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The warriors of Micronesia



Bwang, A Martial Art of the Caroline Islands WILLIAM A. LESSA and CARLOS G. VELEZ-I.


Bwang is a traditional martial art of the Caroline Islands. Bwang or something closely akin to it was once prevalent throughout the islands and now has been virtually forgotten except for scattered teachers in their declining years. An aspect of Micronesian culture as highly elaborated as this deserves to be rescued from the almost complete oblivion that has long surrounded it. As matters now stand, most of what we know about the martial arts comes from lifeless museum collections of spears, clubs, staffs, daggers, knuckledusters, and slings that do not tell us precisely how they were used.


During his third field trip to Ulithi Atoll in 1960, Lessa took some notes and photographs about bwang, an art that hitherto had been completely unknown to him. His informants were two masters of the art. One of them lived on the islet of Fassarai. His name was Tanglemal and he was about seventy-four years of age at the time. He belonged to the Hofalii lineage. The information garnered from him was eagerly volunteered and could have been greatly enlarged upon had circumstances permitted. The other informant was Habwungomar, who lived on the isle of Falalop and was about sixty-seven years of age in 1960 when interviewed and photographed in bwang positions with a staff. He belonged to the small Iucholop matrilineage.


Warfare and Military Training To understand properly the cultural and social dimensions of bwang it is advantageous to place it in the wider context of Carolinian military operations. Because our knowledge of warfare and military training is so scant for the smaller islands, such as Ulithi, it is necessary to rely to a large extent on what is known about the situation in Truk. This group of islands is, however, of so much greater size and population than any of the other islands under consideration, except Yap and Palau, that allowance must be made for any effects these two factors may have had in shaping the military complex. According to Kramer, warfare had ceased to exist when he first went to Truk in 1906, but he was able to gather a fair amount of information and combined it with the writings of some others, notably Kubary, who had preceded him at a time when wars were still flourishing. War was caused by such factors as jealousy of political influence, jealousy over a certain area of land, a good harvest of a neighbor, anger caused by maliciousness, disputes over women, and so on. Warriors went into battle under the leadership of a priest. They would put on every possible decoration and would protect the most exposed parts of their bodies from a well aimed spear by enveloping them with a thick layer of textiles and a belt. Battles were carried on both on land and sea, often at night. Special favorites were the reefs outside of the mangrove woods. Women would uncover their genitals to arouse the fighters. As soon as the enemy was close enough he was covered by a hail of stones slung at him, followed by javelins. The death of some of the combatants decided the battle (Kramer 1932: 268- 269). The question naturally arises as to how these combatants were trained. The Trukese warrior's wider training, according to Goodenough! included the handling of such weapons as the war club, the spear, and the sling, and in more recent times the knife and the rifle. The warrior learned, too, how to fight effectively with the shark tooth knuckle-duster. Most importantly for our purposes he had to learn also a system of grips for disarming armed assailants. This system, known as pwaan, or alternatively as emwenew, must obviously be regarded as an art within a wider set of martial skills. Some rare comments regarding Trukese training come to us from Bollig. Without using the word for pwaan or any of its synonyms, his remarks are prefatory to a description of eighteen sample grips that are easily recognizable as belonging to pwaan. The young crew was systematically trained in schools of war. An experienced warrior who knew many devices for hand-to-hand fighting took over instruction in a secluded house. He showed his pupils how 146 Micronesica it was possible to seize an opponent and disable him in spite of knife and spear. These schools of battle remained secret so that other tribes would not become agitated. During the instruction master and pupil stood opposite each other. First the master called the name of the grip that they were about to practice and then said to the pupil: "asidiei, attack me." Now both hit the thigh with their hand. Then the pupil attacked the master, and he parried the attack by means of the grip that they were supposed to learn (Bollig 1927: 109- 10). Returning to military training of the broader kind, Goodenough's field notes on the subject say that it was intensive over a period of a month's time and was required of all young men on Truk between the ages of eighteen and nineteen. The social classification of such young men changed after their schooling from that of enuwen aat to that of enuwenusich, which they remained until the wearing out of the loincloth they had received at puberty. This heralded a significant change in their status in the community. Thus Goodenough illustrates that martial training served an important part in the rites of passage of young males in Trukese society. The badge of having completed the training and entered the class of fighting men was the pinu, a poncho-like cape woven of banana fibers and decorated about the neckhole with red perforated shell disks traded in from the Mortlocks. The cape could only be worn by men who had completed this military training (Goodenough notes). Having completed their training, the young men were allowed to go on war expeditions. They also indulged in raids of their own, for which they did not need the permission of the district or lineage chief. These raids consisted of night forays against the people of another district, killing someone caught out, or burning down a house, after which they quickly fled back to their own district. The name for such a small scale night raid was menuken or terennif (Goodenough notes). To gain a reputation as a warrior meant that others would follow him if he suggested a raid somewhere, whereas the man without a reputation as a successful fighter would have difficulty getting companions if he wished to go out raiding. A man remained a warrior until old age made him too weak to be of any use on a military expedition. Cowardice was ridiculed, and the coward, nissimwa, was called a "woman" (Goodenough notes). Although all men underwent military training and there was therefore no special warrior group apart from the males in general, certain especially successful warriors were called waan Resiim, "the vehicle of Resiim," the Rainbow or War god. To them was accorded the privilege of certain functions in precombat ceremonies. The top man in the military picture aside from the district chief was the itang, the specialist in war and lore of the land, and in many respects he outranked the district chief. He performed the main magical rituals for insuring success, and through divination he indicated the manner of attack. It was he who determined who would go in which canoe. Anyone violating his orders would be sure to die in the ensuing battle. The itang was the one who could call a halt to hostilities. Aside from him, there were persons who knew various rong (magic rites) associated with war. Important among these were the sowuneerongun (the man who knew the rite connected with "making hot" the arm of the war-club man) and the sowumachew (the man who knew rites connected with making spears effective). Only these two could bring the weapons from the men's Vol. 14. December 1978 147 house. No one else handled them until these two had performed their rites over the weapons, after which they would be distributed (Goodenough notes). The expression "making hot" must be understood in terms of neerongun magic, performed just before setting out on a military expedition. Some medicine is put in a giant tridachna shell, which is put on a fire. When it boils, the warrior's right arm is rubbed with medicine and then placed in the boiling contents of the shell up to the elbow. The arm is kept there to cook until the effects of the medicine that had been smeared on it begin to wear off, when it is removed. The purpose of the magic is to make the arm of the warclub wielder strong, and to make the warclub "hot." Ulithian bwang must be understood as having flourished originally in a context like that prevailing in Truk but in the course of time survived only as a residue of a wider system of combat. This would account for one informant's statement that training did not begin until the pupil was about thirty years of age. When the full complement of martial arts was flourishing and had not been reduced to present techniques alone, the trainee must have been considerably younger. Statements about the nature of this wider system and the training of those who participated in it need not be purely speculative. They can be derived from our knowledge of the Trukese martial arts, which they must have resembled even if as a paler reflection, and by drawing upon the considerable body of knowledge that we have concerning other specialized Ulithian arts. We do know that Ulithian training in bwang was given under the tutelage of a specialist-teacher called a iulbwang. He need not, according to one informant, have been a member of the pupil's matrilineage; he could be a relative or a friend. This is in accordance with the instruction given to an aspiring practitioner of any of the arts, such as typhoon magic, knot divination, navigation, community fish magic, healing, house carpentry, and canoe construction. Teachers were always compensated with gifts in the form of goods. In Truk, training was essentially a lineage affair conducted in the lineage men's house, but such non-members of the lineage as the warrior fathers of the trainees and the warrior husbands of women of the lineage could be teachers. In this connection, McKnight's earlier comments about the primacy of the lineage or clan in the training of Palauan fighters are worth recalling. He says, too, that fighting was learned "with the door closed" for privileged members of the clan. The relation between the iulbwang and his Ulithian student seems to have been marked by deference and respect but not the formalized etiquette that apparently prevailed in Truk. A successful pupil, who was himself recognized as a iulbwang, carried on in the tradition of the master's specific system, or chap, which had been created in the past by some particular innovator. It will be recalled that Elbert had listed three such systems or schools of fighting for Truk and said something about their origins. Similar information concerning Ulithi is not available, but there can be no doubt that different techniques from di~erent schools existed there, too, and might be utilized for the same action. Both Carolinian versions, it must be emphasized, were martial systems designed by and for warriors and were important parts of the general cultural patterns adopted for warfare. As a martial arts system bwang (Trukese pwiuin) is not limited to the unarmed aspects of attack and defense and so therefore must be understood as a truly, well- !50 Micronesica developed method of killing for warriors and not a sport designed for exercise or leisure. With this in mind, the system consists of both unarmed and armed methods and techniques.


First, all of the techniques are dynamic ones in the sense that its practitioners appreciated the importance of movement and body control in order to bring to bear the maximum efficiency with the minimum of energy expenditure. For example, the various striking and thrusting arts with the feet or the fist were focused on particular parts of the anatomy as targets. The nose, throat, eyes, diaphragm and groin areas-the "soft parts" of the body-were spots of special attention.


n the use of the whole body as the generator of power was the fact that the various methods of attack and defense used gliding, slipping, or evading body motions which added to the momentum of each technique and of course greater power for each strike, jab, or thrust executed. In addition we have many examples in which the opponent's strength was turned against himself by the defender by "giving way" to the thrust of the opponent's technique. This action, combined with the defender's body motion and the power generated, executed powerful techniques with and without weapons, which produced mortal results. What must also be kept in mind is that such techniques were executed in a variety of contexts including aboard canoes, on the beach, from kneeling positions, from standing positions, and most certainly from prone positions. Whether they were using knives, clubs, spears, knuckle-dusters, staffs, or discarded pieces of wood as weapons, bwang practitioners were quite adaptive to changing environments and contexts.

The Carolinian forms of the martial arts were important cultural adaptations within the Carolinian cultural systems. Although we have only remnants of the total martial systems, what has been salvaged indicates that these were highly elaborated and systematized. Its practitioners had certainly internalized the technical relationships between body structure, efficient energy use, the generation of power maximally, and physical action in defeating an opponent at a profound cultural level of learning.

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