The Pacific culture that’s received UN protection

Updated 7 January

The centuries-old tradition of Carolinian wayfinding and canoe-making has been inscribed onto a list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) announced that the motion behind the preservation of the Micronesian practice of building and navigating long-distance canoes was approved.

Communities in the outer islands of the Yap state of the Federated States of Micronesia continue the traditions of building the ocean-voyaging sailing canoes from indigenous materials and of navigating, or wayfinding, without maps or other instruments.

Constructing the canoe is an activity that the entire community participates in, which begins with the selection and felling of a tree, and involves a detailed measurement system that is based on traditional mathematical traditions that is both accurate and verifiable.

The carving is conducted almost exclusively with the indigenous adze, a tool similar to an axe with an arched blade at right angles to the handle.

The asymmetrical canoe design supports high-speed sailing, also allowing access to shallow water.

Traditional wayfinders, the Micronesian version of a modern-day electronic GPS, use environmental cues to navigate.

pacific culture un protection
Micronesians continue to carve out a tradition that has been behind its indigenous canoe-making for centuries. Picture: Eric Metzgar, UNESCO

Although the device has been lost in most Pacific nations, wayfinding and canoe-making traditions, and their technologies enable the settlement of thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The practice has been passed on through tradition led by master canoe carvers and navigators.

UNESCO recognised only a limited number of the tradesmen remain to pass on their knowledge and skills following the reduction in sizes of families and migration to “high” islands.

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Faster transportation alternatives and environmental degradation also threatens its future survival.

Pasifika Renaissance, an organisation that preserves and promotes cultural and historical heritage in the Pacific Islands, was ecstatic over the
successful UNESCO nomination.

“We are very glad to support their endeavour by documenting a Carolinian navigation course conducted by Master Navigator Ali Haleyalur from Lamotrek in 2019 and providing them with documentation materials,” Pasifika Renaissance said.

“We hope the Federated States of Micronesia’s success would not only promote the succession of the Carolinian wayfinding and canoe making tradition, but also encourage other Pacific Islands countries’ efforts of nominating their cultural heritage and stimulate a regional movement to inscribe a multinational nomination for Pacific Islands canoe culture.”

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