Staka Storying

Today, we met “the last old man,” the last traditional priest, of Bitaama, on Malaita Island in the Solomon Islands. He is 109 years old, and he is still walking around under his own power. In 1943, he served as a scout for the U.S. Marines in World War II, leading Allied forces through the dense jungles of Guadalcanal and other nearby islands and helping to track Japanese forces. He showed us a scar where a Japanese soldier stabbed him in the back with a five-fingered knife. With no time to reach for his bush knife (machete) to defend himself, he grabbed the soldier’s neck in a stranglehold and bit his throat, killing the soldier and saving himself. He is also the last man with the power to call the dolphins. The people here come from the sea. They were once dolphins, but came out of the ocean and became people. Despite this heritage, the people of Bitaama hunted dolphins until two years ago. They eat the dolphin meat and use the teeth to pay brideprice-a man must pay 1,000 dolphin teeth to the family of the woman he wishes to marry. In a traditional ceremony, the chief could call the dolphins, and this is the last man who knows how to perform the ceremony (when the missionaries convinced the Bitaama people that this was devil worship, they abandoned the ceremony, and now the chief calls the dolphins through prayer). The people then paddle traditional canoes out to the ocean and herd the dolphins into the harbor, stringing a net across the entrance to trap them. They kill hundreds of dolphins in one hunt, and people from all over Malaita come to buy the dolphin meat. Thankfully, the dolphin slaughter stopped, at least for now. Earth Island Institute worked with the community to ban the killing of the dolphins. In exchange, Earth Island Institute is providing a sawmill to help with a community housing project, and will help the community turn live dolphins into tourist dollars. The ban is temporary, but, for the past two years, the Bitaama people have not killed the dolphins and are instead working to build bungalows and talking about how to herd the tourists to Bitaama. Instead of paying the brideprice in dolphin teeth, they will pay it in cash-5,000 Solomon dollars (over $700 USD), which is a lot of money for islanders with no steady income. We hope they get a lot of tourists, so that the ban will continue. Malaita is an island with a bit of a rough reputation. In the early 2000’s, serious ethnic tensions broke out in the Solomons with tensions between the Gwale (the people of Guadalcanal) and Malaitans at the heart of it. There has been a lot of resentment toward Malaitans, who contributed their share of the violence (so they kidnapped the prime minister…big dealÂ…). Since then, some people have recommended staying away from Malaita. But, we felt like we’d be leaving a glaring gap in our understanding of the Solomons if we didn’t make a short visit to meet the folks who seem to get blamed for everything. We are glad we did. We made it a short stop and only chose two places to visit, but, because the Malaitans hold strongly to their customs, and because they’ve had few sailboats since the ethnic tensions (no boats have been here in six years), the people are thrilled to have visitors and we’ve learned lots from these stops. Last night, the chief in Bitaama spent most of the night fishing near our boat to be sure no one tried to steal anything. He made it tabu for anyone to come onto the boat. We’ve had staka curious pikinini come out to visit us-most in canoes, but those who can’t find a canoe just swim out. They all want to know where we’re from and how the boat works, and some of them just want to hang out and swim by the boat. They’ve all been well-mannered and smiley, and even the teenage boys who look like they might be the right age to be punks have turned out to be great. They’ve been posing for photos and raced us swimming, and even respected the tufala rule I imposed for sitting in the dinghy. Rob is horse from talking all day, and we’re a bit worn out from all the “storying,” but we’ve never had such a welcome anywhere. Moments after we dropped the anchor, the afternoon school bell rang and about 20 kids showed up at the boat. As far as we can tell, there’s no actual danger that anyone will take anything from the boat, but the chief is determined to show us that it’s a safe place to visit so that more boats will show up. He says they had “staka boats” before the ethnic tensions, but not many since. Before we stopped here, we went to Lau Lagoon, just a few miles away on Malaita. There, the people live on artificial islands they build on the reef to help keep mosquito free in malaria country. The largest island is over one square kilometer, and they can take two years to build. Then they build their houses on stilts on the island. The lagoon also has the largest sea grass meadows in the Solomons, so we thought we might find dugongs. We did see one, but it turns out some of the folks in the lagoon (the ones from “notha saet” of the point) eat the dugongs, so there aren’t very many. There used to be “staka dugongs.” We visited the chief in Gelaulu, the first village we came to in the lagoon, and another village which has had no boats in sometime. When we stepped ashore, everyone came out with big smiles to say hello. Old men and women, tattooed from head to toe, and with kastom designs etched faintly into their cheeks, smiled broadly through betel nut-stained teeth. The last old man there beamed through thick glasses as he introduced us to his wife. A younger man scurried up a palm to get us coconuts, and everyone was thrilled when we showed them photos from back home. After our visit, the chief came out to the boat in his sailing canoe to “story with us” about the island. He told us he had met with his brothers and talked with all the people in his territory to tell them no visitors at night (we had a 2am visitor on our first night, before visiting the village, but it turns out he just wanted to leave us some fish), and to be sure they would treat us well. He said there were “staka robbers” in the village a couple of miles away, and so while we were in the lagoon, we should stay right where we were anchored. He arranged for a canoe to circle our boat all night to be sure no robbers showed up, but since he thought it was too rough for a canoe to be out that night, he offered to sleep on deck for security. We declined the offer, and told him we would take turns staying awake instead, but we had no trouble. Nonetheless, the chief stayed on the boat storying with us for some time, glaring at any boats that passed by from other villages to make sure they knew the big man was on our side. From his stories, it sounds like things might be a bit rough around the edges in parts of Malaita, but we met only friendly folks curious about us and our boat and were thoroughly impressed with all the efforts the chief went to to be sure we enjoyed our stop. We stayed only two nights to limit the likelihood of less friendly visitors from “notha saet,” but felt like we might have missed out by not spending more time learning stories from the chief. From the people we met and the stories we heard, it seemed like traditions hold strong in Lau Lagoon, and we would have liked to hear more. But what we’ve learned most of all is that Malaitans got staka storying stamina.

One thought on “Staka Storying”

  1. Fantastic! I just loved reading about this particular adventure…can’t wait to see the many photos they all posed for. I also very much enjoyed the story of your adventure on our wedding day…though, we made the mistake of playing the flute before reading of the significance. THANK YOU!

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