Thoughts about Mosuwe by Peter Black

The word mosuwe means the remote past.   When people talk about things that happened long ago, mosuwe is one of the words they use.  Ifiri Mosuwe, concerning, or about, long ago, is a good phrase for what in English is sometimes called the pre-contact period. When, exactly, Ifiri Mosuwe began and when it ended depends to a large extent upon the topic.  Religion of mosuwe, for example, ended with the destruction of the spirit houses just before the conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1931. But the arrival of manufactured cloth, metal tools, and tobacco a half century earlier marked the end of the economics of mosuwe. The beginning of mosuwe, if it can be said to have a beginning, is even more vague. The coming of the first people to the island, recounted in the tale of Ramoparuhe, the mother of the land, might make a good beginning. If so, however, what should we call the times before she came to Tobi, when she and those who lived before her were coming and going from places like Fais and Ulithi? Furthermore, it is not possible to say with certainty that she and her family were the first persons to come to Tobi, even though she is the one credited with beginning everything there.

The story of Ramoparuhe’s adventures tells us there was no one living on the island when she found it.  We can’t conclude from this, however, that there had never been any people there before.  A look at the map shows many possible places from which earlier visitors, or perhaps even settlers could have come.  More archaeology might answer many of these questions. For now at least, it makes sense to think of Ifiri Mosuwe as that era that began with Ramoparuhe and ended with changes brought by people like Borrie and Yoshino and Father Elias.

Ramoparuhe’s story tells us other things as well. It speaks of the importance of women to the social order, the role of matrilineality, the sacredness of clans, the importance of the tie between a woman and her brother, and the centrality of conflict and its management in social life.

Ifiri Mosuwe is sometimes spoken of as though it was unchanging, with everything fixed in place by the first people on the island and kept the same by each generation. Or as a "time before"--the fixed point from which the modern Tobian world emerged.  But nothing in life stays the same.  A more realistic view, it seems to me, would be to imagine an underlying dynamic in which the cultural knowledge brought by the first settlers was applied to the project of making Tobi livable. What followed was a two-way process in which the island was modified to make it habitable while the culture the people brought with them was fitted to the realities of their new home. The modification of the island involved such things as using coral rocks to build fish habitats out on the reef flats, replacing much of the original vegetation with more useful plants and trees and, most of all, converting the fresh water swamp at the center of the island into taro gardens.  The modification of the culture involved such things as the discovery of new knowledge about the behavior of various local fish populations as well as the medicinal properties of local plants, the progressive evolution of the design of local canoes, and no doubt much else besides