A SONG FOR SATAWAL by Kenneth Brower


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A pleasant, unassuming, lyrical evocation of life in Micronesia-site of Brewer's earlier, more purposeful With Their Islands Around Them (1974). Here, Brewer seems at first to be island-hopping whimsically from Yap to Saipan to Satawal to Palau, celebrating the beauty of atoll and savannah, recalling the recent history of the Carolines, describing the people and their highly endangered culture, etc. But this wandering is simply a modern spin-off of the book's central metaphor: the astonishing voyages of early Micronesian navigators. Piloting all sorts of seagoing canoes (their greatest artistic and technological creation), they covered immense distances and achieved pinpoint landfalls without maps or compass, relying on songs that encoded the necessary information about stars, currents, bird flight, and so forth. Successive waves of imperialism (Spanish, German, Japanese, and American) practically engulfed the old folkways, but some of the natives are now trying to withdraw, at least in part, from the world of Datsuns and Coca-Cola, and get back to their ancient traditions. Two women Brewer meets, Margie Falanruw of Yap and Katherine Kesolei of Palau, are trying to do this by educating their people, while for the chief of security at Saipan Airport, Line Olopai, the process of finding tribal roots has involved a literal regression, by a kind of sailing canoe called a waa, to the sometimes primitive conditions of Satawal. On certain subjects, like outriggers and hull design, Brewer tells us more than we might care to know, but his lovingly detailed ethnography turns up some colorful pictures and curious facts (e.g., mariners from the Gilbert Islands used to measure the force and direction of sea swells by lying down on deck and feeling the vibrations in their testicles). A readable, thoughtful personal tribute to the ongoing Oceanian renaissance--complementary to John Dyson's The South Seas Dream (1982).

Pub Date: April 13th, 1983
ISBN: 1166457842
Publisher: Harper & Row