88 minutes, Color, Stereo Sound, 1996

Jesus Urupiy, an eighty year-old sailing master living on  Lamotrek  — one of the most remote islands in the Western Pacific — resurrects an ancient Micronesian navigator initiation ritual called the Pwo ceremony which had not been performed in forty years and had never been seen by the outside world.  Spirits of the Voyage is a thought provoking personal documentary by award winning filmmaker Eric Metzgar, Ph.D. about the fragile status of island navigator arts and skills in the face of cultural adaptations to modern influences.  Dr. Metzgar, who has done anthropological research on Lamotrek since 1977, was given the unprecedented opportunity by Urupiy to document the Pwo rite of passage in its entirety for the first time.  In English, Lamotrekese and Satawalese with English subtitles.

Related Links

Biography of  Jesus Urupiy

Location and History of Lamotrek Island

Lamotrek: Heritage of an Island  (DVD)


David Lewis (Pacific Studies Journal)
Tony Gibb   (Tok Blong Pasifik Magazine)

Festival Screening

Seizieme Bilan du Film Ethnographique (16th Ethnographic Film Panorama) Musee de l’Homme in Paris, France, 1997.


Produced, directed, photographed and narrated by Eric Metzgar in association with co-producers Jesus Urupiy and Ali Haleyalur and the people of Lamotrek Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia.  Executive producer: Lawrence Janss.  Music:  Michael Stearns.

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    Background to the Film

    By Eric Metzgar

            The making of Spirits of the Voyage evolved out of my doctoral research on Lamotrek Atoll in the Central Caroline Islands of Micronesia from 1987 to 1990, and an earlier visit to Lamotrek in 1977-78, when I had a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to make a film about Micronesian traditional island arts and skills.  The subsequent film produced in 1979, Echoes of an Island, served as a report to the NEA and a film copy was also shown and given as a "thank you" to the Lamotrek community in accordance with the reciprocity arrangment agreed upon between myself and the Chiefs of Lamotrek.  Some years later, two additional programs were also produced and shown to the Lamotrek community for Chiefly approval prior to their distribution: Lamotrek Atoll: Research Film Footage of a Traditional Carolinian Society and Lamotrek: Heritage of an Island.  Excerpts from these earlier works have been used in Spirits of the Voyage to tell the story of how the Pwo ceremony was resurrected as well as to create special effects to evoke the mystical nature of the spirit world inhabiting the navigator belief system.

             When I was collecting information for my doctoral dissertation, I was investigating traditional education processes on Lamotrek Atoll with the purpose of identifying indigenous formal education pedagogies.  The data for this research study was collected through participant-observation methods.  The primary sources for sampling information on Lamotrek consisted of individuals who were recognized in the community as having rong (sacred) specialized skills and the apprentice-learners receiving these skills.  The last period of investigation, and perhaps the most significant, took place over a three-month period, April to June 1990.  During this time, the Pwo rite of passage was performed.  In 1991, my research on Pwo was reported in the “Schools of Navigation” chapter of my dissertation,Traditional Education in Micronesia: A Case Study of Lamotrek Atoll with Comparative Analysis of the Literature on the Trukic Continuum.  The Pwo ceremony had not been performed in the islands surrounding Lamotrek since the last person, Mau Piailug, was initiated on nearby Satawal Island in 1951.  Piailug achieved world-wide recognition by guiding the Hokule'a a replica of an ancient double-hulled Polynesian sailing canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti without instruments in 1976, a distance of 2,400 miles.

             The filming of the Pwo ceremony was a collaboration between myself, Jesus Urupiy, a master navigator from Satawal married to a Lamotrek woman, and their son, Ali Haleyalur, an apprentice navigator who was born and raised on Lamotrek Atoll.  My relationship with them began with an initial fourteen-month stay on the island in 1977-78, and continued with additional stays in 1982 and 1987-88.  It was on the latter visit that I discovered Urupiy to be the only navigator left who seemed to remember the ancient chants for performing the Pwo ceremony.  In 1989, I traveled from California to Yap to collect additional research data for my dissertation, and with support from the School of Pacific Islands, Inc. to investigate whether or not Urupiy would be willing to perform the Pwo ceremony for the purpose of making a film record of it.  Other than a few brief descriptions and reports by anthropologists and sailors since the beginning of the 20th century, little was known about the Pwo ceremony because it had never been documented first hand.  Previous to making the trip in 1989, I had learned that both Ali and his father were living in Yap.  Ali had been living and working in Yap as a policeman for about eight years since leaving Lamotrek in 1981 in order to earn money to send his children to school.  Upon my arrival, Ali expressed concern that his father, because of his advanced years, might not be able to initiate him in the Pwo ceremony.  Soon after, he asked his father if he could be initiated in Pwo and be graduated as a paliuw (traditional navigator).  It was at this time that Urupiy agreed to perform the Pwo ceremony for him.  In addition, at my urging, Ali asked his father if it would be possible for me to make a film of the Pwo ceremony.  Urupiy said that this would also be a good idea because,  “Many people would see the film and learn the meaning of Pwo.”  As a result, an extraordinary series of events were set in motion which ultimately culminated nine months later in the resurrection of Pwo on Lamotrek, its documentation on film, and the formal education of Ali and four other apprentice navigators.  Each of us made the journey to Lamotrek for different reasons:  Urupiy wanted to pass down his knowledge of Pwo to his son;  Ali wanted to be initiated as a navigator in the Pwo ceremony;  and I wanted to solve the mystery ... the enigma of Pwo.

             Throughout the editing process, Urupiy and Ali were integral participants and contributors to the finished product and were consulted at every stage of the production. On two occasions Ali was flown from Yap to my home in California to provide accurate translations of the material and to evaluate the editing of the work.   Nevertheless, a major problem from my point of view occurred in the course of making Spirits of the Voyage.  Neither Urupiy nor Ali wanted to be filmed explaining the Pwo ceremony nor did they want to narrate the events that were depicted in the film.  Instead, they insisted that I “tell the story.”  I believe that this was a conscious decision on their part to minimize possible conflicts of opinion with other  islanders which might arise after their seeing the film.  In making me the narrator of events, they were limiting their involvement in order to retain their normal social identities as much as possible.  The consequence of their position on this matter, however, may subject the film to questions about the validity of the descriptive content in the film because of my role as narrator.  Scholars versed in ethnographic film theory will rightly call into question the subjectivity of the work because it is, in the final analysis, an outsider’s interpretation.  The voice over for the film is a personal narrative exclusively from my point of view of the events leading up to and involved in the resurrection of Pwo and not an indigenous description or interpretation.  In any analysis, however, it should not be forgotten that the film is a result of several years of rigorous research and study in the field, as well as the product of a close relationship with the central participants over a period of nearly twenty years.


    Pwo Ceremony References

    “During the term of instruction the pupils are subject to a series of taboos ... These taboos are strictest for the first four days and nights;  then the students may not leave the canoe house under any circumstances.”  Hans Damn (based on the 1909 field notes of Ernst Sarfert);  “Inseln um Truk: Polowat, Hok, und Satawal.”  IN:  Georg Thilenius (Ed.) Ergebnisse der Südsee-Expedition 1908-1910.  Sec. II, B, Vol. 6, Pt. 2, 1935.

    “First of all, ppwo is the estoteric art of navigation ... Secondly, those who are adept at the estoteric art of navigation are also called ppwo.  Thirdly, initiating others in this esoteric art of navigation is also known as ppwo ... Three of the islanders, Punakit, Yaapuk and Urupiy are to be initiated this time in the art of the ppwo by Suuta ... of Puluwat and today there is to be a ceremony for this.”  Hijikata Hisakatsu (Journal entry for June 3, 1932);  “Driftwood:  The Life in Satawal Island, Micronesia.”   IN:  Ken’ichi Sudo (Ed.)  Collective Works of Hijikata Hisakatsu. Vol. 4.  Translated by Yoko Fujita, Ronald R. Ringdahl, Satoshi Tanahashi, and Sandra Tanahashi. 1997 [1942].

    “Some customs which were hastily abandoned are now missed, including an initiation ceremony for new  navigators ... ”  Thomas Gladwin;  East is a Big Bird. 1997

    “Ppwo ... to be initiated as a navigator.”  Samuel Elbert;  Puluwat Dictionary. 1972

    “Periodically, when enough responsible candidates have reached the required standard, the whole community is mobilized and an initiation poa is organized.”  David Lewis;  The Voyaging Stars:  Secrets of the Pacific Island Navigators.  1978.

    “Ppo is held for young men who have received private teaching for an average of seven to eight years.  The main part of this ritual consists of examining the young man’s knowledge of navigation techniques, and further instruction by the older considered to be the most skillful navigator on the island.”  Ken-ichi Sudo;  “Nurturing in MatrilinealSociety:  A Case Study of Satawal Island.”  IN:   Iwao Ushijima and Ken-ichi Sudo (Eds.)  Cultural Uniformity and Diversity in Micronesia. 1978.

    “Pwpwo ... instruction in traditional navigation.”  Ward Goodenough and Hiroshi Sugita; Trukese-English Dictionary. 1980

    “Only after innumerable sessions on the beach at Satawal, and voyage after voyage made under the watchful eyes of senior navigators, was Mau formally initiated as anavigator and thus in effect licensed to practice his craft.”   Ben Finney, Bernard Kilonsky, Stephen Somsen, and Edward Stroup;  “Re-Learning a Vanishing Art.” Journal of thePolynesian Society. Vol. 95, No. 1, 1986.

    “ ... the sacred pwo ceremony.  The most important event in a young navigator’s life, it not only marked his passage into manhood, but also gained him entrance to a select and privileged class and gave him the right to learn secret, mystical, navigational lore.”   Stephen Thomas;  The Last Navigator. 1987.

    “ ... the notion of performing the pwo rites gradually gained acceptance and in May 1990, for the first time in over forty years, a few individuals who had been studying and practicing traditional navigational techniques for many years were ‘graduated’ on Lamotrek and officially recognized by the community-at-large.”  Eric Metzgar;   Traditional Education in Micronesia:  A Case Study of Lamotrek Atoll with Comparative Analysis of the Literature on the Trukic Continuum. 1991.

     "...the name for the island, Pwollap, supposedly means the center, or origin, of navigation: ppwo means "to be initiated as a navigator" and lap means "big" or "important." This belief is a source of considerable pride for the island, and Pulapese derive self-esteem from knowing that Puluwat and other islanders acknowledge that navigation originated on Pulap." Juliana Flinn; Diplomas and Thatch Houses: Asserting Tradition in a Changing Micronesia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.  1992

    “In Polowat, the ceremony called pwo marks the end of  student’s training and the beginning of his new  title as navigator.  In part, pwo involves calling upon the spirits to stay with you.”  Vince Diaz (video narrator); Sacred Vessels:  Navigating Tradition and Identity in Micronesia. Producers:  Christina Taitano Delisle and Vicente Diaz. 1997.

    “It will permit me not only to sail and navigate, but the idea of navigation and the ceremony of pwo itself and the teachings of pwo themselves will enable me to acquire other basic knowledge of our ways of life.”  Lambert Lokopwe (video interview);  Pwo Ceremony, Pollap, Micronesia.  Producer:  Visual Folklore Inc.  1997.

    "The last pwo ceremony had been performed on Satawal about forty years earlier, between 1950-1952.  Since then this navigator rite of passage had come closer and closer to extinction with the demise of master navigators qualified to transmit the restricted navigational knowledge and chants which, by ancient custom, were only to be taught after apprentices were initiated in the pwo ceremony."  Eric Metzgar;  "Sacred Space, Taboo Place: Negotiating Roang on Lamotrek Atoll." Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Vol. 3, No. 1-2, 2004.  On-line:

    "Pwo is the equivalent to a graduate doctorate degree in knowledge of traditional navigation and involves additional instruction in the more esoteric-related aspects of traditional navigation such as chants for calling upon patron spirits."  Eric Metzgar;  "Carolinian Voyaging in the New Millennium."  Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Vol. 5, No. 1-2, 2006.  On-line:

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