Library of Congress Funds Documentation of Micronesian Weaving Traditions | New

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WASHINGTON, DC/ULITHI, YAP – In the spring of 2022, the Habele Outer Island Education Fund in the Federated States of Micronesia was one of 10 projects chosen to receive a highly competitive Community Collections Grant from the American Folklife Center or AFC through the initiative Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the grant program serves to help individuals and organizations across the United States and territories document contemporary culture and cultural activities in their communities. The resulting documentation – in the form of recorded interviews, photographs, videos, musical recordings, etc. – will be added to the archives of the AFC to enrich and expand the historical and cultural file.

This article highlights the important fieldwork undertaken by Habele Principal Investigators, Modesta Yangmog and Regina Raigetal, on their project “The Warp and West of the Remathau”. This year-long study documents the knowledge and artistry of women from the outer islands of Yap who weave the beautiful and highly valued lavalava cloth, which remains an essential element in maintaining cultural traditions and communal relations among contemporary Remathau ( people of the sea). Ultimately, the researchers plan to record in-depth audio interviews with 20 master weavers from Lavalava, photographing the weaving process and, where appropriate, the community spaces and workshops where the weaving takes place.

Modesta and Regina both hail from Ulithi Atoll, a string of scenic outer islands in the Federated States of Micronesia in the West Carolina Islands. Both are respected lavalava weavers themselves and are well versed in local customs and traditions. They are also fluent in Ulithian – the Micronesian language spoken in Ulithi and the neighboring island of Fais – and are therefore able to conduct their interviews in the language that best encapsulates the history and complexity of the weavers’ culture. (They also create English logs of each interview, but obtaining substantial fieldwork in this previously underrepresented language will allow AFC to expand its holdings of approximately 500 languages ​​currently represented in the archives. .)

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Modesta and Regina about their research. Modern technology means that online meetings with field workers working away from Washington, DC are no longer difficult; However, the 2 p.m. time difference makes scheduling a meeting a bit difficult. (When I call Guam or Yap in the evening, it’s mid-morning the next day for them.)

Both Modesta and Regina are charming storytellers and serious, thoughtful researchers. Like many others born on Ulithi and Fais, both left their island home for reasons related to work, family and educational opportunities. Today, Modesta lives in Yap, the seat of Yap State, and Regina lives in Guam. Significant numbers of Ulithians live in Hawaii, elsewhere in the Pacific, and across the United States Modesta interviews master weavers about Ulithi and the FSM; Regina’s fieldwork will focus on weavers from Guam, Hawaii, and the continental United States. Modesta and Regina are convinced that the ability of women to weave lavalava is “essential” to maintaining the culture of the outer island. They estimate that up to a thousand Ulithian women know how to weave, but fear that many people living off the island are losing the intricacies of the tradition. For this reason, they prioritize documenting older women, although they also plan to interview a few weavers in their 40s. “We forget,” Modesta told me, “and you must know how. “I see [lavalava weaving] like a part of me as a person,” Regina said. It would be embarrassing for a girl’s family if she now knew how to weave.

To understand why their project is so important, they gave me some basic information about the complex history and traditions of the lavalavas and how they function in Ulithi society. This short article can only touch on a few main points, but readers should know that lavalava is a beautiful fabric woven in different colors and patterns and used for both men’s and women’s skirts. It is woven on a special type of small knapsack loom and the construction and maintenance of these special portable looms are also documented as part of the project.

Originally lavalavas were woven from banana and/or hibiscus fibers and later from agave fibers. In the late 1950s, weavers began to use commercially produced imported yarn. The idea of ​​using store-bought yarn was introduced by an American Jesuit priest, and it proved very popular because it allowed weavers to create softer, more colorful skirts and eliminated the tedious work of preparation and natural fiber dyeing. Although today most weavers buy commercial yarn, Modesta told me that one of her most exciting recent discoveries was when she interviewed an older weaver who remembered traditional methods of coloring lavalava yarn, including the use of a special type of soil found on the main island of Yap. .

On Ulithian Atoll, lavalava skirts are still worn on a daily basis and are definitely the right thing to wear for ceremonies and special events. However, lavalavas are much more than clothes: they carry important spiritual and social functions within them and play an important role during rites of passage. For example, it would be unthinkable to bury someone without including a lavalava, which functions as more than a shroud. Social and family conflicts must often be resolved by the gift of a lavalava. Weddings and births are also marked by the gift of lavalavas. (They both told me about a beautiful custom where a husband’s family is supposed to bestow a lavalava on a daughter-in-law during her first pregnancy as a token of appreciation.) Historically, lavalavas were also exchanged for land, although this is rarely done today. (In passing, it should be noted that this project focuses on the public aspects of lavalava weaving. Certain beliefs and practices associated with lavalavas are sacred and are not intended for public knowledge and therefore will not be included in this study. .)

Both men and women wear lavalavas, but the weaving is done exclusively by women. It takes a lot of skill, work and patience. Great information on lavalava weaving and building Ulithian backstrap looms is already available on Habele’s website, www.weaving connections.org/.

The colors and patterns of lavalavas change over time; some are associated with royal families and specific social classes; and some color combinations are for men only (eg black and white). Young women learn to weave when they reach puberty, but long before that young girls play at making looms out of palm fronds and sticks. They sit next to their mothers, cousins, grandmothers and aunts with their looms absorbing Ulithian culture while their elders weave lavalavas.

Modesta and Regina are also interested in documenting the spaces and places where women gather to weave. According to them, weaving is done almost everywhere, but is particularly pleasant and productive in spaces reserved for women, such as the menstrual lodge of the community. Regina described how she enjoyed hanging out with other women at the lodge where no one is supposed to cook or do chores; it’s “a bit like a spa”. It allows women to get away from their daily demands: a privileged moment to visit their mothers, aunts and cousins, tell stories, exchange information and do a lot of weaving.

Contemporary women like Modesta find it important to always have lavalavas on hand – “just in case” something should arise. Today, a woman who doesn’t have time to weave her own lavalava will sometimes buy them from another weaver to have some available, once again, “just in case”.

The Habele website cites art historians Jerome Feldman and Donald Rubenstein who have written that lavalava is nothing less than a “highly condensed visual expression of social and economic relations, ritual affairs, and aesthetic ideals of Micronesian society”. That’s undoubtedly true, but what this quote doesn’t reflect is the pride and pleasure that Modesta and Regina take in being involved with lavalavas. This unique traditional fabric also provides Yap’s outer islanders, increasingly dispersed migrants, “with a highly visible and instantly recognizable symbol that connects them to each other and to their past.” This project will help preserve the history and significance of the lavalavas so that Ulithian daughters and nieces, wherever they may be, can reside away from the islands. [can] hold fast to the roots and foundations of their islands so that they are not lost to us. Or, as Modesta told me, “It’s a must you should know.” My AFC colleagues and I look forward to adding their important fieldwork to our archive!

The author, Nancy Groce, is a Senior Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

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