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ETHNONYMS: Kapinga, Kiriniti


Identification. Kapingamarangi, one of the Polynesian outliers, is the southernmost atoll in the Eastern Caroline Islands of Micronesia. "Kiriniti" is a local rendering of the English "Greenwich."

Location. Located at 1°4 N, 154°46 E, the atoll consists of thirty-three flat islets forming a semicircle on an egg-shaped reef surrounding a central lagoon. Its total land area of 1.09 square kilometers supports a native vegetation of ninety-three different species of plants, but only five of thesebreadfruit, coconuts, pandanus, Alocasia taro, and a nitrogen-fixing creeperwere useful as food. The average annual rainfall is 305 centimeters, but the atoll is subject to periodic drought, lasting from weeks to years.

Demography. The Kapingamarangi population fluctuated according to periods of adequate rainfall and extended drought, averaging about 450 people. Currently the population is much larger, with many Kapingamarangi living in Porakied village on Pohnpei.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kapingamarangi is a member of the Polynesian Family of Oceanic Austronesian languages. Most people speak at least one other language, including English, Japanese, and Pohnpeian.

History and Cultural Relations

According to local legend, the present Polynesian population is descended from Ellice Islands castaways of some 600-700 years ago (possibly supplemented by immigrants from Samoa). They arrived to find a small resident population (presumably Mortlockese) whom they appear to have culturally absorbed. Once settled, this population was extremely isolated, the only contacts being with castaways from the Gilbert Islands, the Mortlocks, the Marshall Islands, and Woleai. The latter two were culturally the most significant, with the Woleaians introducing plant medicines, sorcery, and a very important group fishing method, while the Marshallese slaughtered over half the Kapinga population in 1865. The first European ship entered the lagoon and established direct contact with the islanders in 1877. Thereafter, ships from Rabaul visited the atoll periodically, trading Western goods for copra. These contacts resulted in the introduction of both Western goods and plants and techniques from other islands. When the Japanese colonial administration assumed control of Micronesia from the Germans in 1914, shipping, trade, and travel became regular features of Kapinga life. With the constant need for labor on Pohnpei (a district center), men were taken there as work crews on road gangs and plantations. In 1919 the Japanese administration granted the Kapinga land in Kolonia to house emigrants to Pohnpei. This settlement, called Porakied village, has grown over the years to its present population of about 600, and it has been there that Kapingamarangi people have had their most intensive contacts with other islanders. Regular ship visits between Pohnpei and the atoll facilitate a flow of people, which increased in frequency after World War II and the advent of the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands that succeeded the Japanese colonial administration. While the Japanese were interested mainly in commercial development, the United States has emphasized economic and political Development, bringing people to Pohnpei for training to run Development programs on the atoll. In 1979, Pohnpei District became a state of the Federated States of Micronesia, and Kapingamarangi is now a municipality of Pohnpei State, with its own constitution.


On the atoll, residence compounds, all of which have names and well-defined boundaries, are located on the three central islets. In addition to the atoll community and Porakied, Kapinga people have maintained a small settlement on Oroluk Atoll since 1954 for copra production and pig and turtle husbandry.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Kapinga people continue to subsist on local products, especially coconuts, breadfruit, pandanus fruit, and taro. Of these, only taro requires constant care, which has intensified since the 1880s when Cyrtosperma largely replaced Alocasia. This variety of taro grew faster and larger than the native one and quickly became a staple. Coconut groves have largely replaced Pandanus groves to accommodate the copra trade, the income from which has been augmented by government and municipal salaried jobs and the sale of handicrafts. Cash income is used to buy foods such as rice, coffee, sugar, tea, tinned fish, and candies; tools and utensils; and, recently, gasoline for the outboard engines that have largely replaced sails on the canoes. Imports are retailed by a cooperative, a branch of the Pohnpei Federation of Cooperatives, which buys copra from local producers.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, Kapinga produced a variety of implements, using wood for houses, canoes, handles, paddles, breadfruit grating stands, poles, digging sticks, traps, and outrigger-canoe parts. Coconut husk was made into sennit cord and the cord into ropes and coir nets. Hibiscus and breadfruit bast was used for clothing and cordage. Shells were used for cutting, scraping, and abrading tools, and coconut and pandanus leaves made thatch and a variety of mats. Pandanus leaf was also used for canoe sails and, woven with a backstrap loom, clothing. Since World War II many of these items have been produced for the handicraft market, which yields a significant percentage of the income of Porakied Villagers on Pohnpei. The copra trade allowed Kapinga to replace their shell tools with metal counterparts, and since the 1950s locally produced fishing lines and netting fiber have been replaced by mail-order nylon and other synthetics. Canvas sails have replaced those made from plaited pandanus leaf.

Trade. Other than copra production and commercial fishing and handicrafts on Pohnpei, the only other significant tradeagain on Pohnpeihas been that of trade friendships between Kapinga and their Micronesian neighbors, usually involving the exchange of fish for vegetable foods.

Division of Labor. As in most Pacific societies, the division of labor is based mainly on gender and age. Women Control the domestic sphere, centered in the residence compounds, where they cook, wash clothes, care for children, and do craft work (basketry and mat making). Women leave their compounds to help relatives in other compounds and to work in their taro patches, located on one of the central islets and three other outlying ones. The quintessence of manhood is fishing, but men also harvest fruit from trees and construct and repair houses and gear. Men also made both their own and women's wraparound skirts from hisbiscus and breadfruit bast before people adopted imported cloth. Because women are responsible for scheduling meals (and assessing food needs that require harvest trips to outer islet groves and taro gardens), they have a lien on men's time and canoes. Men have to schedule their work around the needs of their households.

Land Tenure. Kapingamarangi is typical of Oceanic atolls in its identification of relations regarding land with relations among kin. On a cultural level, land and kinship are defined in terms of each other. Every transaction in land, therefore, implies some sort of kin relation. Kapinga distinguish taro plots from "land," i.e., dry land used for groves. Taro plots are always owned by individual persons while "land" proper is owned either individually or, more often, by kin groups. Rights to dry land are either ownership rights or use rights. Ownership of land involves using it at will for any and all of its purposes, including residence; harvesting food, leaves, and wood; planting; and graves. Owners can also convey the land by will or gift. Use rights involve using land for some of its purposes (usually harvesting food, leaves, or wood) only with the permission of its owner. The application of these principles exemplifies the structure of kin relations and groups. Residence compounds are owned by descent groups called madawaawa, whose members are descendants of a former owner reckoned through both males and females. Garden land was and still is owned by individual persons or, more commonly, by cognatic descent groups called madahaanau. A person's or group's land usually consists of a bundle of rights in several plots scattered over different islets with part of the bundle coming from each parent.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship groups are corporate with respect to two things: land and ceremonies. Group formation uses the cognatic descent principle of eligibility with one exception. The madawaawa, the group centered on house compounds, is really a descent category with a six- or seven-generation depth from whose membership groups can be recruited for specific purposes, such as feasts, funerals, house repair, and roof thatching; as groups form for these projects, people can opt in or out, with participation signaling group membership. For members of the secular class, such recruitment used cognatic descent. But since eligibility for the priesthood was inherited matrilineally, those madawaawa consisting exclusively of members of the sacred class were matrilineal (nonexogamous) lineages. These lineages functioned as a group during specific cult-house rituals and for weddings, funerals, and other celebrations of their members that specifically centered on the group's house compound. Similarly, the land-owning madahaanau functioned as ritual groups during life-crisis events of their members.

Kinship Terminology. Kapinga kin terms are of the Hawaiian type, distinguishing all ascending generation females as dinana, or "mother" from all ascending generation males as damana, or "father." All relatives in Ego's generation are called by the single sibling term, duaahina, and all descending generation relatives are referred to by the term for child, dama.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, there were no marriage rules other than those prohibiting sex between parents and their children and between full or half-siblings. Other than this narrowly defined incest rule, we find only marriage strategies, usually focused on protecting or augmenting a family's landholdings. Thus we find instances of polygyny, polyandry, cross-cousin marriage, parallel-cousin marriage, father's brother-brother's daughter marriage, wife sharing, and wife swapping between male parallel first cousins for purposes of conceiving a child. Marriages were usually arranged by Parents. After an initial period of virilocal residence, the couple lived in the bride's mother's compound. A man practiced strict avoidance of all in-laws except small children of the compound. The considerable strains of uxorilocal residence make marriages brittle in their early years, and divorce has always been common (25-33 percent of all marriages).

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is the household compound, which can contain as few as one or as many as five of what we would call nuclear families, each of which consists of one to twelve (or sometimes more) people. The core of a compound was a set of related women, their in-married spouses, and their children. Each household contains a woman, with or without spouse and children, but it may also contain a cousin or elderly relative. At puberty, boys move to the men's house to sleep, but they continue to eat and work at their natal compounds. Thus, a compound ranged in size from one to thirty or more people. Kapinga living on Pohnpei continue to organize their households by compounds Wherever possible.

Socialization. Children typically grow up in a compound consisting of their (natural or adoptive) mother's female relatives, in-married men, and their children. Men of the compound spend little time there, appearing mainly for meals and to sleep. When a baby is old enough to be weaned, he or she is given to an older sibling for care. By age 4 or 5 children (especially boys) join peer groups and spend less time at their compounds and more time around the islets and the lagoon. Boys' groups are more stable than girls' groups, since girls are more useful to their mothers at a much earlier age. Boys begin to fish on the reef with pole and line at 7 or 8 years of age. Traditionally, there was no formal initiation of children, although a father gave a small feast when his adolescent son first began to sleep in the men's house, and a boy got his first loincloth when he caught one thousand flying fish. There was no comparable initiation for girls. Boys and young unmarried men constituted a work force for the men's house, which organized group fishing and provided labor for all cult house construction and repair projects. While a girl was socialized almost entirely by women of her own and related compounds, boys were socialized first by their mothers, then by their older siblings, then by their peers, and finally by men of their compounds and the men's house.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Kapinga social order was hierarchically organized: the household was nested in the compound, where males belonged to men's houses, which were controlled by their headmen and an elder male called the tomoono. These leaders were, in turn, accountable to the high priest, called aligi, who was responsible for organizing all cult house ritual and for communicating with the gods, who were the ultimate source of all authority.

Political Organization. The institution that integrated household compounds, descent groups, and the men's houses was the cult house, whose activities were organized by the priesthood. The high priest exercised a good deal of Control over fishing and access to land resources through his ownership of breadfruit trees and drift logs (used to make canoes) ; by his ability to taboo the lagoon, deep sea, and trees; and by his decisions on timing of rituals. By restricting the number of canoes, he indirectly controlled the frequency of angling, lending a powerful saliency to men's houses, the other major alternative for fishing activity. Men's houses varied in number between two and five, and they exercised Control over their members' time through the organization of group fishing expeditions, which could number as many as three during a day. Fishing was organized by a headman, while work groups were organized and provisioned by the tomoono. There was a good deal of competition between men's houses in fish catches and in song composition. The men's house located lagoonward of the cult house on the main islet provided the major work force for cult-house Projects, and its tomoono had veto power over the granting of permission to construct canoes. He was also given the task of provisioning and caring for Europeans after contact. His liaison responsibility eventually evolved into a position of power that became a secular chieftainship (he was called "king") after the collapse of the cult house and conversion to Christianity in 1917.

Social Control. Disputes over land were ordinarily settled by the families involved, while those arising among men were normally settled in the men's house. Breaches of fishing or men's-house protocol were dealt with by the tomoono, while the high priest dealt with ritual violations, sometimes by execution, which ordinarily was done by putting the violator in a canoe and setting it adrift.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There were three classes of spirits with whom people had to cope. The high gods were spirits who came to the atoll on the original canoe or were spirits of former high priests. The priesthood (with its sacred/secular class distinction) and the organization of people by age category were designed to deal with these powerful unpredictable beings. Another set of spirits, called the "line of ghosts," were spirits of recently and long-deceased people who inhabited the outer lagoon, coming ashore in a line at night to steal the souls of unwary people sleeping or wandering outside their houses. One simply avoided these spirits by trying not to attract their attention. Finally, there was a female spirit who inhabited the northern islets, enticing unsuspecting men at night to drive them crazy. A male spirit in the southern Lagoon waited to molest women at night, making them ill. Being accompanied by someone of the opposite sex would forfend an attack by either.

Religious Practitioners. The priesthood was organized in a panel of twenty men, with ten on the side of the high priest and ten led by the "calling" priest. Each side consisted of five priests and five sergeants-at-arms, all ranked asymmetrically
(i.e., the high priest outranked the "calling" priest, who outranked the next priest below the high priest, etc.) The high priest's job was to maintain a good relationship with the gods, to ascertain their desires and their moods, and to keep them well disposed to the community so that they would bring rain and fish and would not precipitate disasters such as droughts and gales.

Ceremonies. In addition to daily rituals of supplication, the high priest conducted major rituals called boo, of which there were five, conducted on an as-needed basis: renovation of the cult house, replacing of dark mats, replacing of bleached mats (used by the gods), canoe making, and freeing of parturient mothers from confinement. These rituals all used an identical format, differing only in the specific prayers and chants inserted. Lower-ranking priests had specific roles in these rituals. The ripening of breadfruit and the beaching of whales were also ritual occasions for which special prayers were given. Men fishing on the deep sea had to offer chants of supplication to the gods before commencing fishing. Special rituals also were performed during droughts and epidemics, at the sighting of ships, and to correct errors in performance of a prior ritual.

Arts. Arts native to the atoll were dance, song, and Folktales. The Kapinga dance, called koni, was performed during and after major rituals. It involved a stereotyped stance with the body held rigid and the feet moving in place. The dance was accompanied by songs called daahili that were short sentences and phrases repeated in a monotone at increasing tempo. Their contents referred obliquely to events that were otherwise gossiplove affairs, being jilted, ridicule for some faux pas, and the like. The bulk of Kapinga song repertoire was the chant. The subjects of chants included prayers of supplication or celebration of the gods and other ritual formulas; eulogies; and accounts of fishing expeditions, the beachings of whales, and sexual encounters.

Medicine. Medicinal practices included bone setting, massage, special foods for specific illneses, and chanting by the priest in life-threatening situations. Plant medicines and sorcery were imported by a Woleaian in the 1780s.

Death and Afterlife. Kapinga believe that death is a natura! part of the life cycle. They fear early, untimely death by accident, disease, or malicious spirits and socialize their Children with lessons of reasonable caution at work, at play, and in those situations when spirits might be about. Because Control over one's emotions is so important in forfending disaster, grief was and is considered particularly dangerous, attracting the attention of ghosts and leading to insanity. Funerals control personal emotion through the work of having to organize a major set of ceremonies and provision them with food for mourners and others. All of this activity takes place over a 24- to 36-hour period requiring intense concentration, work, and both the incurring and collection of debts. Chanting marks every stage of a funeral, providing its closure as entertainment. At death, the soul is said to leave the body forever. The souls of men and women go to the far lagoon to join the line of ghosts. Those of women who die in childbirth go to the goddess Roua in the deep sea, where they (and the souls of high priests) may return to the atoll as beached whales. Otherwise, the souls of high priests become new gods.

See alsoMarshall Islands, Nomoi, Pohnpei, Woleai


Buck, Peter (1950). Material Culture of Kapingamarangi. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 200. Honolulu.

Emory, Kenneth (1965). Kapingamarangi: Social and Religious Life of a Polynesian Atoll. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin no. 228. Honolulu.

Lieber, Michael D. (1974). "Land Tenure on Kapingamarangi." In Land Tenure in Oceania, edited by Henry P. Lundsgaarde, 70-99. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Lieber, Michael D. (1977). "Change in Two Kapingamarangi Communities." In Exiles and Migrants in Oceania, edited by Michael D. Lieber. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Lieber, Michael D., and Kalio H. Dikepa (1974). Kapingamarangi Lexicon. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.