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A group of 20 students from ANU and the University of Hawai’i (UH) across many different disciplinary backgrounds, including environmental studies, development studies, international relations and Pacific Studies, have recently returned from the experience of a lifetime. ANU CHL Pacific Studies Associate Professor Katerina Teaiwa and Dr James Viernes, Outreach Director of the Centre for Pacific Islands Studies at UH Manoa (UHM), along with outreach assistant Austin Haleyalpiy and CHL PhD student Talei Mangioni, took the students for an onsite course in Palau focused on gender, culture, environment, political history, tourism and the arts. This is the first time the two universities have collaborated for a Pacific field school, and it was significant to have two indigenous Micronesian scholars from UHM and ANU leading the group.
Generously hosted by President Patrick Tellei and his staff at Palau Community College (PCC), the students had many unique and enriching experiences over their two-week visit. They were greeted by Palau’s highest ranking woman Bilung Gloria Salii and the Mechesil Belau, prominent women elders who put on a feast of Palauan food and massive display of heritage materials for the group. They also met with activists of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement, including Elicita Morei, Bernie Keldermans, Ngirmang Moses Uludong, Ebas Santy Asanuma, Kembas Kesolei, and Minister of State Faustina Rehuher-Marugg. Palau is recognised across the NFIP movement in Oceania as a leader in fighting to establish their nuclear-free Constitution despite the priorities of the United States Government with which they have a Compact of Free Association. It is also well known for the “Palau Pledge” requiring all visitors to promise to act in an environmentally responsible way on arrival.
Students also had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a Yapese Pwo Ceremony led by Grand Master Navigator Ali Haleyalur initiating five Masters—Frank Pedro, Kurt Ngiraked, and Wayne Adelbai of Palau, Keahi Omai from Hawai‘i, and Nick Halishluw of Yap— and two Grandmasters—Sesario Sewralur, son of the famous Mau Piailug from Satawal, and Peia Patai of the Cook Islands, Commander of the Okeanos fleet—into the art of indigenous navigation. The four-day ritual occurred after the navigators completed a voyage from Aotearoa New Zealand to Palau. There are around 30 master navigators in the Pacific, 20 of whom are from Micronesia and the students interviewed three of the newly initiated for their course assessment.
Students inside the Senate chamber at Ngerulmud
President Patrick Tellei also gave the group a guided tour of the State of Melekeok on Babeldaob Island, which hosts the very impressive Palauan Capitol buildings at Ngerulmud.
Students with completed roof thatching spines for the PCC Bai
Students with ANU alumni Ms Roxanne Siual Blesam
The students also got to learn about the traditional social and political structure of the Bai (meeting house) and each made several spines of thatching for the Bai at PCC. There were also visits to the Belau National Museum, meetings with Klouldil Singeo, Meked Besebes, and elders at the Bureau of Aging, Disability and Gender, a session with ANU Alumni Ms Roxanne Siual Blesam, Chief Executive Officer of Palau's Environmental Quality Protection Board (EQPB), and a discussion with Loyola Darius of Island Conservation, and members of the Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement, Ranger Stark and Dora Benhart. This prepared students well for two fishing and snorkelling trips to the Rock Islands visiting the Milky Way, Jellyfish Lake, Cemetery Reef, and other Rock Islands. If they caught any species of fish that were protected, these were returned to the sea. The students also went on an excursion with school students and Ann Singeo of the NGO Ebiil Society to see one of Yap’s famous pieces of Stone Money quarried and constructed in Palau.
Students received the opportunity to swim at Jellyfish lake while on a tour of the Rock Islands
Students after their excellent fishing trip to the Rock Islands
Through these meetings, excursions and activities, students gained a greater understanding of why Palau is so passionate about protecting its environment and how governance and legal frameworks introduced through colonization are integrated with Indigenous Palauan approaches and values. Finally, the students enjoyed a session with Kiblas Soaladaob and Stallone Obakrairur of the Belau Music and Entertainment Society, a turning point that led the group to share their own knowledge of music with each other through some regular evening jam sessions!
One of the highlights of the course was that the students prepared three distinctive cultural dances—Samoan (taught by Hanna Selesele), Bollywood (taught by Tanika Sibal), and Palauan (taught by Austin Haleyalpiy)—and performed these at several gatherings, including the final “Thank You” event for all their hosts. This Pacific approach was important to establishing kinship and cultural rapport in Palau. It was especially critical to ensure the group did not promote a one-directional, extractive approach to learning in country but rather demonstrate respect for, and familiarity with, cultural norms through a practice like dance, which is valued across the Pacific. James, Katerina, Austin and Talei also participated in a 75-minute program hosted by Ngirmang Moses Uludong on Palau Wave Radio, sharing their ideas, experiences, and research on Pacific issues with Palau audiences.
This course is a wonderful example of innovation in teaching, and showcases the importance of practical experience in holistic education. Meeting so many distinguished and diverse members of the Palau community, learning about political histories and contemporary issues in Palau, and discussing critical issues of sovereignty, environmental protection and the safeguarding of culture and heritage proved to be invaluable and a truly unforgettable experience. ANU staff and students are grateful for their amazing partners—the staff and students of the Centre for Pacific Islands Studies at UHM, all who took time out to speak and share with them in Palau, and their wonderful hosts, particularly PCC President Patrick Tellei, Jay Olegeriil, Uroi Salii, Mino Fagolur, Ephraim Ngirachitei, Hilda Reklai, Hulda Lukas and Amy Andres.