‘The Rope of Tradition’

Posted on Feb 05 2006

Lino Olopai was one of the first people I ran into when I came to settle on island almost six years ago. A Saipanese Carolinian, he was a regular emcee to many community events I attended. A friendly sort of a chap, it was not long before we got to recognizing each other’s presence verbally in public, creating a nodding acquaintance, exchange of greetings, progressing into a budding friendship. One late afternoon early last year, I visited Lino up his farm under the shadow of Mt. Tapochao where his aunt and Japanese uncle made their home before the war. With great pride, he pointed out the resident flora and fauna in his parcel of land, an ideal place for a group of six graders to spend a field day of exploration. Issues of safety and transport precluded my six graders to ever make that trip, but the afternoon spent, regaled by Lino’s vaunted story telling skills, was one to keep and remember.

I was seated on a table with the late Justice Ramon Villagomez during the first foray I made to the Saipan Chamber of Commerce meetings. I did not know who he was but I recognized the name. I was impressed by the formidable presence of the man, his speech and demeanor. Were I to use the language of the medieval saints, he would have been characterized as one with charisma. He had a reputation of being straight-laced, stern, proper and ethnocentric. He turned out to be a very warm and welcoming person, and when he learned I was new on island, and had just assumed responsibility for the congregation gathered at Immanuel United Methodist Church, he offered his time and office should I have any questions at all about the Commonwealth and its people.

The same day that Lino launched his memoirs, “The Rope of Tradition,” was the same day family and friends of the late justice interred his body into mother Earth’s welcoming grace. Both figured in the navigational renaissance in the Carolines, particularly the revival of the small craft journeys between the Central Carolines and the Marianas Islands in the traditional ocean passageway known as the metawaal wool.

Lino’s book, written with the assistance of cultural anthropologist Dr. Juliana Flinn and finessed under the tutelage of Humanities program officer Scott Russell, managed to capture Lino’s heritage of oral transmission of wisdom. Over the December holidays, on a trip to the American continent, I perused Lino’s book while crossing the Pacific. I paused a few times to relish the sing-song quality of his story telling. I felt like I was listening again to Lino on the slopes of Saipan’s mountain ridge while he recalled events of the past. Echoes of the repetitive nature of the chant that transmits oral wisdom around a hearth or a campfire gathering, characteristic of many cultures that had yet to evolve a written form, permeated the book’s narrative.

Former Supreme Court Justice Villagomez sailed in one of the voyages between Satawal/Polowat and Saipan after he retired from the bench. Inexplicably, after the voyage, the justice would succumb to a heart failure that would leave him in coma until the completion of his personal journey. His reputation of being a practical visionary in defense of the rights of persons of NMI descent allegedly led into the promulgation of the provision of the Covenant between the “Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,” in political union with and under the sovereignty of the United States of America, on land.

Article VIII, Section 805 of the Covenant, reads “… in view of the importance of the ownership of land for the culture and traditions of the people of the Northern Mariana Islands, (italics added) and in order to protect them against exploitation and to promote their economic advancement and self-sufficiency: (a) will until twenty-five years after the termination of the Trusteeship Agreement, and may thereafter, regulate the alienation of permanent and long-term interests in real property so as to restrict the acquisition of such interests to persons of Northern Mariana Islands descent; and (b) may regulate the extent to which a person may own or hold land which is now public land.” Article XII of the CNMI Constitution will enshrine the Covenant provision into law.

Land ownership in the Marianas after Spain sold their rights to the United States in the case of Guam, and to the Germans in the case of the NMI, was traditionally held in common. While the Religious Orders held titles to land during the Spanish period, legal notations of personal real estate property did not begin until the German administration.

Traditional importance of land ownership must therefore be viewed from its communal nature rather than on the individual emphasis, which has since evolved in the legal wrangling of individual members of family clans. This patently discriminatory provision is legally allowed within the American tradition in its history of affirmative actions, to insure justice where historically, injustice has prevailed. In this case, the Hawaiian experience of the alienation of the native residents from their land loomed as an overwhelming context. But a people made a choice and in the American tradition of freedom, left the choosing itself open-ended.

Navigating the complex Pacific world, particularly the ocean and wind currents near the equator, was the challenge of the Carolinian navigators. The Marshallese developed their stick charts; the Carolinians passed their sailing traditions through their stories and chants.

The Chamorros navigated through a different social arrangement on land. The civilization of a new world, brought by the Iberian explorers that connected the local wanderings to the Mesopotamian patriarch Abram from Ur, bringing along the Phoenician alphabet and the Lydian’s monetary system, carried by the practices of the Roman republic and Athenian democracy, flavored by Sumerian, Egyptian, and Olympian mythology, gave guns, germs and steel a decisive role in shaping the Marianas destiny.

With the resurgence of Asian cultures from the Turk-Mongolian cultures of Asia Minor to Korea, Islamic reformation in the Arabian peninsula, the Fertile Crescent, and the Plateau of Iran, Deccan Plateau psychology and Himalayan philosophy, Indo-Chinese cuisine and kinetic arts, Zen and Shinto kinesthetics, and many others that suddenly migrated into the Saipan lagoon on the quarter end of the 20th century, now challenges the navigating skill of NMI residents in the new realm. People of Northern Marianas descent has a challenging odyssey cut out for them. Ditto for the rest of us.

The purpose of navigation is the journey. The destination is postlude. Being beached on the shore provide momentary comfort but can lull one into stupor and inertia. The adventurous spirits of nomads of the sea accomplished the peopling of the Pacific. They navigated to embark in a journey of voyaging beyond the known comfort zones of their time. The spirit of exploration and continually traversing into the undiscovered domains, the disclosing of unfamiliar products and processes, and fructifying of the unknown Unknown itself, was the object of their navigation.

A reading of history will reveal that people do not choose cultural practices because they are traditions; we retain cultural practices because it is the human tradition to choose. They chose to promote economic advancement and self-sufficiency. Lino Olopai, for all his hesitations to publish his book due to the overwhelming consideration of social equilibrium in his tradition, stepped out of his own cultural boundaries and surrendered his memoirs to the annals of Marianas history. As Micronesian memory would also readily recall, the rope of tradition can both strengthen the mast and sails of the ocean-faring canoes, as well as serve as a fatal noose for those who have lost their way and fallen into desperation and despair.

Those from different cultures now walking the Beach Road pathway—as specific as those from Koror and Kosrae, and enigmatic as those from the Hindu Kush, Indus Valley, Bay of Bengal and the Ghurkas of Nepal, as lively as the Malays of the Philippine Archipelago, Malacca Strait to the Aratura Sea, as spicy as the Khmers, Viets, Thais, Laotians, and the hill people of Irrawaddy to the Mekong, not to mention the peoples of the economically developed world—may now be given permission to delve into their memoirs as well. The Council for the Humanities may even help get your product printed for you. Let the twining of traditions begin. Let the odyssey continue.

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Vergara is a Social Studies 6th grade teacher at San Vicente Elementary School

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