Peter Pakemai, a far-sighted traditionalist died in mid-January on Yap, a Micronesian Island at the strategic crossroads of the Pacific. LINK: Waagey
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Not many foreign visitors come to Yap. These beautiful islands at the world’s end see only a handful of divers and eco-tourists, and the occasional descendent of a Pacific War veteran, eager to catch a glimpse of the paradise described in childhood stories. Ever one of them, whether they knew it or not, passed the old man.
Peter Pakemai was easy enough to miss in the bustle of the canoe house. A small, wizened figure carving silently in a circle of younger men laughing and chewing betelnut. The other carvers knew who he was. A master canoe builder and craftsman, Pakemai ‘s hands transformed wood with encyclopedic knowledge of days gone by.
Where others saw only trees in groves of native hardwoods, Pakemai ‘s eyes saw the parts and pieces of traditional canoes, hewn with expert care from the trunks and branches. Pakemai‘s mind could see the sleek canoe in the wood, and his hands could realize the vision. Most important of all, his careful words could guide a young carver to do the same.
Keels of Caroline Islands canoes are formed from hollowed-out tree trunks, carved with adze blades and painstaking focus. Perfectly flush side planks are tied and fitted with handspan ropes of coconut fiber. Everything appears symmetrical. Sternposts and stems protrude up from the keel in forks that resemble the outstretched tongue of a lizard. Steadied by an outrigger, the mast and sail are fully adjustable, allowing the craft to sail windward up to 75 degrees off the wind. Baffled Spanish sailors and missionaries termed them, “Flying Proas,” astounded that isolated pagans - without metal tools and written language - could build the graceful craft that seemed to glide above the water.
In many ways, Pakemai was no less a foreigner to Yap than the handful of visitors who stopped to chat with the boys in the canoe house. He was an outsider with a deep, earnest –but subtly pragmatic– commitment to tradition.
The Carolines are thousands of tiny islands, mostly low lying, isolated coral atolls. Languages and customs vary little one to the next, only more discernable when the latitudinal extremes are juxtaposed. The Islands of Yap Proper are an exception; sixty square miles of nearly contagious land within a single reef, land rising above 500 feet. In language and culture too, the Yapese remain an anomaly, still confusing Western scholars.
For hundreds of miles to the east and west, a complicated system of trade and tribute, connected the Outer Islands to Yap. Fine crafts, textiles, and food stuffs were gathered, consolidated on the Atoll of Ulithi, and sent to the villages of Gatchepar and Wanyan in the Gagil district on Yap. Integral to the exchange was inter-island support in times of resource shortages, especially following the western Pacific's devastating typhoons. In this narrow context, peoples from the Neighboring Islands were afforded refuge and hospitality during their annual visits to Yap, and provided a place within Yap's traditional caste system. It was the exception proving the rule of Yap’s cautious, insular attitude to outsiders.
Foreign powers –Spanish, German, Japanese, and then American– were more interested in control of a strategically situated region, than bringing the Micronesian’s into the modern world. The sought bases, and the Japanese used these on their way to attacking Pearl Harbor, and the ability to deny access to rival nations. Still, Spanish missions, German restrictions on canoeing, Japanese schooling, and American hospitals and government jobs drove ever-more Outer Islanders to Yap.
Pakemai came to the main island of Yap to visit his son Larry, whose degree from an American university degree earned him a job with the nascent Micronesian government. While visiting, Pakemai met young boys whose families had arrived from his own island of Lamotrek. The boys shared his language and culture, but had never set foot in the village of Lugelap or speared a fish on the Ochfaimagwu reef. Still foreigners on Yap, they lacked the skills and life experiences that defined the Remathau, the “People of the Sea.” Peter P. Pakemai had seen great changes since his christening sometime in the 1930s by a Spanish priest in Japanese controlled Micronesia, but this was too much. The boys were adrift.
Larry, the second of Pakemai’s four sons, urged him to stay on Yap, hinting at a bold approach to mentor the lost boys. The young men needed to be trained by masters, and that meant the masters needed to come to them. This was no small suggestion. Traditional skills being passed down off-island was jarring on it’s own. Allowing the skills to be transmitted outside of longstanding family lines was heresy. Pakemai saw beyond the tension. Training had to adapt or be lost.
Confident in his mission, Pakemai approached his skeptics with tenacious humility, always eager to show respect and propriety. It wasn’t enough to model behavior for the boys from Lamotrek. Pakemai wanted even the doubters to see the unassuming value of his vision.
The boys in the canoe house know the value. Every stroke of the adze blade, every graceful line they carve on the Flying Proas is a tribute to the old man. He no longer sits on the wood chips under the thatch, but his son Larry Raigetal passes the vision to Outer Islanders who will never know Pakemai. Through their NGO, “Waa’gey,” he preserves native technologies to protect the distinctive Outer Island identity, and solve problems tied to import dependency, urbanization, and unemployment. Challenges unaddressed by, and in some cases tied to, government-to-government aid are instead tackled person-to-person.
Pakemai looked to the past, but never took his eye from the future. The knowledge he gifted to those around him will never be forgotten.