fishing for all their needs. The skills required to survive have been honed here – and remain in practice to this day. This includes the construction of voyaging canoes, which has always been more practical and useful to the people of Taumako than the government provided steamships, which relied on a cash economy and fuel. These larger ships cannot anchor at islands like Taumako, due to their size, and the island does not have land for an airstrip or access to modern technologies such as mobile phones or internet. Voyaging canoes are therefore one reliable and relevant means of transport and communication, as modern technologies are difficult to harness in this context.
In 1996, just before the last elders who knew how to make and navigate voyaging canoes began to die, the people started sailing again. Inspired by the opportunity to learn from those who still held the ancestral knowledge of these practices, young people began to build a new canoe, and documented their learning processes and weaved them together with modern ways of recording and sharing these practices with the outside world.
The Vaka Taumako (A Canoe for Taumako) Project was initiated by Paramount Chief and Master Navigator Koloso Kaveia, who passed away in 2009. His hope was to instil the skills of voyaging into a new generation – to mix the benefits of the modern life with the physical, cultural and spiritual practices of the past.
Using the inspiration of the myth of Lata, Chief Kaveia, with the support of Dr. Mimi George and the Vaka Taumako Project, have relied on the story of Lata to guide and inspire them. The story of Lata is the story of the building of the first vaka (also called te puke), or canoe. Like any mythical creation story, not all of it still exists in its original form, but it provides the basis for the way in which people on the Solomon Islands approach boat building and navigation. According to the myth, Lata was born with special powers, and he learned from the birds, the trees and the sea – and became sought out for his expertise in building. Using things from and with nature, he taught his people to build voyaging canoes, but not everyone in the community was happy about his special skills, and eventually they began to block his entrance to the island. This has been the cause[KK1] of conflict ever since, and the people wait for Lata to return to bring peace.
The Role of Women
While women have not traditionally been involved in the building or sailing of voyaging canoes, they possess the skills and knowledge required to participate. The roles of women in the Solomon Islands have been integral in the settling of the Islands. Outer Voices met two women who still remember the old ways – Jocelyn Sale, whose family made and navigated boats and her daughter Joanne, who shared the work of the men while sailing. Women like Joanne and Jocelyn are going beyond their traditional roles – in order to preserve tradition, and are passing down their knowledge to the new generations, in order to sure that it these practices can be continued.
The Solomon Islands fall below poverty lines set by international agencies like the United Nations, as few people earn more than $1 a day. But Aseri Yalangono, an Oxford educated Islander who has returned to Honiara and now works for the Ministry of Education, argues that this is not an accurate way to measure poverty. People in the Solomon Islands are largely self sufficient – growing, catching or trading the things they need to survive. But the pressures of modern life – to educate children, and join the mainstream workforce, are inescapable, and the presence of the cash economy is only growing. Just over 50% of children in the Solomon Islands are enrolled in school, in addition to requiring school fees, most children must move away from their families to the capital of Honiara to complete their education. With this shift, traditional social and familial structures are at risk of being lost. A tension remains between the efforts being made to revive and preserve the knowledge and skills of boat building and navigation – and the inevitable pressures of modernization.
Vaka Taumako Project: http://www.pacifictraditions.org/vaka/index.html
Permanent Mission of Solomon Islands to the United Nations: http://www.un.int/wcm/content/site/solomonislands/pid/3603
Solomon Islands Human Development Report (2002): http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/nationalreports/asiathepacific/solomonislands/name,3192,en.html
Oxfam – Solomon Islands Programs: http://www.oxfam.org.au/about-us/countries-where-we-work/solomon-islands
Asian Development Bank – Solomon Islands: http://www.adb.org/solomonislands/main.asp
Richard Feinberg (author of “Polynesian Seafaring and Navigation: Ocean Travel in Anutan Culture and Society.”)
Patrick Kirch (author of: “On the Road of the Winds”): http://anthropology.berkeley.edu/kirch.html
David Lewis: “We the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific”: http://www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/cart/shopcore/?PHPSESSID=3e385471134eaa922c9e49817bba72a2&page=shop%2Fbrowse&db_name=uhpress&search_type=Specific+Search&sfield=product_name&subject_keyword=we+the+navigators