01 August 2004

Micronesian Diary: Meeting House and Eating Turtle, Yap

On 30 January 1999, archaeologist Felicia Beardsley visited a meeting house on the southern tip of Yap, Micronesia, where she ate sea turtle. Her Micronesian Diary entries focus on food as much as archaeology. I like that.
Anoth is at the south end of the island, the south tip. It is a coastal village, and we had been invited to the open house held in honor of the completion of rebuilding their traditional pebaey, or meeting house. The pebaey is right on the coastal flat --- well, the entire village is --- and immediately on the shore's edge (not more than 50 meters from the pebaey) is the faluw, the men's house. The only thing left of the faluw, however, is its foundation. It is a coral foundation, which is gradually eroding into the sea. In effect, the faluw foundation is an archaeological site.
Actually, a very large number of traditional dwellings in Yap were turned into similar archaeological sites by Typhoon Sudal in April 2004. Many people are still living in tents.
In these villages, the pebaey and faluw are used, reused, and rebuilt over time. Their locations generally do not change, so the same structure (or rather foundation) supports several generations of superstructures, all of which follow the same construction plan, with variation only in the decorative elements such as the plaiting in the walls and so on. Both structures are six-sided, and the only difference between the two is that the faluw is closed-walled, and the pebaey is not. That is because the faluw is (or was) used as a dwelling place for young men, where they would learn the skills that would carry them through life, including (but not limited to) fishing, the manufacture of all the tools necessary for fishing, fighting, dancing, oral histories, and of course, sexual skills. Each faluw used to house several girls who were obtained (kidnapped, purchased) from other villages. By contrast, the pebaey is a meeting house, or community house. It did not have need for walls, as it was not a place for permanent dwelling....

Teresa and I were the only girls at the open house; I was told the community had made a conscious decision not to include the women of the community. The festivities included roasting a sea turtle, which I was obliged to try. It really isn't that bad, and tastes quite good when you eat the meat with the fat. But, as one of the chiefs pointed out, it is not something I am accustomed to eat, so it was of course understandable when I handed what was left on my plate over to someone else.
One of the most valuable phrases any fieldworker or traveller needs to learn is how to say in the local language, "I'm not accustomed to that yet."
Then he went on to describe the preparation of the turtle, step-by-step, including how its shell is opened when it is basically half-cooked. There are times, he said, when the heart is still beating at this point. This is when the meat and fat is distributed, and several of the organs are removed. After this, the blood of the turtle continues to cook in its shell; it is this cooked blood that this particular chief prefers. Many others at the site also told me they prefer the cooked turtle blood, and could hardly wait until it was done. This same chief has a son whom Teresa was obliged to watch throughout the course of the day. She did a good job, keeping them both out of trouble and out of harm's way. I think she welcomed this "job" because it kept her occupied....

I also had an opportunity to chat with the chief. What I found interesting is that chiefs like him are raised as chiefs from the time they take their first steps, and that is what he is doing with his son too. He said that he has seen so many changes in the traditions of Yap. Today, he said (and he seemed a little concerned about it), there are people who aren't chiefs but who want to be. So, sometimes, he said, he just steps back and says, go ahead. Then watches. He said they don't know how to do it, and they get frustrated and give it up.
The caste system in Yap has driven many talented commoners--and outcastes--to seek their fortunes overseas, many in the U.S. military. (Yapese have served in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.) But it also seems to have contributed to a healthier fiscal and cultural cautiousness than in some of the other Micronesian states.

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