The high-pitched nasal song immediately silenced the anxious crowd as all eyes turned toward the singing voices. Off in the distance, the dancers had formed two lines and were beginning the dance. They moved from beneath the coconut trees toward the open sandy area in front of the canoe house where the children and men of the island had gathered.
Rushing to gather my camera and tape recorder after gaining permission to take pictures, I headed off toward the dancers.
This dance was special I was told. Usually dances are only performed at Christmas and Easter. The previous day the yacht “Isatis” had returned from “Pig” island with twelve turtles. Jean Lescure, Mark Skinner and nine Satawalese turtle hunters had sailed aboard the yacht to the island about 60 miles away. The hunters had spent the day catching turtles and the group had returned the following evening.
Since turtle is a favorite food of the Satawalese and is hunted seasonally. The islanders were very pleased with the large cache. Showing their appreciation, the chiefs of the island arranged to have a special dance performed for us. The dancers moved toward the hut with marching steps – one dancer kept cadence by shouting Left! Right! Left! Right! The closer the group got’ to the canoe house, the more lively the audience got, which in turn encouraged the dancers. By the time they reached the hut, the crowd took on a spirited, boisterous mood. The dances consisted of steps with a series of turns and complicated patterns of slapping hands and stamping feet to the tune of various songs – in various languages.
The songs were punctuated with laughter as well as what I assumed were humorous comments from the crowd. The dancers would even succumb to a bit of laughter at times. One dancer said she loved to dance, looking at them I could see that they certainly enjoyed themselves. The dances took very little preparation. I assumed that they would have practiced the previous day. They did not practice once. The morning of the dances, the women had the little girls collect flowers and young palm fronds. The women fashioned mwarmwars and leis from the flowers and skirts from the palm
A few moments before the dance they applied turmeric and makeup to their bodies and they were ready to go. They performed a variety of dances, some telling about a certain time in the history of the island while others were silly stories about people. They even had a song for Mark Skinner who had lived on the island as a Peace Corps volunteer. I couldn’t get him to translate what the song was about but I’d wager a guess it was comical by the looks of mischief on the dancers’ faces while they yelled “Mark Skinner!” and then “Peace Corps!”
At one point in the dance a male walked in front of the dancers shouting “Apaarey!” and threw cigarettes in the air. Then I saw Jean get up and do the same. I knew something was up. Sure enough, I was handed a pack of cigarettes and encouraged to do the same. I did, although I must admit I was a little self-conscious.
I later learned it was a traditional way to thank the dancers. The dances continued for a few hours. As the day wore on and the sun started to descend. the older women of the village joined the dance to the delight of the crowd. The group of younger dancers took their lead from the elders. The older women added a new dimension to the dances which were performed sitting on the ground. The younger women seemed to perk up with the arrival of the more experienced older women.
After a day of so much excitement, some dancers became giddy and could hardly keep a straight face. The crowd, still very much interested, interjected comments that only added to the laughter. Stifling laughter, the dancers filed off the sandy stage ready to prepare the food for the turtle feast to come.
co-authored with Tim Rock
The decline of the turtle population in the Pacific is of particular concern to atoll residents. Turtles are hunted for their meat which is not always in abundant supply on these isolated isles. In recent years, poaching of these animals by foreign fishing vessels has decimated the population worldwide, putting the hawksbill and five other species of sea turtles on the endangered list.
Large foreign fishing vessels, most notably from Taiwan, fish the islanders’ waters and hunt turtles at the traditional hunting grounds. The larger vessels able to stay months in the area claim a much larger catch than the island hunters. Atoll residents slaughter only what they can carry in their relatively smaller canoes.
Islanders make annual voyages to unpopulated islands that are known to be breeding grounds. The turtles hunted for the celebration mentioned on the previous pages and pictured above were found on Pig island in the Outer Caroline Islands.
Pig Island is traditionally claimed by the Satawalese who journey to the island during the
summer months when the sea is normally calm. Other islanders wishing to visit the island gain permission from the chief of Satawal although Truk Island also lays claim to it.
Pig is approximately a half mile in diameter. The island has no lagoon and no anchorage. The only source of water on the island is from two 55-gallon drums used to collect rainwater. Mountain apples and wild taro grow there providing turtle hunters with food and drink. In recent years. the Satawalese have become increasingly concerned with the conservation of their natural food resources.
Living as they do, the Satawalese keep an ecological balance with their environment. The chiefs, whose word is law, are responsible for the conservation of the island’s resources and have the authority to prohibit harvesting of anything. A ban on tuba drinking was in effect while the yacht “Isatis” was visiting the island. The chiefs decided that during previous breadfruit seasons too many men were falling out of the trees drunk. This prompted them to put a halt to cutting tuba during the breadfruit season.
The same goes for fishing and hunting. Turtles can only be slaughtered when a chief
is present. Hunters have been known to wait over a week for the arrival of a chief to kill a turtle.
While turtle eggs are a favorite delicacy, now that islanders know that turtles are struggling for survival few are collected. When they are collected, they are reserved for the children and the very old. This practice stems from a turtle hatcheries program instigated in the islands in the mid-70s. Education was thought to be the key and advice for promoting the survival of turtles has been heeded by hunters.
Similar to Ducks Unlimited in the U.S. mainland where duck hunters are in the forefront of duck propagation, turtle hunters in the islands are assuming a similar role. In addition, a turtle rearing program has been introduced by biologists in Palau. The journey from Satawal to Pig Island is done in outrigger canoes which must carry the hunters and their supply of food and water. This leaves a limited amount of room for their catch. While they are concerned, they feel powerless in the fight against the raping of their resources by foreign fishing vessels. The demise of these resources would prompt the death of certain aspects of their culture and rob the world of one of the few natural existences still practiced by man.
originally printed in the Pacific Daily News August 3, 1986