By Kelsey Hansen, Group Tours and Education Coordinator
The islands of Micronesia consist of more than 2,000 high islands and low coral atolls between the Philippines and Hawaii. The region includes – from west to east – Palau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan), the Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae), the Marshall Islands (Enewetak, Bikini, Rongelap, Kwajalein, and Majuro), Nauru, and Kiribati (Banaba, formerly Ocean Island). The area’s cultures have been influenced, not only by environmental impacts (land scarcity, cyclones, and droughts), but by explorations conducted by other islanders – the Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese, and eventually world wars.
Figure 1. Map of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia (Oceania).
Micronesia was first settled approximately 3,500 to 2,000 years ago. Cyclones and other storms have made archaeological investigations difficult on the small islands as they disrupt the landscapes, which have created gaps in many of the island’s histories. In response to this inconclusive timeline, language has provided a better understanding of how these cultures and people have evolved on the islands. Oral traditions on each island have helped preserve many of the specific and unique cultural legacies. Palau has the tradition of place names; place names embody rich knowledge of migration and settlement patterns. Each place has a unique story behind it, and the knowledge is passed down through oral histories, events, and cultural lessons to people and children. Palau’s creation story is known as The Legend of Uab, and each area of Palau has stories relating to the legend (Besebes & Tellames, 2014). Other islands in Micronesia use songs, dances, the recitation of myths, tales, and poetry to pass along traditional knowledge.
Figure 2 Women's Dance. Yap, Federated States of Micronesia. Photograph by Brad Holland.
In Micronesia, land is very scarce and there is a strong attachment to it through lineages and family groups. Islanders who resided on higher islands, which were formed from volcanic activity, had much more fertile soil and higher elevation. This provided them with more food and better protection from cyclones. People from lower islands would sail to high islands to trade for food, supplies, and look for spouses. A lack of natural resources caused low-island people to venture out into the open ocean; they were extremely skilled navigators of oceangoing canoes. The Marshallese created maps - stick charts - that were used to represent how the currents and waves flowed. These charts allowed the Marshallese to navigate the open ocean and around islands, and to understand how ocean currents and swells interacted with each other islands. (Fischer, Kahn, & Kiste, 1998)
Figure 3. Marshallese Stick Chart. Photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards. National Geographic.
The Yapese were the only high island people to practice open sea navigation. They were skilled ocean navigators and practiced the art of wayfinding to guide them through the waters. Wayfinding incorporates not just the currents and waves movements, but the stars, sea life, clouds, and winds to help navigate. Yapese would sail to Palau and other islands to mine limestone, which they would then carve into huge disks that served as their currency, famously known as stone money. (Krause, 2014)
Figure 4. Small outrigger canoe. Yap, FSM. Photograph by Kelsey Hansen.
The collection that the Museum of Arts and Sciences will be exhibiting showcases many art forms from across Micronesia. Objects range from canoe related artifacts to hand-woven fiber crafts such as fans, mats, baskets, and everyday items used on the islands. Storyboards from Palau and Yap depict traditional scenes from stories that were once carved in to beams and gables of large men’s houses, also known as bai. Arts and Culture of Micronesia will provide a very brief, but vibrant, insight into the unique people and cultures of these fascinating islands.