Erromango Bits

The Island of Erromango – Custom Stories
The Birth of Erromango. An old woman had a niece, but whether she was the brother’s or sister’s daughter is not stated. This old woman was the only person in the island who could give a pleasant taste to food and was in great demand at preparations for feasts.
When the little girl was ten years old she followed her aunt into the bush one day and, hidden in a clump of bamboo, watched the old woman lift a huge stone from which pure, white water gushed forth so that the bamboo water carrier which she had with her was soon full.
Carefully replacing the stone the old woman returned to the house, but the niece remained in concealment until the woman was well out of the way and then tried to lift the stone herself.
Although it took a great deal of effort she succeeded finally and, when she tasted the water, she found it had the exact flavour of the food which everyone liked so much when prepared by the woman’s hand. But the water, which had poured forth in a steady but moderate stream at first, now came with more and more volume and power and, although the girl tried to replace the stone she found herself utterly unable to do so.
This frightened the child and when the water rose in such force that it carried away the stone, she ran to the house of her aunt and told her what had happened. The woman shrieked in her distress, “You have flooded our whole land!”
She sent her husband in one direction and she went in another, while the child ran in still a third. The waters, rising all the time, swirled around the place where the persons were running and then became gradually quiet again, leaving a human being on a bit of land surrounded by water, while water stretched as far as the eye could see, with the exception of the three islands that had been formed, where all the land had been before.
In this way Erromango and two of its neighbours were created and a human being supplied to each. No account of creation of a mate for the lone islander or of the descent from each is given.
How fights between villages are stopped and peace is made. In Erromango, if there is a big fight and someone has been killed, the chief of the village who killed the man from the other village, sends a woman with a message to the location where the fight took place.
If the woman carries kava and a grass skirt with her, it means that the village who killed the man will have a peace ceremony and will make kaikai [food] for the other village and give them one woman in exchange for peace.
But if there has been a fight with nobody killed, the woman will carry kava to the site to show that they should all make food together to make peace.
Tapa cloth is now only made in Erromango, although long ago it was found in Efate and other islands in the south and Banks Islands in the north. This was the result of the Polynesian influence in these islands from Tonga and Samoa when they invaded and traded with Efate, Aniwa and Futuna, and made their way to Erromango. The Polynesians had the knowledge of making tapa cloth and passed it on to these islands.
On Efate tapa cloth used to be made and dyed brown and yellow and decorated with birds feathers along the edge but the practice died out in the 19th century. In Erromango tapa cloth is known as ‘Nemas Itse’ meaning ‘cloth beaten’. 
Tapa cloth is made from the inner bark of a banyan tree which is taken off in broad strips and collected in bundles. Then each strip is laid down on a smooth log about thirty centimetres in diameter and two metres long and beaten by two women, one on each side of the log using a ‘neko’ which is made out of nokosan, a hard wood club which takes a high polish.
Water is placed in a wooden dish and a whisk made of reeds which is splashed onto the bark as it is beaten for a long time until it is thin. The back of the bark becomes so glutinous that it sticks to another strip which is added to the first one when it is ready by overlapping it and then it is beaten again so they form one piece. Strip after strip is added lengthways so it becomes a long and narrow solid strip. Water must be constantly added to the bark to make it sticky. The material is white in colour and looks like parchment. When finished it is hung over bamboo or creepers or tied between trees. Whilst it is still damp patterns are drawn on it with charcoal mixed with coconut milk, lime stone for white and brown from a fruit nut or by twisting bark shavings and collecting the liquid in a bowl. One side of the cloth only is marked. It is left hanging until thoroughly dry and then coloured with nohorat – a plant dye. Sometimes it is left uncoloured.
The usual size of tapa cloth made is approximately one metre wide and two metres long in Erromango.
In Tanna they used to make tapa cloth in a crude way which was used to make belts for the menfolk. These belts were three to six centimetres wide and two and a half metres in length, painted black, with dye from the juice of a fig tree. Tapa cloth sails for canoes used to made but the practice died out by 1900.
How on earth did they work out the beating and sticking all those years ago, quite amazing and ingenious.
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