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The Island of Yap
Society on the small, remote island of Yap is interconnected at all levels and each person has his or her own role to play, like the frames of the traditional buildings that are common throughout this Micronesian culture.
It is said that, when tied together properly, a traditional Yapese building represents the spirit of families, villages and communities. Without one of the pieces, regardless of the size or purpose, the building will fail.
Yap is one of the four island states in the Federated States of Micronesia that are scattered across more than one million square miles of the western Pacific Ocean a few degrees north of the equator.
Traditional Dwellings on Yap
Traditional dwellings made of natural materials harvested on the island are an integral part of this centuries-old Pacific way-of-life, their complex design and construction based on building techniques used by the residents’ ancestors that are still in use today.
There are three main types of structure, each with its own style and purpose – the p’ebay, faluw and tabnaw.
One of the most important structures in Yap is the “faluw,” or men’s house. Traditionally restricted to men, it is usually close to the shore or situated on top of a hill where it once served in past eras as a vantage point to watch for invaders.
Used as a gathering and meeting place, boys and young men learn skills like canoe building, wood carving, how to make a fish trap, and listen to the oral traditions passed down by their elders in this gathering place.
Fishing gear such as nets and spears are kept in the faluw. In earlier times, fighting spears and other weapons of warfare were often stored there, as well.
The faluw is also a place for the men to sleep and to welcome men from other villages who need a place to rest or stay overnight.
The “p’ebay” is a community meeting house that serves as a gathering place for both men and women, but rarely at the same time. It is also the site where a village meets with other communities, and is usually found inland rather than next to the shore. The main stone paths that link villages throughout the island lead to the p’ebay, and the community’s unique, massive discs of stone money are displayed around the structure.
In front of the p’ebay is a “malal,” or dance area, with a “wonbey,” or stone tile platform and upright backrests. Traditional dances are held on the malal with spectators seated on the platform. During meetings, the backrests provide a comfortable place for the elders to sit.
The “tabnaw” is a residential home. Although it has been replaced in modern times with more conventional houses, the tabnaw resembles the other traditional buildings but has an enclosed area and is open on both ends. Customarily, the entrance on one end was reserved for the husband and older male children, while the opposite end was for the wife and younger girls and boys.
The tabnaw includes a smaller, simpler, separate structure call the “ta’ang” that serves as the family’s cookhouse. Three rocks are set at one end of the building to hold the cooking pots while kindling and firewood are stored inside to keep it dry. Typically, families had two cookhouses since younger members of the family were not allowed to eat from the cooking pots of the older men and women.
Planning the Project in Yap
When planning to construct a new faluw or p’ebay, the village holds several meetings to discuss all aspects of the project. When the final plans are set, a “salap,” or master builder, is brought in to be the construction foreman.
He may be from the same village or another village and is compensated with traditional stone or shell money, or in additional ways such as betel nut, food and other gifts. During the construction, he might live in the host village until the project is completed, making sure that all the rules, both physical and spiritual, are adhered to.
Although required for the construction of a faluw or p’ebay, a tabnaw, or residential home, does not always require the services of a salap since the owner’s friends often help out.
Next, the building is measured in fathoms that are about six feet long, or the length of two outstretched arms. This arm-span measurement is called “sengaf”; most structures are between three and seven fathoms, or 18 to 42 feet in length. A typical faluw is three fathoms long when measured between the inner posts, but it is actually longer since another 1½ fathoms are added to each end. That equates to a total of six fathoms, or 36 feet in length.
Strict building ratios are adhered to and the salap follows traditional formulas to ensure that the proper height and roof pitch are achieved.
When the size is established, the size and number of posts is determined and the salap instructs the community to begin harvesting materials for the building. However, harvesting cannot take place between the new moon and the full moon. If cut during that time, boring insects like termites will attack the wood and the materials will need to be replaced.
The main support posts are the first to be set up. Made from the biy’uch tree, a type of mahogany, they’re left to rest for a while to drain and dry after harvesting. When ready, the ends are scorched with fire to prevent termite infestation.
In the meantime, bamboo is cut, bundled and placed in the lagoon for a week or more. This saltwater soaking cures the bamboo and also helps prevent an insect infestation. Other materials, including smaller bamboo stems and coconut fiber rope, are gathered. Materials for the thatch roof are collected after the frame is finished in order to be fresh.
Coconut Rope and Lashings
During the initial planning meetings, men often make coconut rope that will be used during the construction. Rolling the dried husk fibers together with the palms of their hands or against their thighs, the process is said to encourage the spirit for the group and is deemed to be one of the fruits of the planning meetings. For a four-arm-span-sized dwelling, around a thousand fathoms of rope are required and takes hours and hours of work.
Twisting the fibers into long cords can be compared to spinning wool fibers together to make long lengths of yarn. Small bundles of the fibers are formed first and are then pulled from the bundle as the rope grows longer. A skilled craftsman can make the string exactly the same size for its entire length.
When finished, the rope is looped into full bundles of 100 fathoms or half bundles of 50 fathoms each that are then combined into ten full bundles, or a smaller ball of half bundles. The bundles are then hung in the faluw or tabnaw for later use.
There are several types of coconuts on Yap, and the men have a keen eye for identifying the trees that produce the best ones for rope-making. The nut should be small and the husk very thick. If the shell is strong, the husk fibers will also be strong and produce a longer length suited to the purpose.
The husks are spread apart and soaked for three to four months next to the ocean in a pit that contains brackish water. This soaking make the fibers stronger and easier to pull apart. After this curing process, the husks are washed in the ocean at high tide when the water is cleaner before being laid out to dry.
They are then split apart and the fibers divided into three piles according to length. The smallest and shortest fibers are turned into packaging for the turmeric that is used in cooking and, when mixed with coconut oil, for body decoration. The rope made with short fibers is also used to hold together door and window panels, as well as to make decorative attachments for traditional shell money and to produce finer rope for items like fishing traps.
The medium fibers are used in making the walls and windows of the building and the roof frame, while the larger, longer fibers are used for the strong ties that hold the main support posts together. To give extra strength to the intersecting beams and posts, these special ties are always wrapped the opposite way from the way in which the fibers are twisted.
Once framed, the posts and beams are tied together with the coconut fiber rope using intricately braided and woven lashings unique to each type of structural connection. No nails are ever used in the buildings. Unlike hard nails, the coconut rope provides “give” during storms, creating flexibility for the building and tightening with the movement of the structure.
There are many different kinds of ties or lashing techniques and each one has its purpose. The two distinctive lashings at the ends of the building require a great deal of rope and special skill to tie. Young Yapese men take many years to learn how to make them.
The Roof of a Yapese House
The making of the roof “shingles” is the responsibility of the women. Roofing materials are gathered and include either coconut tree leaves or nipa palm leaves. When nipa leaves are used, they’re stripped from the branch and folded around a section of bamboo slat about 1½ inches wide and three, five or seven feet long that will hold the shingles in place during high winds.
Cut in advance, the slats are tied in bundles and soaked in the ocean for at least two weeks. When coconut leaves are used, they’re woven into shingles rather than sewn.
The nipa palm leaves are harvested when the slats are cured and must be used within a few days of harvest before they dry out. Folding the leaves around the slats and overlapping the previous leaf, the women sew them together with banana or hibiscus fiber thread to create individual shingles that are then carefully stacked according to length.
When enough shingles are ready, a date is set for the community to come together to complete the entire roof in one day. A leader conducts the process while men who are good at accurate throwing are assigned to toss the shingles up to the men on the roof.
Those who are excellent climbers take their places on top and at the ends of the building; and, the rest are spaced along the ridge board to place the shingles accurately. Starting at the bottom of the eaves, the shingles are tied to the supporting rafters with special types of vines that have been soaked and are applied wet. When dry, they shrink and further tighten the binding.
Roof thatching is a community effort that involves three phases. The first phase ends when the roof is completed and the salap is recognized for his work. The second phase ends when the roof is entirely thatched and a woven ridge cap made of palm leaves is added. It’s then that a small party is given to thank the salap and the workers. The salap is also paid at that time with traditional money or other gifts.
During this celebration, the elders tell the workers the next thing that needs to be done, which might be, for example, the stone platform, or “daff.” Commonly made of schist, a medium grade metamorphic rock, the stones are placed so they interlock; no mortar is ever used.
And finally, the flooring and walls are added. Flooring can be made of bamboo, beetle nut trunk planks, or small, woven bamboo panels. Used as head rests for sleeping men and boys, the floor beams are made of the trunks of the pandanus tree and are never sat or stood upon.
For the walls, roots of the pandanus tree are split and dried before being woven or tied together to close the sides of the building. Unlike the faluw, the p’ebay has no walls. Some faluws have a malal, or dance platform, but it is only used for practice sessions. The main malal is always at the p’ebay.
Wood door hooks carved from the crotch of a sturdy branch are suspended from the rafters with coconut rope to hold open the doors and windows, and stylized decoration might be added to the eaves in the form of geometric forms or birds or fish representing island myths.
A fire pit is positioned in the center of the men’s house to hold smoldering coconut husks to repel mosquitoes. It is never used for cooking, and food of any kind is usually not allowed in the building since it might attract insects and rats. A raised platform next to the fire pit called a “rorow” is used as a table to hold betel nut, tuba (palm wine), and other special items during meetings.
It has been reported that, in the old days, when a house was completed, a party was held for the clan, and magic was performed to protect the structure. After the celebration, as many people as the house could hold were fit inside to weigh it down and make it firm.
The Yap Living History Museum in Colonia, the island’s only town, provides a firsthand look at these traditional buildings and is often a backdrop for community events. For more information, or to arrange a guided tour of the island, contact the Yap Visitors Bureau at 691-350-2298, [email protected], or go to www.visityap.com. (Visitors are only allowed to go into the villages and onto private land with the permission of the chief and a local guide.)
Author Bio: Joyce McClure is a freelance writer and photographer who moved to the remote island of Yap in the western Pacific Ocean in August 2016 as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer after a long career in public relations. At the end of her service, she decided to remain in Yap to continue writing and working with community organizations. Special thanks to the Yap Visitors Bureau for their assistance in providing information for this article.