The Marshall Islands are well know for use of stick charts to aid in navigation. The stick charts were used as instructional aids to help interpret the wave and current pattens as they encountered an atoll or island and to teach navigation. Stick charts were not taken on voyages but were memorized before embarking.
The charts were made of strips of coconut midrib or pandanus root on a frame. In general, the horizontal and vertical sticks acted as supports. Strips which were curved show the altered direction of swells deflected by an island and their intersection an area of confused sea — a valuable indicator of position. Island-currents may be shown by short straight pieces. Small likajjir (money cowrie) shells are used to depict atoll or island locations.
There are 2 main categories of stick charts: the wappepe and the rebbelip. The wappepe, is the only type verified by several elder Marshallese to be authentic. Some believe the rebbelip to be a relatively recent introduction that were influenced by modern western chart-making. Although many people today know how to make stick charts, very few understand how to use them.
The wapepe, which means “canoe floating on water”, is a small chart which shows the wave patterns that are found around atolls. The four-fold symmetry, corresponds to the four dominant swells.
The story behind the wappepe is that it was originally brought to the Marshallese from area now known as the Federated States of Micronesia, when a boat from Woleai atoll was lost at sea and drifted to an island in the Marshalls. The people were taken to Kili Island where normally no people lived. All the people on the boat were killed except for two brothers. The older brother, was taken to Ebon and lived there until he died. The younger brother went to Lae and had one son, Tarmelu, by a Marshallese woman. After Tarmelu’s father died, Tarmelu sailed to Ebon to see his father’s older brother and during this visit he learned about the wappepe from his uncle. Tarmelu returned to Lae and taught the people how to use the wappepe. So today it is said that the wappepe came from Lae for this is where the Marshallese people first learned of it.
While modern charts are universal and can be used to navigate from any location on the chart to any other location on the chart, the wapepe charts are predominantly uni-directional. They explain how to get from a given starting point to one or more target points. As the wave patterns for the return voyage are different from the patterns of the initial voyage, the charts are of little use to navigate back, let alone to navigate between other islands marked on the stick chart. In the light of this, it is not surprising that the charts were not taken along on the voyage. The necessary knowledge would have been memorized anyway and the chart would have been useless at any location other than the starting point.
For more details on how to use the wappepe – press here
The rebbelip, a square or rectangular shaped stick chart, illustrates sailing directions for most islands in both the Ratak (eastern) and Ralik (western) chains of the Marshall Islands. There are also rebbelip that chart out smaller sections of the Marshall Islands and may include only several atolls. The charts were hardly maps in a western sense: the cowrie shells did signify islands, but they could often be taken to be any island. Distances were quite arbitrary and charts were meaningless without the guidance of their maker.
Above figure from: Resolving ambivalence in Marshallese navigation:relearning, reinterpreting, and reviving the “stick chart” wave models https://cloudfront.escholarship.org/dist/prd/content/qt43h1d0d7/qt43h1d0d7.pdf?t=ob3o3b
In researching stick charts we came across stick charts called Meto (meddo) and Mattang. We found some conflicting info about these in different sources and were unable to determine if these were synonyms or subtypes of wapepe or rebbelib. If you are able to clarify what these type of stick charts are please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury: URL: http://marshall.csu.edu.au/Marshalls/html/essays/es-tmc-2.html
- WAM (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) website: http://www.canoesmarshallislands.com/category/navigation/
- Alele Museum essay on Navigation / stick charts. http://www.alele.org/category/culture/
- RMI embassy in USA website. http://www.rmiembassyus.org/index.php/about/marshall-islands/culture (2017)
- US Library for Congress, Photos & text of stick charts. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010586181/
- The Secret of the wave pilots. New York Times, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/magazine/the-secrets-of-the-wave-pilots.html
- The Tradition of wave piloting. http://artofwayfinding.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-tradition-of-wave-piloting-marshall.html
- How Sticks and Shell Charts Became a Sophisticated System for Navigation, Smithsonian 2015 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-sticks-and-shell-charts-became-sophisticated-system-navigation-180954018/#lcgXphli0UBQyiAP.99
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Islands_stick_chart
- Resolving ambivalence in Marshallese navigation:relearning, reinterpreting, and reviving the “stick chart” wave models https://cloudfront.escholarship.org/dist/prd/content/qt43h1d0d7/qt43h1d0d7.pdf?t=ob3o3b