Marshallese Legends and Traditions
Before the Young people in the
Young people in the
As Marshallese society moves from an oral to written culture it would be very unfortunate to lose the traditions and legends, the stories, that tell us so much about the culture before the time of the RiPalle and before Christianity. This is the reason for Bwebwenatoon Etto.
Many stories have been written down in different places in the past. Some were first recorded over a hundred years ago, others only in the last few years. Some were written down for scientific, "ethnographic", reasons, others were specifically put in language for children. As a collection, they contain a wealth of information on the social system, customs, religious beliefs, habits and general way of life in traditional Marshallese culture.
In order to better understand the stories that are to follow, it is helpful to know something about the broad structure of the society when they were formulated. This introduction aims to give just such a general background, as well as we know it from the information that was recorded about the traditional way of life on first contact with the people of the
There will also be a brief history of contact with foreigners and the changes that were made to society and the way of life, including a history of the collection and writing down of the traditions and stories.
Finally, the introduction will end with an explanation of the way this book,
To begin at the beginning, the low lying islands offered a challenging, and in many ways inhospitable, home for the original inhabitants when they came here about two and a half thousand (2500) years ago. To survive in this environment, on limited land with limited fresh water and limited animal and plant life, a unique way of life was developed. This included ways to sail, ways to fish and grow food crops, ways to relate to other people, indeed, ways to behave within families.
The focus of life was the extended family household. Each household was on one piece of land called a
Daily, men were responsible for fishing and gathering the food. At different times they also had to build canoes and houses and sail great distances. They became expert navigators.
Women had the task of preparing the food, including preserving food for times when there were no fruits on the trees (such as making bwiro from breadfruit). They also cared for the house and the raising of the children, and became expert weavers of clothing and sleeping mats and so on.
These family activities took place within another structure: the social structure. Each
The bwij has always been matrilineal. That is, the lineage and the ownership of the land descended from a woman in the family. Every person had a birthright of land through the bwij. However, it was not individual ownership of land-the rights and responsibilities of each person depended on the position of the individual within the bwij, and the position of their bwij within the social classes that developed.
The traditional classes in society were distinct: chiefs and commoners. Among the chiefs, the irooj laplap were the ones with the most power. Then there were the
The lesser irooj shared the power and many of the privileges of their irooj laplap, but to a limited degree.
The people who did the actual work on the land, the fishermen, sailors, and fighting men, were the kajur. A kajur with special skills in navigation, as a warrior, medicine man, or such like would be highly respected and given a higher status, being called itok.
Within this pyramid structure, women belonged to the same class as their father and their husband. It is said they were highly respected. It is difficult to add anything more about women in this area. Some early explorers recorded information about the society they saw in the Marshalls, knowing that the coming of the
We do know intermarriage between classes was not allowed and the classes were made clear by the way the people dressed and the types of tattoos they had. It was a very rigid hierarchy.
Mentioned earlier was a second social unit beyond the bwij, the various irooj and kajur lineages. This was the
The religious beliefs in traditional culture were very different from now. There were no temples or churches, no idols and no powerful priests, but a belief in gods who inhabited different objects and places, and who had different powers. Some gods were believed to have created the world or particular islands; some gods helped humans. For example, a yearly celebration was performed with chants and offerings for Wullep, a god who would improve the pandanus harvest. Ghosts and spirits and other supernatural beings were also part of the belief structure.
This all changed when the European explorers began to take an interest in the northern Central Pacific. It is probable that Marshallese had been in contact with the people of what are now the
The European ships usually passed through the atolls usually without stopping. Then in the early nineteenth century a greater interest was shown. The Russians sent out a scientific expedition under
However, most of the early contact was with whalers. Ships that were hunting whales for their oil wanted to get food and water from the islands, but their coming was not always peaceful. There were brutal killings on both sides.
The next group of RiPalle to come, and a group that made great and quick changes to the Marshallese society, were the missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions ("Boston Mission"). They first came to
Close behind the missionaries came copra traders, and occasionally beachcombers. They brought with them different foods, and goods like clothing and ironware to sell in return for copra and beche-de-mer. They also brought alcohol, prostitution, syphilis, and many diseases that killed a great many Marshallese. The
By 1905 a German Catholic priest named
During this period (1885-1919) the A war outside the
A war outside the
Then, yet again, a new group of RiPalle came to the Marshalls bringing new ideas and even more change. After World War II, in 1945, the United States of America was given
Cultural change was then rapid. Money fully replaced traditional exchange of goods, schools were put on most atolls, children came to central atolls for high school education. These centers,
The culture we see today evolved during this time. Many of the following stories were also written down in this period by interested Americans:
In 1979 the
Bwebwenatoon Etto was compiled and published to try and fill a gap. It does not claim to contain all legends and traditional stories-only those that had already been written down somewhere. On reading, for example, it would seem there are far more stories from
The legends and stories that we do have can be divided into several categories - groups of stories that are in some way similar. Legends of Creation all explain the origin, the beginning point of things we see around us - canoes and sails, stars and trees and fruits; while the Origin of Islands and Places group specifically tell about the beginning of the land and natural features in the land - pools, coral outcrops, fertile areas and so on. Letao and Jemeliwut is one big section as there are many stories involving these two brothers and their adventures. Tales of Social Custom tell us something about rules of behaviour, as do Animal Tales, though they have animals instead of humans for characters and can be read purely for fun. Lastly, stories within the Oral History category are different again, as they are believed to be true events remembered by the person who told the story.
Each section will begin with a longer, more detailed introduction to the group of stories.
This book was initially compiled for use in High Schools in the
It needs to be stressed that the oral traditions reproduced in this volume were recorded at different times, most of them at the turn of the century. Since then the perception of what is or was traditional has undergone a dramatic shift. Most story tellers, and in fact most people through all times, refer to their own parentĚs or grandparentĚs generation, when saying that something was traditional. We have to keep in mind that what was traditional to the people of the turn of the centurty thus reflects the values and ideals of the 1830s to 1860s, the time before the Christian missionaries came and the white traders settled on these atolls; whereas what people today call traditional reflects the values prevalent at the turn of the century, after 40 years of mission teaching of Christian beliefs and values and after 40 years of economic and cultural change.
Finally, a series of footnotes on different points in the stories was put together and placed at the end of each story. Many explain Marshallese words used in the stories. Others give more details on a subject, details that are not needed to enjoy the stories as they stand, details that provide further background to the stories or components of the stories and legends. While the editors attempted to provide a comprehensive coverage, these notes cannot and should not replace a proper ethnography.
Hopefully the narratives will give enjoyment for the stories they tell and the insights they give into the culture of the
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