Jobwa Stick Dance

The Marshallese Jobwa (Jebwa) stick dance is one of the few remaining traditional dances of the Marshall Islands. Many other dance rituals existed before the mid 1800’s but after the missionaries arrived they put a stop to many of these, some which they considered unspeakably erotic. The Jobwa was only performed for the high chiefs (iroojlaplap) when they launched their canoes, built their house or before going to or returning from war. It originates from Ujae Atoll in the Ralik chain (the western chain).  The origins of the dance are explained in many different stories with variation between stories.  Below is one compilation of these stories:

According to legend, a chief named Lorenwa fell asleep under a tree on Ebeju, a now uninhabited islet of Ujae Atoll. The man slept without food and water for a month. When he woke up, he told the people of Ebeju that he had bee visited by the nooniep, an invisible fairylike creature that can be heard but not seen. The nooniep had described the steps and chants of a dance and the chief taught this dance to the other islanders. The lyrics were neither in Marshallese nor any other identifiable language. Not even the old people knew what they meant, as if the words had sprung from the underworld along with the spirit. While the men were performing the dance, with women chanting and beating on drums, another spirit called a ri-ikjiet (dri ikjiet) appeared from the well. This spirit was a very handsome man with a golden beard, and soon the women were so distracted by the newcomer that their chanting and drumming became dubwabwe, or out of tempo. The chief was incensed at this disruption and hatched a plan to eliminate the intruder. He told the men to touch their dance sticks to the ground at the end of the dance, instead of holding them up high. When the ri-ikjiet participated in the next round of the dance, he held his stick high while the other dancers touched their sticks to the ground. This singled out the ri-ikjeit and gave the chief an opportunity to kill the offending sprit with a club spiked with shark’s teeth.

Now, the dance is only performed on the most special of occasions and only with the permission of the iroojlaplap (high chief). Therefore, many Marshallese have never seen the Jobwa dance performed. The dance is performed only by selected families from Ujae atoll and is passed from one generation to another. The performers are 15–17 years old. There are 16 men who perform the stick dance, 4 chanters and 2 drummers. Men dress in coconut leaf skirts and wear flower garlands. They are bare above the waste and barefoot. Traditionally, only women played the drum (anne), since the drum was used to send the men off to war. The sticks are made from ironwood.

 

Jobwa 1950
Jobwa Dance, Arno Atoll 1950
Source:  The Jack Tobin Marshall Islands Anthropology Collection, 
https://digicoll.manoa.hawaii.edu/tobin/Pages/viewimage.php?img=530&famNum=1
Jobwa recent
Jobwa dance, 2013.  Pacific Islands Forum Opening Ceremony

 

References:

  • Etto n̄an Raan Kein: A Marshall Islands History. by Julianne M. Walsh, Ph.D.; in collaboration with Hilda C. Heine, Ed.D.; with the assistance of Carmen Milne Bigler, Mark Stege. 2012. 526 pp.
  • Story about Jebwa, as told by Jelibor Jam, 1975 in Stories from the Marshall Islands : Bwebwenato Jān Aelōn̄ Kein.  by Jack A. Tobin. 2002 pp 63-65.