Thursday, March 26, 2020

How the women saved Guam (Feminist Folktales 13.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Guam (Micronesia)

The story

Image from here
The people of Guam anger the spirits of nature, and one day they wake up to an earthquake: a giant fish is eating the island. They manage to spot the giant palakse (parrot fish), but they can't capture it. The men hold a council but keep the women out, and when they go up against the fish they tell the women to stay behind, because fishing and hunting is a man's job.
Meanwhile, the women have their own council, and come up with a plan. They all cut their hair and use it to weave a large, strong net. A girl notices orange peel floating in the bay, and knows women on the other side of the island use orange peel to wash their hair; this is how they figure out there must be a tunnel under the island. They cast the net at the exit of the tunnel, catch the fish, and manage to pull it ashore with the help of the men and children. The island is saved.

What makes it a feminist story?

This is one of those rare traditional stories where women act as a community. While men try to push them aside in a time of crisis - not letting them into the council, not letting them go fishing - they come together and thing of alternative solutions, since it is obvious that the direct approach is yielding no result. The women's council listens to everyone (in various versions little girls and old women all get a turn to speak), and they pool their knowledge to come up with a solution. Someone discovers the orange peel (observation); someone knows where it's from (knowledge); someone realizes the meaning of their presence (logic); someone suggests possible next steps (strategy); someone suggests tools to use (practicality); and in the end, they all contribute their hair, work together, and catch the fish. (Added bonus that they sacrifice their hear, a symbol of feminine beauty - highlighting that the survival of the community is more important that beauty standards.)
The women of Guam are a symbol of good teamwork and supportive community. At the end of the story, the men join them in pulling the net, admitting that they had made a mistake when they kept the women out of trying to solve the problem. The island is saved, the community comes together.

Image from here

Things to consider

When I tell this story, some things usually need explaining (e.g. the shape of the island of Guam, or what a palakse is). This story only really comes alive in its cultural context.


Eve Grey: Legends of Micronesia (Department of Education, 1951.)
Bo Flood, William Flood, Beret E. Strong: Micronesian Legends (Bess Press, 2002.)
Bo Flood, William Flood, Beret E. Strong: Pacific Island Legends (Bess Press, 1999.)
Evelyn Flores, Emelihter Kihleng: Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia (University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)
Lawrence J. Cunningham, Janice J. Beaty: A history of Guam (Bess Press, 2001.)


It's a great story about the relationship between humans and nature. I had it on my folktales and climate change list.

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