Traditions, Arts & Crafts
Although in the past few decades, Palau has adapted to an international economy, Palauans for the most part strongly identify with their traditional culture. Several of the traditional ceremonies, such as the omersurch birth ceremony, ocheraol first-house ceremony and the kemeldiil funeral services are widely practiced and the codes and beliefs adopted by Palauan forefathers are still revered today.
Probably the most noticeable aspect of Palauan culture is the people's connection with the sea. Traditionally, it was the duty of the family to go to sea to harvest fish and battle against enemy villages. As the sea was the source of their livelihood, men developed a close relationship with the waters of Palau, becoming versant in the currents and the phases of the moon and the behavior of the fish they sought to put on the table.
Women generally stayed on land or along the shallow reefs surrounding the islands, rather than combat the open ocean, providing foundation for the family. Their days were largely spent tending to their homes, family and fields where they grew taro.
Palauan villages were, and still are, organized around 10 clans reckoned matrilineally. A council of chiefs from the 10 ranking clans governed the village, and a parallel council of their female counterparts held a significant advisory role in the division and control of land and money.
Palauans are a highly sociable people. Traditionally, history, lore and knowledge were passed down through the generations orally as there was no written language until the late 1800's. Palauans still practice that traditional method, and at the end of the day, one can often find pockets of Palauans excitingly engaged in the telling of the stories of the more recent past.
The present day traditional government of Palau is a direct continuation of the ancient traditional government, composed of practices that span thousands of years. In the traditional government, Palau is divided geographically into different categories. At the smallest level of geographic division is the village or hamlet, then the chiefdom (which is now politically referred to as a state), and finally the federation, or alliance of chiefdoms. In ancient times, there were numerous federations, or alliances, but upon the introduction of firearms by the British in the 17th century, a major imbalance of power occurred.
Palau was divided into just two major federations, the northern and southern federations. The Northern Federation is headed by the high chief and chiefess of the ruling clan Uudes of Melekeok state, the Reklai and Ebilreklai. As a result of their position, they are commonly referred to as the king and queen of the Northern Federation. This northern federation comprises the following states: Kayangel, Ngerchelong, Ngardmau, Ngiwal, Ngaraard, Ngatpang, Ngeremlengui, Melekok, Aimeliik, Ngchesar, and Airai. The Southern Federation is likewise represented by the high chief and chiefess of the ruling clan Idid of Koror state, the Ibedul and Bilung, which also results in their titles as king and queen of the Southern Federation. The Southern Federation comprises the following states: Koror, Peleliu, and Angaur.
Despite the presence of these terms however, lesser and lesser Palauans have knowledge of the concept of federations, and the term is slowly dying out. Federations had been established as a way of safeguarding states and hamlets who shared economic, social, and political interests, but now with the advent of modernism and a federal government, there is no need for such safeguarding.
It is interesting to note however, that in international relations, the king of Palau is often synonymous with the Ibedul of Koror. This is a result of the fact that Koror is the industrial capital of the nation, and because of such, his position and reputation among the corporate sector of the country has a much greater impact than that of the Reklai of Melekeok.
There is also a misconception that the king and queen of Palau, or any chief and his female counterpart for that matter, are married. This is not the case in Palauan society. Traditional leaders and their female counterparts, have always been related and unmarried (marrying relatives in Palauan society has always been a traditional taboo). Usually, a chief and his female counterpart are either brother and sister, or are close cousins, and have their own spouses.
Evolution of the Palauan Story Board
Storyboard carving is an art form derived from the decorative architectural woodcarving which appeared on the men’s meeting houses (bai). Prior to a written language, the stories from Palau’s rich cultural heritage were carved and painted on the end gables and interior beams of the bai. The stories told legends, recorded events and taught social and moral behavior. Story arrangement was horizontal and in sequence.
Starting in the late 1700’s contact with foreigners began to alter the lives of the Palauan people. Colonial administrative policies of the late 1800’s resulted in a shift of labor away from central community activities and thus the construction of the bai went into decline.
In 1935 Hisakatsu Hijikata, a Japanese artist and ethnographer, wanted to revive this traditional art form of painted wood carvings, and he advocated carving stories on small scale boards that could be sold to foreigners. At the beginning this new movement emphasized the traditional narrative style and this resulted in very little individual expression by the artists. Hijikata required his students to use the traditional lime white background with earthy shades of black, red and yellow. The students used no overlapping and emphasized thin carved outlines. The major change in format was in the reduction of the stories from the 15 to 30 feet lengths of the beams to the shortened lengths of the storyboards.
Today the development of this art form can now trace its history to specific local artists, some of whom were bai artisans, students of Hisakatsu Hijikata, and others who were self taught. In the 1960’s an administration sponsored vocational rehabilitation program in jail, which continues until today, provided an opportunity for interested carvers. The free form style of storyboard carving began with the carvers in the rehabilitation program.
Presently, Tebang Wood Carving Shop, other carving enthusiasts and the rehabilitation program in jail continues to have storyboard carving training where interested persons can observe the art of storyboards.
From the leaves of coconut palms and the razor-sharp pandanus, women of Palau have woven household items, including sleeping mats, baskets and the sails of the long-range outrigger canoes. Although the women weavers still make traditional wares, they have introduced bags, backpacks and other useful items decorated with a variety of colorful geometric designs.
Long ago, the primary form of travel around the islands was by canoe. Most people lived along the coast, and there were canoes for every task and occasion, such as the sleek war canoe or the bulkier kaeb canoe used to transport people from island to island. Few canoe craftsmen remain today, but there is always a demonstration of this essential craft at the Senior Citizens Center in Koror.
Chants were used to relate stories of historical and ceremonial events and to parody individuals and situations. In Palauan tradition, to criticize or ridicule someone directly was a very harsh and humiliating action that could lead to further recrimination. Instead, the high people of a village would chant a song that was essentially a parody of a person or village that allowed people to enjoy the message while at the same time learning an important lesson. Chanting is performed on special occasions and in dance performances. One can request of an elder at the Senior Citizens center to demonstrate or give lessons.
Often, chants would be accompanied by dance, which were performed mainly at ceremonies commemorating a day or event. The movements are fluid and unhurried. Even the Palauan cha cha and jitterbug, adaptations of the dances brought in by the U.S. military, are performed with characteristic careful movement. Several restaurants have displays of traditional dance, but the more modern styles are evident on the dance floors at any nightclub.
In order to show social status, women wore udoud money necklaces and turtle shell bracelets. Another delicately carved and shaped turtle shell ornament is a small, shallow dish called toluk. This dish is also regarded as a form of money and was paid to women for their family obligations and services. Primarily using turtle shell and seashells, craftsmen carved and shaped their materials into a variety of uniquely formed items.