I was interviewing a business tycoon in one of the restaurants in Koror when a woman approached us, carrying a delicately-carved and shaped turtle shell ornament resembling a shallow dish which I later learned, is named toluk . The woman handed it to the politician, who in turn inspected it and gave her $120 for it. My curiosity about this Palauan tradition eventually led to this article.
Owning a toluk or other Palauan money for that matter, says Melson N. Miko, Historic Preservation Specialist of the Bureau of Arts and Culture, is a prestige in Palau that shows social status. He said it is something closely identified with Palauan identity and seen as a part of the very life of the people.
“A woman has to earn Palauan money and this is what makes it more valuable,” Miko said. He added that the Palauan money was paid to women for their family obligations and services. The Palauan money comes from turtle shells which were fashioned and carved into different shapes and sizes, but nobody can exactly say who made these and when. Several legends offer differing versions but nobody can say for sure. Some Palauan money are fashioned into beads, bracelets and necklaces.
Mico said although it may seem just any ordinary ornament in other parts of the world, it is very valuable in Palau.“When you attend traditional parties and if you put US dollars as contribution, it’s good because it’s what people need but if you put in Palauan money and US currency at the same time, it automatically elevates you up to a higher level than the other guests,” Mico said.These days, this money continues to be used in certain traditional marriage, funeral and first-child ceremonies. The value of Palauan money ranges from $50 up to even as high as $50,000, depending on the origin of the Palauan money or the clan where it belongs. Some women go to great lengths to buy Palauan money if they wanted to add to their collection. The existence of Palauan money however is being threatened by the emergence of counterfeit items and ornaments from Bali, Indonesia. It is very hard to distinguish the real Palauan money from the fake ones that people are having second thoughts about buying it nowadays. In the olden times, Palauan money are very rarely, if at all, given out during traditional gatherings because the owners hold on to it but now, they are multiplying in abundance, thus decreasing their value. With this, women’s groups are trying to think of ways to counter-attack this problem that is slowly killing the value of one of Palau’s cultural heritage.