Note: The interviewee is noted by initials, the interviewer by [Q].
A Story of Letao, the Trickster and What He Did in Kiribiti
[HL] My name is Hersha Laneab I am from Wotje. I work in the Ministry of Education. Thank you for coming to do this interview so we can share the legends.
Now, I will go ahead and tell the story.
In the past, there was a story about the Marshall Islands, namely their sailing vessels. Here in Majuro, there was a chief who owned a canoe that sailed very fast. There was no other canoe so fast as the chief’s canoe. Someone, half person and half animal, figured out that the chief’s canoe was the fastest in Majuro. After he found that it was the fastest, he had an idea. His idea was to make another canoe because he wanted to have a canoe to compete with the chief’s canoe. After some time, he started building his canoe by chopping down an ironwood tree [ironwood trees have very hard, heavy wood].
[HL] Yes, ironwood.
[Q] So what is this guy’s name?
[HL] His name is Letao, as I said before. He has two beings in him—half-real person, and half-[a-ka-k] [unknown being].
He went on to build the canoe. He wanted to see if he could improve the design to be better than the chief’s because he was thinking that the chief would be enchanted by his new canoe. In his mind, he thought that if he built the canoe, the chief would be very attracted to it. So he proceeded to build his canoe, as I said out of ironwood. The whole canoe was made out of ironwood: all of it, the mast, the booms, the outrigger, the hull, everything all of it [normally, canoes are made from breadfruit]. But its sail was made of pandanus leaf like the sail of the chief’s canoe.
So he finished the canoe. He set it on a coral head in Majuro lagoon at Laura. Here the way the coral reef is situated, it forms a secondary lagoon. As I said, when he was done, he took the canoe and placed it there. Sometime later, the chief decided to take his canoe by another route. He told the people to tow it out into the lagoon. The commoners prepared the chief’s canoe. Once it was in the water, they notified the chief and he went. The spot where the chief normally sits on the canoe is called the kodo [cloud].
When it was rigged and ready to sail, he took a quick sighting of the Laura shoreline. When he turned his head to the west, he saw a canoe resting on the reef. He did not know who owned the canoe, but he saw the canoe floating there where Letao had left it.
[Q] So where is the rascal Letao?
[HL] The rascal was in the canoe. As I said when the chief looked west, he saw the canoe and murmured to himself, “Wow, that looks like another [fast] canoe.” But he was impressed mostly because the canoe was very shiny. So shining, it was like glass. It was like when the sun shines on a mirror. The shine caught the chief’s attention, and he whispered to himself, “Wow, who owns that canoe [because he wanted to trade his canoe for this one]?”
First he turned to the East and then turning to the west, he saw the man, but he did not know that his name was Letao. So, he asked his workers, “Whose canoe is that?” And his workers replied, “It may belong to that guy who is on the canoe.” And the chief asked again, “Do you think he might be available to have a little chat with me?” The commoners replied, “He should be.” So he sent the workers to get Letao, and the workers said to Letao, “The chief would like to have a few words with you.” Letao asked, “Of whom do you speak?” The commoners replied, “It is the chief of the atoll.”
[imitating Letao being anxious] “Why would he want to talk to me?”
. . . As we know, in the past when the chief calls for us, our hearts race, they beat out of our chests, but he [Letao] ignored this trepidation and responded to the chief’s call. When he met with the chief, he lowered his head and he said, “Iakwe [hello], my chief.” The chief replied, “Iakwe, young man. Do you happen to know who owns that canoe over there?” Letao smiled and answered, “That canoe belongs to me. How do you like it?” The chief replied, “Boy, that canoe is one of a kind -- I am impressed with its design. Who knows, that canoe may be faster than mine.”
Letao hid a knowing smile because he was a famous liar. “I’ve built canoes, and I have built many, and this one is the most special. It is a lot better than any other. I designed it to sail twice as fast as a regular canoe. When it sets its sail, everyone on board needs to lash himself to the boat. This canoe is so fast it is as light and fast as a leaf blown in a strong wind.”
The chief said, “Hummm… Is it really so? Do you think we could exchange canoes?” [Letao could not refuse this even if he wanted to.] Letao said, “Ok, if you like. It is your choice.” The chief said, “Ok, I want it, we will trade. If that is all right with you.” Letao said, “That is ok, but you have to be careful that you are not thrown overboard. When it sets sail, it is faster than the light model boats the children make [very fast].” The chief said, “I don’t care, you have to give it to me.”
Letao was a rascal. He caused a lot of problems [because he was disrespectful]. He was a bad person, there is no one worse. [He knows a lot of tricks.] He always won.
The chief said, “Let’s get closer to your canoe, so I can get in it.” Letao said, “I cannot, instead we will carry you to my canoe, but your canoe stays here.” So, the chief stood. The young man and the chief’s workers carried him to Letao’s canoe. So, when the chief was in his traditional place, Letao said, “Before the canoe sets sail, like I said, because the canoe is so fast, we really have to lash the chief very tightly to the canoe. He has to be tied so very well that he cannot move because when the canoe sets sail, it will really take off, like the model boats.”
So then the chief’s workers lashed the chief tightly to the canoe with coconut rope. They brought coconut rope and tied his feet and hands. When they were finished, Letao said, “Ok, first because the canoe is so fast, it is better that I set sail first and get clear the way. Because when the canoe takes off, you won’t believe how fast it will go! The chief said, “Ok.” So Letao set sail first. “Ready the mast, put up the sail, and tie everything down.” [Unknown archaic word that has to do with rigging] and the chief was tied down completely.
Letao set sail first. They pushed the canoe. Letao was away from the shore.
[Q] Was that the chief’s canoe?
[HL] Yes, it was Letao in the chief’s canoe because they have already traded canoes. Then he set sail, and when he was out beyond recognition [a place where the people are no longer recognizable as individuals]. Letao had arranged that when he signaled the men, they would push the canoe carrying the chief off of the reef.
At the moment he raised the paddle to signal the men who stood together and when they pushed it off the reef, they pushed hard, hard, hard, hard to get the canoe off the reef. When it passed the reef, it sank like a stone.
Why did it sink? It sank because it was not hollow; it was a solid piece of ironwood. And you know ironwood, when you throw it into the water, it sinks. Then they were really surprised when the boat sailed from the edge of the reef to the bottom of the ocean. As I said before, the water at the edge of the reef was quite deep. They often call it a secondary lagoon because it is so deep. They started to panic because they had tied the chief tightly to the canoe. They scrambled to find ways to free the chief, but the whole canoe sunk to the bottom.
The workers jumped into the water after the canoe. They reached the canoe and untied, untied until the chief was free. After their long submersion, they broke the surface. The chief almost drowned. He looked near death.
After he recovered, the chief commanded, “Find this person! Find him and bring him to me! He is very bad.” But then some of the workers replied, “He is already half-way to Jaluit by now.” So they formed a group from Laura, and they started chasing Letao westward until they reached the point where Letao dipped his leg into the ocean raising the ocean floor to block the passage of the canoes. When he did this it formed channels, but as he and the group moved eastward, he kept throwing rocks at them [that he had scraped from the bottom of the ocean] until the rocks formed an island.
So then the chief let his group chase after Letao, but Letao sailed the opposite direction heading to Rongrong [an island in the Majuro atoll]. He sailed his canoe and moored it at Rongrong, and he jumped out of the canoe and crawled onto shore. On shore, he dug a hole and buried himself leaving one knee exposed. His body was covered, but one knee was out.
The group sailed closer and closer until they landed. So, you know in the past when people landed on an island, they did not land one at a time, they moored themselves to the same anchor, forming a string of canoes. The crew of the very first canoe disembarked and saw Letao’s knee, but they did not know that the knee belonged to that rascal Letao. They thought it was a piece of driftwood embedded in the sand.
So they tied their line to the knee to moor the canoe. They moored the first boat, then the next one came in and tied itself to that one, and so forth because it was a really big group consisting of more than twenty canoes. They came in one by one and tied to the boat ahead, they all moored together. So then the chief said, “Find him! He is in the middle of this island!”
Everyone got off their canoes and started to look for him. They looked and looked and looked for a long time, but they did not find him. They looked until they were tired. When they returned to the lagoon side, all the canoes had drifted away. All the canoes were gone. But it was Letao who had emerged from the sand and, in straightened his leg, released the mooring lines (the coconut ropes that were tied to his knee).
All the canoes drifted away, but Letao escaped by sailing away. He kept sailing northward until he landed in those atolls north of our islands (which is Kiribiti [islands in the neighboring Micronesian group]). Letao arrived in Kiribiti, landed on one of the small islands in Kiribiti.
You know, in the old days they believed that when flotsam lands on an island, most of the time, it would rain a little bit. This is in their culture. So when it rained a little, the chief of Kiribiti said, “There maybe flotsam somewhere.” So his people, went to check the shoreline. When they arrived there, they saw Letao resting under the coconut trees. They returned to their chief and they reported, “There is a man there with a canoe, and he may have been there a while.” And so the chief told those who made the report, “Bring him, I may take him as an adopted son or as my friend. Let’s not leave him alone, let’s welcome him.” And the workers set out to bring Letao back.
The group from Majuro didn’t catch him because the huge swells between Majuro and Kiribiti prevented the Majuro group from completing the trip. And so the group from Majuro didn’t get far past Majuro waters; they lost, and now Letao was enjoying himself on Kiribiti.
When the Kiribiti chief saw the young man, he was very impressed by his youth and physique. The chief said of Letao, “Well he clearly looks like he would be a fine servant, staying next to me and working with me.” So they went to gather food and drinks to bring to Letao, the chief sent out a message to his people to gather food. He said, “Go bring food so that we can feed this young man.” The people little understood because he was an outsider, and they wondered what foods would be to his taste. So they set out to gather the food, but in the past, in Kiribiti, they often ate raw food. Let’s say it is fish -- they only eat raw fish. If it is banana, they wait only until it is just ripe, then they eat it.
And so, when they brought in their contributions, the food itself almost blocked the chief’s house from sight. There were tons and tons of food. When leaving each offering, each person said, “I have brought in my part for Letao.”
The chief did not know that Letao was a rascal. Letao introduced himself to the chief, then said, “Back home, where I come from, we have a different way of preparing the food. I will need you to dig a very big hole [for an earthen oven].” They call it um a place to cook food. “Bring stones and bring leaves,” said Letao. He said he wanted to make an earthen oven in order to cook the food, but he, himself, knew how to start the fire [implying that Letao has to teach them to make fire].
He was so bad that he hid the fire on his body and brought it to Kiribiti. He hid it in a coconut husk, so he had a way to start the fire. When they finished digging the hole, Letao told them, “Now throw in some firewood.” But Letao had already told them how to make the oven. And the people of Kiribiti set about to chop large branches and neatly stacked them in the earthen oven. Letao pulled out the coconut husk hidden on his body, and placed it under his arm, blowing on it, the husk burst into fire. Then he brandished the husk to enlarge the flame. When the fire burned brightly, he thrust it in the oven and fanned it, adding more wood. He added more and more wood and fanned and fanned and fanned, finally the wood in the earthen oven burst into flames. He waited until the fire settled down.
Once the fire settled, he told the people, “Well, this is how we will do this, once I jump into the fire, you will cover it up with the leaves you brought and then you will cover it in sand. Finally, you will cover it all. Letao had already informed the people when to check the food and how to know when it is cooked. Letao told them, “When the sun sets, then you will need to remove the sand that you put on top of the leaves, and so on.” And so the people patiently waited under the trees until the time he told them to check the oven. Every now and then they would check the movement of the sun, sometimes looking directly at the sun.
Once the fire settled down, Letao jumped into the pit and said to the people, “Now cover the oven.” And so the people covered it up with the leaves and then the sand. Well, let me tell you something, Letao seeped through the bottom of the oven and hid himself in the back of the crowd, but the crowd waited and waited until the time that Letao told them to check the oven.
As the sun hit the mark, the people jumped to the edge of the oven and started to excavate the sand. They scooped the sand off with coconut shells to bring out the food. When they were done, the crowd murmured astounded, “Whoa!” when they found lots of fish, pandanus, and breadfruit all cooked inside the pit—but no Letao. So the people gathered the food, set aside the best pieces for the chief and took them to him.
Then Letao appeared from the back and walked to the chief asking, “Well, how did you like it [his disappearing act].” The chief laughed and said, “Man, you are really a man, you are much smarter than anyone else I know. Maybe you need to show me how to do your trick. How did you do it?” Letao replied, “Well, chief, that kind of performance is only for people like me, for people who are considered lowly.”
[Q] Jeekonaan. [Loan word for ‘secondhand’]
[HL] Yeah, he was a jeekonaan. If it had been a family, the person who is considered very low in that family would be less cared for by the family, and that is the kind of person Letao was using to describe himself to the chief, and that is the kind of person who can perform the trick. The chief replied, “No! No! You must teach me so I can try.” Letao replied, “Well, we will see what will happen tomorrow in the second round.”
The next day, Letao performed his trick again. In exactly the same way, except that the size of the earthen oven was larger. The people set out again to gather more firewood and leaves to start the fire. He jumped again into the oven once the oven was prepared and after the fire had settled. They filled it in and waited again until the time that Letao told them to check, and when the time came to check the oven, they were even more surprised to find more food than even they put in. For example, where there were two fish, they found three. And each type of food in the oven had an extra item along with it.
Now the chief really, really wanted to learn the trick. He said, “It is very clear that I need to learn this.”
The next day, when Letao awoke, he did not get up, instead he leaned against the inside wall of the house, fanning himself until the chief awoke. As soon as the chief awoke, he asked, “What are you doing? We must do the trick again, but this time it will be me.” Letao stared at the chief and said, “Performing this type of trick is not for chiefs. Chiefs are not supposed to be put into an earthen oven; rather, the chiefs sit and watch the commoners perform the trick. Commoners like me who are regular lowly people who clean the pig pens and those types of humble people.”
Yet the chief insisted, “No! No! It is my turn!” And so Letao said, “For chiefs, when they perform this type of trick, the earthen oven needs to be even larger so that the chiefs are not cramped.”
And so when the people went to watch Letao cover the earthen oven. Letao implied that if there are five breadfruit put in, then there will be ten coming out because the oven is so big.
The chief laughed and said, “Well, it is really my turn.”
Letao said, “Tell your workers to come with me, so we can go make that earthen oven. We will make it really big so that you have room to stretch out.” But in Letao’s heart, he was laughing evilly.
Everyone on the island gathered, from the youths who know how to work to the elderly who have three legs, two of their own and one made of wood. Everyone came from all over the island they came and did the work together digging a large hole. They dug and dug and dug until the oven took shape. Then they brought the rocks that can hold the heat for a long time like charred coconut shells. And they brought more rocks and a lot of fern leaves to the place where the oven was and started the fire.
Letao was the one who started the fire because he claimed that he could light the whole oven. He said that he did not want any cold spots. He wanted it all to burn evenly. So he lit the oven in many areas so that the fire settled down all at once. But he said, “Well, chief you can go ahead and bathe and get ready because when all of it is done and we take it out of the oven, the entire nation will eat and be full.”
And so when Letao started the fire, he shoved in more wood here and there. Once the fire settled down, he turned to the chief, “Well, are you ready?” The chief said, “I am ready.”
The immensity of the fire and the heat caused the chief to step back from the edge, and he said, “Wow, I haven’t even set foot in the oven and here I am stepping back.” Letao said, “Once you jump inside, you will sleep away the time because it will be so relaxing. We built it to be so relaxing that you won’t feel it for a second. One leap and you are in, you can sleep on your stomach or your back which ever you like.”
And so the chief moved closer to the fire, and while rubbing his head because he desperately wanted to know how to do the trick he said, “It doesn’t matter, I want to be like you and in your position. Here I go!” Letao said, “When I say jump you jump, and [turning to the people] when I say cover it up, you cover it up.” And so the eager people, getting ready to help, moved closer to the oven waiting for Letao’s signal. Letao said, “Because of the size of the oven and the strength of the heat, it will be filled with food. So much, that it will take quite a long time to cook. Unlike the first two oven tricks, which we only kept covered for half a day, this time, with this large oven, it will take two to three days for all the food to be fully cooked.”
Well, you know, it is like a deep pot of rice. You need to let it cook for a very long time, likewise with this very large oven. Letao had already explained this to the crowd, and so they were giddy with the hope of all being fed and murmured to each other. They questioned him, “So you are saying that all the people of this nation will be fed?” And so Letao said, “Even the people of those islets over there will come and share this food with us.” Because when everything is cooked, it is like that pot of rice, cooked…. And they were very happy. They were laughing with one another. As to the women, they were eager to watch the chief jumping into the fire because it would be the first time the trick had ever been done on Kiribiti.
Letao said, “Get ready. When you have done that”….now Letao is explaining the process to the people… “I will be sailing to that islet to bring more supplies that we will be needing.” When he explained to the people, they really trusted him because they had not seen his type of trickery before. So the people said, “No problem.” Letao reminded, “When I give an order, you obey.” The people felt a shiver of excitement. Then Letao said to the chief, “Get ready, how are you feeling?” “I am ready,” the chief said.
Letao said, “NOW!” and the chief jumped into the fire. As he jumped, the people grabbed their leaves and got ready to seal the oven with the chief in it, but when the chief landed in the fire he writhed here and there, still the people continued to cover him with leaves and they covered him up.
As the chief continued to writhe, the people put in even more fill. They scooped in more and more and more until they could not see any movement. Then Letao said, “He is asleep, let’s wait while he sleeps.” Then the scoundrel left. He set sail like he said to bring the other food that would not be found inside the oven when it was opened.
So they waited until the night came. They all slept until day break of the first day. And, as day turned to night, they slept again until the second day, but Letao had not yet returned. He had set sail, and was out there somewhere. On the third day, they all gathered again around the oven. They said, “This is the time.” They wove palm fronds into baskets for food because they were going to share all that was in the earthen oven. Everyone in the area and those from other villages came.
In the Marshallese culture, there is the high chief, the low chief, the stewards, and there are the workers. All the stewards from the area came and waited for the chief to come out. They all looked to the earthen oven; they opened the sand with coconut shells scooping the sand out of the pit. When they were done scooping the sand, they removed the leaves, and kept on and on. Those in the front were sitting around the earthen oven, those who came later squatted behind them, so that those in back could see what would come out of the oven. Now those who were in the front brought out the coconut leaves one by one off the pile that was in the oven.
As they continued uncovering, something surprised them, they said, “What the heck? What is that? Why does the oven look so different from before?” They were eager to see what was inside, so they sped up, removing the leaves faster and faster. Finally when they each pulled a leaf from the bottom, they screamed and ran away. They all cried -- why would they cry? Because when they looked into the oven, they saw the chief burned to a crisp. They brought him out and they sat and cried over him.
But you know that scoundrel Letao had set sail north until he reached America [the land of the people who wear clothes]. And today this is why they say, “The Americans are smart because of that guy. They got their brains from Letao.”