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ETHNONYM: Aramasen Chuuk


Identification. Truk is in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. Along with the surrounding atolls, it forms one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia, which were part of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

Location. Lying between 7°7 and 7°14 N and 151°22 and 152°4 E, Truk is a complex atoll composed of a circle of reefs and about forty low coral islets enclosing a lagoon of 48 to 64 kilometers in diameter and, within it, seventeen high Islands of volcanic origin, with a total land area of 86 square kilometers. There are two major seasons, a dry one with northeast trade winds from November to June and a wet one with light winds from the south and southwest.

Demography. In 1947 Truk's population was about 9,200. By 1988 it was more than 35,000 with a density of about 385 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Trukese language is one of many members of the Micronesian Family of Oceanic Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Truk was settled by the first century a.d. In the fourteenth century, a cult center was established on Moen Island. It was abandoned in the eighteenth century following a fresh Immigration from neighboring atolls. Japan replaced Germany as the ruling power in World War I and was in turn replaced by the United States under United Nations trusteeship in 1945. In 1986 Truk and its surrounding atolls became a state within the newly independent Federated States of Micronesia. Protestant missionaries and traders came in the 1880$ and Roman Catholic missionaries after 1900. Japan sought to develop Truk economically and introduce elementary education in Japanese. Education was much expanded under American administration, and many Trukese learned English. Some went to college in Guam, Hawaii, and the United States mainland. The American administration introduced representative government.


Truk was divided into small districts, each consisting of a small island or a wedge-shaped segment of a larger one. Not clustered into villages, households were scattered on rising land back from the shore. With population growth many of the once looser neighborhoods have become more densely settled villages. Landholdings were scattered.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In the past, swidden gardens with dry taro, turmeric, and sugarcane were few and small. Breadfruit, supplemented by wet taro, was the staple. Being seasonal, breadfruit was preserved by fermenting in pits. Copra has become the only export. Fishing was important. Okinawans developed commercial fishing during Japanese rule; and some commercial fishing on a small scale was continued by the Trukese after World War II. Under American rule, the principal source of cash income was Government employment as teachers and program administrators. Tourism was unimportant.

Industrial Arts. Traditional crafts included: making outrigger paddle canoes; building houses; woodworking (to make bowls, storage chests, spears); gardening; cordage (to make rope, string, slings); working stone (for sling stones), shell (for adz blades), and coral (for breadfruit pounders); preparing medicines; loom weaving with hibiscus and banana fibers (to make loin clothes, wraparound skirts, shirts, mosquito canopies); plaiting (of baskets, mats); and other leaf working (for thatch, sun hats). Sewing arts and dressmaking have replaced weaving. New arts include: motor maintenance (of cars and outboards); boat building; bookkeeping; school teaching; government administration; and nursing and medical practice.

Trade. In traditional times, the atoll people around Truk traded with Pohnpei, Yap, and the Mariana Islands. The major export from Truk to the atolls was processed turmeric in the form of sticks that were used as a cosmetic. The major imports were woven pandanus mats and sennit cord, both of which were also produced on Truk. Sometimes, important men on Truk would trade for outrigger canoes or contract with men on atolls to make the canoes for them. Men from the atolls were also sometimes retained to sail the canoes of Trukese men.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, men gardened, cooked and processed food in bulk (in the earth oven), did deepwater fishing, engaged in war and public affairs, and practiced the arts of canoe and house building and of wood, shell, and stone working. Women wove, plaited mats, prepared meals (as distinct from food in bulk), did inshore fishing, and took main responsibility for child care. Men and women have both entered into school teaching, clerical work, and administration.

Land Tenure. Land was held privately both by individuals and matrilineal, corporate descent groups. Rights in undeveloped space, productive soil, trees, and gardens were separable. When soil and breadfruit trees were given in grant, the grantor retained residual rights and the grantee acquired provisional rights. Grantors and grantees could be either Individuals or corporations. Full rights went to the survivor on the death or extinction of the other.


Kin Groups and Descent. Truk's population is divided into a number of dispersed, matrilineal clans. Within any one district the several lineages are usually but not always of different clans. There are also personal kindreds. As a principle of clan and lineage membership, descent is matrilineal, but otherwise kinship is reckoned bilaterally.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms are few. A generation mode of reckoning is skewed in a Crow manner so that all members of one's father's lineage are in a senior generation, children of men of that lineage are in one's own generation, and children of men of one's own lineage are in a junior generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage took place for women a bit before and for men a bit after the age of 20. Premarital courtship was covert and included sexual relations. Residence was usually matrilocal. Divorce, common before the birth of children, was rare thereafter. It could be initiated by either spouse and was often instigated by the wife's brothers. Levirate and sororate remarriages were valued. To keep soil and trees that had been granted to the children of a lineage's men circulating back, marriage preferences with one or another kind of cousin, varying from locality to locality, were widespread.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit was an extended Family, based on the women of a lineage or sublineage. It consisted of at least one experienced older woman and two or more younger women of childbearing age together with their husbands. Unmarried sons and brothers slept apart in their lineage's meetinghouse. Extended family households continued through the periods of foreign administration.

Inheritance. Individually owned property was inherited by the owner's children. Corporately owned property was inherited by the corporation's "children" (the children of its men) when the corporation's membership died out.

Socialization. Small children were much held, fed on demand, and never left alone. They slept on the same mat with their mothers. By age 3 they were expected to begin to look after themselves. Children were lectured on correct social behavior, but they were not held fully accountable for it until they became junior adults. Parents used switches to punish their children. Often persuaded to do what others wanted with promises that were broken afterwards, children learned to be wary of the intentions of others. They enjoyed much freedom to play, sharpening their physical skills. Transmission of special lore and knowledge became increasingly important as children grew to be young adults. The eldest son and eldest daughter were treated differently from other Children. Their persons were inviolate, their wishes were honored, and they were not liable to physical punishment.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In each district the lineage with title to its space held the chiefship. The several lineages with full or residual titles to plots of soil had full residential rights. Lineages with only provisional titles to plots of soil in grant from other lineages had only conditional residential rights. Lineages with full residential rights maintained symbolic hearths where, with their client lineages, they prepared food to present to the chief in recognition of his lineage's ownership of the space.

Political Organization. A district chiefship was divided between the oldest man in the senior female line in the chiefly lineage and the oldest man in the lineage generally. The latter was executive chief, or "chief of talk," and the former was symbolic chief, or "chief of food." Food presentations were made to the symbolic chief. Sometimes the symbolic and executive functions fell to the same individual; often they did not. The symbolic chief was surrounded by his lineage brothers and by his sons, who acted as his agents. These followers and his sisters and daughters were of chiefly rank, distinct from commoners. Through conquest, a lineage might gain the chiefship in more than one district and establish a junior branch as the chiefly lineage in the conquered district. The now subordinate district rendered food presentations to the superordinate one. Most districts were linked in two rival leagues based on competing schools of magic and ritual relating to war, politics, and rhetoric. A chief's authority derived from two things. His lineage's ownership of the district's space entitled him to presentations of first fruits at stated times of the year. More importantly, it gave him authority over the conservation and use of the district's food resources. His authority also derived from his connection with the sky world, its gods, and their superhuman power to accomplish purposes. There was, therefore, a degree of sacredness associated with chiefs.

Social Control. There were no police. A chief's brothers or sons might act on his behalf to intimidate or attack someone who had offended him. But it was control of magical power, either by the chief or one his brothers or sons, that made improper conduct liable to punishment. Major craft specialists could also make ill those who violated the taboos of their craft. Finally, members of chiefly lineages and their close associates were likely to have knowledge of sorcery. All such knowledge gave punitive power to chiefs and important specialists. People stressed maintaining the appearance of propriety in behavior so as not to give just cause for offense.

Conflict. Within districts, conflict arose over land, succession to chiefship, theft, adultery, and avenging homicide. Between districts, it arose over attentions to local women by outside men, the status of one district as subordinate to another, and rights of access to fishing areas. Formal procedures for terminating conflict between districts involved payments of valuables and land by the losing side to the winning side. Fighting involved surprise raids and prearranged meetings on a field of battle. The principal weapons were slings, spears, and clubs. Firearms, introduced late in the nineteenth Century, were confiscated by German authorities in 1903. Martial arts included an elaborate system of throws and holds by which an unarmed man could kill, maim, or disarm an armed opponent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In traditional belief, spirit beings were widely distributed in the sky, under the sea, and on land. The important places among spirit lands in the sky were: a region under the dome of Heaven, home of the gods who could take human form; a region in the south from which came all the plant and marine life that gave people food; and a region named "Achaw" or "Kachaw," abode of the ancestors of many Trukese clans and particularly of the clans associated with the chiefship and the special bodies of magical lore from which chiefly power derived. Spirits could accomplish their intentions at will and were thus the source of all that was manaman (mana), such as efficacious spells, medicines, and rituals. Good souls of the dead were consulted through mediums. The Trukese also invoked in spells the spirits inhabiting the dome of Heaven, presided over by "Great Spirit," and the spirits associated with particular crafts and major bodies of lore.

Religious Practitioners. Ritual practices were conducted by their own specialists. Such specialists included spirit mediums, breadfruit summoners, fish summoners, healers, masters of spells, masters of sorcery, builders, navigators, diviners, and most importantly the masters of magic and ritual relating to war and politics. Their knowledge was private property passed down to their children and junior lineage mates.

Ceremonies. Major ceremonies were those associated with death, communicating with good souls of the dead, summoning breadfruit, and making food presentations to chiefs. Ritual was also associated with divination, curing, warfare, political meetings, house building, and courtship.

Arts. Performing arts included dancing, storytelling, playing the noseflute and the bamboo Jew's harp (in courtship serenading), singing, poetry, and rhetoric. Other arts were associated with tattooing, woodworking, weaving, and warfare.

Medicine. Sickness was believed to result from the "bite" of a malevolent spirit or of any other spirit one had offended or that was controlled by a ritual specialist one had offended or by a sorcerer. Sickness might also result from soul loss. In all but the latter case, treatment involved the use of Medicines to be applied externally, to be drunk, or to be inhaled. For soul loss, a spirit medium was consulted to help find and restore the soul. Divination was used as a diagnostic aid in cases of severe or prolonged illness. Massage was used to treat bruises, local infections, and muscle ailments.

Death and Afterlife. As soon as a person died, female kin wailed and other relatives came bringing gifts of woven fabrics, turmeric, and perfume. Burial might be in the ground or in a mat bundle at sea (since Christianity, in a wooden coffin). After burial, the grave was watched by close kin for four nights to see if the good soul would possess one of them as its future medium. On the fourth day after burial, the deceased's immediate effects were burned and the good soul ascended to Heaven in the smoke. Everyone had two souls, one "good" and one "bad." The good soul came from the sky world and returned there after death. The bad soul became a ghost that might be dangerous and cause illness. By the middle of the twentieth century all of Truk's people were at least nominally Christian, either Protestant or Catholic, and Christianity had become the focus of religious life.

See also Nomoi, Pohnpei, Ulithi, Woleai, Yap


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