Volume 80 1971 > Volume 80, No. 2 > The Poi of the meeting, by Saul H. Riesenberg, p 217 - 227
THE POI OF THE MEETING 1
The Atoll of Puluwat lies 150 miles west of Truk, in the central Caroline Islands. The two principal islands of the atoll, Puluwat and Yáley, with some smaller ones, altogether comprise only 1.313 square miles of land area, but support a total population of 400, all living in two villages on Puluwat island. Puluwat and three other communities, the island of Pulusuk to the south and the atoll of Pulap to the north with its two communities of Pulap and Tamatam, comprise a single cultural and dialect entity, known to the natives as Pátu and to the Americans on Truk as the Western Islands. They are part of a larger entity known as the central Carolines which includes the 14 inhabited islands and atolls between Puluwat and Yap, to the west, and also includes the four inhabited islands south-west of Palau. The speech of this area, and that spoken at Truk and its near neighbours, which have been baptised “Trukic” by Dyen, probably constitute a language chain, with partial mutual intelligibility between most neighbours.
The information in this paper comes in large part from two Puluwat men, Yangowôôr and Tawuweru, and the chant at the end, with its translation and figurative meanings, was supplied by Yangowôôr in June 1967.
Yangowôôr was a man of about 55. He was a Protestant leader and deacon and lived at the southern end of Puluwat, rarely visiting the Catholic area where we lived. He spoke only a few words of English; fortunately he had all his teeth, which made him more intelligible than some other informants. He usually wore a black Ioin-cloth tightly roped about his rotund middle. On rainy days he wore a red sweatshirt with the - 218 word “Marines” in bright yellow. He was reputed to be among the most knowledgeable men on the subject of yitang (of which more later), but proved difficult of access. After several overtures he agreed to impart his yitang lore, but only after negotiating an hourly wage, plus permission to select from our treasury, and he chose, unabashedly, a blue blanket, a can of coffee, a box of pens, a fishing line, an insect spray, and a pair of white socks.
Tawuweru was a little older, about 60. He was a Catholic. At the time of our arrival at Puluwat he was acting magistrate, the real magistrate being away just then on Truk. The position of magistrate is an elective one, introduced by the American administration since World War II, and does not necessarily correspond to any native chieftainship. Tawuweru had once held the elective office himself, and in his present capacity the duty fell to him to negotiate with us our requirements for assistance of any kind from the people of Puluwat. He was a man of demonstrated leadership ability and intelligence, and displayed a high order of generosity and integrity, but in performing his function of go-between he proved to be as commercial and hardheaded as Yangowôôr.
This brashness in chaffering certainly knocked out of out heads any romantic ideas about the South Seas we might have retained after our field experience elsewhere in the islands. But we quickly became aware that in this culture the imparting of any knowledge had to be paid for. Knowledge, to a people venturing forth without compass on seas frequently and unpredictably beset with storms, meant life itself. To know the seas, winds, and stars, and the magic that controlled them, was as precious as life, and such knowledge was not divulged freely.
Yitang on Puluwat, as explained by our informants, is a much-diluted and altered form of the institution of the same name as it is known and practised on Truk. There, according to Goodenough:
an jitag [as he spells it], . . is a sort of combined lawyer, general, diplomat, and orator. His knowledge includes the history of the district and its land tenure, the special language and magic of diplomacy, strategy and tactics in war with its related magic, and rhetoric. A chief could handle the affairs of his district much more adroitly if he commanded such knowledge . . . 2
Goodenough also refers to several jitag schools on Truk, each with its own lore. Similarly, Fischer, who refers to the itang [his spelling] as a war leader, says:
These men were military strategists, repositories of historical lore and myth, orators, ambassadors, magicians, and so forth . . . . Itangs are specifically reported for both Truk Lagoon and the Mortlocks. Evidently they were not found in the Puluwat area or in the other low islands between Puluwat and Yap . . . . Anyone intending to become an itang had to undergo an apprenticeship and pass through two lower degrees before he was formally pronounced to be an itang. 3- 219
It is true, as Fischer says, that the yitang specialist of Truk is not found at Puluwat, at least today. But the term yitang is used on that atoll to describe a remarkably involuted, circumlocutory, elliptical, and metaphorical mode of speech and form of oral literature. And by some people it is also applied to certain kinds of secret knowledge and to the men who possess this knowledge.
Any item of information, any esoteric place name from navigational knowledge, any word or phrase from one of the chants, may be used in yitang communication. Even gestures, postures, and physical contortions are part of the language. In the past, when inter-island hostility was something to be reckoned with, it was extremely useful to be able to communicate in secret with a fellow yitang among a group of potential belligerents. There is a story of an ostensibly friendly visit to Puluwat by several canoe-loads of natives from the Mortlock Islands to the south of Truk. They were overheard by a boy, plotting to conquer the atoll. The boy informed the chief of one of the two main Puluwat villages, who sent a message of warning to the chief of the other, the message consisting only of a ripe cocnut, broken in a certain way.
Men who are learned in yitang language often delight in ostentatious display. During a meeting, or even when men are informally sitting around and chatting, they will often idly choose some yitang name or phrase, then use it as the basis upon which to build a discourse or deliver a sermon on some subject or other. Or they might recite a series of items of yitang information, as we might recite poetry, but merely as a vain exercise, a pedantic display, or perhaps to confound the uninitiated who may be present. Riesenberg's interpreter, Basilio, said: “When I hear yitang talk at a public meeting and don't understand what is going on, I sometimes get mad; I think they are showing off; but they feel real good”.
Yangowôôr's knowledge of yitang began with chants, and these we taped. Then we went over each verse with great care, aided greatly by Basilio. A few others, friends of Yangowôôr, were allowed to listen, but the entire affair was shrouded in secrecy. Everyone knew what we were up to, but for once respected privacy. An early recording was a chant with 81 verses that listed the navigational stars and anchorages encountered in an alleged trip of more than a thousand miles north from Puluwat to Namonuito and the Hall Islands, south and east to Truk, Ponape, and Kusaie, and then westward to the Mortlocks and back to Puluwat. This was matter-of-fact and not difficult to follow. But the chant that excited us, and with which this article is concerned, was so abstract that it became meaningful only after Yangowôôr's detailed and patient explanation.
Yangowôôr, Tawuweru, and other informants regard yitang information on Puluwat as organised into five categories. These five bodies of knowledge are thought of as being contained in five wooden bowls. The bowls are essentially domains or spheres of knowledge. They are called:
Kkónen, although literally meaning pounded breadfruit, refers in these bowls of knowledge to work, skills, and stores of information of any kind having to do with secret words and meanings—that is to say, yitang lore. Breadfruit is used here as a figure of speech for knowledge. And the breadfruit of knowledge is contained in all five bowls, even though the names of only three of them include the word for pounded breadfruit, and even though only the last contains knowledge about breadfruit in that word's literal meaning.
Thus, the Puluwat people classify yitang information into five categories: war, magic, meetings, navigation, and breadfruit.
Non-yitang knowledge is organised differently. Some skills are called háák (pandanus mat), e.g., hákinpwe (mat of divination). Or the word for the sleeping mat, loh, may be used, e.g., lohanppalô (mat of navigator). Tawuweru refers to his non-yitangnavigational knowledge as his kiyen nóómw (mat of the atoll; kiy- is another name for pandanus mat and is most commonly used as a possessive classifier for such mats). The skill of canoe building is called a “rigging”, Héllap (Great rigging), as are the different schools of canoe carpentry, e.g., Hálinruk (Rope of Truk), Hálinpátu (Rope of the four Western Islands).
Such non-yitang or lay knowledge is independent of the bowls, according to Tawuweru and Yangowôôr. Thus, knowledge of the various systems of practical navigation, to use one example, extends all the way from the Western Islands westwards to the Woleais and Ulithi. It exists as a single body of information among all these islands of the central Carolines. But the knowledge of the secret meanings associated with it, the yitang part of navigation, is contained in Bowl 4, and is said by these Puluwat men to be unknown beyond the four Western Islands.
However, it should also be said that some other Puluwat men include lay information when describing the contents of the bowls, and it is in that context that they will say that Bowl 4 is also known west of the Western Islands. There is also another kind of overlap between spheres of knowledge, for both Yangowôôr and Tawuweru refer to use during meetings of yitang speech derived from items within all five bowls, not just items from Bowl 3, which is the Poi of the Meeting bowl.
It may also be said here that Dr Thomas Gladwin's notes, which refer only briefly to yitang, give a rather different cast to it than do Riesenberg's. - 221 One of his informants, Ahelimwu, who has no first-hand knowledge of yitang, refers to it as only a mode of speech incomprehensible to the uninitiated; it related largely to island affairs, although navigators who knew the system might thus communicate in secret with other yitang on other islands, usually in the context of inter-island warfare. Another man, Romolow, who, like Ahelimwu, says that yitang long ago disappeared from Puluwat, says that only the navigators knew the speech, that it was used to command food and help on strange islands, that it was not associated with sorcery or magic but was only a method of speech which established a fraternity among those who knew it. But since other people say that a few Puluwat men do know yitang, since some name Tawuweru and Yangowôôr as among those who do, and since Tawuweru and Yangowôôr themselves claim such knowledge, we are inclined to put more faith in them than in contrary statements.
In the instruction of yitang knowledge by yitang teachers there are basically two schools, Kkapahan fan aawu (literally Talk under the Mast) and Kkapahan fanô (Talk on the Land). Some people say that Bowl 4 information corresponds to the first school, all the other bowls of knowledge being taught by the second yitang school. But according to Tawuweru, Bowl 5 belongs to a third school, Kkapahan peliyee (Talk of This Side, but said really to mean Talk of the South, referring to the mythical Land of the South, Ayééŕ.)
According to Yangowôôr, the first three bowls originated on Truk, the other two in the Western Islands. The Namonuito Islands and, formerly, the Hall Islands, also know the first three bowls. But Bowl 4 was founded on Puluwat, by Ppalôwelap, the god of navigation and the originator of that skill. And Bowl 5 originated with a woman of Pulusuk, very long ago; she learned it from the spirit which inhabited the decorated tie-beam of an ancient canoe-house and which instructed her at a tabooed pond on Pulusuk. So today the yitang knowledge contained in the first three bowls is regarded as basically Trukese, while that of the last two bowls belongs to the Western Islands.
Besides the bowls there is a further imagery involving a bundle of sticks, viewed as standing on end and held together by three twine lashings around them. These sticks comprise the knowledge in all five of the bowls. Each stick represents a chant which contains some of the items of knowledge, and each of the three lashings is also a chant. The chants do not coincide with groupings of items by bowls. Thus the middle of the three lashings, which is a chant relating the adventures of a canoe and crew which sailed from Murilo to Fana and Moen in Truk lagoon, is regarded as corresponding to part of the information in both Bowls 3 and 4 because it contains yitang elements concerning both meetings and navigation. The lowest of the three lashings is a chant which bears the same name as Bowl 3, Kkónen lee cuulap, “Poi of the Meeting”. It is this chant, as recorded from Yangowôôr, which follows. 4.- 222
1 The authors were two of three participants in an expedition to Puluwat in 1967. The third member was Dr Thomas Gladwin, then of the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, now of the University of Hawaii. Riesenberg was supported by the Smithsonian Research Foundation, Grant Sg 0611030. Elbert wishes to acknowledge support in the field by National Science Foundation Grant GS 1410 and by the University of Hawaii. Time for writing up the data was made possible by an appointment as senior colleague at the East-West Center, 1969-70.
2 Goodenough 1951:144.
3 Fischer 1957:173.
4 In the chant the English punctuation, where it differs from that used in the Pulu-watese, is intended only for readability. The Puluwat punctuation reflects Yangowôôr's delivery. His delivery, as recorded, might be considered a form of rhythmic recitation, different from both conversation and chanting. Each verse without final punctuation in the transcription ended with a pronounced pitch rise on the final vowel. The question in verse 21 seemed to incorporate a rise in the second syllable not noticeable in the other verses ending with higher pitch. Thirteen verses ended with /./. Yangowôôr said that a speaker might either recite in some such fashion as this or chant and that he himself knew both styles (he demonstrated chanting), but for this particular song he recited only as indicated here.
Transcription, in contrast with the great difficulties of interpretation, presented few problems, other than the many strange words, including some Trukese words and substitutions of Trukese “s” for Puluwat “h”. A few vowels were lengthened or shortened, but entire syllables were not omitted, as in chanting. Any kind of rhyme is lacking. Most but not all verses contain six syllables. Repetition of words and regular substitutions are found in verses 16-19, 24-27, 48-55, 67-68. Verses 79 and 80, which were included in the first, informal, recitation to Riesenberg, were omitted in Elbert's recording of the chant. His recording contained about 24 additional verses, not included in the analysis.
The consonant phonemes in the Puluwat language are /p pw t c k f s h m mw n ng l ŕ r y w/. /c/ is an alveolar affricate, /ng/ a velar fricative, /ŕ/ a trill; /r/ is not trilled and is much like an English r. The vowels are front unrounded /i e á/, central unrounded /ô é a/, and back rounded /u o ó/. Long vowels are doubled.
The text appears to be a mixture of Trukese and Puluwat, with more Trukese than Puluwat. Most words in the text with /c/ are Trukese; Puluwat /r/ corresponds to /c/ in Truk. Similarly most words with /s/ are Trukese; Puluwat /h/ corresponds to Trukese /s/.