Report Summary

This report documents the research, carving and launching of a Kapingamarangi Canoe. When I became involved with the project, I was told that the Kapingamarangis would be carving the waka siu, their most sacred canoe and that there was one man who still knew the art of carving the canoe, though he was old and physically unable to do the work. By having this "master carver" guide some of the younger men of the village and by documenting this process, it was hoped that the ancient canoe carving skill would be preserved. My task was to manage the project and document the carving.

Initially, this seemed to be an interesting and straightforward project. While waiting for the project to begin, I did some research concerning the canoes of the Kapingamarangi with specific attention to the waka siu. This information was to serve as the foundation and historical background of the final report. While the project maintained its status as interesting, the building of a waka siu was anything but straightforward. The difficulty encountered, and I say this with the greatest respect for the carving skills and craft of the Kapingamarangi, was that the last waka siu was built previous to the birth of anyone in the community.

Throughout my research both in Porakiet and on Kapingamarangi I was unable to find one person that remembered, let alone helped with, the carving of a waka siu. Were we building a boat that no one had ever seen? I was able to find some information, though incomplete, regarding this canoe from various reports done over the years; during the early and mid-twentieth century a number of anthropologists had taken an interest in the Kapingamarangi culture.

It turns out that the waka siu was a relic of the ancient cult religion that went by the wayside with the Kapingamarangis' adoption of Christianity in 1918. At about the same time the carving of the Kapingamarangi style canoe was replaced with the simpler Nukuoro style of canoe. Given other factors, the last time a waka siu was built was probably around 1915. This however is speculation on my part. Kosen Mack, the master carver, was born in 1919, "the year we started counting years" (a reference to Christianity).

I think it is important to clarify that this report should be read with caution regarding the historical validity of this particular waka siu. Though the canoe carving was a valiant effort by the Kapingamarangi to recreate a canoe that at one time was the most important part of their physical culture, the end product is not a waka siu as carved pre-twentieth century, but a compilation of the collective knowledge of the Kapingamarangi and whatever historical information I was able to uncover through my research.

Although the canoes they have made on the atoll since the 1920's were of the Nukuoro type and those built on Pohnpei up through the 1960's were a variation of the traditional Kapingamarangi canoes, it is interesting to note that the Kapingamarangi have continued to carve their traditional style of canoe in model form. I believe it is this process of carving models that has preserved what is left of the knowledge needed to build the Kapingamarangi canoes. The knowledge to build the waka siu is gone with the exception of bits and pieces of information found in past reports.

My research placed me in an awkward position. Should I remain quiet about my findings and document the canoe construction as the Kapingamarangi would do it or should I share the fruits of my research with the carvers, thereby allowing them to build a re-creation of the waka siu? Good arguments can be made for both cases; I chose the latter.

I found the carvers and others in the village very interested in the old reports. The documentation of their culture started years before they had learned a written language. The reports for the most part were not in their language and difficult to access. It seemed to me that if anyone had a right to this information it was the Kapingamarangi. The fact that the reports were not in their language or in their possession seemed of little importance, it is still their history.

The carving of the canoe was a joint effort with much of the information coming from the present day Kapingamarangi and assisted by anthropological reports of Kapingamarangi from the past. The goal of this project was cultural preservation. Along these lines I believe we were successful. As with any preservation project there is a certain amount of restoration, the scale of which varies.

During my brief visit to the Kapingamarangi atoll I found some canoes, though of the Nukuoro type, still seaworthy. The beauty of the canoe and the importance of preserving the knowledge of their construction are two-fold: first, fishing with a canoe and the construction of a canoe requires no cash, whereas fishing with motor skiffs requires cash for the boat, motor, and fuel. This is also dependent on the sporadic schedule of the fieldtrip ship. Fuel for outboard motors often runs out weeks ahead of the next supply ship's arrival.

There are some individuals who recognize the importance of the canoe and would like to see life skills incorporated into the general education process on the atoll. Unfortunately, the art of canoe carving is fading and with it the Kapingamarangi's ability to sustain themselves through traditional fishing practices.

A fair amount of information about the Kapingamarangi and their culture that can be found in reports and documentation done during the early part of this century. The difficulty for the Kapingamarangi is accessing and understanding this information. It has been my experience that there is interest in the community regarding their cultural heritage. As a means to partially open up the flow of information, a thorough appendices is attached composed of everything I was able to find that was somehow related to the construction or use of the waka siu.