Day 511: Marshallese weaving and Christmas trees

A reminder of the sanctity of tradition

Delicate tissue paper flowers circle stiff wiry fronds alongside shell garland looping from branch to branch. A beachy snowman, three shells stacked and painted, grins a charcoal smile from between the plastic needles. White fibers twist into lace, wrapping a cowrie shell snugly into a tuna fish’s eye, glittering out from artificial evergreen branches. 

It’s the Christmas season on tropical Kwaj, and every night for the last month, a Kwaj Christmas tree has lit up a corner of our living room. With our traditional treasured ornaments packed away in storage, we’ve filled our tree with a sparkling hodgepodge of paper flowers, colorful lights, and crafts. 

Among the treasures are hand woven flowers, stars, angels, turtles and tuna fish, deceptively simple with all their Christmas charm. Their basic silhouettes reflect a deep Marshallese weaving tradition that is still celebrated and passed to a new generation of women. 

A woven turtle ornament hangs on our tropical Christmas tree.

Two island trees provide most of the raw materials women use to weave, braid, and twist: coconut and pandanus. The Alele Museum website provides a detailed description of how kimej and mālwe – two of the weaving fibers – are made from coconut frond strands. The process for using maan̄ – made from pandanus leaves – is even more complicated, involving long periods of drying and pounding the leaves to make them soft and pliable.

Fibers for Marshallese weaving are sourced from coconut (left) and pandanas (right) trees.

The use of coconut fibers in weaving was brought to the Marshall Islands from other areas in Micronesia during Japanese occupation of the region from 1914 to 1945, according to the Alele Museum post. Pandanus, however, is the customary material for weaving jaki-ed, or mats, used for sleeping, sitting, traditional clothing, sailing, wall coverings.

Pandanas leaves have a sharp saw-tooth edge that must be cut off before the leaves are dried and pounded to use for weaving.

Coverage from a year ago by Hawaii Public Radio says the skills and process for making the mats – or jaki-ed – had been nearly lost until the last decade or so when 200-year-old Marshallese woven mats were found in the collection of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, where some jaki-ed are on display.

Since rediscovering these mats, a program based at The University of the South Pacific in Majuro seeks to revive the art of Marshallese jaki-ed weaving and design by improving weavers’ skills and reintroducing lost jaki-ed designs. The Jaki-Ed Revival Program offers training, a permanent weaving house at the university, and an annual jaki-ed auction to display and sell the woven mats.

In May of 2018, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History hosted visitors from the Jaki-Ed Revival Program to study the mats housed in the Department of Anthropology. The department’s collection includes two dreka in niin, difficult to make pounders used in  processing pandanas leaves. “The weavers were excited, but surprised to see these,” says a Smithsonian article recounting the visit, “knowing they would have been passed as heritage heirlooms down the family line but in this case were transferred to foreigners.” 

Conservators at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History have preserved jeti-ed and dreka in niin in their collection. E206140-0, NMNH Dept of Anthropology, Photo: Rebecca Summerour.

While the turtle on our Christmas tree is not nearly as complex or significant as the deeply traditional Marshallese woven jaki-ed, it is a small symbol of the deep value – near sanctity, even – of long-held cultural knowledge. The university’s program description may say it best: “Finely woven and intricately and symbolically designed mats are a treasured cultural asset of the Marshallese people. They are the expression of kōrō im an kōl, the attribute that bestows upon women the opportunity to develop their unique talent and creativity.”

So when I unwrap my coconut-and-pandanus-fiber trinkets next year to hang on the tree, I will consider their true value, adding a Marshallese tradition to a meaningful custom in our own family: our glittering, hodgepodge Christmas tree.