Ethnobotany Fall 2002 Final

The ethnobotany students in the Spring 2002 section of the course enjoyed the stories and legends told by one of students in the class. The student knew many legends and stories, he was also known to pick up a guitar at sakau and sing through the night with friends and family. He was a rare individual who could entertain and tell stories that were funny both in his native language as well as in English. He was a traditional man, in the old meaning of those words.

This past summer we lost him and his stories.

The traditional ways and knowledge of the past are being lost. Knowledge of the traditional uses of plants is disappearing. Few young people today know how to make traditional foods, fewer still actually make fermented breadfruit and other culturally unique foods. Few young people have the time or discipline to learn all of the healing plants.

No successful business person nor government leader builds a house with a thatch roof. Cement houses, metal cars, and food from the store dominate our daily lives and desires. Chicken, Spam, corned beef, or turkey tail and rice are the dinner time staple foods. When we are sick we go to the clinic or hospital. When we travel to another municipality we never consider walking. And when we travel to other islands we never consider using a canoe.

The new ways must be better, otherwise why would so many people choose the new ways over the old? Cement houses last longer and are stronger than thatch roof and wood houses. Pick-up trucks and planes are faster than walking and canoes. Antibiotics can cure diseases that local medicine cannot.

There is another factor that argues against preserving traditional knowledge, especially stories and legends. Preservation requires writing down stories and legends. Yet these stories and legends are often meant to be secret, not to be shared with outsiders. The very act of writing these legends and stories down on paper violates the traditions and customs.

We tear down old buildings, we throw away old cars, we toss out old books, and we get rid of useless old knowledge. Maybe it is time to let go of the past. Maybe it is better to forget and in so doing join the "modern" world.

So why study the traditional use of plants? Do not simply say, "The traditional use of plants is important." Obviously the traditional use of plants is not important - everyday we are actively choosing to not use local plants. How many of you grew up in a cement house? When was the last time you made fermented or pounded breadfruit? Where do you go more often to get food, the farm or store? Or cafeteria? Did any of the off-island students choose to sail to Pohnpei in a canoe in order to attend college?

You have a choice of answering either one of two questions, answer only one in your essay. Your essay should be at least 300 to 400 words. The essay is due by the end of the SC/SS 115 Ethnobotany final examination period at 4:15 on Tuesday 10 December. You can work on this in advance. If you want, you have the option of printing it out and bringing it into the examination to hand in or you can email your essay to me at with a copy to

  1. In light of the above, why is the study of the traditional use of plants relevant, useful, and important? OR
  2. Why should we let go of the past and not study the traditional use of plants?