Tiny islands in the world’s largest ocean. While they may be but specks on a map, within their shores the islands of Satawal and Ifalik are brimming with culture, color, and heritage. Satawal is the easternmost island in Yap State of the Federated States of Micronesia, and to the west lies Ifalik. Both these islands are small, miniscule compared to the expanse of the water around them. Both are beautiful. Both have people living on them who are very warm and welcoming. And life on both is walking a fine line of existence.
People in this part of Micronesia have held on to their traditions. Traditional songs, dances, trades, and general ways of life are honored and passed down to the communities’ youngest members. However, marks left by the outside world are not absent. Boys wear sports jerseys, and girls can recite songs from even the most recent Disney movies. A stereo bellows prerecorded chants in a church as women sing along. While traditional boats far outweigh modern ones, outboard motors hang from huts, and a fiberglass boat or two sit in the background.
Songs and dances about the harvest and combat are performed not only for visitors, but also during important feasts and holidays. I cannot imagine the hours it must take to weave the flower and plant based skirts, necklaces and headpieces for the dance performances. Just before the dances begin, everyone is dusted with turmeric, giving their skin a rich yellow glow. The rhythms of chanting and movement range from almost meditative to humming with vibrant energy.
A short distance from the performances, women wove bowls, baskets, and bags from coconut palm leaves. Men made rope from coconut palm fibers, fishhooks from shells, and large sea-going canoes from mahogany and breadfruit wood. These important trades stay alive in the islands here and are integral to daily life, as people here rely on their surroundings for food. They grow bananas, yams, taro, breadfruit, and coconut on the land. They raise a few pigs and chickens. But mostly they look to the sea for their protein.
People from this part of Micronesia, and particularly Satawal, are well known for their traditional navigation techniques, without the use of instruments. They have long been a seagoing people and continue to travel between islands on their hand-hewn wooden canoes. They are masters at maneuvering these vessels. When needing to change directions, instead of tacking, a team of men quickly lowers the sail, hoists the mast and moves it to the opposite side of the boat, before raising the sail once more as the boat changes course. The tiller is a large wooden blade separate from the boat that is controlled by the hands and feet of the man at the stern. The orchestration of these movements is an art in itself.
Unfortunately, the waters outside Satawal are lacking large fish and the diverse marine life that is present around many of the Pacific Islands. Overfishing has wiped out the nearby food source for this small island, and so now, these canoes are not used only to explore other lands but to venture regularly to uninhabited islands to bring back food for the village. Ifalik currently is faring better, evident by the presence of fish and large molluscs around its nearby reefs. However, it only takes one cyclone or a change in fishing pressure to shift the delicate balance of self-sufficiency.
It is such an honor to visit places like this. The songs are enchanting and the dances exhilarating to watch. A downpour in Ifalik during the performance did not deter the troupe of women ranging from women in their 70’s to girls of 4 or 5. Their singing became louder and movements more energized as the rain pounded harder. As I walked through the quieter parts of each village, people invited me to look into their homes, told me stories of their lives and asked questions about mine. The people here seem truly healthy and happy. To have a connection with them, however brief, and the place they call home is to have a small taste of what it would be like to live in an island paradise. As tempting as it is to romanticize that picture beyond my idyllic visit, there’s little question that I’m not tough enough to live the existence that these beautiful people do. And I wonder how much longer they will be able to hold on to their lifestyle as well, as conveniences of the modern globalized world and real time food security issues are ever-present realities just beyond the horizon. It’s my hope that their heritage and way of life is able to withstand the pressures of both.