Sunday, February 01, 2015

Did the Smithsonian steal this?

The main hall between the two shops on the bottom floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History used to hold a large Rai, the stone money from the island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia.  I remember photographing it in 2008 when I visited the museum.  It was removed a few years back to make room for an information booth. During a visit on Saturday I found it has been moved to the front entrance along Constitution Avenue.

I visited Yap for a few days in 2013 and saw many Rai lining the road. They are also found on private property, along canals, and outside government buildings.

During my visit, Andy, the local shark conservationist, explained how the giant Rai served as stone money.  All of the Rai were quarried in Palau and brought over to Yap by boat; they are no longer made and their numbers are fixed.  In the late 1800s a shipwrecked Irishman figured he could make his riches selling gigantic stone money made with machine tools, flooding the island with Rai too big too move.

The giant Rai were extremely valuable.  The trade was reserved for big things, not everyday purchases.  When the stone money changed hands all that was required was an oral declaration.  For example, if I wanted to transfer my Rai to you, all I had to do was announce in public that I was doing so.  The Rai was hence owned by the new person -- but here's the kicker -- it stayed in the same place along the road, or wherever.

NPR ran a story a few years back describing the same thing, so I'm not making this up.

Which brings me to the Smithsonian.  When Andy told me how the trade worked, I thought of the big stone rock sitting in Washington, DC.  I assumed somebody must have purchased it a few years back.  I researched the history of this particular Rai and found it online:
"In 1904, a villager named You (pronounced yo-u) from the Micronesian island of Yap quarried this stone valuable on the nearby island of Palau (also known as Belau). It was sent to Yap via the steamship German/a and placed in front of a community house. Eventually, this stone passed to Chief Gaag of Balabat village. It was sold with the permission of his community to the Smithsonian Institution in 1962."
So somebody did buy it, but I wonder if the seller knew it was going to be moved?  I imagine the seller was very surprised when the Rai was shipped to Washington, DC.  Under local custom, it should have stayed in the same place.  It is illegal to export these now, but it was not then.  Anyone have any knowledge of this transaction?

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