Changes in the Pohnpeian Family: 1950-1990
Posted by - francisx
A Glimpse of the Model Pohnpeian Family
It is not easy to provide a satisfying description of the Pohnpeian family. The Pohnpeian word peneinei, translated as "family", can be used of several types of kin groups and is even more slippery than the English word "family", which can be equally applied to parents and children in a single household or to all the relatives that come together for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. The Pohnpeian word may represent several different overlapping groups: the nuclear family, the members of a household, or all the residents on a single estate, among other things. We will not attempt to give the word a more precise definition than it can bear. Instead, we shall focus in this study on the group of related persons, however large, who live in proximity with one another and function as a social and economic unit. This is what we refer to as the "family" on Pohnpei.
The model Pohnpeian "family" in the 1950s was a patrilineal unit that included the father and mother, all their married sons, and their unmarried sons and daughters. There were many variations in actual practice, but this seems to have been the ideal form of the Pohnpeian family. Married daughters stayed for a few years after their marriage to learn how to take care of domestic chores so that her family would not be embarrassed by her ineptness, and then she moved off with her husband to the latter's estate. This group could have a depth of three or even four generations, and was termed a keinek, or lineage.
The authority in the family was the senior man on the estate. When he died, he was replaced by one of his brothers (if the brother had been living on the estate) or the eldest son. His successor took over the authority for the estate and responsibility for the welfare of the broad family group living on the estate.
Usually all the members of this group lived on the same piece of land. Originally they may have all lived in the same house. Even when they lived in separate but adjoining houses, they shared most of their food. Families that did not share their food in this way were the object of ridicule from their neighbors. In the days before World War II there was a single uhmw for a family group. The uhmw, or earth oven, was the symbol of the family's solidarity in much the same way that a hearth was for earlier Europeans. Together with the nahs, or feast house, the earth oven was the focal point of the family identity.
There were links with the matrilineage as well, although this group was usually far more disparate than the father's lineage. The importance of the network of blood relatives through the woman's side was recognized through occasional gifts. Some of the matrilineal relatives had significant roles to play in the life of family members. This was especially true of the maternal uncle, or uhlap, and the maternal grandparents. Gifts often passed from the mother's brother to his nephews and nieces, and vice versa. The links were fostered by regular food exchanges as well as parties to celebrate certain events.
Although Pohnpei is described as a matrilineal society, Pohnpeian couples have, at least since German times and possibly before, normally resided with the man's family after marriage. Hence, one finds a cluster of people descended through an older man living on the same estate. The patrilineal group that lived together on the estate, although it may have been composed of several different nuclear families, once functioned as a single economic and social unit. It operated as a group in many ways: fishing together, preparing preserved breadfruit, and building canoes and houses. The authority over the land resided in the father of the estate. The different households on the estate, however, had some responsibility for their domestic affairs and for the daily care of their children.
Today Pohnpeian families still tend to live in patrilineal groups, although there are many exceptions to this residence pattern. It is far more common today than in the past for brothers to live on separate parcels of land located at some distance from their original family estate. Patrilineal groups continue to work together as a unit, at least on an occasional basis, but the different households seem to operate more independently of one another than they did in former times. While the households on the estate still share food and labor at times, they tend to eat by themselves, supervise their own resources independently, and control their own labor supply.
The remainder of this report will attempt to provide a look at the major changes in the family on Pohnpei over the last 40 years. It attempts to compare the Pohnpeian family, as it functioned around 1950, with the Pohnpeian family of today. This study will highlight the changes that have occurred in the family under eight major headings: resources, food distribution, labor, child-rearing, celebrations, adoption, conflict resolution, and respect behavior.
The information on which this study is based was drawn from interviews with ten Pohnpeian families from different parts of the island. The interviews were conducted over a two-year period (1990-1991) by Seberiano Barnabas under the auspices of the Micronesian Seminar. Funding for this study was generously provided by Misereor, a German Catholic foundation.
In the 1950s it was still rather common for the head of the estate to live with his children and grandchildren in a single dwelling. One man from Palikir lived with his wife, his married son and family, and several adopted children in one house. The only other building on the estate at that time was a cookhouse. Another man from Kiti and his wife shared a house with their three married sons, one grandchild, and his wife's sister. The feast house, or nahs, on the property was unoccupied. A man from Net lived in a single house with his two unmarried daughters, three unmarried sons, and a married son and his family. They also maintained a nahs, which they used exclusively for feasting and recreational purposes. Another man from U kept his large family of 11, including two married sons and their children, in his nahs and used a nearby cookhouse for food preparation.
There were a few informants who told of more than a single residence on their estate in the 1950s. One man from Net had two separate dwellings on the property in addition to a cookhouse and a store and a copra shed that he maintained for his export business. He and his wife, along with their nine children and two grandchildren, lived in one of the houses. In the other resided his wife's widowed sister and her eight children.
Another large estate in Kiti, which is today coextensive with a kousapw, or section, had four or five buildings that were used as dwellings to house the 40 or 50 members of the extended family. Virtually everyone on this estate was related to the man who was the head of the lineage. He and his wife, his children and grandchildren lived in the nahs, next to which was situated the lineage earth oven, known as the wonuhmw. Living in the other houses on the estate were two of his brothers and their families, two sisters, and some of their adult children and their families.
With patrilineage members frequently living together in a single house, it stands to reason that they should have closely shared the resources of the land. Indeed, this was the case even when members of the father's lineage were broken up into several households. All the land that was part of the estate–house sites, farmland and taro patches–was subject to the final control of the patriarch or lineage head–mesenihn keinek ("fishing from the lineage") as he was called. The heads of the households, nonetheless, enjoyed use rights to the land and its produce. Some of those interviewed said that the lineage head also had final say over the disposal of prestige commodities: pigs, sakau and yams. In other families, the control of these items was already in the hands of the household heads, as it generally is today. We can assume that the transfer of ownership and control of these prestige items was already well advanced in the early post-war years.
The food resources that stemmed from the land were once also under the ultimate control of the lineage head. Taro patches, breadfruit trees, coconuts and other food crops were regarded as the common property of the lineage, and any member of the lineage had the right to use these resources. The lineage head was generally responsible for apportioning use rights to the various households, and he also exercised his proprietary rights by determining when crops could or could not be harvested. Smaller lineages may have had a single pit for preserving breadfruit during the long months between harvests. In larger lineages, such as the one studied in Kiti, each household had its own breadfruit pit. Much the same could be said of canoes: smaller lineages had one or two common canoes that they used jointly for all purposes, while larger lineages may have had several, sometimes one for each household.
The unity of the patrilineal group was represented by the uhmw, or earth oven, and the nahs, or feast house. These structures were the symbolic core of the extended family, the place where the lineage group would gather to drink sakau and discuss the day's events, welcome guests and entertain visitors, and prepare chiefly tribute and obligatory food gifts to others in the community. The nahs was not only a gathering place, but the lineage's face on the outside world.
Dramatic changes have occurred in the last 40 years. The first and most obvious of these is the great increase in the number of people living on the estate. A land parcel in U that held 11 people back in 1950 now supports 25. Residences, too, have proliferated today. Each of the lineage head's married sons and family has their own dwelling, cook house and pig pen. Where there had been one nahs that had sheltered all 11 family members in 1950, there are now four residences on the property, with a nuclear family living in each. On another estate, this one in Kiti, ten people had shared a single dwelling in 1950. Today there are 22 people living in five houses on this same land parcel. Where there had once been two structures, there are now ten, including a store, a church and a meeting house.
The effects of population growth are especially evident in the case of one family in Kiti. Forty years ago, the family group (the patriarch, his sons and their families, two married daughters and their families, and his unmarried children) were dispersed throughout the rather large family estate. Today the family estate has been broken up into separate mini-estates, each containing the family of one of the male descendants. Whereas there may have been about 50 people living on the entire estate 40 years ago, today there may be two or three times that number. There are more than 30 on the small parcel of land that now holds five houses and constitutes one of the several mini-estates. This patrilineal cluster operates together as a large family unit analogous to the way the members of the whole estate did some years ago.
In 1950 the total population of the eight family estates that could be counted was 72. That figure had increased to 126 by 1990, yielding a growth of 75 percent during the 40 year period. During the same time the number of residential buildings doubled from nine to 18. Thus, while the number of people grew, the residential units multiplied even faster. There are now an average of seven persons to a dwelling, compared with eight in 1950. The difference would be even greater if the largest of the lineage groups were included in this tally.
Whereas in the past a man and his married sons would have often lived under the same roof, there is a strong tendency today to set up a separate residence for each nuclear family. The two estates surveyed in Kiti, one of the more culturally conservative parts of the island, have separate dwellings for each of the married sons and daughters. An estate in U, another in Madolenihmw, and a third in Palikir have evolved the same way. In two other cases the head of the lineage has expanded the single house into a two-story building, with separate quarters for each of the nuclear families. If the Pohnpeian families surveyed are typical, there is a clear move towards smaller residential groupings, with each nuclear family established as a separate household. As if to underscore this shift in social power, households now commonly have their own nahs and cookhouse attached to them. No longer, then, is the nahs the privileged symbol of patrilineal solidarity–although one of these feast houses is often designated as the special meeting place for lineage members on certain occasions.
The resource base for the family has changed significantly since 1950. More individuals have access to salaried jobs. In one patrilineal group there are now five wage-earners, compared to only two some 40 years earlier. In addition, there are a number of former employees who are drawing social security checks and pensions. There are also many more stores that provide families with a supplementary cash income. The consequences of increased access to money are evident everywhere. Many of the houses today are of modern construction and built of cement. Often outside workers are hired to build them, so fewer demands for labor need be made on the patrilineal group. The families now possess motorboats, outboard engines, modern fishing gear, and even automobiles. These items are usually owned by the person who buys them, although the owner will normally share them with others in the patrilineal group upon request. Likewise, those who earn the cash income are entitled to dispose of it as they wish, but with the expectation that they will share some of their money with others in the extended family group.
Even traditional resources seem to be managed differently today. One informant from Awak said that although he retains ownership rights over the land and trees on the estate, his married sons exercise effective control over the property they were given to use. They, not he, make the day-to-day decisions over when and how these resources will be used. This is even more true of prestige goods such as pigs, yams and sakau.
The pattern is decidedly away from patrilineal management of resources and toward control by each household over these resources. Breadfruit pits became the property of each household long ago, as did canoes and fishing nets. With virtually all resources now under the control of the households, the lineage heads (mesenihn keinek) point out that the only thing they exercise authority over today is land, and even this has diminished. If their land rights are lost, they say, the last vestige of their power will have ceased and their title would be meaningless.
Food is an extremely important part of Micronesian life and is pregnant with symbolic meaning. The act of offering food to someone on Pohnpei, one man noted, served to establish a new relationship or deepen an existing one. The preparation and distribution of food, therefore, offers valuable clues as to social identity.
In 1950 the lineage earth oven, or wonuhmw, was a key element in the life of the patrilineage. Food was prepared there for title feasts, tribute to chiefs, and other ceremonial occasions at which the lineage presented a united face before the outside community. There were also lineage feasts that all households helped prepare and in which they shared.
Most of the day-to-day preparation of food and eating, nevertheless, took place within the household. Each household group worked to harvest and prepare the food it needed on a daily basis, even if households within a lineage might go fishing together and share the catch or pick breadfruit together and split the crop harvested. Certain foods were reserved for the lineage head as a mark of recognition of his authority. A very large fish or a turtle would often be presented to him by those who had caught it.
Naturally, there was a great amount of food shared between households on an estate. Indeed, this was the rule rather than exception. Significantly, it was the master of each household, not the lineage head, who decided how much was to be shared and with whom. Food gifts, especially breadfruit, yams and fish, were also sent regularly to matrilineal and patrilineal relatives living off the estate. This was important, especially as a means of maintaining solidarity with the matrilineal relatives, who were dispersed throughout other estates, because food gifts served the function of identifying and strengthening kin ties. One informant said that he learned who his relatives were by watching the food gifts pass from his household to their homes. During his childhood, he visited his relatives on both his mother's and father's side, often spending several days at a time with a family.
As in the past, each household provides for its own sustenance each day. There is still food passed from household to household on the estate, but nearly everyone felt that food sharing is done much more rarely than it was 40 years ago. One reason for this decline, some of the informants felt, was that more of the ordinary fare today consists of store-bought goods that cost money. People seem to feel that foods they have purchased are more properly theirs than the fruit of the land, which they will share more readily. There are still occasions, of course, when the households share in the work of producing a special feast, but these are fewer than they were in the past. The arrival of visitors is an exception, and households will bring food to help provide for guests on the estate.
Food gifts to relatives living at a distance has also declined, according to the families studied. One man said that the only food gifts he gives are to his own children, who sometimes bring him food in return. Another man said the same thing, while enumerating a long list of food items that he and his wife receive from their children: sakau, rice, canned food, sugar, yams, fish and frozen meat, among other things. What about food gifts to other relatives, matrilineal and patrilineal, who were the recipients of such gifts in the past? One man said that instead of making voluntary gifts to them, as he would have done in the past, he waits until they approach him with requests for food or other help. Others indicated that they have become much more selective in their gift-giving; they bring food to a few close relatives and neglect many others. One reason for the curtailment of the food sharing network is that there are simply too many relatives to provide for. But there is another, more self-serving reason: even locally produced foods represent a potential dollar loss for the individual, since pigs, sakau and other produce could be sold at the market for cash.
This is not to say that Pohnpeians have become stingy. Generosity remains an important value even today. Yet, most families admit that they have become more careful in husbanding their resources, especially those that cost money or might be sold for money. The need to affirm kin ties remains, yet people are looking to other ways of doing this. Making larger contributions to their kin on special occasions, especially funerals, is one strategy that people may resort to today. Another strategy, as we shall see later, may be to hold more frequent formal celebrations to which relatives are invited.
In 1950, when the patrilineal group was far more active than it is today, much of the work that any individual did was at the behest of and on behalf of this group. Informants remember spending much time fishing and working on the land with others in their lineage group, even those who lived in other households. The senior man in the lineage (mesenihn keinek) supervised lineage affairs and coordinated work assignments. The female counterpart of the lineage head was known as the limesekedil. She directed women's activities on behalf of the lineage; she might instruct women, for instance, how to go about weaving a sleeping mat or a basket. The lineage head, meanwhile, would decide who was to go out fishing and where they would fish, when to begin harvesting a food crop or where to plant sakau, how to proceed with the construction of a new building on the estate, or when to begin preparation of the tribute to the chief.
This is not to say that everyone in the lineage worked under the supervision of the lineage head or his female counterpart all the time. Indeed, young people were ordinarily under the supervision of their own father or the head of their household. Girls took care of domestic chores, while boys helped their fathers on the land. Some of the informants said they continued working with their father until they were married, at which time they began preparing their own food. One man, however, probably spoke for many others when he claimed that even after his marriage he remained under the regular supervision of his father in performing work on the land.
Today there have been many changes, not only in the tasks performed but in the very organization of labor. The roles of the mesenihn keinek and the limesekedil have diminished in importance as persons spend less time on lineage activities and more time on work for their own household. Lineage labor is now needed only at certain select times, as when preparing for a community or lineage feast. Otherwise, households are largely left to provide for their own needs.
The change in the kind of work done has also had a significant influence on the family. In most families today there is less need for family labor for long and heavier projects like canoe or house construction. Canoes are seldom made nowadays, and house building is frequently done by skilled contractors brought in and paid for this purpose. This has reduced the need to call on help from the lineage or other broad kin groups. Since much of the food is now store-bought, there is less work on the land for children or adolescents. But, children are less available for this type of work anyway since they spend so much time in school. One man said, "My kids are still high school age or lower, so they don't do much to help out at home. I don't want to occupy them with household chores because I want them to be successful in school and be able to go to college in order to make a good living."
One of the few things that has remained relatively unchanged is the woman's role in the household. Females, old and young, perform domestic duties much as they always did. They keep house, cook, and take care of children, with girls continuing to take charge of younger siblings.
Child rearing on Pohnpei, as in other cultures, is more than a matter of supplying the physical needs of the young. It also entails providing affection and love, discipline when required, and counsel and support in more turbulent times.
Child rearing was nothing less than the early stage of socializing the young, and it was certainly recognized as such in the traditional Pohnpeian family. Children were raised to become members of a social group, and their social identity received strong emphasis. From their earliest years, children were told that whatever they did would reflect on the entire family and were enjoined to behave themselves so that the family would enjoy a good reputation. For this reason, the entire patrilineal group, as well as the child's maternal relatives, had a stake in the proper upbringing of the child.
In the past, the father and mother were the primary caretakers of their own children. Nonetheless, raising children was a joint responsibility that involved everyone in the lineage. Many of the people interviewed claimed to have had several sets of parents when they were young. Maternal and paternal grandparents took an active hand in caring for the young, so much so that some of the informants referred to them as their "second parents". Aunts and uncles also had a role in raising children, and they were expected to scold and even spank a child when he misbehaved. The maternal uncle, known as the uhlap, had a specially significant role to play. He was assigned the job of disciplinarian, chiding the boy as need arose and instructing him as to the right way of doing things. Yet, he was also supposed to be ready to receive requests from his nephew and to show him generosity, particularly when the boy's natural father was not responsive to these requests. The fact that the uhlap was usually not in daily contact with his nephew only enhanced the importance of his position.
The effect of such a large number of caretakers was to insure that young people were seldom lonely or neglected. There was always someone to provide the support they needed. If a child was misunderstood by one "parent", he could turn to another for solace and comfort. Similarly, if his father neglected to provide for him, his maternal uncle was supposed to fill the gap. The child rearing system of the 1950s distributed responsibilities over a wide group of people and offered a balance that is sometimes sadly missing today.
One important feature of the traditional system was the insurance it offered that a child whose parents were unable to perform their responsibilities would be properly cared for. The system offered built-in insurance that, in the event of injury or death of the parents or their absence for a period of time, the child would not be left to his own devices. One informant told of a case in which, after the father of a large family died, nearly all his kinfolk petitioned to be allowed to care for the widow and her children. The relatives felt a sense of responsibility for the family, but their concern was not entirely altruistic, the informant remarked. After all, people were considered a valuable resource in the past, and the more persons in one's household the "richer" he was thought to be.
In the 1950s, if a couple were away for a rather long period of time, they would generally leave their children with the mother's family. Although at times they might leave the children with a paternal uncle or some other older member of the patrilineal estate, Pohnpeians seemed to prefer calling on the matrilineal relatives to care for the children. many informants remember often staying with their maternal grandparents when they were young. This preference, one informant observed, can be explained by the Pohnpeian proverb "Deidein pwulak sou," meaning that the clan pulls together like a school of unicorn fish. Another man recalled that after the death of his mother, he was adopted by his mother's brother (his uhlap) and moved to his estate for the remainder of his childhood.
Today child rearing remains the primary responsibility of the mother and father, but they do not have the benefit of all the help they enjoyed some years ago. As the Pohnpeian family has become more nuclearized, aunts and uncles have abdicated much of their traditional responsibility for helping to raise their nephews and nieces. In some instances where they have tried to perform their customary duties, their efforts have been rebuffed. When a man took it upon himself to spank the son of his unmarried daughter, the boy ran off to Kolonia to stay with his mother. Another Pohnpeian man scolded his nephew for the boy's bad manners. When the boy scornfully asked who the man was to reprimand him, his uncle slapped him. When the boy's parents heard about the incident, they were incensed that the paternal uncle (the boy's uhlap) took it upon himself to correct the child and demanded that the uncle apologize. In criticizing the man's attempt to discipline their child, the parents flatly declared that since they raised their children themselves with no help from the lineage, their children are theirs alone.
Modern parents, then, are bereft of the support and assistance they once had available in child rearing. Increasingly, the father has absorbed roles that were once performed by others in the broad family group. He is the confidant, the disciplinarian, the comforter, the decision-maker. Much the same can be said of the mother. As in other parts of Micronesia, raising children on Pohnpei is becoming ever more exclusively the responsibility of the mother and father. Naturally, this presents a number of problems. One of them is to guarantee care for the children when one or both of the parents are incapacitated or die. When parents travel these days, they are more likely than the past to bring their children with them. When they must leave their children behind, parents often entrust their younger children to the care of their older children. At times, parents still call on the services of their own brothers and sisters to provide temporary child care for their children. The back up child care system continues to function–no one is abandoned to the streets–but it works less smoothly and less automatically than in the past.
Adoption was very common in the past. Almost every family interviewed had some members who had been adopted into the lineage and others who had adopted out to other families.
There were two main reasons for adopting: to strengthen ties between kin, and to keep precious commodities such as land, sakau, pigs and yams within the lineage. Sometimes both purposes were served at the same time, as when the paternal aunt of one informant was adopted out to her mother's lineage. The adoption had the effect of reinforcing the bonds between her mother's and her father's lineage, but it also led to the woman inheriting the property of the household into which she was adopted. The number of stories informants tell of someone being adopted by their mother's kinfolks suggests that adoption into the matrilineal group must have been one of the most common forms of adoption. One woman reported that seven of her 14 children were adopted out, all of them going to her own relatives.
A further motivation for adoption was to provide children for those who had none of their own. Children were regarded as extremely important, for they were expected to take care of their parents in their old age. They were, we might say, a form of social security. In return for their services these adopted children would inherit property and carry on the name of the family.
Adoption has declined enormously in the present day, as all the interviews attest. The woman who gave out half of her own natural children in adoption reported that of all her grandchildren, who number about 60, only one has been adopted out. Even that one returned to her natural family after her adoptive parents died, bequeathing to her their land. No one has been adopted into her family in the past 20 years. Other informants tell of some adoptions into or out of their families in recent years, but all agree that the practice has become much rarer. They give different explanations for this. Some feel that parents are so busy tending their own children that they have no time for others. They point to the fact that the survival rate of infants is greater, and so family size is larger than it was. Others feel that people are more cautious about adopting because of the financial burden of raising children. Then, too, as the sense of lineage solidarity weakens, its members may be less concerned than before about strengthening kin bonds.
Childless couples continue to seek to adopt children, however. Despite the inroads made by the money economy, a child is as precious as always for people who will face the uncertainties of old age. Rather than adopt from relatives, however, they are turning to disadvantaged families or single parents, especially from the outer islands. Many of the adoptions that we see today have lost the rationale that they once had, especially as a means of reinforcing group bonds, but they have gained a touch of compassion for those beyond family boundaries.
Special events in the life of the family have always been the occasions for celebration. A survey of these occasions and the way in which they are celebrated can perhaps provide an added glimpse into the workings of the family and the way it has changed over the years.
In the 1950s there were numerous celebrations in which the family actively participated. The most important were probably the feasts in recognition of community and lineage authorities. Lineages were obliged to give a feast (kamadipwen wahu) for the Nanmwarki and the Nahnken each year, as well as a "thank you" feast whenever a member received a new title. There were also special feasts at different seasons when the first fruits were presented to the head of the lineage. Even funerals contained an element of this, for on the second day of the funeral the lineage head (mesenihn keinek) and the ranking woman in the lineage (limesekedil) were specially honored. At this time, too, the lineage met to reflect on the past and make plans for the future. Other events also were the occasion of family celebrations. The lineage usually put on a special feast at the completion of a big project, such as the construction of a house or a canoe or a breadfruit pit. A betrothal was another occasion for a party. When a woman reached the seventh or eighth month of her pregnancy, there was a feast known as kamweng kasapw to signal the family's support of the woman at what would have been a critical time in those days of primitive health care. Another feast, pilendihdi, was held soon after the birth to celebrate the survival of the mother and her infant. In addition, there were other lineage parties to celebrate the arrival of visitors, the departure and return of a lineage member who was traveling, recovery from an accident or sickness, and church events.
Many of these events continue to be celebrated today. The title feasts are celebrated now as they always have been except that families can nowadays invest thousands of dollars to stage one of these in a style that will do credit to them. Funerals have become even longer and more elaborate in our day. They are perhaps the costliest and most time-consuming celebration today. In addition to the nine-day-long celebration after the death, there is another commemoration on the 40th day after the death, and on the first anniversary (and sometimes subsequent anniversaries) of the death.
The feasts for the presentation of the first fruits, although still observed by some lineages, is clearly declining as the authority of the lineage head over the estate wanes. The celebration of the late pregnancy of a woman has virtually died out, since modern medical care has rendered the survival of the mother and child far less doubtful than in former days. Some families continue to celebrate the birth of the child, but this is generally declining. Birthday parties are becoming a common occurrence, but these are being held within the household rather than for the entire lineage.
Christmas and New Year's Day are important additions to the yearly cycle of feasts. These two holidays, together with funerals, provide the major occasions for lineage-wide celebrations today. The head of the lineage and his female counterpart are honored on both these feasts, just as they once were at the old presentations of the first fruits. Moreover, families attempt to gather as many of relatives of the in-marrying women as they can for these parties, for they have become opportunities to cement ties within the lineage and between the lineage and its neighbors.
The traditional Pohnpeian family, as a microcosm of the society, was sharply divided and stratified along age and sex lines. The status of each person was clearly defined, and respect behavior served as a way of marking of this status while preventing collision and conflict. The canons of behavior of each family member to every other one in the group were sharply etched.
The relationship of a son to his father, or towards the lineage head, was traditionally characterized by a respectful distance and unquestioning submission to authority. One man put it this way: "Obedience was absolute. One word from my father and I was bound to do it. Furthermore, I could not discuss my own problems or concerns with my father unless he asked me about them." Another man recalled that when he was young he hardly ever saw his father talking to his grandfather. They avoided long discussions, particularly personal jokes, and any conversation that took place was initiated by the older man. The relationship between mother and daughter was much the same. Daughters were expected to do what they were told and to keep their private concerns to themselves.
A child could not talk back when being scolded or given advice by an older family member. The child was not even supposed to look into the eyes of his elders. Brothers could be friends when they were young, but as they grew up they began to avoid each other's company. Older brothers had the right to correct the younger ones, and at times acted almost like a surrogate father. As they got older, brothers avoided any signs of close familiarity with one another, and their relationship took on some of the same qualities as that of a father to a son.
There was also a stringent code of respect behavior between sexes in the same family. Girls were expected to assume a lower position, avoid loud talk, and present a humble demeanor when their brothers were around. They were also supposed to conceal their breasts in the presence of their brothers and avoid leaving around their undergarments or other intimate apparel. Brothers, for their part, had to avoid allusions to any sexual matters or bodily functions in the presence of their sisters. The relationship between brother and sister was almost otherworldly in its purity. These strictures were carried even further in the case of parallel cousins of the opposite sex (that is, children of two sisters or two brothers). The woman (pideli, or "taboo sister") was not even allowed to approach her male cousin or touch his food for fear that she might be having her menstrual period at that time. This seems to have applied even after death, according to one of the informants, for a taboo sister who attended her male cousin's funeral never even entered the house where the coffin was placed for fear of breaking the customary taboos.
The changes in respect behavior have been dramatic, in the opinion of most of the family members interviewed. By everyone's account, the relationship between parents and their children is becoming less authority-driven and more informal. Some people joke with their parents or start casual conversations with them. Children are said to talk back to their parents more frequently, and sometimes even flatly refuse to do something they are told. One elderly woman said that her grown sons and daughters plainly tell her when they disagree with her, and they argue with her in a way that would have been unthinkable years ago.
The respect behavior between the sexes is also being eroded. Some young people have never even heard of the pideli relationship, and this practice seems to be dying out. Brothers and sisters in many families are ignoring the strong taboos against allowing any sexual innuendos when they are together. It has become rather common for the entire family, boys and girls together, to watch R-rated movies with bedroom scenes and strong language. In some households brothers and sisters even discuss their love affairs with one another. Girls nearly everywhere take less pains to conceal the underwear they have hanging on the clothesline, and many girls now wear clothes that would have been scandalous 20 or 30 years ago. Perhaps, as one informant suggests, the respect that was once shown in an external, almost ritualized way is being internalized by families today. Whether that is true or not, it is obvious that many of the old respect forms are quickly falling into disuse.
Conflicts or disputes among lineage members were common, but Pohnpeians prided themselves on the mechanisms they used for resolving these problems. Minor disputes between siblings were usually settled by their parents. More serious matters might be taken to maternal uncle, or uhlap, for mediation. Quarreling sisters would often go to their maternal uncle and their maternal aunt. One man recalled a time in the 1950s when his father and his father's brother had a severe argument over land rights that nearly led to a fight. As soon as their uhlap heard about it, he summoned them both and gave them a strong tongue-lashing. In the end, he settled the dispute by dividing the land equally between the two of them.
Disputes between more distant members of the lineage were taken to the lineage head (mesenihn keinek) or the senior woman of the lineage (limesekedil). When two cousins got into a dispute over which of them had the right to a certain title, the lineage head intervened and made the decision as to who would receive the title. The lineage head would also mediate in difficulties between spouses and between two adults in the lineage. When one of the parties was resistant to a settlement, his "taboo sister" (parallel cousin) was sent to plead with him to accept the settlement. This normally produced the desired results, since it was difficult in Pohnpeian custom to refuse the request of a "taboo sister".
Conflicts with someone from outside the lineage were usually mediated by the mesenihn keinek. When a member of one lineage killed someone outside the lineage, the mesenihn keinek represented the offending party and brought about a reconciliation. Sakau, green coconuts and cigarettes were employed as symbolic offerings to the other lineage. If the head of the other lineage did not accept the gesture of atonement, the village chief or sometimes even the Nanmwarki or Nahnken was called upon to effect a reconciliation. In any case, the lineage head always represented the guilty party in these situations.
These methods are still generally used today, but with some modifications. Maternal uncles are still frequently called on to resolve minor disputes between parents and their children. Lineage heads, however, do not seem to be as effective as they once were, since their prominence has diminished. Indeed, in some lineages it is not even clear who the lineage head is. When disputes arise, lineage members sometimes go to some other prominent member of the lineage rather than the lineage head to resolve the problem. One older man who has an island-wide reputation because of his high government position is often called upon to settle problems, even though his older brother is the head of the lineage. There is a shift today towards calling on persons with personal influence to handle problems. Increasingly, pastors and others with a position in either the Catholic or Protestant church are being asked to mediate in conflicts that occur within and beyond the lineage boundaries.
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