Sustainable Human Development in the FSM
by Francis X. Hezel, SJ, Edwin Q.P. Petteys, and Deborah L. Chang MicSem Articles | economic

CHAPTER 2: The People and Their Cultures

The four states that make up the FSM have their own distinctive cultural traditions and languages. Some have more than one: Yap's outer islands, containing almost half the state's population, are far more similar in culture and language to Chuuk than they are to the high islands of Yap; and two of the outliers of Pohnpei are Polynesian in speech and custom.


The heart of this state is an atoll containing a number of rather small high islands. The Chuuk lagoon, in turn, is surrounded by several atolls to the north, west and south. Individual islands in the lagoon and even in the atolls were seldom unified under a single chief.

Even today the main social unit is the lineage group, descended from a woman and residing together on one or more parcels of land. The lineage group is usually broken down into two or three households. It retains the meeting house, or uut, that was originally the gathering place and living quarters for the unmarried males of the extended family. The symbol of unity in the lineage was once the cookhouse, where food was prepared for the entire extended family group. Although cookhouses can still be found in many places today, they are mostly used to prepare food for the household rather than the extended family.

In contrast to most other parts of Micronesia, women in Chuuk do offshore fishing while men work in the taro patches and pick breadfruit. Although food is commonly exchanged with other relatives, there is none of the competitive food exchanges that are still found in Pohnpei and some of the other islands of Micronesia. As in Kosrae, the church has assumed a large place in everyday life and people spend much time and energy in church activities. This may be partly due to the fact that Chuuk lacks the social rituals that other islands enjoy.


The high island of Pohnpei is regarded as the garden island of Micronesia. The fertile soil grows a wide variety of food crops, including kava (called sakau) and yams. Both of these are customarily offered at funerals, feasts and other ritual gatherings. Together with pigs, kava and yams play a key role in the prestige economy of Pohnpei. In contrast to Chuuk and the coral atolls in western Micronesia with their simple social and political systems, Pohnpei has all the complexity of a Polynesian island.

Most adult male Pohnpeians receive a formal title and are always referred to by this title. Men who live in the village spend much of their time tending their yams and sakau, for every Pohnpeian male is expected to have these. Pohnpeians tend to be secretive about their cultivation of these plants, so Pohnpeian homesteads are often scattered over the countryside and rather distant from one another.

Although the society is organized into lineages descended from the mother's side, children inherit their land from their father and married couples usually reside on the husband's family estate. Several married brothers will often live with their families on one large piece of land. Their father would traditionally have been the head of the family group and made all decisions affecting the group, but this is changing today.

While the social organization in the outer islands resembles Pohnpei to some extent, these atolls are without much of the formality of Pohnpei's feasting rituals and prestige economy.


Kosrae is a single high island with a cultural tradition that was probably very similar to Pohnpei. During the 19th century, however, Kosrae suffered a drastic loss of population over a 40-year period that left the island with only 300 people by the end of the century. This depopulation, brought on by Western diseases, was far more severe than anything suffered by other islands in the region. As a consequence, many of the traditional institutions collapsed. They were replaced by social and political structures introduced by the American Protestant missionaries then working on the island (Hezel, 1983). The old title system, which was probably much like Pohnpei's, is long dead. Today rank and prestige are acquired through church office or a high position in the government.

Despite these changes, echoes of the traditional culture survive in new forms. Married couples usually live on the husband's land as part of a larger kin group. Many Kosraeans still support themselves by cultivating breadfruit and taro and by fishing. Villages are broken down into two or three sub-groups that vie with one another in carrying out village tasks. Men and women have their own parallel associations in the village, as they do in much of Micronesia (Alkire, 1977).


This westernmost state in the FSM has a reputation for being the most traditional of all the island groups in Micronesia. Until recently men walked around town wearing loincloths while women dressed in grass skirts. Although most have now adopted western clothing, Yapese retain a deep respect for their cultural ways. Women work in the taro patches to produce the staple item on the diet, while men fish.

The villages of Yap are tightly organized and ranked according to a caste system, with each village having its recognized status. The village is an important focal point of one's identity. Within the village parcels of land are named and ranked. The Yapese claim that people receive their name from the land rather than the other way around. All houses were traditionally built on stone platforms, and each village had its own old men's meeting house and young men's clubhouse. A married couple will usually take up residence on the man's estate along with the man's father and possibly some of his brothers.

Besides this patrilineal group, which is the dominant one, Yapese maintain an interest in their matrilineage. It is well understood that if someone for any reason should have a falling out with his father's lineage, he would usually be welcomed by his mother's relatives.

The coral atolls that make up much of Yap State are populated by a people who bear very little cultural affinity to Yapese. These Outer Islanders, as they are called, speak a language and practice customs that are much more similar to Chuuk than to Yap. Their way of life is simple; they subsist on fish and taro or breadfruit, wear their traditional dress (loincloth and lavalava), and carry on the long distance canoe voyages for which their islands were famous.

Notwithstanding their distinctive features, the cultures that make up the FSM share many common traditional values and institutions. This is not surprising since these cultures have a common ancestry that can be traced back to the first settlement of the islands. The cultures and languages of the eastern islands (ie, all except Yap proper) are especially close for they form part of what is known as the Nuclear Micronesian cluster. They also hold the common set of attitudes and values shared by all Pacific Islanders living a subsistence lifestyle, such as sharing and reciprocity.

Subsistence Mode of Life

A great majority of the people in FSM lead what can be called a subsistence or semi-subsistence mode of life. By this we mean that they produce most of what they need to feed themselves from the land and sea and so are able to live without full-time salaried employment. The cash they need to buy clothes and other imported items is usually obtained by occasional paid labor or through incidental cash cropping or sale of fish. Because of the high productivity of Pacific islands, families can produce all they need in an estimated three or four hours of male labor a day (Fisk, 1982). Social relationships are maintained through the process of subsistence production and exchange within the family and community and participation in the elaborate and time-consuming social rituals, including funerals and village feasts, that are prescribed in many places. The social recognition and enhanced prestige that individuals gain from this participation is seen as adequate repayment for the time and energy invested (Hezel 1992).

The subsistence way of life is as much a mindset as a mode of production. It implies a no-rush approach to life with a disdain for long hours of work day after day since the production of surplus food, apart from those relatively few times that the community is preparing for a major event, is useless anyway. It implies a leisurely cultivation of social relationships, which are regarded as the most important value in island life. In such a lifestyle, people can afford to take time out to let the land and sea resources regenerate, for their needs are relatively simple and can be easily satisfied without putting pressure on valuable resources. A form of natural conservation is an integral part of the lifestyle of those who live a subsistence mode of life.

Although these points are obvious enough to anyone familiar with the Pacific, there is a value in stating them here at the outset of this report since these attitudes are contrary to those required for rapid economic development. Creation of a surplus, accumulation of goods, intense and regular labor, and punctuality, while essential to development, are foreign to a subsistence mindset.


The traditional attitude toward land, one that is still commonly held by Micronesians, is that "land is our strength, our life, our hope for the future." Land was traditionally understood to include the offshore flats and reef or fishing areas. It was the sole source of a family's livelihood in a day when people depended on it for food, housing materials, medicine and virtually everything else. Without it they would not have survived. People parted with land as unwillingly as they would surrender an arm or a leg.

Land has always been "both life and a way of life" for Micronesians (Alkire, 1977: 88). The family or descent group was related to the land in an almost mystical fashion. Land could never be merely a possession, much less a saleable commodity. It provided the kin group not only with its livelihood, but with its identity as well. Sometimes, as we have seen in the case of Yap, people and groups took their very names from the land parcels with which they were associated. Just as people sprang from the land, they were returned to their family estate at burial. Because of the close interrelationship between kin groups and land, kin systems and land tenure patterns were shaped to fit one another snugly.

Although the value of land in the eyes of Micronesians persists today, the intimate relationship between family and land has been altered to some extent. Land has assumed great economic value with the shift from subsistence to money-based economies. Increasingly, it is coming to be regarded as a negotiable commodity that can be bartered to situate a family or an individual in the modern economic system. Outright sale of land to foreign parties is forbidden by the FSM Constitution, but 50-year leases, the maximum allowable in the FSM, are often an attractive inducement to part with land. Sale of land to other Micronesians, a rarity in former times, is frequently recorded today.

Land disputes have become a common source of friction within the extended family, especially when the senior member of a lineage sells land without the consent of the others in his kin group. To guard against this, many lineages have filed official documents with their state land office attesting that any land transfer without the signatures of all members of the lineage should be regarded as void.

The search for jobs has motivated people to leave their ancestral lands to live in towns. They sometimes move in with relatives or end up squatting on government land.

The Family

The traditional Micronesian family everywhere included more than the parents and their natural children. The family consisted of the group living and working together on lineage land, which usually included collateral kin such as aunts and uncles and their children. It usually embraced three or sometimes even four generations. A typical residential group in Chuuk or Pohnpei might have numbered as many as 30 or 40 people. Besides this residential group, there were often lineage members living on other pieces of land who retained their close ties with the lineage.

Formerly, these relatives--all of whom were referred to as "mothers," "fathers," "siblings," or "children"--shared in the work of providing for the welfare of the extended family. They took their turns preparing food for the lineage group at a common hearth, and they formed a labor pool that the lineage head could draw on as necessary to cultivate and harvest food, put up buildings, and perform the many other tasks that had to be done. Even when lineage members slept in separate houses with their wives and children, their lives centered around the hearth and meeting house, the symbols of the lineage unity.

Just as they contributed to the material welfare of the lineage as a single productive unit, all members of the extended family cooperated in the vital task of child rearing. The natural father retained considerable direct authority over his children when they were young, but as the children grew to adolescence they were subject to the general supervision of all senior members of the extended family. Many older people had a hand in raising a young member of the lineage. They taught him the skills and lore he had to know to function in his broad family; they counseled and comforted him and disciplined him when necessary; they approved decisions on whether he would go off to school or whom he would marry. The parental authority role, like the support role, was shared by a number of older relatives.

The traditional family system was characterized by a system of delicate balances that Micronesians compared to their outrigger canoe. The matrilineal side--or the hull of the canoe, in this comparison--generally had the dominant claim on each young person. These claims were nearly always represented by the maternal uncle, whose relationship with his nephew and lineage mate was important enough to warrant a special kinship term. The maternal uncles were on hand to help socialize the young person and to do all that was needed to incorporate him fully into the lineage.

The counterweight to the matrilineage was the father's lineage, which was likened to the outrigger on the canoe. This second group was represented chiefly by the young person's father, although others in this kin group also exercised some measure of authority over the young person. The roles of the father and maternal uncle were complementary; if the maternal uncle was a strong authority figure, the father might be kinder and gentler to his son. In this way, the traditional family afforded a balanced support system, with built-in checks against excesses, for the raising of children.

In many parts of Micronesia a young man or woman's relationship with their father's lineage may have been dependent on whether they had been well-behaved and considerate. If their father's family judged them to be deficient in this respect, they could be disinherited and thrown off the family estate. With the mother's lineage it was a different story. No matter how badly a young person acted or what ingratitude he had shown, his matrilineage might serve as a safety net. His matrilineage was his true home, to which he might return when all other doors were closed to him (Hezel, 1989b).

Men and Women's Roles

In all Micronesian societies, and probably everywhere in the Pacific, there was a sharp distinction between the roles of males and females. Women were expected to do the weaving and plaiting, care for the children and perform the house holding chores, while men did the deep-sea fishing, built the houses and canoes, and conducted warfare. Work was divided a little differently from one island to another, but men's and women's roles were always complementary, with some tasks clearly assigned to women and others to men.

Even when working on projects involving the entire community, such as thatching the roof of a meeting house, men and women performed different parts of the work. To prepare for the project, the men made the rope from coconut fiber, while the women plaited the thatch segments used for the roof. When the community assembled to replace the roof, the men would climb up to haul down the old roof and position the new pieces of thatch. The women, meanwhile, would prepare the food.

On something as commonplace as preparation of breadfruit in Chuuk, the principle of division of labor by gender is still rigorously employed. The men pick the breadfruit and carry it to the cookhouse, where the women scrape off the skin, cut it up into pieces and cook it. When the breadfruit is cooked, the men pound it and shape it into loaves, leaving it to the women to wrap the loaves in banana leaves and store them. Woman's work, then, is clearly distinguished from men's work in every detail of joint work projects.

Just as labor was clearly split by gender, so were other roles in traditional Micronesian societies. Men and women enjoyed their own respective spheres of influence. In many islands women were looked upon as the caretakers of the land and they exercised a large measure of control over the allocation of land use rights within or outside of the family. Men, on the other hand, were the spokesmen for the family and the village; they held the titles and the chieftainships.

Although appearances can easily mislead one into believing that the function of men was to rule while that of women was to obey, this was certainly not the case in Micronesia. While women were barred from speaking in public and were expected to avoid center stage positions, they were often the real movers behind the scenes when it came to allocating resources and even initiating political intrigues.

In gender relations, as in other aspects of traditional life, there was a strong element of reciprocity. Just as women were required to show certain kinds of deference to men, especially to male relatives, men were also required to practice respect behavior towards women. Men were not only prohibited from using certain kinds of language in the presence of women, but they were expected to withdraw from the presence of close female kin in keeping with the avoidance behavior that was so common in island societies.

What we would today call women's rights, limited as they may have been, were well protected in traditional society. These rights, to be sure, fell considerably short of today's modern standards, for women might be slapped or hit by their husbands. Even so, the woman's family kept a close watch over her and was poised to intervene on her behalf in case of excess. In such an event they might retaliate against her husband by beating him up or even remove the woman from her husband and so terminate her marriage. Women could expect to be protected by their kinfolk even after they married and bore children. Women in traditional Micronesian societies surely did not enjoy equality with men, but they were not without a large measure of security and even power in those societies (Hezel, 1987).

Social Change under a Cash Economy

Since the early 1960s Micronesia has experienced a cultural upheaval due to the cumulative impact of the modernization program embarked upon by the US which then administered the islands as its Trust Territory. This program began under the Kennedy Administration with a build up of the education and health services system. Americans were recruited in great numbers to teach in the new schools and Peace Corps volunteers were introduced to the islands in 1966. Alcohol was legalized for islanders in 1960, after which drinking became a favorite recreation of young men. The communication systems were modernized to include government-run radio stations and, much later, cable television.

Underlying these changes and dwarfing their cumulative impact upon the cultures of Micronesia was the gradual monetization of the island economies. In the immediate postwar years and through the 1950s most Micronesians lived as they always had. They ate breadfruit, taro and fish and built their houses of local materials; whatever small cash income they might have had was used to purchase clothing, cigarettes, rice, kerosene and other small items.

This pattern began to change during the 1960's as the US subsidies to its Trust Territory spiraled upward, from $6 million in 1962 to $60 million a year by the end of the decade. With a much higher level of funding came new wage employment opportunities for thousands of Micronesians. In 1962 there were 3,000 Trust Territory citizens with full-time employment; by 1965 the number had doubled, and by 1974 it had doubled again to 12,000. As of 1977, when limited self-government was granted to the islands, there were over 18,000 Micronesians working for cash in Palau, the Marshalls and what would soon become the FSM (Hezel, 1988).

Meanwhile, Micronesians' total annual earnings skyrocketed from $2.3 million in 1962 to about $42 million by 1977. The annual per capita income in 1962 was about $60; fifteen years later it stood at more than $400. Even with adjustments for inflation and an annual population increase of more than three percent a year, the average income was three times greater than it had been in 1962 (Hezel, 1989b). For the first time in the history of the islands the cash inflow had reached a level sufficient to propel Micronesia into a monetized economy. Money could supplant land as the main source of livelihood--and it did so for many families.

Discovery of a viable alternative to a land-based economy ushered in other profound changes in Micronesian values and institutions. Formerly the livelihood of any individual was dependent on the kin group that held the rights to the land on which he lived. Now, with a cash salary, one could act independently of their lineage group. Accordingly, the economic ties between the individual and his kin weakened. So did the ties between people and their land. The heads of households began feeding their own families rather than putting the food at the disposal of the head of their extended kin group. They also began making decisions over their own children and on other household matters that once would have been referred to the lineage head in the past.

Under this new social order, fathers felt a new responsibility to provide for their own children even if this meant neglecting the children of their own lineage--that is, their sisters' children. Their attention came to be focused more and more on their own immediate family in contrast to the larger kin group. Under this pressure, land inheritance patterns started changing as fathers plotted to bestow their lineage land on their own children. At the same time, the extended family group, which had once assumed such an important share in rearing children, began to withdraw from this responsibility. This left it to parents to supervise and discipline their own children unassisted. The traditional extended family system was fading away, while the nuclear family system, in which the father had full authority over his children and provided their material needs, was on the ascendancy.

Life Today

Life has changed greatly in FSM today due to the changes of the last 30 years. Although the old mode of food production is still practiced by the majority of the island people in the nation, many families have come to depend mainly on a wage economy. The towns in all parts of FSM have expanded, especially during the 1970s, as thousands of Micronesians moved to these centers in search of employment, schooling, government services and entertainment. As income increased, hundreds have purchased automobiles or motorboats. The traditional thatch houses have given way to cement or wooden structures everywhere except in the most distant atolls--and even there can be found numerous buildings of modern construction.

With these changes have come still others. Young people today have greater access to educational opportunities than before; hundreds are going off to college each year, whereas 30 years ago the college-bound could be numbered in the dozens. Life expectancy is increasing, infant mortality is declining, and the number of options enjoyed by the average man or woman has multiplied enormously.

Yet, some of the changes are both profound and ominous. With the influence of a money economy, attitudes toward land have begun to change, altering land inheritance patterns and choice of residence and loosening the ties that once bound people to their own estates. The traditional family institutions have also been shaken by these changes. Although the extended family exists in some form in all parts of the nation, there has been a radical shift toward the nuclear family just about everywhere. This has had a great impact on social problems, as we shall see in Chapter 10. The boundaries between genders are being blurred and the social roles of men and women are in the process of being redefined. What had been a partnership in the past is sometimes viewed as a power struggle today. Many of the attitudes and values that were part and parcel of the subsistence mode of thought are beginning to crumble.

As significant as these changes may be, we should not overstate them. Micronesian people have retained the distinctive flavor of island life in many other respects. The generosity, gregariousness and hospitality, among other things, that have always been a trademark of island people are in evidence today, even if their lifestyle has been irremediably altered in the last generation.