Felipe I. and Joseph K. Ruak are the artistic directors of the Talabwog Man Stick Dancers, a traditional Carolinian dance group in Saipan, an island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The Carolinian people migrated to Saipan more than 100 years ago, many sailing in small canoes from their typhoon-devastated island homes. The Carolinians brought their unique traditions, including the stick dances taught within village clans.
These intricate dances, accompanied by chants, involve the rhythmic striking of long poles against those of fellow dancers in a highly stylized pattern of thrusts and turns. According to the oral record, the dances came in a dream to one of the ancestors: "Deep in the dark, grey woods, the old man gathered the warriors of the clan. 'Pay attention,' he said, 'for this may be our only hope of survival. Light the fire within you and without you, light the bonfire that we may see what we do in the dark of night. Learn to fly, learn to sweep, leap, and chant.'"
More than 20 years ago, Felipe became worried that the knowledge of the dances was fading, so he formed a group with his sons and other village members. This group performed at the first Flame Tree Festival on Saipan and participated in the 1985 Festival of Pacific Arts in Tahiti. Joseph, after returning from college in Colorado, inherited the mantle of teacher from his father and began teaching dances and chants to the young people of his village on Saipan. To this day, Felipe serves as the guardian of these dances and continues to recruit young people for this traditional cultural responsibility.
NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about how you learned the songs and dances?
MR. RUAK: In 1982, when I was about 20 years old and getting ready to go to college, my dad realized that only he and a few other men in the village knew the Talabwog Man stick dancing. So he sent me and one of my brothers out into the village to ask the elder men if they could teach us the dances. I actually knocked on their doors and got enthusiastic responses: "Yes, I will be there," they'd say. "Yes, I will be so glad to teach you the dances, you and the young men of the village." But it was just lip service because no one actually came out to help my dad. So it was pretty much just my dad who taught us.
About 20 young men ranging from 15 to 45 years old came out to learn the dances from my dad, although in the end only eight stayed. We stuck it out and learned as many of the dances as possible. The amazing thing is that we performed in the first Flame Tree Arts Festival here in Saipan in 1982. The last time the the stick dances had been performed - by my dad and the other men ® was in 1968 or 1966.
NEA: Why was it so important to your father at time to pass on the tradition?
MR. RUAK: I could feel the urgency of his wanting to pass this on. I didn't take it seriously enough at first - we'd giggle and laugh and not pay attention. But he told us how lucky we were that we weren't getting beaten up in order to learn the dances. When he was learning the dances it was pretty much forced down his throat. The elders back then were very serious about the dances - one little giggle during practice or the teaching sessions and you'd get whipped. After hearing that I understood that we needed to take what we were doing a lot more seriously.
You know, a lot of elder men were killed during WW II and so a lot of the dances were buried with them. As it is I only learned seven or eight dances from my father. According to him there are 10 or 20 or more but that was all that we could retrieve and save.
I also realized at the time that the Carolinian dialect of my village was dying out, that the people of my dad's generation were pretty much the only people that could speak the language fluently. My generation could use a few words here and there but didn't speak it fluently. This humbled me and made me focus.
NEA: What are the songs about and do the songs go with the different steps?
MR. RUAK: The techniques of the movements with the sticks all reflect self-defense techniques taught to the warriors of our clan back in the old days. The chants themselves warned each warrior in the clan about an approaching enemy.
NEA: Were the dances difficult to learn?
MR. RUAK: Nothing is difficult if the heart really wants it and if the mind is with the heart. And I really wanted to learn these dances back in '82. You know, when I was 12, 13 years old, I denied being Carolinian. I absolutely did not want to admit that I was Carolinian. But by the time I was 20 years old I was looking for information. I was knocking on people's doors to find who I was.
That was such an interesting time to be learning that because that was also the time I was preparing to go away for college. I learned the stick dances from my dad and then a year later I left and went to Colorado. And after having learned the dances and after having performed at the first arts festival on the island, I was hooked.
I lived in Colorado for nine years. I would call home and ask when the arts festival was coming up and they'd say, "Oh, yeah, as a matter of fact it's just next week. We're practicing right now and next week we're going to be performing." And I felt so sad that I wasn't in Saipan practicing with my people.
Being away and having the time all to myself made me appreciate what I had that I'd been denying all the time.
NEA: What do you think that the young dancers in the group gain by doing this?
MR. RUAK: I hope they're getting more interested in knowing about our people. I hope it helps them to not be embarrassed about who they are. I hope it gets them interested enough to go out and ask others in the community about the Carolinian culture, specifically the Tanapag Carolinian people. As it is we could be listed on the endangered species list.
NEA: Are there others you feel can carry on the tradition?
MR. RUAK: I had a kid in the group that I was planning to groom to take over but he quit three years ago. He was young, a fifth grader, but as soon as he came into the group I had this sense about him. I observed his attitude and his behavior around the kids he danced with as well as his interaction with me and other community members. I was really impressed by him, even at that really young age. And even though he's not a member of the group anymore, I continue to check on him. I continue to knock on his door and say, "Well, we're still here if you're still interested."
It broke my heart when he quit. I seriously considered not doing the dances anymore because there's no one to pass them on to. So I am worried.
The boys in the group are involved in a lot of other activities - Little League football, Little League soccer, the volleyball leagues, an so on - and they often forget that I'm waiting for them at the beach to practice. That really makes me angry - I yell at them because they forget to come to practice!
NEA: I was wondering if you could speak about what it means to you to be sharing the award with your father?
MR. RUAK: It was a bit overwhelming to get the news at 6:00 am Saipan time. I am very grateful. But I feel he deserves all the credit. He is so well known, not just for his stick dancing knowledge and handing down the tradition, but because of his vast knowledge of the Carolinian language and culture. I don't see myself in the light or in the type of spotlight that my father is in. And my oldest brother, Jess, who will be coming over to D.C. with us, stepped aside and allowed me to take over the group and it's really him that should be honored next to my father.