Dying Wishes From One of the Last Remaining Micronesian Master Navigators

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
Master Navigator Francis Sermonyoung holds up a Rogarog, a sacred weather charm belonging only to a few navigators. The Rogarog gives the navigator the ability to fight off bad weather out at sea. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

In a world where information is accessible at the touch of a button, there is something extra special about the few remaining pockets of knowledge that exist only in the minds of a few individuals. Traditional navigation in Micronesia is one of those last bastions of knowledge that, to this day, is passed on almost exclusively through oral teachings from a master navigator to his chosen students. Also known as “wayfinding”, traditional navigation involves finding one’s way across vast distances using only the natural surroundings (stars, swells, clouds, etc) as guides.

Today, wayfinding is experiencing a resurgence in popularity due, in large part, to the story of Hōkūle’a – a Hawaiian voyaging canoe currently sailing around the world. However, the designation of “Master Navigator” is limited to only the most skilled and competent individuals who have earned the respect of their elders and the trust of their community. Therefore, only a handful of Master Navigators remain today and are considered by many to be “living treasures”. It is not surprising, then, that when one of these treasures passes away, it is a heavy blow to the voyaging community in the Pacific.

Not too long ago, with great sadness, we lost another great teacher in Master Navigator Francis Sermonyoung from the island of Satawal in Micronesia. Prior to Francis’s passing, I had the great honor of spending a couple of weeks listening to him talk about his lifelong relationship with the sea and the stars. One day last October, in what would be my last time seeing him, Francis handed me a few tattered pages that he had written.

“Please share my story with others so that we never lose the gift of finding our way”, were his parting words to me in his ill state. Here is the written legacy of Francis Sermonyoung:

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Navigator Francis Sermanyoung was born July 24, 1957 on Satawal Island, Yap State [part of the Federated States of Micronesia]. On this remote outer island, he spent his early years learning traditional skills. From an early age, he was especially interested in traditional navigation, an esteemed body of knowledge on his island. He would visit relatives with such knowledge and skills at early evening hours and on Sundays when people rested. During this time he developed a great respect for those who gave their skills and knowledge and he is most grateful and indebted to his teachers. In mourning their passing, he realizes that his quest to learn their skills and knowledge will one day require him to pass them on in order to maintain sustainable lifestyles on our living islands. Francis married Margie Chiplo in 1980 and has 3 sons and 2 daughters. He is a grandfather to 2 grandsons and a granddaughter.

Kekaimalu is one of Francis's grandchildren. He was given a Hawaiian name to signify the bond that the people of Sataway have with Hawai'i.  (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Kekaimalu is one of Francis’s grandchildren. He was given a Hawaiian name to signify the bond that the people of Satawal have with Hawai’i. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Navigator Sermanyoung’s maternal side of the family has a well known Rhapinwoak (master of all traditional skills and knowledge, especially traditional navigation knowledge), the late Louis Repanglug. Navigator Sermonyoung’s training in traditional navigation comes from a long line of navigators, beginning with his grandgather Pesieo, a well known Rhapinwoak of the 1900’s. Francis has been ordained as a navigator in ritual ‘Pwo’ ceremonies of two schools of navigation. In the Pwo ceremony, a package, rather like a diploma, representing skills and knowledge is tied with a white coconut leaf band about the wrist while the hands are laid upon lavalavas [traditional woven cloth] donated by relatives and friends on the navigator’s behalf.

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
A special ‘package’ wrapped around his right wrist signifies Francis’s designation as a Master Navigator in the Faenuurh school of navigation. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

In his first Pwo ceremony, held in Polap, Chuuk in July 1997, Frances was inaugurated into the Faenuurh school of navigation by his very own uncle, Master Navigator Ignathio Epeimai. His second Pwo ceremony initiated him into the Waeriyang school of navigation. It was held on Satawal in April 2007 and was performed by Master Navigator Pius Mau Piailug who himself, was of the Waeriyang school of navigation. In this second inauguration, the package representing knowledge and skills was tied about Francis’s left wrist, as he had already been inaugurated into the Faenuurh Pwo with a package tied about his right wrist.

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
Master Navigator Francis Sermanyoung, with two traditional designations of Pwo status on his wrists, holds up a certificate from the national government designating him as a “Master Navigator for Voyages Upon Any Ocean”. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

At the present time, Navigator Sermanyoung is one of the elders advising at meetings and group projects on Satawal including an on-going project by his paternal side of the family to pass on traditional skills and knowledge to youths. He has developed charts to use in teaching traditional star knowledge, and uses these charts to teach others. Last year, when his wife was assigned to take the place of a health assistant from the island of Eauripik, Francis taught traditional star knowledge to many people on Eauripik, men and women alike. Since returning to Satawal, he has continued his teaching and has given copies of his lessons about fighting stars to a total of 126 students. Knowledge of fighting stars provides a way to predict weather, which is important for voyagers to know before going on fishing trips and voyages between the islands.

Like Master Navigator Mau Piailug, Navigator Sermanyoung believes that if islanders are not careful to pass on traditional skills and knowledge, we will lose them with each passing generation. This should be a concern for all, as traditional knowledge and skills enabled our ancestors to live many hundreds of years in a sustainable, economical, and environmentally safe way. Today many people adopt new cultures and outside skills and knowledge that are not sustainable on our islands. It is sad to see that the younger generation prefers fast and easily cooked foods like rice, ramen, instant coffee, etc. GPS instruments are also gaining in popularity, however there is a danger that without a background of traditional navigation knowledge, a GPS failure could lead to costly search-and-rescue efforts, or loss of lives. Old ways and skills and knowledge must not be sacrificed to newly introduced ways that are not sustainable on and for our islands.

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
All children in Micronesia grow up with a connection to the ocean. Even at a young age, many of them are as comfortable in the water as they are on land. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Navigator Sermanyoung thus wishes that we join hands to help revive and preserve our cultures, traditional skills and knowledge. This means working together among all our island chiefs, government leaders, institutions, and museums to pass on, record, and preserve our traditional heritage. He extends his gratitude to his ancestors, his people in Satawal and thanks all who will join in this endeavor.

Wenimwom, Mogethin, and Rananim,

– Francis Sermonyoung, Master Navigator

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**Francis Sermonyoung passed away peacefully on his home island of Satawal. His legacy lives on through the hundreds of students that he has taught. Rest in peace, my dear friend and teacher.**

The next generation of sailors and navigators take on the responsibility of training and learning the sacred knowledge of their ancestors. With the introduction of mobile technology and GPS, there is a declining interest amongst young people to seek the traditional knowledge of their elders. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 

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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