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Interview with Ungilreng Takawo, Matriarch of Kayangel, Palau

Former Palau Program Manager Joyce Beouch interviews Ungilreng Takawo, Kayangel matriarch about traditional practices and sacred laws.

Palau is a matrilineal society and traditional titles and authority are inherited through the mother. In this interview Kayangel Matriarch Ungilreng Takawo shares her perspective on the principles and practices that uphold the vitality of the Kayangel community and natural environment. 

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By: Joyce K. Beouch

Joyce: Can you tell me about yourself and Kayangel?

Ungilreng: My father is from the clan in charge of the Sacred Oar that protects Kayangel from storms and surges. My mother is from the clan in charge of the Sacred Tree, the source of life for Kayangel and why I have been entitled with its care and preservation. I was fortunate to have grown up in a family and community surrounded by elders who nurtured and educated me on Kayangel culture and traditions. I was taught that Kayangel is naturally vulnerable to drought, coastal erosion, and storm surges, with limited natural resources that we rely on for survival. I was blessed with a mother and father who inspired my enduring love and loyalty to this small island atoll I call home. The more I learned the more I appreciated who I was and how critical my role in my community was. The sacred laws and resource management practices that are vital for my community are the bases of principles that guide my decisions. These principles sometimes make me wonder about other matriarchs’ concerns during events as the Mechesil Belau Conference (or Palau Women Conference) because they want to make all customary  practices identical. For example, this year they questioned funeral traditions and practices that I believe are specific to family, clan or village. From my perspective, I cannot say for others because I only know how it is done for my family, clan and village as I learned from my elders. There are general cultural concepts that are similar across Palauan communities, but details vary in relation to the environment, historical influence and clan interest. I strongly believe that culture and tradition are dynamic and adaptive but specific to the environment to which they exist. What is relevant in Koror is not necessarily applicable in Kayangel because our natural environments are not identical.

The sacred laws and resource management practices that are vital for my community are the bases of principles that guide my decisions.

Many communities in Palau have sacred places and taboos that they respect locally but do not impose on visitors because they feel it is not relevant or feel it will deem ridicule. For me, we cannot risk lives to save face or avoid ridicule. Every citizen of Kayangel believes and upholds the sacred laws and traditions because they have witnessed the wrath of sacred law violations. It is not superstition but fact that even the youth of Kayangel have witnessed. I have witnessed many storms in my lifetime as result of sacred law violations by those who are ignorant, or should I say, disrespectful. Some things cannot be explained in science but are there to protect us, and to respect them does not harm, but rather benefits our livelihood. I am adamant on sacred laws and respect for nature. I also believe that sometimes nature needs human help to heal. For example, when I was young I would tag along with my mother and the women elders who regularly manage the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle by splitting open rotting logs and getting rid of the beetle larvae. Such experiences taught me to appreciate my environment and how to care for it.

Sometimes nature needs human help to heal.

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Joyce: Many in the community told me to get advice and confirmation from you regarding the island restoration project. They respect and trust in your wisdom. Why?

Ungilreng: Because I trust and respect them, too, young and old. I also keep my doors open to anyone who may need my help, and I take the initiative to reach out to whoever needs assistance. I even help those who bring meaningful projects into the community. If I feel that the project will benefit my community, I will make sure that it is carried out in the best way possible. I will also stand up for my community and never afraid to do so because I know what works best for Kayangel. Having lived in Kayangel all my life, I know every stone that has been turned and every habitat that has been stirred. I am observant of the changing climate, harmful marine debris, and pessimistic attitude that threaten our safety and security on this small low-lying island of Kayangel.

Having lived in Kayangel all my life, I know every stone that has been turned and every habitat that has been stirred.

I remind everyone, especially the youth, of how the sacred laws keep us safe and secure. For example, we do not burn organic litter, especially the natural debris that washes ashore because that is what the fertile island is made of. We also do not cut trees because the forest provides a fortress that keeps our island safe from storms. My community trusts me to make environmental decisions because I am the guardian of the sacred laws. I know that what I say may spur much curiosity but what I can share is limited. Many things I cannot explain, I only believe. Sometimes it is better to let faith guide our decisions. We all know what is good and what is not. We choose to believe otherwise because of greed and ignorance.

Featured photo: Palau. Credit: Island Conservation

About Joyce Beouch

Joyce is a Conservation Planner for Palau's Protected Areas Network with the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism. Previously she held a position with Island Conservation as Palau Program Manager, and before that was a program manager at Palau Conservation Society. Joyce attended Western Oregon State College with a bachelors in Social Science. She has dedicated her conservation career to ensuring that management practices are relevant in the Palauan context. She also participates in voluntary community conservation efforts with traditional Palauan organizations, leaders, and youth programs. She is committed to conservation in Palau with the community’s best interest at heart.

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