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Identification. Pohnpei is a high island in the Eastern Caroline island group of Micronesia. The name "Pohnpei" means "upon a stone altar"; the people refer to themselves as "Mehn Pohnpei" or "of Pohnpei." Throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, the island was known to the outside world as "Ponape." In modern political terms, Pohnpei Island and the neighboring atolls of Mokil, Pingelap, Sapwuafik (formerly Ngatik), Nukuoro, and Kapingamarangi constitute the State of Pohnpei, one of the four Caroline island groups that make up the Federated States of Micronesia.

Location. Pohnpei, lying at 6°57 N, 158°14 E, is an exposed tip of a submerged volcanic mountain. A protective barrier reef surrounds Pohnpei and creates a lagoon of varying width that covers an area of roughly 207 square kilometers. A total of forty small islands of volcanic and coral origin rest on or within the reef. The landmass of Pohnpei proper is 336.7 square kilometers. The interior is covered by dense rain forests and rugged mountains, the highest of which is 778 meters, running west and northwest. A coastal plain, marked by ridges and various rivers and streams, is found to the south and east. This plain gradually gives way to mangrove swamps that hide the shoreline. To the north is a wide valley that runs toward the interior. Pohnpei is visited by heavy northeast trade winds between January and March. The island is subject to heavy rainfall throughout the remainder of the year. Precipitation along the coast averages 482 centimeters a year; the interior receives considerably more. The low-lying clouds that sit atop the mountains after a heavy rain create a majestic sight that has impressed many a visitor.

Demography. Contact with Europeans brought many new diseases to Pohnpei with profound consequences (e.g., a smallpox epidemic in 1854 reduced the population from about 10,000 to fewer than 5,000). The past century has seen steady growth, however, and in 1988 the population of Pohnpei Island was estimated at 27,719, about 6,000 of whom live in Kolonia town, the center of government and commerce for the island. Most of the residents of Kolonia are from the neighboring atolls of Pohnpei State or from other areas within the larger Federated States of Micronesia, of which Pohnpei is the capital. Outside of Kolonia, the overwhelming majority of the population is ethnically Pohnpeian.

linguistic Affiliation. Pohnpeian, of which there are two principal dialects, is classified as a Nuclear Micronesian language within the Eastern Oceanic Subgroup of Austronesian languages.

>History and Cultural Relations

Oral traditions and scientific evidence indicate Pohnpei to have been settled from areas to the east, south, and west. Archaeological evidence dates the earliest human activity at roughly the beginning of the Christian era. Of particular note is the megalithic site of Nan Madol, located just off the southeastern shore of Pohnpei. Archaeologists estimate that construction began sometime during the thirteenth century a.d. and continued for a period of approximately five centuries. Local histories speak of a line of rulers, the Saudeleurs, who attempted to dominate the island from Nan Madol. Following the fall of the Saudeleurs, there developed a more decentralized system of chieftainship. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were five chiefdoms coexisting with several smaller, autonomous regions that possessed a less stratified system of political organization. Intensified contact with the European-American world in the nineteenth century brought trade, Christianity, new diseases, and social disruption. One of the major patterns of the Pohnpeian past, however, has been a pronounced ability to adapt constructively to forces of change. Resistance to foreign domination has been another strong characteristic of this culture. Pohnpeians resorted to violent resistance against both Spanish (1886-1899) and German (1899-1914) colonial rule. Pohnpeian resistance to later Japanese (1914-1945) and American (1945-1983) colonialism has involved less violent and more subtle cultural forms.


Outside of Kolonia town, Pohnpeian settlement patterns remain dispersed, with the majority of the population living within half a mile of the shore. With the exception of population concentrations in the Awak and Wone areas, there are no hamlets or villages. Households are scattered and relatively distant from one another. Formerly, individual dwellings were rectangular in shape with thatched roofs, reed walls, dirt floors, and raised stone foundations. The nahs or community meetinghouse, with its pitched roof, open sides, and raised seating platforms on three sides, persists as a major architectural form on the island. Imported lumber, cement, and tin have become the preferred building materials in recent years.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The generally rugged topography of the island, combined with the heavy rainfall, works against large-scale agriculture, and a system of cultural values that places greater emphasis on social relationships than on productivity inhibits general economic development; in addition, the infusion of large amounts of American aid has caused problems. Although purchasing increasing amounts of imported foods, Pohnpeians still depend on their lush gardens and surrounding waters for daily sustenance. Breadfruit, yams, taro, cassava, and sweet potatoes are the most common food plants cultivated on the island. These starchy foods are supplemented with fruit plants such as coconuts, bananas, mangoes, papayas, mountain apples, avocados, and various kinds of citrus. Dogs, pigs, and chickens are domestic animals that provide a source of protein for the local diet. There are also smaller numbers of deer, cows, and goats. More than 120 kinds of fish inhabit the waters off Pohnpei; almost all are considered edible. Pohnpeians usually fish within the lagoon and at night, using a variety of fishing techniques including nets, spears, hooks and lines, and local poisons. Much of Pohnpei's subsistence activity centers on an elaborate system of feasting. There exist different feasts for almost all of life's major events; there are also feasts to honor chiefs and family heads. Pigs, yams, and kava (sakau ) remain the three principal feasting foods. While there have been various attempts to establish small industries, most commercial enterprise centers on small stores in Kolonia and the rural areas that sell imported foods and merchandise. There are also markets that sell local produce.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, each household produced its own clothing and implements as well as its food. This arrangement is much less common today, as the people increasingly rely on manufactured goods.

Trade. In the past there was no trade as such among Pohnpeians but rather an emphasis on gift exchanges at once determined by and expressive of social rank. In the mid-nineteenth century, European beachcombers and traders established a thriving trade in such goods as tortoiseshells, for which Pohnpeians received muskets, gunpowder, steel tools, and tobacco.

Division of Labor. Men hunt, fish, build houses, hold jobs, and perform the heavier agricultural work involved in the raising of such prestige crops as yams and sakau. Women have the prime responsibility for raising children, taking care of domestic animals, washing and sewing clothes, and carrying out the lighter gardening chores. Women also work in the modern economic sector primarily as secretaries or shopkeepers. Both sexes cook, although men are charged with preparing the rock oven for feasts. Men and women each possess specializedsometimes even sex-specificknowledge concerning songs, dances, chants, medicines, and traditional lore.

Land Tenure. In earliest rimes, land was controlled by matrilineal descent groups or clans that resided in specific locales. With the establishment of a system of chieftainship, all land in a given chiefdom theoretically came under the jurisdiction of the paramount chief. Individuals occupied small farmsteads as tenants. The planting of crops on the farmstead earned tenure and security for the land's occupants as any crops were considered the property of the person or persons who planted them. An offering of first fruits to the local and paramount chiefs was required. In 1907, the German colonial administration removed all land from the jurisdiction of the chiefs and deeded it to the actual occupants. The German reforms further specified that inheritance was to be patrilineal with all wealth and property going to the eldest surviving son. Later, Japanese administrators revised the German system, permitting the division of parcels of land among a number of heirs that could include female relatives. These reforms provide the basis for the modern land tenure system. Competing land claims within family groups are a major source of friction.


Kin Groups and Descent. While the immediate family has become the basic social unit, Pohnpeians remain Members of clans that are named, matrilineally organized, exogamous, and nonlocalized. Most clans are divided into subclans that claim descent from different female deities of the mother clan. Pressures brought on by modernization have diminished the role of clans as a source of solidarity and support.

Kinship Terminology. The cousin terminology used is a modified Crow type that reflects Pohnpeian society's emphasis on matrilineal rather than generational relationships.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There are two forms of marriage on Pohnpei today. Common marriage is accomplished simply by a couple's decision to live together. A real or legal marriage usually consists of a feast and a church service at which a man and a woman receive recognition and gifts from parents, chiefs, members of the extended families, friends, and fellow clanmembers. Modern marriages are monogamous; divorce is rare. In the past, the chiefly clans encouraged cross-cousin marriages in which a young man or young woman married a member of the father's clan. This practice helped ensure that both parental clans benefited from a division of property in a society where descent was matrilineal and inheritance patrilineal. High-titled chiefs often took more than one wife. The nobility also practiced infant betrothal.

Domestic Unit. The immediate family is the basic Domestic unit on Pohnpei. An average household consists of a man, his wife, their children, and their children's offspring. Residence is usually patrilocal. The notion of extended family is also quite strong.

Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal. Current practice permits the division of property among all surviving heirs.

Socialization. Children are raised by both parents and older siblings. Adoption is quite common, especially arrangements involving childless couples who desire an heir for their property and a source of labor and support in their old age. The practice of adoption also provides an inheritance to younger children who, as members of a large immediate Family, would otherwise receive only a small portion of the Father's inheritable wealth. Children are usually adopted by members of their parents' immediate families. Despite Modern economic pressures, Pohnpeians still consider children to be a source of wealth and security; large families are desired.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Pohnpeian society is ordered by consideration of rank and status, which derive from clan Membership and from individual merit. The traditional distinction betwen noble and commoner has been softened. Education, employment, travel, and material wealth have become increasingly important determinants of modern status.

Political Organization. Although it is a member of the Federated States of Micronesia and has a modern local Government that includes an elected governor, his administration, and a popularly chosen state legislature, Pohnpei retains its indigenous system of political organization. The island is divided into five separate chiefdoms that also serve as municipalities for modern governmental purposes; each is governed by two distinct chiefly lines. At the head of the primary ruling line of titles is the nahnmwarki or paramount chief. The nahnken, a "talking" or administrative chief, leads the second line of ruling titles. Different clans control the two title lines in each of the five chiefdoms. In theory, the senior male Members of the ruling clans succeed to the titles of nahnmwarki and nahnken. In actuality, political maneuvering, circumstance, and personal skills affect succession. Each chiefdom or wehi is composed of smaller administrative sections called kousapw. Each kousapw is governed by two lines of title holders that, in effect, mirror those of the larger chiefdom. A kousapw is, in turn, divided into smaller farmsteads known as peliensapw). Traditionally, the chiefs' most direct source of power was their claim to jurisdiction over all land contained within their chiefdom. More than a century and a half of intensified contact with the larger world has worked to diminish the actual power of the island's chiefly system.

Social Control. On Pohnpei, social control is maintained through subscription to cultural values and practices that stress deference, reserve, and accommodation. Wahu, or respect, is a fundamental value that characterizes personal relationships today. A fear of social embarrassment leads Pohnpeians to behave with a reserve known as mahk. In times of stress, Pohnpeians are expected to evidence a patience called kanengamah. When grievous offense is given, Pohnpeians seek reconciliation through a ceremony called a tohmw. This ceremony usually includes formal apologies and offerings of sakau to the offended parties and their chiefs, family heads, and clan leaders. Pohnpeians also honor, Somewhat selectively, a Western system of courts and laws.

Conflict. Warfare did occur between different chiefdoms or regions. Pitched battles, however, were rare; casualties tended to be light. Raids into enemy territory constituted the most common form of overt hostility. Causes of warfare included disputes over access to resources, competition over the acquisition of chiefly titles, or affronts to chiefly honor or clan dignity. What crime there is today tends to be petty in nature.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Prior to the arrival of foreign missionaries, there existed an elaborate system of religious beliefs. Beneath an order of paramount deities, there were lesser spirits called eniwohs that directed the movements of the land, sky, and sea. The spirits of the deceased, especially chiefs, were thought to involve themselves in the affairs of the living. Varying beliefs in different areas added to the complexity of Pohnpei's religious system. Nowadays, the island is divided equally between Roman Catholicism and a number of Protestant denominations, the largest of which is the Congregational church. While Christianity has displaced much of this system of indigenous beliefs, most Pohnpeians today still admit to the existence of local spirits and to the efficacy of sorcery.

Religious Practitioners. In the past, priests called samworo mediated between men and gods through a complex collection of rituals and prayers. Sorcery for both constructive and harmful purposes was practiced. Today, American Jesuit missionaries, with the help of local deacons, direct the affairs of the Catholic church. Most Protestant churches are headed by Pohnpeian pastors.

Ceremonies. Pohnpeians today follow the Christian Religious calendar. Formerly, there were religious ceremonies at sacred spots about the island to worship local deities, to secure the bounty of the land and sea, and to ensure success for a variety of human endeavors. These ceremonies often were conducted upon stone altars called pei.

Arts. Many of Pohnpei's unique forms of artistic expression have been lost as a result of contact with the West. Previously, men carved fine canoes and built large, attractive meetinghouses, while women wove fine mats, chiefly belts, and decorative headbands. Tattooing was a highly refined art entrusted to women that served to record individual lineages and clan histories. Musical instruments included the drum and nose flute. Pohnpeian dance survives. These dances, in which men stand and women sit, tend to be largely stationary and emphasize head and hand movements.

Medicine. Pohnpeians rely upon a combination of Western medicine and local herbal remedies. Massage is also believed to have curative powers. While acknowledging many Western medical practices and beliefs, Pohnpeians still see much disease as caused by sorcery or the violation of cultural taboos.

Death and Afterlife. Pohnpeians possess a stoic, accepting attitude toward death. The funeral feast is the largest and most important form of feast held on the island today. Interment usually takes place within twenty-four hours of death. The funeral feast lasts for four days. Family members, fellow clanmembers, and close friends remain together for an additional three days of feasting. A commemorative feast on the one-year anniversary of the person's death marks the formal end of all mourning. Christianity has changed Pohnpeian beliefs regarding the nature of life after death and the dwelling places of departed souls.

See alsoKapingamarangi, Nomoi, Truk


Bascom, William R. (1965). Ponape: A Pacific Economy in Transition, Anthropological Records, no. 22. Berkeley: University of California.

Hanion, David (1988). Upon a Stone Altar: A History of the Island of Pohnpei to 1980. Pacific Islands Monograph Series, no. 5. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Petersen, Glenn (1982). One Man Cannot Rule a Thousand: Fission in a Pohnpeian Chiefdom. Studies in Pacific Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Riesenberg, Saul H. (1968). The Native Polity of Ponape. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, vol. 10. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.