In a rare instance, locals and guests got a glimpse of the sacred initiation ritual for the conferment of master navigator titles to five individuals during a ceremony held at the Palau Community College (PCC) Dock on July 10.
Grand Master Navigator Sesario Sewralur, son of the late grand master navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug of Satawal who was renowned for reviving the traditional voyaging knowledge and skills by teaching other Pacific islanders, said that the ceremony which is called “Pwo” was the first to be initiated in Palau this year.
Five traditional navigation students namely Keahi Omai of Hawaii, Nick Halishluw of Yap, and Kurt Ngiraked, Wayne Adelbai, and Frank Pedro of Palau were conferred the Master Navigator titles after undergoing navigation trainings.
Peia Patai of the Cook Islands, who was the Commander of the Okeanos Fleet that sailed to Palau from New Zealand, had also been conferred a higher title as Grand Master Navigator from previously being Master Navigator. Sewralur likewise had earned the Grand Master Navigator title during the ceremony.
The new five master navigators along with grand master navigator Patai had to undergo a four-day ritual that was supervised by Grand Master Navigator Ali Haleyalur. The ritual required strict practices such as prohibiting the students from leaving the canoe house where the initiation was conducted and eating only fish and taro until the four-day training was completed.
After undergoing the Pwo ceremony, the new master navigators are expected to fulfill their responsibilities to the community and uphold values such as respect and patience.
Aside from learning the wayfinding skills by reading natural signs such as stars and its constellations, bird behaviors, and swells, among others, the navigators are also expected to possess knowledge and skills on building traditional canoes.
In a rough estimate, Sewralur said that there are currently around 30 master navigators in the Pacific, around 20 of whom are from Micronesia.
Sewralur said that passing on traditional voyaging knowledge is important in Micronesia because it is their culture and that it should be preserved.
“I’d like to give thanks to the chiefs of Palau and the Micronesian Voyaging Society and Palau Community College for supporting this program and now that we have our first graduates, we need to continue to work together,” Sewralur said, adding that that there is a need to teach more students on traditional navigation.
It was reportedly common to conduct Pwo prior to World War 2 and that it was through western influences and foreign religious missions that the traditional practice had become dormant after the war.
Grand Master Mau Piailug helped Hawaiians revive their traditional navigation skills and eventually initiated the Pwo ceremony in 1951. Several years passed before another ceremony was conducted in May 1990 by Master Navigator Jesus Urupiy who was conferring master navigator title to his son Ali Haleyalur. After that, some Pwo ceremonies initiated by different master navigators were also held in different islands in the Pacific. (Rhealyn C. Pojas)