When we travelled to Palau, we were not quite sure what the state of cultural protection and awareness of potential loss would be. Soon after arriving, we realized – as every visitor to Palau would realize – that in spite of all elements of “modernization” and “Americanization” Palauan culture is very much alive and kicking. Every week, new children are born in Palau and – naturally – some of them are first-borns. In these cases, a ceremony called Ngasech, or first-born ceremony, is celebrated by the community. These festivities usually seem draw quite many attendants including friends, the parents’ extended families, and neighboring villages.
We were able to witness the first-born ceremony ourselves during the last week of our stay and we were both impressed by the stamina of the dancing women, the large crowd the event drew (even President Tommy Remengesau attended), and – again – the great hospitality that was extended to us. We sat down at the far end of a great sea of chairs, received plenty of food and drinks and enjoyed the music, dance and conversations with our seat neighbors.
Indeed we were surprised by the good state in which Palau’s intangible cultural heritage is. We met with various actors that have their part in protecting and transmitting that heritage. In the following we want to introduce them quickly and highlight some of their activities.
We met both the Chief Ngirakebou R. Bedor of the Council of Chiefs, traditionally – and still today – the highest body when it comes to culture, and minister Minister Baklai Temengil of the Ministry of Community & Cultural Affairs, who is the head of the government body responsible for cultural preservation. The minister also guides the Bureau of Historical and Cultural Preservation. Meked Besebes and Sylvia Kloulubak of the Bureauh have been extremely helpful by showing us the kind of activities to preserve Palauan culture that are already ongoing. Meked showed Dennis around a school fair during youth week at which students presented the culture of their respective home states (the photo accompanying this post was taken there – it shows a boy with the flag of Tobi Island). Also during youth week, we witnessed students voice their opinions about Palauan society at Ngarachamayong Cultural Center– a hotspot for cultural festivities.
We also met with many other people concerned with Palauan culture who told us that culture is threatened where people move abroad, stay abroad and forget about the Palauan ways (a fear that matched our assumptions) but that, in Palau, many people are already working to preserve local culture. Examples for this are plentiful. These days Palau celebrates its traditions by sending of a canoe to sail to Guam for the Festival of Pacific Arts taking place in May. The bi-weekly night market in Koror celebrates Palauan and Pacific dance and music, as well as local food. And soon, Taro – a plant used for different kinds of Palauan meals – is to be reintroduced to Angaur, one of Palau’s southern islands. Last, but not least, Ebiil Society organizes all kinds of activities with young Palauans for them to become acquainted with traditional culture.
All in all, we can only say that we could not be happier about the degree of cultural preservation and transmission happening in Palau. This helps us to eventually deploy our online platform and extend that reach out to Palauans in other countries, who we hope are as eager to know their culture as Palauans are at “home”.
Island Ark Team
We write this blog as a team to showcase our activities around the globe, from meetings at UNESCO in Paris to on-island research and implementation work. We hope you enjoy reading about our journey.