Grandmother’s Gift: Can Traditional Pacific Island Knowledge Help Manage Our Oceans?

a group of people standing on the shoreline of an island with trees behind the, they are wearing all different clothes and looking at the camera, the person taking the picture is standing in the water facing the island
Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia
Grandmother’s Gift: Can Traditional Pacific Island Knowledge Help Manage Our Oceans?

In the central Caroline Islands of the Northwest Pacific, clothing and shrouds are traditionally made from hibiscus and banana fibers. Woven on a back strap loom, a lava lava is a 24-inch by 6-foot-long fabric made in a variety of patterns, styles and color combinations.

a weaver using a backstrap loom
A weaver using a backstrap loom / Credit: Douglas Varchol. 

Most of the woven patterns are made for wearing, such as a wrap for women. However, specific ones are designed and made as gifts or offerings to others. More significantly, they are also used for burial shrouds.

The Machiy, perhaps the most intricate of all woven lava lavas in the Caroline Islands, has some of the most complicated patterns woven into it. The fabric is used for burial shrouds and, on special occasions, to install new paramount chiefs of the islands.

machiy woven pattern
An example of a Machiy / Credit: Douglas Varchol. 

During this ceremony, it is hung over the new chief while a chant emphasizing the responsibility of chieftainship is performed. Along with many community duties, the Machiy also bestows a form of environmental stewardship upon the new chief, with the chief’s chant stating that his “shoulders were to be the reef upon which the waves of trouble and problems were to break, dispelling them into harmless foam.”

yellow lava lava fabric with blue and red pattern
Another lava lava / Credit: Douglas Varchol. 


In New York City at the United Nations, negotiations for a new international treaty resume February 20 through March 3. The treaty is meant to pick up where the United Nations Law of the Sea in 1982 left off: Protecting the ocean on the other side of the 12-mile marine border known as the exclusive economic zone – the high seas.

The new treaty, commonly called Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions, or BBNJ, would focus on conserving ocean biodiversity beyond that 12-mile limit, allowing the protection and regulation of the seas.

Yet the negotiators have repeatedly failed since 2017 to achieve consensus by member states in New York, and the treaty could not be presented for final ratification.

Like the intricacies of patterns woven onto the textile, bringing the proposed high seas treaty to fruition will be difficult and challenging.

It is hoped the upcoming negotiations will make the treaty operational.


Based on archeological findings and anthropological research, researchers concluded that the people of the remote low-lying atolls in the central Caroline Islands migrated from Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, bringing traditional lava lava weaving along with them.

These seafaring people settled the islands in voyaging canoes, crafted from the breadfruit trees and other local timbers. Prior to the islands being in contact with European explorers, the canoes were the primary mode of transport. The ocean is not only their highway, but indeed, their lifeblood.

canoe carving
Canoe carving / Credit: Douglas Varchol.

Short and long voyages were frequently made between islands. It is said that the canoe of “Palulap,” the patron spirit of traditional navigation, had 10 crewmembers each representing a sacred knowledge. Their survival on any given voyage depends on each other’s ability to perform.

a canoe house
A canoe house / Credit: Douglas Varchol.

Likewise, for a community of people living on tiny islands practically in the ocean, their survival depends on their knowledge, and more importantly, care of the ocean and its valuable resources.

These seafarers would voyage for many reasons, including seeking food supplies, visiting kin living on other islands, or continuing century-old trading sea routes. The woven lava lavas, along with readymade weaving looms and sometimes processed raw fibers for weaving, came along as gifts or exchanges for the journey.

These lava lavas and other woven products such as mats would sail with the  voyagers over thousands of miles to the western islands to trade. Lava lavas would also sail on voyages to gather food supplies on uninhabited islands, as a backup form of currency.


In this film, we asked the question: How can Pacific ancestral knowledge help protect and nurture the high seas?

Alongside traditional voyaging, other roles play a part, including the breadfruit caller and the healer. Their understanding of how ecology and spirit are mixed and matched to support the ecosystem of the patient is a marvel — lives get saved. The high seas is just one more giant ecosystem that needs it healers and callers to function properly as well.

a navigator
A way-finding navigator / Credit: Douglas Varchol.

Occasionally it gets out of balance, more so today than ever. Risking anthropomorphizing, we can’t risk what we call its anger. So, we recognize it. We give it standing and do so through traditional practices like myth creation, stewardship of the sea, canoe carving and seafaring voyaging. In other words, it’s part of the family.

In seafaring and affiliated products crucial to voyaging such as lava lava it is clear the power of the culture can be seen as a line through time, connecting community members, and clearly delineating the antecedents of environmental stewardship.

Further, it had over centuries woven into its specific patterns, rich histories, knowledge, and comprehensive networks of human relations between themselves and their surrounding environment.

In many ways, this special woven textile assures the bearer that they are never lost. The presence of the product provides some degree of certainty, and security that despite the rough seas, all will be fine.

A traditional wayfinding technique / Credit: Douglas Varchol.
A traditional wayfinding technique / Credit: Douglas Varchol. 


When I left my island of Lamotrek to seek formal education, I was given one of these special shrouds from my grandmother. For her, it was a way of maintaining a connection with me as I sought to travel and learn about the world.

larry headshot
Larry Raigetal / Credit: Douglas Varchol.

Throughout my four years of attending high school, I carried this special shroud and would return it back to her for safekeeping when I came home during the summer.

I took this shroud with me when I left to attend college at the University of San Francisco, and it was during my third year there I learned that my grandmother passed away.

I opened the carefully wrapped shroud to remember her life and found that also wrapped in it was a smaller piece of wrapped paper with one US dollar bill and a few coins amounting to $1.80.

It dawned on me that this might have been the only foreign currency she had in her possession and that she would want me to have it. After completing my college studies, I made the long trip home to my island and buried the shroud along with the money inside my grandmother’s grave.

Watch the film:

This film was produced with the support of IUCN and Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally screened at IMPAC5 on February 4, 2023. The accompanying essay was written by Larry Raigetal and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A group of people standing on the shoreline in the Federated States of Micronesia / Credit: Douglas Varchol. 

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