The Islands of Yap

I visited the Islands of Yap several times in 2007 and 2008. My first visit was out of curiosity. I was living and working on Kwajalein, an island in the Pacific, and had heard that Yap was one of the few places where there was a flourishing traditional culture. This intrigued me as a photographer. I found the island interesting, and my subsequent visits were for R&R and documentary photography.

I found the island was indeed trying hard to keep their traditional culture alive and well. At the time of my visits there was only dial-up internet, and very slow. Cell phone service was also limited. This suited me just fine at the time, Yap was the perfect escape from a technology-driven world.

Yap is known as a divers paradise and famous in the diving community for its Manta Rays. Although at the time I was an avid diver, usually diving 3 or more times a week, on my trips to Yap, I decided to use my camera to document the culture instead of the underwater paradise.

A book could be written about Yap, its history and traditions, but this blog post is not the place for that. Instead, it is a short introduction, which will hopefully make you curious enough to do some research on your own and possibly visit the island.

Yap, also known as Wa’ab by locals, is an island in the Caroline Islands of the western Pacific Ocean. It is a state of the Federated States of Micronesia. Yap’s indigenous cultures and traditions are still strong compared to other neighboring islands. The “island” of Yap actually consists of four continental islands (hence the alternative name of the Yap Islands). The four are very close together and joined within a common coral reef and entirely formed from an uplift of the Philippine Sea Plate. The land is mostly rolling hills densely covered with vegetation. Mangrove swamps line much of the shore. An outer barrier reef surrounds the islands, enclosing a lagoon between the fringing barrier reef.

Yap and Palau to the southwest were probably inhabited as early as 2000 BC by Austronesian navigators from the west (Philippines and Indonesia). The Yapese speak a western Austronesian language quite different from the eastern Austronesian languages spoken by the other three states of the Micronesian Federation (Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae) that were peopled much later from the south (Solomons). The Portuguese were the first to visit Yap in 1525. They were followed by occasional whalers and traders until the 1870s when Spain and Germany both lay claim to Yap. The issue was settled in Spain’s favor by the Pope but Spain sold Yap and the other Caroline islands to Germany in 1899. After WW I, the Japanese were given a mandate over Yap in 1919. They fortified it and held it until the end of W.W.II when it was occupied by American forces.

Imagine climbing aboard a canoe 20 feet long with 5 to 7 other men and traveling from the islands of Yap to Palau some 300 miles, then from Palau to Hawaii several thousand miles, and back to Yap. Imagine taking only a few flasks of water, and very little food with no navigation equipment, no radio, in fact no modern equipment of any kind. This would be an amazing feat. And yet the sailors of Yap did just that in 2007. And have undertaken similar voyages since the beginning of recorded history.

In 2007 I found myself in the middle of a practice session for one of these voyages. A man I met on Yap, who later became a friend, asked if I wanted to visit the sailors camp where they were preparing for an ocean voyage. Brian Greene, is a highly accomplished deep sea diver and I jumped at the chance for his expert guidance. We arrived by small boat to there the sailors were preparing their canoe. When we arrived we found ourselves in the middle of a filming session for a Japanese documentary film, a follow up to a film made years before. Upon seeing us arrive and then seeing I was carrying a Nikon D3 professional camera, the japanese crew promptly left. At the same time the sailors asked us to leave. We had no idea what was going on. Several phone calls later we found that the Japanese film crew had noticed my professional camera and though I was there to “scoop” them. This was bad because if they quit filming the sailors would loose their pay for allowing the film to be made. It took a day, but we got things worked out and I was able to continue my documentary work.

Yap is notable for its stone money, known as Rai: large doughnut-shaped, carved disks of (usually) calcite, up to 12 ft in diameter. Many of them were brought from other islands, as far as New Guinea, but most came in ancient times from Palau. Their value is based on both the stone’s size and its history. Historically the Yapese valued the disks because the material looks like quartz, and these were the shiniest objects around. Eventually, the stones became legal tender and were even mandatory in some payments.

The stones’ value was kept high due to the difficulty and hazards involved in obtaining them. To quarry the stones, Yapese adventurers had to sail to distant islands and deal with local inhabitants who were sometimes hostile. Once quarried, the disks had to be transported back to Yap on rafts towed behind wind-powered canoes. The scarcity of the disks, and the effort and peril required to get them, made them valuable to the Yapese. However, in 1874, an enterprising Irishman named David O’Keefe hit upon the idea of employing the Yapese to import more “money” in the form of shiploads of large stones, also from Palau. O’Keefe then traded these stones with the Yapese for other commodities such as sea cucumbers and copra. Although some of the O’Keefe stones are larger than the canoe-transported stones, they are less valuable than the earlier stones due to the comparative ease in which they were obtained. Approximately 6,800 of them are scattered around the island.

It begins with a thunderous clap, repeated over and over by a line of solemn dancers until a simple rhythm is firmly established. From the center of the line, a solitary voice emits a powerful rasping wail introducing a story told in a forgotten tongue. Yap’s most highly developed art form, dance, or “Churu” is a central part of the Yapese culture. Ultimately, Yapese dancing is a form of storytelling and oral history. There are four main types: Sitting, Standing, Marching, and Bamboo. Traditionally, dances are segregated by sex, although in recent years bamboo dances have been performed jointly by men and women. Bamboo and Standing dances are particularly taxing physically and are usually reserved for the young. Dances often tell the stories of canoes, or conquest, and more recently, religious events. Many dances are laced with double meanings and some, such as the “Gaslew”, a dance for men that women are forbidden to watch, are quite bawdy. (Of course, if women didn’t manage to watch the “Gaslew”, chances are the young men would have given this type of dance up long ago!) 

Licensing image usage rights or purchasing a print of an islands of Yap photograph is available by following the links below:

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