Koror, Palau-Our Palauan ancestors lived in a highly stratified militaristic society. Everyone born into the world of ancient Palau had a place where he belonged and a role to play. Some village conglomerates had ten clans each with a chief and a chieftess. Within the village federation were hamlets, again with their own sets of clans with chieftans and female power. Within these smaller village clans were extended families who were each headed by a male titleholder and his female counterpart, usually an aunt, sister or other female relative from his mother’s side. Within the extended family there were family units headed by a man and his wife and their offspring.
Your lot in life was dependent mostly on what family and clan you were born into but there was certainly room for personal advancement dependent on your own accomplishments. Hard work, stewardship, community dedication and providing services to the family, clan and village can increase one’s credibility, wealth and status.
Women passed on their indigenous knowledge in the form of arts, crafts, songs, dances, magic, medicine and work ethics related to child rearing, going to the taro fields and diplomacy involved in clan politics. Some women were extremely skilled in some areas, for example in the art of traditional medicine. Families would sometimes send a daughter to live and work with a skilled medicine woman as an apprentice in order to learn the special recipes and motions involved in traditional healing.
Some historical accounts give an estimation of the Palauan population as around 50,000 during the pre-contact era. We know from the legend of Mengidabrutkoel that Palauans practiced Cesarean sections regularly and mothers often died in childbirth. Palauan tradition calls for extremely careful care of pregnant women, giving them the best of foods and loving attention by her female relatives. Women who survived the labor of giving life were honored by being given the best treatment in the form of a healing hot herbal bath by a professional medicine woman. This woman would have been paid handsomely by the family of the newborn’s father for restoring the mother of their child back to good health so that she could then raise their child and be a good daughter in law.
This highly specialized series of events related to the beginning of a child’s life is an example of the extreme orchestration of detail in the lives of our Palauan ancestors. Everyone had a highly specific duty in life. There was no such thing as boredom for everyone had a responsibility. There were, however, mischief, laziness and other behaviors that were considered taboo and against traditional mores. Punishments for breaking the societal codes ranged from being severely scolded by elders to paying fines. More extreme infractions may have been banished from their villages while the most serious of offenses were punishable by decapitation.
Even with these methods of deterring bad behavior, there were still deviants. The ancient Palauans then needed an extra source of help to keep these 50,000 people in their places.
Enter the gods and demigods. The modern Palauan family still uses similar tactics to modify their children’s behavior. I remember my father telling me in Palauan “Don’t play hide and seek at night or the spirits, deleb, will hide you from us forever!” He also often told us not to sweep the house at night or the deleb will bring us bad luck. My favorite deterrent he used was “Don’t whistle in the house or it will rain, the weather will be so bad that I can’t go fishing, then we won’t have fish to eat.” I was a daring child so I whistled in the house when everyone else was outside. Thankfully my father is an expert fisherman so we always had plenty to eat.
But I will tell of the one god that still keeps me in my place today. Behold Mengachui, the Hair Eater. My grandfather and grandmother told me and my cousins this scary story when we were children. “There was a little girl who walked on the stone path to go play with her friends. She didn’t listen to her mother. Her mother told her to put coconut oil in her hair, comb it tight, and wrap it in a bun before going to play with her friends. The little girl was naughty and ran to play with her friends without fixing her hair. Before she got there the god Mengachui jumped out of the stone where he lived and pulled her hair so tight that came off and ate it all up! The girl ran home and cried to her mother that Mengachui had chewed off all her hair. The mother said ‘See! You don’t listen! That is why Mengachui has stolen your hair, he looooooves to eat messy hair of naughty little girls. You must listen to me now!’”
You can bet your pretty hair that I was adamant as a child to have my hair slicked back before leaving the house. I was not going to have Mengachui chew my hair down to nothing. My ancient militaristic Palauan roots still affect my behavior today. Heed the words of your elders lest you go bald on account of Mengachui — or some vain Western hair products. Revere your culture, even if you don’t believe in the gods of old. Watch out lest you have a bad hair day... Jus’ Sayin’
(Souang Inez Benedict Tellei is an undergraduate student at the College of Forestry, Oregon State University. She is passionate about protecting nature and keeping the Palauan culture alive. Send feedback firstname.lastname@example.org)