|▲ Sherrin Hibbard, the first foreign graduate of the Hansupul Haenyeo School. Photo courtesy Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of "Moon Tides" Jeju Grannies of the Sea" (2012).
What does it mean to preserve a traditional practice in a modern era?
Traditions die out as a society modernizes. In today’s increasingly techno-logical era, there is little need for tasks performed by hand. Societal change renders irrelevant practices such as hunting or horse-riding. Youth, with greater opportunities for education and employment, reject manual labor as a result.
Some traditions are best left behind — foot-binding in China, sati in India, or child labor, for example. Too often, however, societies discard customs only to realize their value too late, efforts of reclamation becoming reinvention, authenticity sacrificed.
The profession of Jeju “haenyeo” (free-diving women) is dying out, its number of participants swiftly dwindling. Key factors include improved educational and professional opportunities for females, a tourism-driven economy, aquaculture replacing fishing and diving, and effects of climate change on marine environment. The result is a near-complete break in intergenerational transmission.
Methods of preservation both public and private have been introduced. The government provides compensation, medical treatment, wetsuits and other safety measures; a haenyeo museum, annual festival, and summer school program increase awareness. Following “heritage” status at provincial and national levels, UNESCO recognition for haenyeo as World Intangible Cultural Heritage is now sought.
This unique skill set and its adherents is thus honored and memorialized; without a renewal of intergenerational transmission, however, the culture cannot sustain itself. But how can one attract youth to a profession they view as “old-fashioned”?
By upgrading the image of it, for a start. Recently, there has been an explosion of both domestic and foreign public interest in the uniqueness of the haenyeo profession. In the 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) held on Jeju, 10 thousand ecology specialists learned about Jeju haenyeo, passing an international resolution for their preservation.
In attendance was world-renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Still diving at age 78, she shares a kinship with Jeju haenyeo. Dr. Earle suggested reframing the haenyeo as “indigenous marine biologists” who could catalog their findings of the marine environment, compensated by government or private concern.
In a similar vein, the Jeju Education Department could create a program whereby haenyeo taught students at all levels about marine science and preservation. An “Ieodo Story Hour” in public libraries is a related option.
|▲ Students involved in a haenyeo experience program. Photo courtesy Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of "Moon Tides" Jeju Grannies of the Sea" (2012).
Haenyeo influence in marine biology and environmental science programs would be equally viable in the university setting. Similarly, haenyeo could team with the university’s business department for a “Jeju Haenyeo Model of Collective Economics,” based on their commercial practices. A comparable program could be developed in the political science department: “Jeju Haenyeo Model of Civil Disobedience,” based on haenyeo protests during Japanese occupation. A corresponding “Jeju Haenyeo Scholarship” for promising female stu-dents could be created.
The sport of free-diving is gaining favorable attention globally as athletic, unique, even beautiful. The work of haenyeo could be perceived similarly, to increase its appeal to youth. The haenyeo’s famed cardiopulmonary capacity, developed as a result of repeated diving, could be deemed a health benefit.
Regular diving, however, also brings health concerns. The “divers’ syndrome” includes chronic headaches, tinnitus, digestive problems, and an increased risk of cerebrovascular accident or “stroke.” With controlled amounts of diving and a seasonal approach, plus a dedicated health regimen, this concern decreases.
The core concepts of cultural preservation, then, are relevance, reframing, and replicability.
First, to retain a traditional practice, it must remain relevant to the modern era. An example of this can be found in the “galot” (persimmon-dyed clothing) fashion designers today — taking what was once farmers’ work-clothes and rendering these valued natural hand-dyeing methods into high fashion. Jeju haenyeo culture must similarly continue to evolve, with increasingly modern facilities and more.
Reframing refers to viewing something familiar in a new way. The work of Jeju haenyeo is undergoing such renaissance, with media and artists alike portraying them as highly skilled, living knowledge banks of the marine environment, sustainable marine harvesting practices, and collective economics.
Jeju haenyeo represent a “sisterhood,” or strong female community based on a common cultural practice. While such communities of divers are known in surrounding coastal regions, their practice could spread throughout the world via cultural exchange programs.
Art and media also bear responsibility for haenyeo preservation, by portraying them respectfully — and by recompense. As the haenyeo are endlessly interviewed, filmed, and otherwise featured, they must be duly compensated. An annual “Ieodo Art Contest and Exhibition” of both foreign and native artists could be held in honor of Jeju haenyeo — who benefit directly from the proceeds.
The inclusion of “foreign ambassadors for haenyeo” in preservation endeavors is a vital element; if a practice is to continue, worldwide acknowledgment and support can have powerful influence.
The literary and academic communities must also help. Haenyeo folk wisdom, myths and stories, spiritual rituals, and practical knowledge of both their profession and the marine environment are invaluable. This immense, collectively contained body of knowledge must be carefully preserved.
There are many ways to save a dying cultural practice. Above all, it must be relevant to the modern era, respectfully portrayed, duly compensated and with safety ensured, in order that intergenerational interest and transmission may be renewed and maintained indefinitely.
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York, currently residing on Jeju Island.