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Yap: The land of stone money

An emotional return


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Baskets, used to carry one's valuables, are very important in the Yapese culture. Women and men have different styles of baskets, which are handwoven by women.

Traditionally a person would not walk into another's village without carrying a basket. If someone is not carrying a basket it is polite to carry a green branch to signify that he is coming in peace.

Women and men carry their baskets differently. The size of a basket is determined by social status in the village. This is based on gender, age and caste.

There is proper basket etiquette. One would never get into another's basket without permission. It is not proper to step over another's basket; you walk around it.

Different baskets are also used to carry infants. Still other types of baskets are used to carry food.

Chewing betelnut is a ritual in Yap. The nut is split, then lime (crushed coral) is added, sometimes with a dab of tobacco soaked in vodka. It is then wrapped in a pepper leaf and chewed.

Someone chewing betelnut looks a little like a baseball player with a wad of tobacco in his mouth. A reddening of the mouth occurs, accompanied by a mild buzz, which lasts only a few minutes.

Betelnut is chewed throughout the day. Spitting the red juice while chewing is necessary.

In a village at night, you'll hear the wind in the palms, the surf on a distant reef, land crabs scurrying across a tin roof, dogs barking -- and the elders pounding betelnut.

There are three styles of traditional structures on Yap.

The largest of the three is the "pebay." This is a place for the community to come together for school, dances or meetings.

The "tabnuw" is the family house and is generally smaller then the community house. The roof is made of woven thatch (dried palm fronds). The inside is one open room with no lavatory. The kitchen is contained in a separate structure outside the family house.

The "faluw" is the men's house. Prior to World War I, women were kidnapped and brought to the "faluw." This practice does not occur today. It once was considered an honor to be chosen for the "faluw" because only the most beautiful women would be taken there. She would be the "mispil" or resident female of the men's house. As the Yapese culture became more influenced by the outside world's negative views of prostitution, this practice was stopped.

Like all structures in Yap, it is necessary to obtain permission before entering. There are a few men's houses on Yap that women are allowed to enter, however people must always ask for permission.

Caste system:
Traces of a caste system still remain in Yap, but this is fading because of outside influences.

There were many levels to the caste, which was rooted in land rights. When the Yapese lost a battle, they found themselves on the bottom of the system.

The person of a lower caste is obligated to serve the higher caste. Lower castes would perform less desirable tasks like burying the dead or repairing a roof.

In return, the lower caste members were able to retain their land rights, and could call upon their landlords for protection and food.

Members of different castes traditionally eat different types of foods. The distinction of who can fish where, or which people eat certain foods, has ecological value -- the island was small, and the population was once very large. For example, the lower caste ate eel and the higher caste ate turtle. Thus there was a balance.

Dances are an important part of Yapese culture because they are used to celebrate significant events in the community, whether it be the building of a new structure or an elementary school graduation. Dances are always performed together, never as an individual.

Traditionally women on Yap proper wore grass skirts that extended below the knee. Women did not -- and still don't -- show their thighs.

On the outer islands of Yap, women wear handwoven lava lavas, sort of a wrap-around skirt. Toplessness is common, even mandatory, for everyone on some of the outer islands. Still, women take great care not to show their thighs.

Men on Yap proper traditionally wore loincloths, known as thus. Now thus are worn mostly for special occasions such as dances. Some old men wear dry hibiscus and a lava lava with their thus, which signifies they've proven their manhood through fighting. Today younger men typically wear T-shirts and shorts. Boys in villages still grow up wearing thus, though: first one piece of cloth, then additional pieces of cloth as they grow older. Older boys wear three pieces. The material can be blue, red or white.

On the outer islands men wear one piece of long cloth.

In Colonia, the district center, it is common to see women and men wearing Western-style clothing -- for women, blouses and skirts typically, sometimes pants. More outer-island women are wearing T-shirts with their lava lavas.

Fresh fish is the main source of protein. Pork, chicken and crab are also common. Also important to the Yapese diet: taro, coconut, breadfruit, bananas, mangoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca and papaya. Rice, canned meats such as Spam and corned-beef hash, and turkey tails have become popular, too.

Gender roles:
Traditionally, men have had distinct roles in Yapese society. They were considered the protectors of the family. They fished, built houses or canoes, and picked coconuts. Meals for men were prepared in separate pots and eaten separately from women. Some men had their own kitchens, their own gardens, even their own plates.

Yapese women traditionally cared for children, worked in taro patches and gardens, and weaved baskets. They were expected to walk behind a man. If a woman had to pass in front of a man, she would bow -- not like one would bow to the queen of England, but more of a hunched-down position.

Traditional gender roles are changing, however. Now both men and women bow to show respect for each other. Some women now work outside the home, and they receive equal pay for equal work for nontraditional jobs such as store clerk, bank teller or government worker.

Yap has a constitutional democratic form of government. The Federated States of Micronesia -- which over the years has been ruled by Spain, Germany and Japan -- is an independent sovereignty, but is allied with the United States through a Compact of Free Association. The agreement was designed to help FSM achieve self-sufficiency.

FSM's government is largely funded by the United States. FSM uses U.S. currency and is served by the U.S. Postal Service.

The government is Yap's major employer.

The land:
The state of Yap is one of four states made up of separate groups of islands that comprise the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The islands of the FSM stretch out over 1,800 miles in the western Pacific Ocean. There are over 100 land masses in Yap State, but only 22 of its islands are inhabited. The main island group of Yap, called Yap proper, is located north of the equator, 640 miles south of Guam. The other states of the FSM are Pohnpei (the capital state), Kosrae and Chu'uk (formerly known as Truk). Yap is the most traditional of the four distinct societies of FSM.

The FSM is a sovereign nation with its own constitution. Under the provisions of the Compact of Free Association, a treaty adopted in 1986 between FSM and the United States, the U.S. is responsible for the defense of the FSM as well as for the funding of a wide range of other government services, including postal service, building and maintenance of basic infrastructure, agricultural, economic development and social programs.

There are four traditional, distinct languages in Yap: Yapese, Ulithian, Woleaian and Satawalese. Yapese is the language spoken on Yap proper. The other languages are spoken in the outer islands. Words in Japanese, Spanish, German and English are also woven into the language.

Generally, Yapese youth speak English as their second language. Most of the elders speak Japanese as a second language.

English is the official langauge of the Federated States of Micronesia.

Outside influences
Spaniards, Germans, Japanese and Americans brought Christianity, democratic elections, improvements in health care, formal education, tools, tourism, electricity and computers to Yap proper -- as well as disease, drugs, alcohol, television and unhealthful food.

Another relative newcomer to the islands is the personal computer. As on other continents, the youth seem to have embraced this new technology. High school students used the computer to record the history of their elders on a CD-ROM.

Stone money:
Yapese stone money, rai, is seen all over the island. In 1871 an Irish-American named David Dean O'Keefe shipwrecked on Yap. He came to dominate the copra trade -- copra is the dried meat of coconut -- and was known on Yap as "His Majesty O'Keefe." In exchange for copra, he transported the stone discs from Palau, 280 sea miles away, to Yap. Before O'Keefe, the Yapese would navigate small canoes to Palau and back; O'Keefe had a ship.

A piece of stone money can be several inches thick, and there is always a hole in the middle so it can be carried. The stones are at least 1 foot wide and can be as large as 12 feet wide.

The value of stone money is based upon its history, age, type of stone, shape, and the difficulty it took to obtain it. Were lives lost in a piece's journey? The stones that involved great personal risk are more valuable. Banks of stone money line the footpaths in villages.

The money is sometimes exchanged at a village festival. The stones are not exchanged at stores for common merchandise. U.S. currency is used for everyday goods.

There are other types of traditional money, but Yap is most famous for its stone money. During the Japanese occupation, however, to encourage the Yapese to work, some of the stones were crushed and used for roads.

Ghosts or spirits are often talked about.

"Don't brush your hair at night -- the ghosts will come."

"Don't sweep at night -- the ghosts will come."

In the village, a child might be told, "Don't whistle at night -- the ghosts will come." Long ago, people thought others had the power to send storms and typhoons.

Scuba diving in the warm, clear waters is a big draw for tourists. Divers come to see the manta rays, turtles, sharks, corals and fish. They also visit Yap because it is the most traditional island of all of the FSM.

Yap Day is March 1. It is an official holiday marked by a festival of food and dance.

Among the values most precious to the Yapese: patience, sharing and humility. Knowledge is valued and not easily shared. Being indirect is preferrable to confrontation. Change is not done quickly. Rapid change is discouraged.

It is tropical, meaning an average temperature in the 80s and high humidity. Monsoon-type rain falls during the rainy season accompanied by an occasional typhoon.

Words and phrases:

Yapese              English

Kammagar            Thank you
Kefel               Goodbye
Siro                Excuse me
Winig               Please
Taboch Gow          See you later

-- Compiled by Tim Engle and Francine Orr