Menu

Dying Wishes From One of the Last Remaining Micronesian Master Navigators

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
Master Navigator Francis Sermonyoung holds up a Rogarog, a sacred weather charm belonging only to a few navigators. The Rogarog gives the navigator the ability to fight off bad weather out at sea. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

In a world where information is accessible at the touch of a button, there is something extra special about the few remaining pockets of knowledge that exist only in the minds of a few individuals. Traditional navigation in Micronesia is one of those last bastions of knowledge that, to this day, is passed on almost exclusively through oral teachings from a master navigator to his chosen students. Also known as “wayfinding”, traditional navigation involves finding one’s way across vast distances using only the natural surroundings (stars, swells, clouds, etc) as guides.

Today, wayfinding is experiencing a resurgence in popularity due, in large part, to the story of Hōkūle’a – a Hawaiian voyaging canoe currently sailing around the world. However, the designation of “Master Navigator” is limited to only the most skilled and competent individuals who have earned the respect of their elders and the trust of their community. Therefore, only a handful of Master Navigators remain today and are considered by many to be “living treasures”. It is not surprising, then, that when one of these treasures passes away, it is a heavy blow to the voyaging community in the Pacific.

Not too long ago, with great sadness, we lost another great teacher in Master Navigator Francis Sermonyoung from the island of Satawal in Micronesia. Prior to Francis’s passing, I had the great honor of spending a couple of weeks listening to him talk about his lifelong relationship with the sea and the stars. One day last October, in what would be my last time seeing him, Francis handed me a few tattered pages that he had written.

“Please share my story with others so that we never lose the gift of finding our way”, were his parting words to me in his ill state. Here is the written legacy of Francis Sermonyoung:

——————

Navigator Francis Sermanyoung was born July 24, 1957 on Satawal Island, Yap State [part of the Federated States of Micronesia]. On this remote outer island, he spent his early years learning traditional skills. From an early age, he was especially interested in traditional navigation, an esteemed body of knowledge on his island. He would visit relatives with such knowledge and skills at early evening hours and on Sundays when people rested. During this time he developed a great respect for those who gave their skills and knowledge and he is most grateful and indebted to his teachers. In mourning their passing, he realizes that his quest to learn their skills and knowledge will one day require him to pass them on in order to maintain sustainable lifestyles on our living islands. Francis married Margie Chiplo in 1980 and has 3 sons and 2 daughters. He is a grandfather to 2 grandsons and a granddaughter.

Kekaimalu is one of Francis's grandchildren. He was given a Hawaiian name to signify the bond that the people of Sataway have with Hawai'i.  (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Kekaimalu is one of Francis’s grandchildren. He was given a Hawaiian name to signify the bond that the people of Satawal have with Hawai’i. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Navigator Sermanyoung’s maternal side of the family has a well known Rhapinwoak (master of all traditional skills and knowledge, especially traditional navigation knowledge), the late Louis Repanglug. Navigator Sermonyoung’s training in traditional navigation comes from a long line of navigators, beginning with his grandgather Pesieo, a well known Rhapinwoak of the 1900’s. Francis has been ordained as a navigator in ritual ‘Pwo’ ceremonies of two schools of navigation. In the Pwo ceremony, a package, rather like a diploma, representing skills and knowledge is tied with a white coconut leaf band about the wrist while the hands are laid upon lavalavas [traditional woven cloth] donated by relatives and friends on the navigator’s behalf.

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
A special ‘package’ wrapped around his right wrist signifies Francis’s designation as a Master Navigator in the Faenuurh school of navigation. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

In his first Pwo ceremony, held in Polap, Chuuk in July 1997, Frances was inaugurated into the Faenuurh school of navigation by his very own uncle, Master Navigator Ignathio Epeimai. His second Pwo ceremony initiated him into the Waeriyang school of navigation. It was held on Satawal in April 2007 and was performed by Master Navigator Pius Mau Piailug who himself, was of the Waeriyang school of navigation. In this second inauguration, the package representing knowledge and skills was tied about Francis’s left wrist, as he had already been inaugurated into the Faenuurh Pwo with a package tied about his right wrist.

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
Master Navigator Francis Sermanyoung, with two traditional designations of Pwo status on his wrists, holds up a certificate from the national government designating him as a “Master Navigator for Voyages Upon Any Ocean”. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

At the present time, Navigator Sermanyoung is one of the elders advising at meetings and group projects on Satawal including an on-going project by his paternal side of the family to pass on traditional skills and knowledge to youths. He has developed charts to use in teaching traditional star knowledge, and uses these charts to teach others. Last year, when his wife was assigned to take the place of a health assistant from the island of Eauripik, Francis taught traditional star knowledge to many people on Eauripik, men and women alike. Since returning to Satawal, he has continued his teaching and has given copies of his lessons about fighting stars to a total of 126 students. Knowledge of fighting stars provides a way to predict weather, which is important for voyagers to know before going on fishing trips and voyages between the islands.

Like Master Navigator Mau Piailug, Navigator Sermanyoung believes that if islanders are not careful to pass on traditional skills and knowledge, we will lose them with each passing generation. This should be a concern for all, as traditional knowledge and skills enabled our ancestors to live many hundreds of years in a sustainable, economical, and environmentally safe way. Today many people adopt new cultures and outside skills and knowledge that are not sustainable on our islands. It is sad to see that the younger generation prefers fast and easily cooked foods like rice, ramen, instant coffee, etc. GPS instruments are also gaining in popularity, however there is a danger that without a background of traditional navigation knowledge, a GPS failure could lead to costly search-and-rescue efforts, or loss of lives. Old ways and skills and knowledge must not be sacrificed to newly introduced ways that are not sustainable on and for our islands.

(Photo by Daniel Lin)
All children in Micronesia grow up with a connection to the ocean. Even at a young age, many of them are as comfortable in the water as they are on land. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Navigator Sermanyoung thus wishes that we join hands to help revive and preserve our cultures, traditional skills and knowledge. This means working together among all our island chiefs, government leaders, institutions, and museums to pass on, record, and preserve our traditional heritage. He extends his gratitude to his ancestors, his people in Satawal and thanks all who will join in this endeavor.

Wenimwom, Mogethin, and Rananim,

– Francis Sermonyoung, Master Navigator

——-

**Francis Sermonyoung passed away peacefully on his home island of Satawal. His legacy lives on through the hundreds of students that he has taught. Rest in peace, my dear friend and teacher.**

The next generation of sailors and navigators take on the responsibility of training and learning the sacred knowledge of their ancestors. With the introduction of mobile technology and GPS, there is a declining interest amongst young people to seek the traditional knowledge of their elders. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
The next generation of sailors and navigators take on the responsibility of training and learning the sacred knowledge of their ancestors. With the introduction of mobile technology and GPS, there is a declining interest amongst young people to seek the traditional knowledge of their elders. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

 

Read All Worldwide Voyage Posts

Dan Lin Photography

 

Comments

  1. Lautasi.Fagaale
    Samoa
    August 8, 7:59 pm

    Thanks for his beautiful article from his master navigation

  2. James A Naich
    Washington, DC
    May 20, 11:12 am

    Along with my friend Innocente “Sipach” Oneisom who commented before me, I met Francis Sermonyoung on my home island, Pollap-Fanatopw, home base of the Werieng school of navigation, when he, along with others, went through his first “pwo” (“pounding stone,” used in making “pounded breadfruit,” terms that have prominent places in navigation as well as “fosun uulap” or high-class, chiefly talk). I had come to Pollap from Washington DC for a visit, particularly to observe the “pwo” ceremony. Sitting in circles of men over endless “valubwa” as the customary welcome drink, we told many long, at times real “tall”, stories. At one point, Francis and I engaged in cracking jokes but one with deeper meaning. I sensed trouble when he started complimenting me about going to school in America and “navigating” all over the world as a diplomat. He then asked if I can give him one of my college degrees. “I would like to,” I cleared my throat, and went on, “but the problem is that my degree from Illinois is just a piece of paper — “mei chechak o kamwekai” (“it’s thin and easily torn,” a phrase from a local love song), you cannot take it with you when going out on the sea.” We all laughed. It was my turn to ask him. I asked him if he can give me an “uta”, his license that he wore on his wrist. His eyes lit up with excitement. However, the real message was in his playful caveat: “The problem with my degree is that it is itchy.” Yes, the painful message or lesson is that “eiiki pwerik” — the decision to undertake to learn navigation and to pass it on must be done with serious “itchiness” otherwise the contents of the “uta” on the wrist, being the nest of flesh-eating itchiness, will take its slow-roasting toll if you are being “messepat” under the vigilant watch of Weriyeng! 🙂

  3. Innocente Oneisom
    Tonoas, Chuuk, FSM
    April 23, 10:01 am

    What great loss to the noble art and to the Micronesian people! I only wish the people from Satawal, Euripik, Pulap, Polowat, and the others, heed the Master’s last wish and do all that could possibly be done to perpetuate that sacred knowledge for as long as there are people living on these tiny islands.

  4. Sandra Mafnas
    April 20, 11:26 am

    I hope that someone is able to go around and collect that information from all of the master navigators, Master weavers, Master carvers, and so forth . We must not lose these valuable tools lessons and ways of life. At times when technology will fail us, and it will someday, we will need to rely on what this masters knew. Not only do they need to be documented but they need to be taught again actually not just in the islands but they need to be taught everywhere because This is the clean an economical and right way to live in harmony with mother Earth

  5. Pietro Costa
    San Jose, California USA
    April 17, 8:57 pm

    As a history teacher and admirer of the Pacific navigators from Micronesia and elsewhere I am saddened to hear about the passing of another master navigator from Satawal. I hope to one day soon make the civilization of the Pacific Islanders an integral part of our curriculum so that we In the US will have a greater appreciation for the wonderful cultures of these small but important islands of the Pacific.
    The memory navigators like Francis and Mau Pialug should have an important place in human history.

  6. JB. Nakamura
    Tolensom, Chuuk
    October 29, 2016, 10:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing this very important article on Traditional Navigation. In order to preserve and maintain our valuable culture, i wish that someday it can be incorporated into the school curriculum of the FSM.

  7. Ron Muna
    Saipan, N. Marianas
    November 24, 2015, 5:18 am

    I wish our people wouldn’t wait until our culture is completely lost to revive this very important Pacific Islands tradition.

  8. Tino Saipwerik
    Oregon USA
    September 17, 2015, 1:46 am

    Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed this article very much and it encourages me to do as it is. I am thankful for all the great words and example as it is written and well said in each paragraph. It is so soon for our brother to leave but what can we do;as he mentioned in his own words to pass it on our cultural diversity, to share to our next-generation for the good cause of today and tomorrow. RIP.

  9. Mario Marson S.Abello
    Palikir Capital
    September 15, 2015, 10:28 pm

    With the advent of GPS, we must realize and be content of what the Master Navigators of Micronesia have treasured most as they learned to navigate their way beyond great shores with the guide of Mother Nature: stars, wind, birds, waves, sun, and the moon; many more deeply ingrained in our being one with the Universe. GPS like other modern tools would not have been possible without the lessons our ancestors passed onto us to define our place in our own time and space.

  10. Kasper Mark
    94-207 Waipahu, Hi
    September 12, 2015, 7:34 pm

    Rest in peace Lonno, until we meet again on the other side of the rainbow.

  11. Shaun Campbell
    Honolulu, Hawaii
    September 12, 2015, 6:33 am

    We here in Hawai‘i Nei owe much to these Micronesian Master Navigators like the late Mau Pialug. Without him, there would be no Hōkūlea voyages, no Hawaiian Renaissance, and we would be foundering here in the islands.

  12. Papa Piianaia
    HI
    September 12, 2015, 6:25 am

    mahalo…like everything else navigation has evolved but the stars remain constant and the horizon still has 32 cardinal pts and 360*. Alive in the eastern horizon; asleep in the western sky. Give me winds and seas to find those distant shores…

  13. Rick S.
    san rafael CA USA
    September 10, 2015, 7:44 pm

    Daniel, you are well into the traditions of our earlier seafaring Brothers. May you pass it on and always enjoy fair winds and following seas as you journey through history/ Cap’n Rick

  14. Pius Robinson
    22b wencker way Bremerton WA 98312
    September 10, 2015, 9:38 am

    Thanks for is teaching and learning from his master navigation, we always remember him. Bless his soul, and family.

  15. Leompwei Roiie
    Pohnpei, Micronesia
    September 10, 2015, 5:32 am

    Our cultural tradition of navigation is critically important and, like what master navigator, Francis, alluded to in this article, we must do everything in our best efforts to sustain it. I agreed 100%.

  16. Ghatiyong, inokita ilo
    Seipel (Saipan Mariana Islands)
    September 9, 2015, 10:54 pm

    Feel so bad knowing he had pasted away. My only wish is that I hope those he have taught this very valuable sacred of traditional navigation art will carry or pass on his torch here on