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Interview of Biti Lake

Life Story

Note: The interviewee is noted by initials, the interviewer by [Q].


How to Catch Flying Fish The Traditional Way

[Q] …I heard when I was growing up. Before we were using gas lanterns now we use diving lights. There is no taboo against shining fish off the reef and cutting them with a machete.

[BL] Yes, that is right.

[Q] In those times they used torches made of coconut fronds.

[BL] Torches.

[Q] Is it true what they said, that they used ashes as bait for the flying fish?

[BL] That is correct.

[Q] Can you explain a little about that?

[BL] The reason why the flying fish in the old days were really tasty was because they used to eat the ashes that fell from the torches. You see the fallen coconut fronds? You go and bring some, roll the leaflets into the center and tie it at intervals [from the bottom to the top] and then you will put them in the canoe, and there was a special material [the fallen sheath of the stalk where the coconuts develop] to light their torches.

Because in the old days there were no matches or lighters, but they would bring two sticks to rub together to make fire [there are still people today in the Marshall Islands with this skill]. Then you would light the kuwaal [the special material]. You bring the fallen sheath and you splinter it and bundle it together weaving it with pandanus leaves [pandanus is a form of screwpine indigenous to the Marshall Islands]. This was their source of fire, and when woven with the pandanus leaves it makes it last even longer. They would light this and bring to the canoe to take with them. When they set out to catch flying fish, at the appropriate spot, they would use this slow match to light their palm frond torch.

[Q] Can you explain more about the word you just said?

[BL] Kuwaal?

[Q] Kuwaal. What is it used for, what is its function?

[BL] It is used to light the torch.

[Q] Well, maybe I will step up the questions. Let’s talk about pale [coconut frond torch]. Can you show us how to weave the pale or tie a pale? Will it be easy to demonstrate?

[BL] Now where is that young fellow who was here so he can bring me my machete? Tell one of the boys to bring my knife that is lying on the table. [They are walking, looking for a fallen coconut frond] [He finds one and starts the demonstration] Do you see this thing? Do you know what it is called?

[Q] Well?
[BL] This is called ida [it is one of leaflets rolled into the center and then selected out to hold the leaflets together in a sheaf].

[Q] Which one is it? Can you show us?

[BL] This one, this one that we use to tie the torch together.

[Q] Ida.

[BL] Ida. You see why they used to say, “Loosen the leaf that is used to tie the torch into a sheaf so that the fire won’t go out.” [Because if the torch is bound too tightly, then it will not stay lit.]

[Q] OK, ok.

[BL] Well, this is the ida  when the flame is about to go out because it has reached another spot where it is tied, then they say, “Loosen the tie.” Let go of the tie so that the flame can stay alive. [At this moment, BL is making a torch].

[Q] When you are done making it, could you light it so that we can see how it was used? When it is lit and burns, you will let go the ida for us, won’t you?

[BL] Yes. Well, this was the type of lighting the people used in the past, they used to use this when they went fishing for flying fish. In order to catch fish using a coconut leaf torch, they lit it and raised it over their heads so that the man netting the fish [as they fly through the air], was lit. 

[Q] So you mean that there has to be another man holding the torch while the other one is netting the fish [like butterflies]?

[BL] Well, it all depends on how big your canoe is and if there are a few men on your canoe, then one can hold the torch. If there are only two men in the canoe, then they would create a stand for the torch.

[Q] So when it is like this [pointing to a fallen coconut frond] we call it “kimej” and when it has been turned into this [pointing at the torch], it is transformed into a ‘pale’ when you are done tying it together.

[BL] When you are done tying it together.

[Q] And this was what was used for netting flying fish?

[BL] Yes these were what they used for netting flying fish. In order to have fish, the torch had to be lit to light the ocean so that they could net the flying fish. And when the torch is not burning brightly enough, then the fish will move away from the boat, but when it is bright, it lures the fish near.

[Q] Now we understand. In this form it is called kimej, and in this form we call it pale. That is really good, thank you, for now we understand. The reason why I asked you their particular names is because when we say, “Hey, go get some kimej or, hey, go make a pale,” they will not be confused.

[BL] Now that is clear. Now you see the man who stayed in the front of the canoe. The one who will be netting the flying fish, he has a chant. He says, “Jalle ne bwe eito, bok nan wod eo, bok nan wod eo, babe tok nan jojo ane, erub wa ne.” [The canoe to the west, take it to that coral [fishing spot], take it to the coral [fishing spot] turn toward shore, the ship is broken].

Erup wa ne” means the canoe has to tack [when a sailboat changes course, it is called tacking].

“Jalle ne bwe eito” means the canoe goes straight westward.

When the boat is heading to the shore that is “bok nan wod eo” [heading toward the reef flat]. 

Erup wa ne” means that you almost hit the reef, you are really near. Well, that is some information concerning netting flying fish.

[Q] This is the first time I have heard this.

[BL]  What?

[Q] I had not heard about this [chant] earlier. Can you say it one more time?

[BL] The man who is in front of the canoe, who nets the flying fish says, “Jalle ne bwe eito,” the canoe goes straight westward. When there are fish on the east side, he says, “bok nan wod eo, bok nan wod eo” [Go to the fishing spot]

[Q] Bok nan wod eo.

[BL]  If the canoe almost hits the reef, he says, “Erub wa ne, erub wa ne.” You know the oarsman will quickly turn the boat around.

[Q] Now a days we say, “Wan meto, wan ane.” [Turn to the deep ocean, turn to the land] but in the old days they used different terms when netting flying fish.

[BL] In those times they had, but nowadays, if a boat scrapes the coral we say, “The boat will scrape the coral!”  The boat will be broken on the reef.

[Q] But in those times, when they said those words they knew.

[BL] At those times, when they said those words..they knew.

[Q] That is really good. We just learned that now. Can you say it again? What does the guy in front say?

[BL]  Jalle ne bwe eito.

[Q] And it means?

[BL] It means the canoe goes straight westward, “Jalle ne bwe eito.”

[Q] Jalle ne bwe eito? Ok.

[BL] Bok nan wod eo.

[Q] And it means?

[BL] To the land.

[Q] To the land.

[BL] When the canoe gets really close to shore they say, “Erup wa ne, erup wa ne.”

[Q] And they quickly tack.

[BL] And they quickly tack.

[Q] Well, now that we are already here and sitting, thank you, but now are there any other stories other than the story about netting flying fish? Are they any other stories or any other things you would like to tell us about when you were still growing up? Would you be happy to share with these students and most of all, for the place where this recording will end up [the internet]?

How to Catch The Arrow Worm

[BL] I will tell you a story about…I can  give you the short version of the story about the jaibo [an arrow worm found in Arno].

[Q] That is good and can you explain what jaibo is? It is too bad we can’t see one, but please explain what jaibo is and then tell the story.

[BL] Jaibo is a thing that stays beneath the sand. Have you guys seen that thing they call lippidiwal [small arrow worm?]? Well, the jaibo, the jaibo is bigger than the lippidiwal and it leaves a mark on the sand. We have another method of catching the jaibo. Take a coconut leaflet and strip the green from it, leaving the thin yellow center midrib and you cut it to about twelve inches long. And if the jaibo is here, [motions with his hands] it has a part which points upward. The small one stays here [motions with his hand] and this one [motions with his hands again] points upward. So you would move from here to the hole and the midrib is speared into the hole and spears the jaibo. Then you take out the sand.

While you dig out the sand, you have to sing its song, because you see, when you grab ahold of it you would sing its song. “Jeidaku, jeidaku jan kubwen manman ne ikubwi lob ne inaaj tarmaan im jok korkore mottan wot ji-jiddik je jeidakuuu, jeidaku.” Because if you don’t sing the song, it will be hard [to get it out]. The arrow worm will hold on to the sand if you don’t sing the song. And if you pull without singing, it will split in the middle, but if you sing, by the time you are in the middle of the song at the time when you try to pull it out, it will be really easy. And when it surfaces, you bite the head off and gut it.

[Q] Can you describe what a jaibo looks like?

[BL] The jaibo is like a worm. The skin is white and it is really tasty just like… have you guys eaten jeno [a clam which attaches to the coral]?

[Q] What does it look like?

[BL] The jeno is like the big clam.

[Q] Yes, yes.

[BL] That thing is no different from the big clam, when you eat it, the meat is gristly. And the arrow worms on this atoll is found from here to there. [Motions to an area around the lagoon.] There are billions and billions of them. They will never end. Because they belong to the figure (statue) [this seems to be a rock or named boulder] on the lagoonside of this atoll, Lomjanaelik [the name of the figure], have you heard of Lomjanaelik?

[Q] Can you explain that to us?

[BL]  Lomjanaelik was a man, and they say a woman came from Majuro and stayed at the house inside Lomelal Weto [a town named Lomelal], and to survive, she ate jipanung [the top pieces of the pandanus fruit connected to the stem—considered inedible]. Jipanung beaten until it is softened. Then one day, Lomjanealik saw her and they became “buddy-buddy”. And this woman was beating on jipanung. As she was beating it, Lomjanaelik put his hand between the rock and the jipanung and as she brought the rock down, it landed on Lomjanealik’s fingers and they were damaged. He was in extreme pain and he went lagoonside walking [into the water] until he reached the deeper water where he ran out of breath [could no longer breathe]. So that is why they call this part of the water from the shore to the deeper water lomjanaelik.

[Q] Lomjanaelik.

[BL] But it is the name of a figure, the figure that the arrow worm belongs to.

[Q] Can you sing the arrow worm song, so we can try to translate it, so that when it comes time for the students to translate…

[BL] You sing, “Jeidaku, jeidaku jan kubwen manman ne ikubwi lob ne inaaj tarmaan im jok korkore mottan wot ji-jiddik je jeidakuuu, jeidaku.

[Q] So it is like we are making it rise to the surface?

[BL] So that it can come out from beneath the sand easier.

[Q] How do you say it beidaku?

[BL] Jeidaku.

[Q] What does it mean?

[BL] It is like some sort of spell or black magic.

[Q] [To the students] you guys get ready to translate it like a spell.

[Q] We are trying to translate the word jeidaku so that we can explain its function. What word can we use to replace it with to make it more understandable to the people today?

[BL] Jeidaku, I don’t know where the word comes from. It belongs only to the old people. It is like a spell or a curse.

[Q] So the jeibo that belongs to this figure Lomjanaelik and the chant that you taught us is the one you sang?

[BL] Yes.

[Q] It is good that we came and now we know about these things. I heard about Lomjanaelik, but I just now learned that it is the figure that is located lagoonside of this islet.

[BL] Yes. This is figure that the jaibo belongs to.

[Q] Are there jaibo still in the lagoon, or are they gone?

[BL] It is still here, it will last from generation to generation.

[Q] Do you know if there will be low tide tomorrow?

[BL] Yes.

[Q] Do you have time tomorrow so we can come and take you to show us: number one how to catch the jaibo

[BL] How to catch it.

[Q] Additionally, how you do it.

[BL] That is good, but you see, when the wind is strong…

[Q] Well?

[BL] The jaibo will not appear because the waves will cover their marks. It is not often that you see anyone catching jaibo during bad weather. Only when it is quiet because when the water is smooth, there is no wave to cover the jaibo.

[Q] What is it that the wave covers?

[BL] Their holes. Then only the experts can catch the jaibo.

[Q] So you mean when the jaibo is in the sand, they don’t stick the midrib in the hole, but they stick it somewhere near the hole?

[BL] Yes, somewhere near the hole.

[Q] Ohhh!

[BL] If you poke the midrib straight into the hole, you will miss the jaibo…  

[Q] So you have to stab it?

[BL] Yes, you need to do it like this [stab around the hole] and then it will open up. When you do it like this and where you stab is where the hole is, the midrib will automatically hit the jaibo.

[Q] Now that we know about jaibo, can you go back to netting flying fish? We already know what they were using for lighting, but what were they using for a net?

[BL] A handnet.

[Q] What was it made out of?

[BL] It was made from coconut twine [Ratak dialect]. It was made of coconut twine [Railik dialect]. And they carve a piece of wood for the coconut twine to hold the net, and it is called the ron.

[Q] Do you mean needle?

[BL] Yes, metal for the net is roundish. The stick that holds the twine to it...the name of that is the mouth of the net. It is a stick. They use the konnat [coconut twine] to make it.

[Q] How to you say that chant?

[BL] “Jiboke in tarboke” [Lit. cover it with sand]

[Q] “Jiboke in tarboke

[BL] Jiboke im totar bokboke. While they say this, they will throw their refuse into the ocean like coconut husks, coconut fronds, food, and the gnawed leftover ends of the pandanus fruit which had been cooked in an earthen oven. So they collect them in one place to get them ready to be swept into the ocean. Like when you throw out things into the ocean like coconut husks and other things the ocean becomes filled with these bits, right? Well, that is how it will be [in terms of numbers of flying fish].

That is how the jojo was like in the ocean. That is the reason why they say, “Jiboke in tarboke im totar bokboke” so that there will be many flying fish just like the pieces of detritus that have been thrown into the ocean. Well, when you go and start to light your torch, when you look, you will ask yourself, is this flotsam? But the truth is that numerous flying fish are attracted to the light.

[Q] So did they only fish for flying fish when there was a moonlit night?

[BL] When there is no moon. Only when there is no moon. Nowadays they are also netting flying fish when there is a moon because when they turn on their flashlights they are really bright, plus now they use their motorboats -- it doesn’t matter if there is a moon because they will still be able to net the flying fish. But in the old days, no one would net flying fish when there was a moon.

[Q] Only when there is no moon right?

[BL] When there is no moon in the old days. But nowadays a lot of things are different. Now the reason why they can net flying fish all over is because they never want to turn their lights off.

[Q] So you can catch many?

[BL] You can catch many. Plus you are just sitting down sweeping the net, [there is no holding the torch and no paddling involved today] but the people long ago, they could only net fish until their torch ran out and then they had to paddle back eastward. You cannot light a torch and go eastward. If you light it and go eastward, the flame will not burn brightly because the wind blows at it and the person in the back will be burned by the cinders. All of the cinders will blow straight at the person in the back who is paddling. 

[Q] The guy who paddles?

[BL] Yes. The same with the kuwat [a homemade hurricane lantern from a large old can containing dried coconut meat and slashed on the sides and then sat upon to widen the slits so the light can escape] because when we go to net flying fish using this method, the oil falls from the lantern.  When you travel eastward, it falls on the guy in the back but with the motorboat, no cinder or oil falls on you. You just sit down and net the fish and when the boat returns there it goes, no problem, but the thing is that it this breaks the taboo against netting flying fish while traveling eastward.