Palau's Rich Heritage in Nature and Culture

ICHCAP

For centuries Palauans have been living in harmony with nature. Their daily lives are intertwined with the land and the sea. The birth of the first child is a highly significant event utilizing hundreds of plants for medicine, food, and body ornaments.  Oral histories are conveyed through chants and legends which reveal the core Palauan value of respect 'omengull' that has built resilient communities over time.

Bai: Traditional Chiefs' Meeting House
A bai is a traditional men's meeting house for chiefs to discuss and make important decisions that affect their communities.   The building of the bai requires a holistic knowledge of nature. It requires understanding of seasons, of plants and trees, of shrubs and weeds, of soil and its properties, and also of destructive insects and things that infest buildings, as well as of construction methods. 

The bai structure carries cultural motifs and legends with important moral lessons.

Women's Wealth
Mesei is a taro field in the wetlands that is used to cultivate dait (Colocasia esculenta) and brak (Cyrtosperma merkuzii). Dait is what we call the whole plant while the whitish gray to purple corm is called kukau or taro. A well maintained taro patch consists of a network of square plots filled with mud and covered with a variety of selected leaves used to fertilize the taro and control weeds. Taro and the taro patch are a woman’s valuable property. A woman’s social status is based primarily upon her agricultural skills and abilities to cultivate kukau.  It is an integral part of the diet, materials, and customary practices. It pervades everyday life as well as all ceremonies, from birth to death of all Palauans.

'A Mesei a uchul a teloched' means Mesei is the base of our meal. “Telooch” is the chewed food that is softened and ready to be swallowed.

Women work individually or in group to turn the taro field in preparation to plant taro.

Ditek el Dung er Uchob

Mesei cultivation systems are part of sustainable watershed systems: it is a natural filtering systems for streams, mangroves, and esturaries resulting in healthy environment.

Taro fields are tilled which requires turning the soil, putting in mulching materials, covering the soil, and planting.

Harvesting taro corm involves cutting the taro corm from the stem and scraping dirt and roots from the corm.

Baskets of cooked taro are important in Palau cultural exchanged system between siblings and in customary events such as funeral, first birth ceremony, and installation of new chiefs.

Men's Knowledge of The Sea
The ocean has always been a part of our Palauan identity. It sustains our livelihood and provides a setting to learn and transition from a boy into a man. Respect of the ocean is a core value instilled at an early age. Women and small children glean the shallow reefs for sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and clams. Young men go with their fathers and uncles to learn how to fish the reefs, lagoons, channels, and open sea. The elders teach young fishermen about the annual, seasonal, and lunar cycles of the wind, the tide, the currents, animal behavior, and the cues of flowering and fruiting plants to ensure the best harvest.  Slowly, they learn the right technique, time, and place, to sustainably harvest certain species. Young fishers learn how to construct, use, and maintain their fishing tools. Fishing families are renown for their skills in handling throw nets, surround nets, hand nets, spears, spear guns, fishing weirs, fish and crab traps, and fishing lines. Fishing enables men to bond with each other and their children through an exchange of valuable knowledge and skills. They share the bounty of a good harvest and bring joy and pride to their clan and the community. 

The docking area including the 'diangel-canoe landing area' is a space for men discuss to knowledge of the sea and pass important fishing techniques to young men.

'Bul' a traditional moratorium and national policies such as Palau Marine Sanctuary and Palau Protected Protected Areas Network are in place to protect Palau's marine environment and its species.

Young fishers learn how to construct 'ruul' a traditional surround net by collecting necessary plants.

Kerangel [Loeseneriella macrantha] is a very strong vine used for tying or lashing parts of a raft, a net (ruul), or a fish/crab trap.

Palau's knowledge of the sea incorporates understanding of our own environment and ecosystem, including conservation practices which is a major part of Palau's intangible cultural heritage.

First Childbirth Rituals
The first childbirth ritual is the process that a new mother, the 'mlechell', goes through  during after the birth of her first born child.  A mlechell drinks herbal medicines to cleanse her body and make her strong and healthy. She begins her Omesurch (hot bath ritual), which usually takes place one to three months after giving birth, that lasts for several days, depending upon her clan. On the last day of this ritual she goes through an herbal steam bath called Omengat. The Omesurch and Omengat cleanse and heal the mlechells’ body. Each clan uses different combinations of plants. The final presentation is the last process when the mlechell is prepared for presentation to her husband’s family. Her body is coated with 'reng' (coconut oil and ginger mixture) giving her a glowing appearance. She is adorned with her family’s traditional grass skirt, headdress, and body ornaments. A Palauan money is placed around her neck by her husband’s family. The ceremony symbolizes her transition into motherhood and establishes a bond between the two families.

Kesiamel [Osmoxylon trunctum] tree bear bright orange flowers which is used as part of headdress decoration for a young woman, the mlechell, going through the first birth ceremony. The headdress and body ornaments are very important part of the first birth ceremony. The headdress can consist of many flowers, plants, turtle shell, and bird feathers which has association to the mlechell's clan.

Rebotel 'Syzygium samarangense' is a tree up to 15m tall. Its leaves are boiled and used at least twice a day for the duration of the hot bath.

A special room is prepared usually with bamboo floor and fresh coconut woven mat for the hot bath. A skilled woman who has knowledge of local medicine and the right techniques gives the hot bath to the mlechell.

The mlechell is covered in ginger [Curcuma longa] infused coconut oil during the hot bath ceremony which usually last between 4 to 10 days depending on clan protocols.

Hot bath is a healing and joyous occasion for the whole family of the mlechell. Women cook taro while men prepare fish and other food for the final presentation of the mlechell.

On the final day of the hot bath ritual a pot filled with medicinal plants is prepared for the final steaming, ongat, of the young mother before her final presentation to her husbands family.

A steaming hut, bliukel, is prepared for the mlechell to take her final steaming and complete her healing process.

Food preparation and presentation is an important part of the first birth ceremony.

The mlechell uses a traditional skirt made of Hibiscus tiliaceus (chermall) or Ambroma augusta (lab) fiber that bears the family or clan color; she is prepared with the clan headdress and body ornaments for her hair and body.

Pandanus tectorius 'ongor ra ked' is grown on the savanna grassland in Palau. Its mature fruit and fragrant smelling flower 'baiei' is used in the steaming and sometimes as part of the headress a mlechell.

Coconut oil mixed with Curcuma longa 'telab' is rubbed on the skin of a mlechell for healing and protection purposes.

Mengidabrutkoel, a spider-demigod, is attributed to the first natural birth in Palau. A chedalkikii, A chedalkikii, A chedil a di koiei ma ngalek a di koiei! (Praise! Praise! The mother lives and the child lives!)

Credits: Story

Co-Sponsors: U.S. National Park Service, Department of Interior; Bureau of Cultural and Historical Preservation/Palau Historical Preservation Office; Belau National Museum; Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs

Photo Credit: Ann H. Kitalong, Meked Besebes, Sholeh Hanser, Ann K. Singeo, Patrick Tellei, and Faustina K. Rehuher-Marugg

Reviewers: Mrs. Olympia E. Morei-Remengesau (Director of Belau National Museum (BNM)); Ms. Sunny Ngirmang (Director of Bureau of Cultural and Historical Preservation/Palau Historical Preservation Office (BCHP)); Calvin Emesiochel (Deputy Director, BCHP) Ann H. Kitalong (Natural History, BNM); Naito Soaladoab (Botanist, BNM); Marciana Telmetang (Collections Manager, BNM; Kiblas Soaladaob (National Coordinator, SGP/GEF; Loyola Darius (Instructor, Palau Community College); Hermana Ramarui (Poet, Retired Educator)

Ditek el Dung er Uchob Chant by: Dirruchob Kloulechad

ICHCAP Online Exhibition Project Coordinator: Meked Besbes (Cultural Anthropologist/Ethnography, BCHP)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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