Traditional Skills to Confront Tomorrow’s Challenges

A traditional men's house in Yap
A traditional men’s house in Yap

When I first arrived in Yap, an island in the western Pacific Ocean set between Palau and Guam, I thought I knew what to expect:

  • The natural beauty…check.
  • The friendly people…check
  • The blanket of humidity that envelops you the moment you step outside…double check.

However, it was very clear from my first day on the sleepy island that something was different about this place. During the days that followed, the many memorable insights that I gained from observing one particular group of locals helped to answer why there is a special aura about this place.


In 2010, Larry Raigetal and his wife Regina noticed an alarming trend in Yap: more and more people were migrating away from the outer islands in search of jobs, better healthcare, and assorted other opportunities—a microcosm of the migration trends occurring around the world in the name of globalizaton.

In response to these observations, the Raigetals decided to start a community-based organization with the intention of preserving the traditional cultural practices and values of the outer islanders of Yap. The organization’s name, Waa’gey (pronounced Wah-gay), is intended to be a play on words.

Depending on which part of Yap you are from, it can either mean “future” or “chaos”. As Larry calmly warns: “if we Yapese are unable to preserve our local traditions and cultural values, the idea of ‘our future’ and ‘chaos’ will be one in the same.”

Men sitting, talking, and working in the traditional men's house
Men sitting, talking, and working in the traditional men’s house. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

The Waa’gey “men’s house” is an open shelter consisting of evenly spaced wooden columns holding up a thatched roof. Upon first entering, I naively expected to encounter an atmosphere akin to that of an “old boys” club’ in the western world, where newcomers are greeted with apprehension and must undergo a period of ‘respect-earning’ before feeling comfortable within the herd.

Fortunately, this was not the case at all for me. As I timidly poked my head in and asked if I could quietly observe everyone working, I was met with a chorus of warm greetings. Within 10 minutes, all pleasantries were exchanged and I took my seat on the tree-stump chair that would become my perch.

Men of the canoe house look on as measurements are carefully made using traditional techniques
Men of the canoe house look on as measurements are carefully made using traditional techniques. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

For the remainder of my week-long stay in Yap, I spent whatever free time I had inside the men’s house watching, learning, joking, and clumsily participating in the day-to-day activities. As is traditionally done in the outer islands of Yap, men and women leave their homes in the morning and head to their respective men’s house and women’s house within the village.

There, they spend the day engaging in conversations and working on projects that benefit the village. After a long day’s work, they return home to carry out their respective roles as husbands, wives, and parents. During the week that I was there, the big project in the men’s house was to build a small canoe for one of the nearby villages.

Through grant funding and outside donations, Waa’gey provides a space and opportunity for outer islanders who have migrated to the main island of Yap to continue on with this traditional way of life. Members of the organization, men and women alike, work to produce items that are then sold to tourists, given as gifts, or used for everyday life.

A master fisherman builds a fish trap out of bamboo and rope made of coconut husk.
A master fisherman builds a fish trap out of bamboo and rope made of coconut husk.
A Yapese woman weaving a lavalava (traditional skirt) inside the women's house.  Photo credit: Karen Tu
A Yapese woman weaving a lavalava (traditional skirt) inside the women’s house. (Photo by Karen Tu)
Handicrafts made by members of Waa'gey being displayed
Handicrafts made by members of Waa’gey being displayed. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

In orally-based cultures, such as the one in Yap, the risk of losing traditional knowledge is much higher than in societies with an extensive written culture. Valuable lessons and techniques that have been passed down for hundreds of years can quickly be lost if one generation does not care to take the torch from the previous generation and pass it on to the next.

This makes Waa’gey’s mission all the more important and thus, a major part of their work involves outreach to youth in schools and in communities around Yap.

Several Yapese boys take part in the canoe carving process
Several Yapese boys take part in the canoe carving process. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Kids paddling outrigger canoes in the lagoon
Despite heavy rain, these kids are having a great time paddling outrigger canoes in the lagoon. (Photo by Karen Tu)

Moving forward by looking back

In an age where concepts like “globalization” and “connectivity” are currently “trending”, it is rare to come across societies where local knowledge is still retained and traditional practices are not merely displayed on occasion, they are lived. The kinds of knowledges that exist in these societies can serve as a bridge between the past and the future.

Simultaneously indigenous knowledge can also serve as a companion to science as a way to address the challenges of the present day, especially climate change. This is why such valuable knowledge must be preserved and nurtured through education and increased awareness/urgency.

So, to the groups around the world like Waa’gey and the passionate people continuing to look to the past as a way to move forward, I can only humbly offer my gratitude: thank you for safeguarding the wisdom of the ancients and making sure that the linkage between past and future remains unbroken. Kamagar.

Men from different outer islands of Yap proudly displaying their work
Men from different outer islands of Yap proudly displaying their work. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

More information about Waa’gey and ways to support

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A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University

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