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Tale by Bicture Bujen

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

Letao’s journey to Arno -- from Aur to Bikaarej: how he populated the water with the sea life we now know; and how to fish for small tuna

[BB] Well...first thanks be to our Father in Heaven for everything. Secondly, thank you and the doctor [Tanner], your friend, and the students who came with you to gather information like you said are valuable for you and your Dr. friend’s goals.

Well, my name is Bicture. My last name Bujen and my father’s lineage is ri-mwejwor, but my mother’s lineage is ri-kau. My mother and father are both from Arno. Well, my father has blood from this atoll and Ebon, and my mother has blood from Mili, this atoll and Mili. I am a teacher. I work as a teacher for the Kindergarten program of this atoll, and I work in Tutu islet in Arno Atoll. I married a girl from Tutu -- her name is Abigail Kattil: we have two children a girl and a boy, and we have grandchildren that we take care of and that is all.

[Q] Well, can you now go ahead with the tale that you prepared? State its name and go ahead.

[BB] Yes. Well, the story that I am about to tell you is about the most famous man in the world named Letao. There are many stories about Letao. It took days for the story tellers to tell stories about Letao. And this is what I know of Letao’s story. My understanding of his trip from Bikaarej to Arno Atoll. I apologize [correction], from Aur and he came to Bikaarej, and he came southward, southward and went to Kiribiti, but since you have already collected data about his time in Kiribiti, so I will stop at Bikaarej.

Letao came southward from Aur and when he arrived, at the islet they call Bikaarej in Arno Atoll, the last house on the northern side of the islet, there was an old woman there named Lijebar and when he asked her if he could stay with her, until the next day because he was tired, the old woman told him to go stay near the coconut trees by the brush out in the open. So he did as she said.

In the morning, he woke up from under the brush and thanked the old woman and told her to check out the breakfast he already made [for her]. He said, “Well, Lijebar, thank you, but do go and see your breakfast. On to the north.”

When the old woman went to see her breakfast. There were a lot of pejao [barnacle or mollusk that injure the feet]. They were so close together (these kind you cannot walk on them without shoes, that is how sharp the edges are -- they would lay your foot open but the meat inside is edible) but its shell is not very good because it is really sharp: you cannot step on it if you are not wearing shoes. [emoj]

Then he went southward. Today it is still there, a reef flat at the northern end of that islet. And there is a small tidal pool that contains a little bit of ocean water and you can go and if you want to talk to the water inside the pool you say, “Lijebar Lijebar, do you want to marry me?” and if she likes you, the water inside it stirs, and if she doesn’t like you, the water inside the pool will not move, not even a little bit.

And with that, there is a container and plate [one dialect]. Container and plate [the other dialect]. The people in the Railik call it kenno, the Ratakese call it container. When you pound on it, it makes a noise like basin. But he [Letao] kept going southward.

When he reached the southern end of Bikaarej, he met another old woman. The name of this old woman was Jiltua. Jiltua was there and it is like a coral reef. No it is not a reef, sorry, it is actually a rock, a huge rock. [Pointing] There in the deep water beyond that is where the old woman is.

So Letao also asked to stay the night with this old woman. And the old woman said, “Well, you go over to that pandanus tree, the one with all the leaves.” So he went and slept beside the pandanus tree and when morning came, he woke up and also thanked this woman and said, “Well, come and see your breakfast, for it is clear that I will continue southward.”

When the old woman went to see her breakfast, there were many many sea cucumbers [a salami-shaped black marine animal] the type that spits out thread [these animals secrete a threadlike substance, which is sticky and white] -- those types of sea cucumbers. If a typhoon comes and moves them from their spot, when you go and check the place,  there will be none there. Then if you go and check the next morning, it will be filled again with them just like [inaudible] from that night -- the place will be filled with sea cucumber. We don’t know when they reproduced or where they come from, but that is the way it is. The old woman became angry at Letao [for leaving her this kind of breakfast], but there was nothing she could do because he had already left.

He kept going southward [pointing to the little islets] and when he reached one of those small islets, [called] Asmond, he met another old woman. The name of this old woman was Litolkubang. He asked if he could stay there and the place where he slept was a little better than the previous two places where he slept. So he went to sleep.

He slept and when morning came, again he thanked the old woman and said, “Old woman, thank you for giving me a place to stay, go and get your breakfast from the channel.” When the old woman went, she saw the kubang there [an edible reef fish]. It is still there today. [Schools of it are still found in the channel.] To this day, the kubang is there. They will always be there. Well, that was her breakfast because she took a little better care of Letao. So that is why her breakfast was a little better or tastier compared to the sea cucumber and .....

[Q] Barnacles.

[BB] Barnacles, [yes] the barnacles.

He kept heading southward and when he arrived at Kapinbok, at last he met another old woman there. The name of this old woman was Lijoinal. Then he asked if he could stay there, she said, “Well, come on in, go in the cook house and wait, for I am going to start a fire, eowilik, a fire to get warm.

So he went into the cookhouse to get warm and when he was warmed through, he fell asleep. When morning came, he woke up and thanked the old woman for making him feel at home. He said, “Go take a look at your breakfast. Your breakfast is a jo in the lagoon [the most delicious type of fish, particularly when grilled]. When the old woman went to the lagoon, she saw a school small tuna. That school is still there today.

To this day it [tuna] is still there and because she took good care of him, her meal was better. And the legend is there. Before you can see the school of small tuna, you see an octopus there. The name of that islet is Naal, where there are a lot of octopus. If you go there, you will see an octopus there, but it is tame. If you see the octopus while you are going northward, when you return southward the octopus will not be there, but there is no sign of any animal that might have eaten it to take it away. And there will be no marks showing where the octopus has gone, for how will it make marks on the sand because it is tame.

Well, that is the signal. When you see this sign, you [must] say, “Well, get ready because a week from now they will all come.” Well, up until today when they [the octopus] appear, they are not as plentiful as they once were, and the signal octopus we cannot see him. There are still times when schools of fish appear. Like the times that we were talking about, I came from Arno last week and they were there. And because there were some visitors that went to fish for them, but because there were many new people, the fish were faster than a Continental [jet aircraft].

When new people go and fish in those times when the fish come, the fish are really afraid of new people because this is the legend. Just before we came here today, they fished, but they had no luck, so they are still planning on trying again. Well...

[Q] Could you...I am sorry, could you explain how they fish for schools of fish? For this is one of the pieces of information we want to gather from you. There are many of us, like myself, who have never seen how people fish the school of small tuna. Do you have any information about how... What do they do? Do they fish using a hook or line?

[BB] They fish using a mwio [coconut frond –by encircling the school while swimming toward the shore]. Like I have said, we’ll get ready for a week from now, [then] they will come. Sometimes when we are really careful about how we swim, the fish don’t escape under the coconut frond; they stay on the surface. The coconut frond leaflets hang about a foot under the water. So, when the fish swim on the surface and see the coconut frond, they turn around and head away from the coconut.

So that is what they use to bring the fish to shore, but you see, when the school of fish has a bad temper, when it sees the mwio, it will try to dive under the mwio to a depth where the men cannot go and pass under the mwio. And that is what happened when there were new men fishing. The fish did not turn back on the surface, the men were still at the surface, but the fish, they dove down under.

[Q] Now what I am asking is what are they doing? Do they go there using boats and use the boat to fish or do they swim out?  How do they...

[BB] Well, the last ones are the ones who stay and guard the small canoes. There are one to three small canoes they use to get out to the school of fish. These are the guys that actually catch the fish. As to the whole group, they are swimming with the coconut fronds.

[Q] Is the water deep?

[BB] You can’t see the bottom. [In the Marshall Islands, the ocean floor can be seen from over sixty feet.] It doesn’t matter if you can’t see the bottom, but if you are careful enough and skilled enough (and follow the rules) the school of fish will not dive. It will stay on the surface, and it will not cross the line of coconut fronds because it is afraid of the fronds. But like I said, when the school of fish has a bad temper, like what happened with the new guys, as soon as it sees the coconut fronds, it will not turn back to the center, instead it will dive. 

However, the good thing about a school of fish is that you can fish until you run out of strength. A week or two later, though, the school [which dove under the fronds] will die off and be found dead on the shores of the small islets, and the bad thing is that we don’t see them in time. So that is why we need to fish the school carefully, so we can make good use of the fish. And you see if it [the school] washes ashore, then you see it [If found when freshly dead, the fish can be eaten]. But if you don’t see them, then you will smell them rotting.

[Once spooked,] the school won’t go back, it won’t go back to the ocean. If five thousand fish come into the lagoon, five thousand fish will die. They will not return to the ocean.  It doesn’t know its way out. [The people must either catch them or find them dead on the shore].

Well, that is the story about Bikaarej (as to Letao) I would have gone as far as Kiribiti but I will not as you said you already have that information. Well, we will stop here, if you have questions I can answer -- you, go ahead.

[Q] Yes, I am only asking about how to catch the school of small tuna. Do they bring it to shore and then how do they kill it?

[BB] They bring it to shore and when the water is knee-deep that is when they try to catch the fish and when the water is about....they will not try to catch it but you would.... they say....what do you do? You are trying to tire the fish out [to make them easier to kill]. The signal that they are tired is their color. The master [fishermen] know this. They [the fish] will just stay there... when they change color they [the fishing masters] would yell out, “Well, you can start spearing.” But now you see, if you don’t know how to spear, you might fall. If you stab the fish and try to keep it steady, while the fish flaps about, you will fall because the length of the tuna is like this [uses his arms to show how long the fish are] but your spear is already tethered to you.

[Q] What kind of spear is that? 

[BB] They are about this long [demonstrates] and made of ironwood. So when you stab it, you don’t spear it into the ground. Instead, as soon as you spear it, you lift it out of the water. As you lift the fish out of the water, it slides down the spear and it is strung on the tether. Well, that is how they do it.

[Q] You mean if you know, and you spear fast...

[BB] Yes, so they don’t share their catch. The  people that everyone has to give some of their catch to are the clan head of the land where the school is brought ashore and the chief. You don’t share your catch with other people [because all men have a chance to participate in this kind of fishing]. If you spear quickly, you spear more.

[Q] Now that is really good. Well, we now understand about this fishing method that our ancestors used. Nowadays, you know, we only use long nets or throwing nets, fishing lines and hooks, and not this kind of fishing about which we just learned.

[BB] Well, before last week, it had been eleven or twelve years since the last time a school of fish appeared.

[Q] That’s a really long time!

[BB] Well, in the old days, we used to see a school of fish come in every month, and maybe because our culture is not as strong today, it takes eleven or twelve years. [12:59]