Marshallese Legends and Traditions
Letao and the Um
From Majuro Letao escaped to Kiribati. When Letoa arrived at Kiribati, he made friends with the i-Kiribati chief. Letoa was living with the chief and the chief really liked him. During the time that Letoa arrived in Kiribati, there was a great starvation there. The people didn't have any food at all, and many people died of starvation. The chief was really concerned about the decreasing of the population, and he thought that Letoa as an outsider might be able to help.
One day Letoa told his friend, the chief, to gather all his people and tell them to construct a big um for the next day. The chief was really surprised. He asked Letoa about the um. He said that the island was in a famine and there wasn't any food to put in the um, but Letoa insisted on the chief having the um ready for the next morning. Therefore the next morning all the people got together to build the um.
The people were really puzzled because they didn't see any food and they knew that the island was in a famine. Nevertheless the chief told his people to start the um because his friend Letoa told him that he would need the um ready early that morning. When the oven was ready, Letoa jumped inside it and then told the people to cover him up. The um was really hot, and people were standing ten feet away from it because they couldn't stand the heat. Anyway they covered up Letoa and returned home. By sunset they were ready to open up the um.
All the people of Kiribati gathered around the um to see if Letoa was cooked or not. When they opened it, Letoa was gone. He was sitting under the coconut trees, smiling. The people were really surprised because Letoa was still alive, but the um was loaded with many kinds of food. It was enough to divide among all the families. Everybody had enough to eat, and the next day they had to eat leftovers. They were really surprised to see such a miracle.
Then the chief asked Letoa how he did this. He told the chief that it wasn't hard. Just jump inside the um and then tell the people to cover it. By sunset the um would be loaded with food. Letoa also said to the chief "I am only a common person, but I know you could do better because you are a chief. You have more powers, so you can produce more food." The chief had a great enthusiasm concerning Letoa's power. He said he would like to try to see for himself. So he sent orders throughout the island, telling his people that he would want them to prepare a bigger um for the next morning. Early the next morning all the people gathered around the chief's home. Then they were ready to start the um, and this um was somewhat bigger than Letoa's. The chief wanted a bigger um because his friend Letoa had told him because he had more powers he would need it.
When the um was ready, Letoa told the chief to jump in. While he was standing by the um, he felt the heat coming from it, and he told Letoa that the um was real hot. But Letoa replied that it was nothing. When he got inside, he wouldn't feel anything. Then the chief told Letoa to push him into the um.
When he was inside it, he started quivering and yelling. He cried out for help. Letoa told him that it was all right. He said that the pain would be gone in a few minutes. So they covered up the chief and returned home. By sunset Letoa and the chief's wives went to open up the um. When they opened it up, they found the chief dead.
Then the two wives started screaming and calling all the people.
They came running to see what had happened. When they found out that the chief had died, they decided to kill Letoa. But Letoa explained to the people that it wasn't his fault. The chief wanted to try but he failed. Maybe he didn't use his powers correctly. If the chief was smart, he shouldn't have died.
While many people still wanted to kill Letoa, he told the people not to kill him, so he could help them with food.
So Letoa's life was spared, and he was still living with the chief's wives. He wanted to marry them, but they hated him for what he had done to the chief. One night Letoa asked the two wives to sleep with him, but they refused. They didn't want to be associated with Letoa at all. During the middle of the night Letoa went out and hung a palm frond outside the windows. When the wind was blowing on the frond, it made some very strange noises. When the wives heard the noise, they looked outside and they saw the frond moving in the dark, and they thought about ghosts. They had the idea that the chief was appearing to them. They got scared and ran to Letoa.
They told him about the ghost outside their windows, and they asked Letoa if he could let them sleep with him. Letoa was smiling to himself while he was pretending he didn't like the idea. Anyway, he took a woman in each of his arms and they slept through the night, and Letoa and the chief's wives made love. Then a few days later he escaped from Kiribati.
Bibliographic citation for this document
Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Marshallese Legends and Traditions Second edition.
Dirk H.R. Spennemann,
Institute of Land, Water and Society,
Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789,
Albury NSW 2640, Australia.