Adapted English translation for Jane Ritok
Life Story: A Weavers Life
Adapted English Translation by Andrea & Terry Hazzard
[Codes: PI: - Primary Interviewer (adult), SI: - Secondary Interviewer (student), and JR - Interviewee]
PI:: Okay. Why don't we start by you saying your name and where you're from.
JR: Okay. My name is Jane, and my last name is Ritok. I come from the atolls of
Wotje and Ailuk.
PI:: Why don't you start by telling us what you've done [for] most of your life - and also, maybe, how you [got] started and came to be a weaver. And [then], maybe we can ask you questions as we progress with your story. Now, you can start by telling us how you became a weaver.
JR: Okay, let me start by telling [you] how I first learned how to do handicrafts. My husband was a government worker, and our kids went to school at Assumption Elementary School (AES). Now, my husband's salary in those days wasn't enough. So, I tried looking for something else to help and found a group of older women who were doing Marshallese handicrafts. And so, after I had mastered the art of making local handicrafts, I moved on and had my own handicrafts to sell. And, I was always able to sell my handicrafts. Back in those days, there were some Americans, who operated a store called Kitco, who were known as the [indistinct]. I was always able to sell handicrafts to them. And if I saw that, maybe, I had made enough money - sometimes I would make around $300 dollars - I would also help with my family's [expenses]. Sometimes I helped my husband pay for our children's tuition. In those times, the salaries for workers wasn't that much, and I was fortunate to have had the chance to learn and teach myself how to weave local handicrafts; so, I could help out with [paying] tuition for my kids. Today, all of our kids have graduated from [this school (AES)] and have gone to the [United] States. But now, I know how to weave handicrafts. Now, I can weave handicrafts for myself and my grandchildren.
PI:: What sort of handicrafts can you weave?
JR: All kinds of handicrafts; you name it! Today I know how to weave every kind of handicraft.
PI:: For example, what kinds?
JR: For example, things like obon (cup-holder or tray) [Note: JR uses the same Marshallese word to talk about both objects throughout the interview], baskets, necklaces, pins, neck-ties, and many other things; I can't even start to count them! But, all of these things, I can make.
PI: (murmurs indistinctly in the background; it sounds like she's asking the following question): Now that you know how to make handicrafts, do you have your own business?
JR: Okay, I used to work with the [Catholic]sistersand helped with [their] school efforts in the outer islands. If there was a shortfall in tuition and people needed help, I stepped in and helped [financially]. But today, I have retired from the sisters' handicraft shop and now am making and selling my own handicrafts. Sometimes people order from the outer islands, and I make [handicrafts] and send them out - now that I am on my own.
PI:: How and where do you get your tools/materials from? Please explain to these [young people].
JR: The way in which I get my tools/materials is through buying. I buy coconut fronds. As we know, the outer islands are far away from this island [Majuro], and when they deliver their materials here, we buy from them. I also buy things like malwe (twine made from the skin of a coconut frond's midrib; a stripped frond), pandanus fronds, and sometimes even sea shells. But mostly, I bring shells from the nearby reefs. Okay, this is how I [get my materials] to do my handicrafts.
PI: (murmurs in the background indistinctly): [Note: It sounds like he's asking more about what kind of obon [tray or cup holder] the JR weaves.]
SI: (indistinctly): What kind of obon?
JR: The big obon, but there are those small ones for holding cups, for plates, and the like.
PI:: Can you describe what obons look like?
JR: The small obons, for example, are big enough to hold a 3 oz cup of coffee [six].
PI:: Who did you say you learned how to make handicrafts from?
JR: I learned from the old women a long time ago. My mother is law…[incomplete sentence].
PI:: Tell us their names.
JR: Lienta [is someone] I learned from; and also, my mother Laura [is someone] I learned from.
PI:: And all those ladies are not alive today?
JR: Yes, all those ladies have passed away.
PI:: Now, are you currently teaching anyone?
JR: Yes, sometimes I teach the students who live in this area. And also, sometimes, I go and teach some women who live nearby.
PI:: The students who attend this school [Assumption School], how do you teach them?
JR: The students come to the handicraft shop [which is located on campus] - because that's where I used to work - and [I] teach them there.
PI:: What do you teach them, and how exactly do you start your teaching?
JR: Sometimes I teach them how to do braiding, so that they are able to do necklaces, or bangles - or sometimes I even teach them how to weave roses, so that they can make rose necklaces. Or, sometimes I teach them how to weave obon so that they can use them for cup holders. I teach them those things that I think are easy to learn. I teach them those things because I know these are easy to learn to make. Okay, those are just a few of the things I teach them to make.
PI: (to SI:): Do you have any other questions [to ask JR]?
SI: Is there any difference in making today's handicrafts compared to those back in the old days; because, as we know, today, people use wires, but in those days, what did people use mainly?
JR: Coconut leaves and pandanus leaves! For example, for the rose, people use wires [today]. It's like the people of today are smarter when it comes to making handicrafts. Their work is much sturdier.
PI:: People used coconut and pandanus leaves to do their work back in the days?
JR: Yes, back in the [old] days, for example, the belt was mostly made of coconut and pandanus leaves; these were also used to make roses as well. Today, there are still a lot of things
that are being made from coconut and pandanus leaves.
PI:: Where do these people - you and other handicrafters - get your style from?
JR: We get our style from ourselves, we make our own style.
PI:: Do you and [these other handicrafters] get your style from catalogs, or do you usually make up your own? Do you make or come up with your own ideas?
JR: When I look around today, there are so many [different] kinds of styles that people have, unlike those styles from long ago.
PI:: I know, but do people go through any catalogs and just follow them to get ideas [for handicrafts] or do they come up with their own style?
JR: [We] come up with our own style and ideas to make handicrafts.
JR: Today's women are more skilled and smarter when it comes to making local [Marshallese] handicrafts.
PI:: How long does it usually take to weave a locally made floor mat?
JR: It takes a long time to weave mats; it takes time. Not only do you have to go out and gather the leaves from coconut trees; but you also have to clean the thorns from the leaves; then bleach [dry] the leaves over the fire; and then put them under the sun to dry more.
SI: What does rar (a process for drying leaves that uses fire) mean?
PI: [steps in to help the JR explain the term]: It's when you put the leaves over the fire, just to dry them, making sure you don't burn them.
SI: Oh, just to make the leaves dry and softer.
JR: Making a mat is a lot of work.
SI: About how many rolls of pandanus leaves does it take to finish one mat?
JR: It requires so many rolls of pandanus leaves - maybe about 6 to 8 rolls of leaves to complete one single mat.
PI:: According to what I know, I think it takes about 3 rolls to complete one half of a mat, and another 3 to complete the other half, making one whole complete mat.
JR: Yes, that is correct [for] that size!
JR: And do you know what else requires a lot of work? It's the coconut leaves. Not only do you have to go and climb and cut the leaves, but also you have to let [them] sit overnight, so that you can start working on [them].
SI: How do you start working on [the coconut leaves]?
JR: You must first separate the leaves from the [center] stalk, and then put it side to be skimmed. And, then you cook it and then sew it. All of these things, you have to do. It takes a long time to make it.
SI: And today, you would color it?
JR: Yes, but that's later. If you want to color it, you can do that.
PI:: Can you tell us how you would color it? What do you use?
JR: Back in those days, people used a jon (special plant, mangrove) . . .
JR (to herself): And what's the other one?
JR (continues): [There is] one more plant, but I can't remember the name at this time. But you could use it as well. You mix it with something, and then use it.
SI: What is a jon (plant, mangrove)?
JR: It's a special kind of tree. It comes usually from a wet area. There are a lot of these plants in Laura [a village in Majuro]. Today, sometimes, I see people color their work [from pandanus leaves] using the nin (noni) tree - the nin tree. Not the roots, but the fruits. Its color looks yellowish. The people from long ago never did this kind of work - only people of today started uSI:ng this kind [of dying technique].
SI: The reason why we're asking is because there are some old mats at the Alele Museum [in Majuro] where the colors seem to represent the old days. They don't seem to be [recent donations] to the museum, [because] the mats looked black and dark [in color].
JR: Yes, those colors are from long ago. Also, people in those days used the rust from under a drum [i.e., metal barrel] for coloring; also, they used the rust from rusted tin cans and mixed it with a [certain] shrub plant. They cooked these two things and then added the pandanus leaves. [They] cooked it and cooked it for long time, and then when [they] took it out, the leaves would be black.
Maybe that's the color you're talking about - it looks black. Maybe that's the pandanus leaves' [coloring process] you're asking about today?
PI: (to SI:): Any other questions?
SI: Which one lasts longer? The jeinae (mat woven from coconut fronds, relatively small in size) or the jaki (mat woven from pandanus leaves, usually larger in size?
JR: What? Which one is the mat?
PI: (clarifies): Which one of the two types of mats stays the longest?
JR: Oh, the jaki (mat woven from pandanus leaves, usually larger in size). But you know the mat that we use the wunmaan (a plant, hybrid with no fruit; leaves used only for textiles) for? Wunmaan means the kou (a type of a plant). That is one type of leaf that is much sturdier than the ones we usually get from the bushes [i.e., coconut and pandanus].
JR (to herself): Let's see, ah, what do we call them again?
JR (continues): The one type of leaf is much sturdier. The one I'm talking about, the wunmaan. Today there are usually a lot of these types of leaves at Mejit, Namdrik, and Ebon. You might find these at other atolls, but when I was working at the handicraft store, these are usually the atolls that bring in these types of leaves.
SI: Are there special handicrafts set aside for our traditional leaders?
JR: Yes, there are.
SI: Like what kinds?
JR: Like the mats, hats, [and] another specially made mat just for them, the jaki ir.
PI: (indistinctly in the background; it sounds like the following): That mat is long and skinny.
PI: (to SI:): Any other questions? Yes, go ahead.
SI: Do you think that in order for us to retain/keep/safeguard our customs and cultures, we have to learn more about handicrafts? [For] someone like you, who has been doing this for a long time, do you believe that we can hold on to our culture smply by keeping the knowledge on how to do handicrafts? There are those, like me [for example], I only know what they teach me at school, but not this type of [handicraft] work?
JR: Yes, for the young women of today, they have to really learn how to do handicrafts. The young men of today, they have to learn how to build a canoe. That is, because these are our customs and cultures. In the coming days, if we . . . you . . . don't know how to do these things, eventually they will be gone. They will be gone because no one knows how to do them. But now the older people are still alive, like me and others. You must learn these things.
PI:: You're saying there must be classes offered to teach these things.
JR: There should be classes or teachers to teach these things at CMI (College of the Marshall Islands) and also at these schools [Assumption schools].
JR (somewhat quietly): I think there are classes here!
PI: (clarifies): Nothing! [Everybody laughs]. There were classes sometimes, when you were here, but now there are none.
SI: Maybe you can become a teacher of…! [Laughter; incomplete sentence]
PI:: Maybe you can become a professor for… [incomplete sentence]
SI: Now we have an opening for… [Laughter; incomplete sentence]
JR: Yes, but when I really look forward [to the future], there really should be people teaching these things, because things skills and knowledge belong to us, and us only. They're of the Marshallese, and we can't just throw them away. I am just saying, from my perspective, given that I've been doing this for a long time, handicrafts do help us. As you might recall from earlier in my story - my husband used to work for the government, but his salary wasn't enough in those days. Our kids went to school here [Assumption Schools], and it was a pretty hard life for all of us. My handicrafts really helped us in meeting our needs. I used to make enough money from doing handicrafts. Not only had I done handicrafts, but also hand-painted pillowcases. If people ordered, and they asked me to do around 200 PI:llowcases, I would do them. All the profits I made went for tuition fees.
PI:: Doing PI:llow work and hand-painte pillow cases?
JR: These and other works are disappearing with today's women, because they just like to buy [fabric] markers from the stores, and use them to ‘mark, mark' and [quickly] finish 10 cases [sic] of pillowcases, instead of embroidering the pillow cases by hand.
JR (answers SI's original question): Yes, it is true that there should be teachers of customs and culture over there [at the schools] teaching these things, so that you [students] can learn them.