By Katie Graves
Coming from a family where mom managed the house and had a full time job along with other responsibilities, I am very familiar with women being in a leadership role, but I have never experienced a true matriarchal form of order. This is partly why I have been so excited to visit Guam and Palau; both islands are traditionally matriarchal societies. Prior to arriving in Palau, I was aware that a matriarchal system is practiced much like in Guam, and I was curious to see how the cultures compared and differed from a Western perspective. It wasn’t until I saw firsthand the skilled women on Palau, though, that I understood how important and respected women are in their culture.
It was fascinating to learn about the perseverance of Chamorro women through time in Guam. Since the matriarchy on Guam is still strong today, women assume their leadership roles and have kept traditional burial and social customs alive. As my peers Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal and Santiago Fernandez discussed previously, Chamorro women also held political and spiritual leadership. Some even fought with men against the Spaniards. The most powerful woman in a clan holds more power than that of the most powerful male in the clan. The eldest daughter of the “highest ranked person in a clan”1 is one of the most influential people in a clan. She holds a lot of power and responsibility for the group’s actions, lifestyle and wellbeing. Chamorro mothers still assume their ancestors’ roles as the head of the house. Weaving, reef fishing and pottery making1 are some skills these women perform in addition to their domestic duties.
Much like the Chamorro women’s abilities, Palauan women also possess similar skills and hold some of the highest authority in their states. The first day in Palau, our group met a Palauan woman named Malahi. She explained the ways women were and are respected by men and clans. She showed us around multiple historical sites as insights into ancient Palauan culture. One of the first places she brought us to was a “bai,” or male meetinghouse. This structure was built out of carved wood and rope twine (no nails or screws were used). It had animals, figures and symbols painted all over it; each holding a very specific and deliberate meaning in their story.
Bats, Malahi explained, were painted hanging upside down around the entrance of the structure to remind men that they must keep their heads down as they enter–like a bat hanging upside down– to respect the chief leader. I was most interested by the female figure painted at the very top of the building roof peak. Depicted seated, naked, with lots of adornments, the image suggested a sexual connotation, but when I asked Malahi if she could explain more about this woman’s significance, she said that the female reminded the men that high status women, although not allowed in the male meeting house, were still superior to the men. They decided which male would lead the clan and could select or remove a male from being leader.2 Such highly ranked women wore specific necklaces and jewelry to express their power and lineage. Malahi herself is a highly ranked woman in her state, and was chosen to wear the very valuable money piece necklace2 that is passed down through women of utmost importance in each state. The money piece is a smooth, curved rectangular shaped object strung onto a simple black cord. Although it appears to be very simple, it has an irreplaceable monetary value due to its history and purpose to the Palauans. Malahi explained that only after someone else is chosen by the elders to wear the necklace piece is she allowed to take it off.
Women in Palau have many craftsman skills, which Malahi proved to me later that day. After visiting the male meetinghouse, our group took a hike to a popular waterfall site. Malahi and I rode a newly built monorail down the mountain to the waterfall.
As we passed a large group of ferns along the side of the hill Malahi picked several fern leaves and within seconds made a fern crown and fit it perfectly on my head. I was amazed at her fast and meticulous craftsmanship. I wore that crown the rest of the day and appreciated every minute of it. I am glad to hear that women still have such powerful status in society today, because after these past few days in Palau, I can already tell how influential this Palauan cultural experience has been for me.