This July, crew members of Okeanos Marianas had the opportunity to participate in a ceremony that most traditional voyagers spend their entire sailing careers hoping to witness: the induction of Pwo.
Originating in the Caroline Islands, Pwo is a sacred initiation ritual that acknowledges students of traditional voyaging as master navigators. The Pwo ceremony is exclusively conducted in the remote region of Satawal and the neighboring outer islands of Yap and Chuuk. Cherished as one of the most sacred of ceremonies among Micronesian voyagers, the title of Pwo and its associated secrets were only passed down to members of certain voyaging clans or families for centuries.
In 1951, Satawalese master navigator Mau Piailug was one of the last people to be initiated into Pwo – an induction process that would remain relatively dormant for decades until he famously conducted Pwo for 16 voyagers in 2007, including Polynesian Voyaging Society president Nainoa Thompson of Hokulea.
While Mau is no longer alive to usher on the next master navigators into Pwo, his relative, Grand Master Rapwi Yalwairh of Puluwat island, is the last living navigator of their generation with the ability to conduct Pwo.
“He is the root of all our navigational knowledge and skills. He’s the last remaining of our kind,” said Okeanos Marianas Captain Cecilio Raikiulipiy, who led his crew from Satawal to the neighboring Chuuk outer island, Puluwat, to meet Grand Master Rapwi.
Puluwat is a corall atoll on the western side of Chuuk that harbors some of the most skilled ocean navigators in Micronesia.
“These islands are where I learned most of my navigational skills and where I learned to respect the environment,” said Captain Cecilio. “So to receive Pwo from here, from a Grand Master like Rapwi, is something very special.” Born and raised in Satawal, Captain Cecilio hails from a long ancestry of Pwo Master navigators: Grand Master Rapwi is Cecilio’s great uncle and Papa Mau is his first uncle.
Joining Captain Cecilio in the induction of Pwo was his nephew and Papa Mau’s grandson, Okeanos Marianas watch captain Jerry Joseph.
“Pwo is something that’s not easy to just come and get. It’s something you must earn,” said Jerry. “To become a Pwo navigator, you need to be a master of sailing – one who can navigate from island to island, and who can tell when storms are coming.”
Carolinian navigator and author Lino Olopai and Yapese voyager Max Yarawmai, who sailed with Hokulea to Satawal in 2007 and has braved some of the most challenging legs of Hokulea’s World Wide Voyage, were also among the Okeanos Marianas crew who sailed to Puluwat to be initiated into Pwo.
Together, the newly appointed Pwo navigators are committed to ensuring that the sanctity of its title stays within Micronesia. The recognition of Pwo also comes with a serious responsibility to give back to the Micronesian community.
“Becoming a Pwo navigator is much more than remembering stars and navigating through storms,” explained Lino, “the title also comes with a commitment to serve one’s community; to follow a moral code of respect towards one’s people and their environment. It’s very much like its own religion.”
It comes to no surprise that the newly appointed Pwo navigators have had a long and colorful history supporting their communities. Lino has been championing Carolinian culture and rights in Saipan for decades, revered by Captain Cecilio and other Carolinian voyagers residing in Saipan as one of the greatest cultural preservationists of CNMI. Max, who left his home in Ulithi in 1974 and has been living in Hawai’i ever since, runs a non-profit organization called Oceania Health dedicated to addressing the health needs of Pacific islanders, particularly the Micronesians of his community.
“Despite not returning to his native Ulithi to live, Max has always tried to support the Micronesian community by helping his family and people in any way he can,” according to Max’s bio on Oceania Health’s website. “Max sees Oceania Community Health as a way to a larger impact in helping the health of the region.”
Pwo recipient and granddaughter of Grand Master Rapwi, Kimberly Romoloilug, opted to leave her western lifestyle in Texas and return to Puluwat to help preserve her family’s knowledge.
For Captain Cecilio and the rest of Okeanos Marianas, the responsibility of Pwo comes hand in hand with their responsibility as crew of the traditionally-based vaka motu.
“When I was receiving Pwo, I was thinking about how I can preserve my culture and my environment. My responsibility as Pwo is to use Okeanos Marianas as a teaching platform so that our traditional culture never dies,” said Cecilio, who plans on making routine trips to Satawal and Puluwat to service the needs of the outer island communities.
While six new Pwo navigators have duties to fulfill coming out of Puluwat, the initiation of Pwo still remains sacred and heavily protected among voyagers in the Caroline islands.
Author: Steve Holloway, Okeanos Foundation US