Letter from Palau Number Five
June 29, 2006


Greetings from the office of the Oral History and Ethnography Section of the Bureau of Arts and Culture of the Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs (at least I think that is the correct designation for this office).  It’s where I’ve been spending a couple of hours every morning before going over to the college, helping staff historian Linda Tellames with her booklet on traditional education in Palau and ethnographer Melsen Miko with his report on the oral history of Ngarchelong village. These projects are part of Palau’s ongoing effort to document its past and its traditions.

The office is on the first floor of an old Japanese era building, which in TT days housed a research lab.  It was called the Entomology Lab but was really a kind of natural history operation (excluding marine life which was the province of the Fisheries Department). It was here that Bob Owens, the hardest drinking entomologist I ever knew—in the old Royal Palauan (Quonset hut) Hotel, I saw him drink Lee Marvin the movie actor under the table, but that’s another story—did his work. So it was here that he gave me the assignment to try to collect specimens of medicinal plants the first time I went to Tobi, and it was here that I delivered the only plant specimens I have ever collected, a year or so later.  Perhaps they are still around.  If I ever get a minute I will take a look.

Wait a minute, I can hear someone saying.  What’s the Japanese era?  And what’s the TT?  Well, the first covers the several decades from WWI to WWII when Japan ruled Palau, having taken it from the Germans, who got it from the Spanish.  The Japanese in their turn lost it to the US, who controlled it until Independence in 1994.  TT stands for Trust Territory and refers to the fact that the US administered these islands under a United Nations Mandate.  So there is lots of colonial history here and in fact over in the new museum there is a great exhibit of just that.  But along with all the raising and lowering of flags, everyday Palauan life flowed along in the villages and hamlets, sometimes changing in surprising ways, but in other ways remarkably indifferent to the comings and goings of the various great powers.  And now that part of the story is being recorded for the generations to come.  At least that’s the theory.  Today I am going to the annual joint meeting of Palau’s Historical and Cultural Advisory Board with the Palau Society of Historians, people from all the traditional villages of Palau, appointed by the president because of their knowledge of the past, to provide an authorized account of various aspects of history and tradition.  I hope to learn a bit more about the process by which these accounts are produced.  A couple of these people are old friends so I am looking forward to seeing them and also to see how their meeting compares with Rotary.

Speaking of which, no one won that raffle this week either, so it is now over $1,200 and there are only 12 cards in the deck.  People have started bringing their daughters for good luck.  Perhaps next week I should bring Soty.  But that idea raises the question, can guests bring guests?  And how much longer can I keep on being a guest, introduced and applauded and even sung to at every meeting.  I keep thinking about the Man Who Came to Dinner (and never left).  This week the President showed the members a banner from another Rotary club, in (I think) Korea.  Apparently clubs exchange banners.  I guess I will try to find out what the system is for this.  Palau’s banner, by the way, is something special.  It’s made of wood.  Next Monday evening, the club will have a ceremony to install new officers and members.  I’ve been invited to attend and since it is “island dress,” I think I can even dress appropriately.  I’ll tell you all about it in the next letter.

This office is on a hill close to my apartment so unless it’s pouring I walk over here early in the morning and then later walk down to the college.  These are beautiful walks, through quiet neighborhoods where people have been planting and tending flowering trees and shrubs for many years.  The houses are a wild mixture, traditional small tin and plywood homes next to big brightly painted concrete places with lots of fancy cement and wood work.  Here and there are traces of that colonial history, especially Japanese concrete bunkers and (I guess) water tanks, and even, just past the Little League field, an overgrown and  rusting mobile cannon, maybe Japanese or maybe American, left over from the fighting 60 years ago.  Also here and there are sites and relics of that more Palauan past that I was talking about above, old stone house platforms and paths for example, each with its tale(s) to tell.

I’m afraid Bobby, who gets here next week for a six week stay, is going to find these walks very difficult, and not just because (as I just learned) her big toe was assaulted by a huge container of kitty litter.  We spend a good deal of time gardening on our visits to Fare Haparim, our place in Hawaii.  While there we are constantly scanning our surroundings to find plants we want to grow.  In fact she goes around with a pair of clippers in her bag so she can get cuttings from particularly appealing specimens.  She even has been known to take cuttings from plants that are growing right under a big Do Not Touch the Plants sign (this totally shocked Soty when it happened).  So her fingers are going to reach for her clippers when she sees some of the absolutely spectacular plumeria and hibiscus growing along the streets here. But she won’t have them with her and even if she did there is no way she would be able to get the cuttings into Hawaii. I guess she will have to make do with her camera instead.

I’m sorry to have to say that I don’t have that Big Anthropology News for you.  The people whose news it is are waiting for the results of some tests before they make it public.  I’m getting this indirectly from someone who attended the meeting where they didn’t make their announcement.  So all I can say for now is that if you are planning on teaching introductory anthropology or a Pacific island ethnology course this fall, you’d better wait a bit before writing your first couple of lectures.  Alternatively you can go to the latest mystery Bobby put up on the Friends of Tobi Island website to see a possibly earth shattering discovery, forcing a total revision in the history of the Middle East and the Pacific.  Umm, I think I better point out that this particular mystery is in fact a joke, before someone calls the New York Times science editor.

I’m grinding away on my photo editing chore.  If you remember, I want to show pictures from previous trips to the Tobian community in Eang but first I have to ‘fix” all the baby pictures.  That’s because, unlike that crocodile downstairs at Lehns motel, it’s very easy to tell the sex of a baby.  And that turns out to be a problem.  All a person has to do, it was explained to me, is to look at someone’s baby picture and then look at the person, and they will be able to imagine what they look like without their clothes on. So I have no choice but to do some pretty close cropping.

Before closing I have to correct an error in letter four.  The VI Micronesian Games are being held in Saipan, not Guam.  Every time I publicly admit errors (and this happens a little too often these days) I find myself thinking of a conversation I had here years ago with a greatly respected local expert. He had just told me that he was responsible for broadcasting a completely erroneous historical fact.  Of course he was very upset about this mistake but when I encouraged him to just make a clean breast of it in good old American style, he looked at me like I was nuts: “If I did that then none of the young people of Palau would ever believe anything I said.”  So all he could do was to allow that mistake to sit there.  Such is the burden of being a local expert, I guess.

Bestly cards,

Bureau of Arts and Culture

Supreme Court Koror
Palau Supreme Court: a building from Japanese times

War Relic
War relic near Little League field

War Relic
War relic at Belau National Museum

Hibiscus in Koror
Hibiscus in Palau

Malakal Baby
Fully dressed Malakal baby

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