In spring 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 through the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the grant program serves to support individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. and territories to document their communities’ contemporary culture and cultural activities. The resulting documentation—in the form of recorded interviews, photographs, videos, and musical recordings, etc.—will be added to the AFC’s archives to enrich and expand the historical and cultural record.
This post highlights the important fieldwork undertaken by Habele’s lead researchers, Modesta Yangmog and Regina Raigetal, on their project “The Warp and Weft of the Remathau.” This yearlong study is documenting 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 community relationships among contemporary Remathau (People of the Sea). Ultimately, the researchers plan to record in-depth audio interviews with 20 master lavalava weavers, photograph the weaving process and, when appropriate, the community spaces and workshops where weaving takes place.
Both Modesta and Regina come from the Atoll of Ulithi, a string of the scenic outer islands of the Federated States of Micronesia in the western Carolina Islands. Both are themselves respected weavers of lavalava and knowledgeable about local customs and traditions. They are also fluent speakers of Ulithian—the Micronesian language spoken on Ulithi and neighboring Fais Island—and thus able to conduct their interviews in the language that best encapsulates the history and complexity of the weavers’ culture. (They are also creating English logs of each interview, but obtaining substantial fieldwork in this previously under-represented language will enable the AFC to expand its holdings of the roughly 500 languages currently represented in the archive.)
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Modesta and Regina about their research. Modern technology means that online meetings with fieldworkers working far from Washington, D.C. are no longer difficult; however the 14 hour time difference makes planning a meeting a bit of a challenge. (When I call Guam or Yap in the evening, it is mid-morning of the following day for them).
Both Modesta and Regina are delightful raconteurs and serious and thoughtful researchers. Like many others born on Ulithi and Fais, both have left their home island for reasons related to work, family and educational opportunities. Today, Modesta lives on Yap, the seat of Yap State, and Regina lives in Guam. Significant numbers of Ulithians live in Hawaii, elsewhere in the Pacific and throughout the U.S. Modesta is interviewing master weavers on Ulithi and the FSM; Regina’s fieldwork will focus on weavers in Guam, Hawaii, and mainland U.S.
Modesta and Regina strongly feel that the ability of women to weave lavalavas is “essential” to maintaining Outer Island culture. They estimate that as many as a thousand Ulithian women know how to weave, but are concerned that many living off-island are losing the finer points of the tradition. For this reason, they are prioritizing documenting older women, although they also plan to interview a few weavers in their 40s. “We are forgetting,” Modesta told me, “and you must know how.” “I see [lavalava weaving] as a part of me as a person,” Regina said. It would be an embarrassment to a girl’s family if she did now know how to weave.
To understand why their project is so important, they told me some basic information about the history and complex traditions of lavalavas and how it functions in Ulithi society. This short post can only touch on a few main points, but readers should know that lavalava is a beautiful fabric woven in various colors and patterns and used for both men’s and women’s skirts. It is woven on special type of small backstrap loom and the construction and maintenance of these special portable looms are also being 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 using commercially-manufactured imported thread. The idea of using store-bought thread was introduced by an American Jesuit priest, and it proved very popular as it allowed weavers to create softer, more colorful skirts and eliminated the time-consuming work of preparing and dying natural fibers. Although today most weavers buy commercial thread, Modesta told me that one of her most exciting recent discoveries was when she interviewed an older weaver who remembered the traditional methods of coloring lavalava thread, including using a special type of dirt found on the main island of Yap.
On the Ulithian atoll, lavalavas skirts are still worn on a daily basis and are certainly the correct thing to wear for ceremonies and special events. However lavalavas are much more than clothing: they carry with them important spiritual and social functions and play significant parts 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 disputes often need to be resolved with the gift of a lavalava. Marriages and births also are marked by the gift of lavalavas. (They both told me of a lovely custom in which a husband’s family is expected to bestow a lavalava on a daughter-in-law during her first pregnancy as a thank you.) Historically, lavalavas were also exchanged in trade for land, although this is rarely done today. (By the way, it should be noted that this project is focusing on the public aspects of lavalava weaving. Some of the beliefs and practices associated with lavalavas are sacred and not intended for public knowledge and thus will not be included in this study.)
Both men and women wear lavalavas, but weaving is done exclusively by women. It requires tremendous skill, work and patience. Some excellent information on lavalava weaving and the construction of Ulithian backstrap looms is already available on Habele’s website, www.weaving connections.org.
Colors and patterns of lavalavas change over time; some are associated with royal families and specific social classes; and some color combinations are reserved for men (e.g., black and white). Young women are taught to weave when they reach puberty, but long before that young girls play at making looms from palm fronds and sticks. They sit nearby their moms, cousins, grandmas and aunties with their toy looms absorbing Ulithian culture as 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 pretty much anywhere, but is particularly enjoyable and productive in women-only spaces—like the community’s menstrual lodge. Regina described how much she enjoyed getting together with other woman at the lodge where no one is expected to cook or do household chores; it is “sort of like a spa.” It allows women time away from their everyday demands: a special time to visit with their moms, aunties and cousins, tell stories, exchange information and do a lot of weaving.
Contemporary women like Modesta feel it is important to always have some lavalavas on hand –“just in case” something comes up. Today, a woman who doesn’t have time to weave her own lavalava will sometimes buy them from another weaver to have some available, again, “just in case.”
The Habele website quotes art historians Jerome Feldman and Donald Rubenstein as writing that the lavalava is nothing less than a “highly condensed visual expression of social and economic relations, ritual affairs, and the aesthetic ideals of Micronesian society.” That is 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 cloth also provides Yap’s Outer Islanders increasing dispersed migrants with “a highly visible and instantly recognizable symbol connecting them to each other and their past.” This project will help preserve the history and importance of lavalavas so that Ulithian “daughters and nieces where ever it is they may reside away from the islands [can] hold tight to their islands roots and foundations so that they may not be lost to us.” Or, as Modesta told me, “It’s a must that you should know.” My colleagues and I at the AFC look forward to adding their important fieldwork to our archives! (PR)
The author, Nancy Groce, is a Senior Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Nancy Groce (For Habele Foundation)