APRIL 22, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
Like many Pacific islanders, folklore and spoken tales were extremely important tools around which traditional Marshallese communities organized themselves, set ethical norms and taught younger generations about how to live as Marshallese.
Many Marshallese mythological tales sprouted purely out of the creative minds of those who told them, such as the myth of the nonieb, the invisible island dwarves that make themselves known only to certain individual Marshallese. Other tales have their roots in the night sky. Similar to how ancient Hellenic societies assigned creative stories and background context to groups of stars and the planets (Take Orion the Hunter, for instance.), the traditional Marshallese came up with their own constellations, but based them on aspects of their own culture. Instead of rams, bulls and lions, there may be breadfruits, frigates and canoes.
The story of Jebro is an example of a spoken tale derived from the unique Marshallese cultural interpretation of the stars in the night sky. One of the most popular tales still known today, the story follows brothers Jebro, Lumur and their mother Loktanur on an epic canoe race across Ailinglaplap Atoll, an atoll located about 120 miles south of Kwajalein Atoll.
The story goes like this: The race pits the many sons of Loktanur against one another to see who could travel by canoe the quickest from Woja, the westernmost island of Ailinglaplap atoll (where Loktanur and her sons live), to Je, located more than 30 miles away to the northeast. The winner of the race becomes Iroij (king) of the East.
As the sons dash off the beach on Woja into the lagoon to begin the race, Loktanur, who has a large bundle of clunky material at her feet, calls out to her sons to let her on one of the boats to join the race. Seeing that she wants to bring a bunch of extra weight on board, the sons dismiss her call one by one. Tumur, the oldest son, shouts that she should go on the canoe of Mejdikdik, the second oldest son. Paddling out into the water, Mejdikdik tells his mother to go with Majlep, who in turn dismisses the request and tells her to go with Majetadik. So it goes with each brother, each one passing the burden onto the younger one. That is until Jebro, the youngest of all the sons, gets the request.
Jebro stops paddling, and Loktanur tells him to beach his canoe. “What do you mean beach!” Jebro yells. “The race has begun. Hurry, or we’ll be too late!”
“Beach your canoe,” Loktanur tells Jebro. “Then help me bring my stuff.” Jebro looks at the big bundle of heavy, useless junk at her feet and is dismayed.
“Jij! This is a race,” Jebro sighs. “How can I paddle that stuff against the wind?” Finally, casting away any hope of winning the contest, Jebro gives up, beaches the canoe and helps his mother bring her stuff onboard. Once everything is onboard, Loktanur gets to work, and to her son’s surprise, her pile of junk isn’t junk after all. It’s a sail.
Made of woven pandanus leaves, the sail is unfurled by Loktanur’s confident hands and attached to a makeshift mast. Having never seen a sail before, men from the village on Woja crowd around the boat and stand back, amazed at how effortlessly the canoe cuts through the water with the wind.
The era of travel via pure muscle power was over, and the era of sailing had begun.
Together, Jebro and Loktanur travel quickly, working the sail’s sheet to adjust for wind directions, and make up for lost time, catching up to the brothers paddling their way to Je. Halfway to Je, they come across Lumur, the oldest son, who is now too tired from paddling to go on. Taking pity on his brother, Jebro stops the canoe and helps Lumur aboard, but Lumur quickly takes control of the boat and throws his mother overboard. Jebro cuts one of the sail lines and jumps in after her, and together they swim east to Je.
Lumur, with the sail sabotaged by Jebro, and not knowing how to properly sail the canoe, makes little progress and eventually starts drifting back to the west. Jebro and Loktanur, meanwhile, swim on and on and at dawn finally reach Je, the “Island of Sunrise.” Jebro has won the race.
After drifting all the way back to Woja, Lumur finishes repairing the sail and sets off for Je once again. Some time later he reaches shore and, thinking Jebro has drowned, claims first place for himself. But when Jebro comes out onto the beach, showing that he is the true winner and true Iroij of the East and now the Iroij of Ailinglaplap Atoll, he shames Lumur for his awful treatment of his mother and disdain for everyone else. Lumur turns away, sails back to the west and never again looks at his brother.
Today, Jebro is immortalized as Jeleilon, the constellation that the Western world calls Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters. It was a traditional waypoint in the sky that skilled Marshallese navigators used to help guide them on their ocean sailing voyages. Jebro is synonymous with endurance, security, peace and love. The information for this article was obtained from Gerald Knight’s “A History of the Marshall Islands” and “Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” by Anono Lieom Loeak, et al.