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Identification. Ulithians are Micronesians living on an atoll in the west-central Caroline Islands. While the natives refer to their land as "Ma Ulithi," Europeans have applied other names to their islands: Isles de Sequeira, Los Dolores, Los Garbanzos, Mackenzie, and Mogmog. The Japanese call them "Ulissi" and "Urishi." Their culture has undergone strong change since the atoll came under U.S. control in 1944 and can best be described in terms of its traditional Culture, with observations as to current modifications-Location. The atoll, which is not really one entity but is made of four geologic units, is located at about 10° N and 140° E. Its dosest neighbors are Yap and Ngulu to the west and Fais to the east. Guam is about 640 kilometers to the northeast. The climate is that of the doldrums belt, with much rainfall and high humidity.

Demography. In 1731 Father Cantova reported a population of 592, in 1870 Tetens and Kubary counted about 700, and in 1903 District Officer Senfft reported 797, after which there was a steady decline, with a census by Lessa showing only 421 in 1949. Then, as the result of U.S. medical and public health measures, there was an upswing, with a census by Lessa showing 514 people in 1960.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language is a dialect of Trukese, a subdivision of the far-flung Austronesian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Most likely Ulithi was discovered in 1525 by Portuguese who had been blown there from the Celebes and remained for Several weeks in great harmony with the people while rebuilding their small vessel. The Spaniards in the Philippines often encountered Carolinians marooned there, some of them apparently being Ulithians. Missionaries were inspired to convert the natives of the Carolines, but they did not succeed in establishing a mission until 1731. It was headed by Father Cantova and was in Ulithi, but very soon afterwards he and his party were murdered by the people. Between the time of the Cantova episode and the stopovers of British, French, and Russian explorers, however, Ulithi did not live entirely in a world isolated from foreign influences. The people were in continual indirect contact with Spaniards through the sustained trade being carried on by Carolinians sailing to the Marianas. These native traders would return home with iron implements, cloth, and glass beads. In the nineteenth century two large-scale traders worked throughout the Carolines. One was a German, Alfred Tetens; the other was the Irish-American David O'Keefe. German interest in the region grew strong and in 1899 after much dispute Germany acquired all of the Carolines from Spain. Japan took over the area in 1914 and in 1920 was given a class C mandate by the League of Nations. Two Spanish missionaries were permitted to begin conversion of Ulithi to Catholicism. The United States seized the atoll in 1944 and immediately converted it into a huge naval base for the invasion of Okinawa and the Philippines. In 1947 the United Nations gave the United States a trusteeship over most of Micronesia, after which intensive educational activity took place and very large payments and subsidies were given to the Ulithian people, resulting in a rapid deterioration of the traditional culture. In 1986 Ulithi became part of the newly established group of Caroline Islands known as the Federated States of Micronesia, independent but in "free association" with the United States.


The settlement pattern is that of small, highly nucleated Villages, although it has been speculated that formerly it was that of neighborhoods, each of which had a strip of land extending from the sea to the interior, with a house, cook hut, and canoe shed, surrounded by garden areas. Each village has its large men's council house, used not only as a meetingplace but also as a dormitory for unmarried men and a clubhouse for all males. At the time of maximum population in 1903 the average number of inhabitants per village was 88. All dwellings are on the lagoon side of an islet. Houses are built on platforms made of slabs of coral, and they are characterized by sharply pitched roofs made of plaited palm leaves and walls of paneled wood. Such traditional houses have now been replaced by boxlike wooden ones or concrete-block structures useful to withstand typhoons. In the interior of the isles of Mogmog and Falalop are artificially constructed gardens, used principally for growing taro. The vast lagoon serves not only as a fishing ground but also as a highway for the extremely fast lateen-sailed outrigger canoes used to transport people and goods.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Simple hortiCulture dominates subsistence activities, although fish and other sea foods are more highly prized in the diet. The chief plant food is the coconut, consumed in many forms, followed by breadfruit, true taro and pseudotaro, bananas, and from time to time squashes and sweet potatoes. There is some gathering, especially of wild berries and other fruits. Pigs are valued but are few because of the scarcity of suitable feed. Chickens are more abundant, being the predominant domestic animal. Birds are occasionally trapped for consumption. Highly desirable but limited by religious and political taboos is the giant sea turtle, Chelonia mydas. With the rise of a cash economy, originally instigated by the manufacture of copra and then enormously expanded by U.S. welfare allotments and other grants, the traditional economy has been reduced to a shambles.

Industrial Arts. There are part-time specialists, especially canoe and house carpenters, who are exclusively men. Women weave garments on a true loom, probably introduced long ago from Indonesia. Weaving materials are made of banana fiber, hibiscus fiber, or a combination of the two, although these textiles have largely been supplanted by Commercial cloth. There is no pottery making, due to the absence of clay, but some pottery is imported from nearby Yap. Prior to the introduction of iron tools, such tools as adzes, knives, and scrapers were made from shells or coral. Since the advent of traders the chief commercial activity has been the manufacture of copra, with some seasonal gathering of trochus shells for the foreign market.

Trade. While there is some internal trade between Individuals, most of it is external and somewhat ritualistic, being carried on in a complex system involving exchange with Yap and the islands of the Woleai, almost as far east as Truk. Although Ulithians are regarded as being of low caste by Yapese, because they live on out-lying islands, Ulithi receives more from Yap than it gives, especially in the form of food-stuffs and large timber for constructing canoes. A common form of exchange, largely political, is the giving of fine mats used as men's and women's clothing.

Division of Labor. Sex plays a part in dividing household and village activities: men mainly do the fishing and carpentry, while women cultivate gardens, harvest wild plants and shore fish, weave, and almost exclusively raise children and perform most domestic work, including cooking.

Land Tenure. Land is held in various ways. In theory the six landownership chiefs of the atoll have the right of eminent domain. In practice land is owned by lineages in a fee-simple system, which is administered by the lineage's chief. It is broken up into plots that are worked by family groups with Usufruct rights that are tantamount to ownership.


Kin Groups and Descent. In addition to the nuclear Family there are the extended family, the composite family, and the all-important corporate lineage. Lineages are matrilineal. Even though adoption is extremely common, in theory the adoptee retains membership in his natural mother's lineage.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are a slight variation of the Crow type, which reflects unilineal descent by "overriding" generations. A kin term always embraces secondary and tertiary relatives in addition to primary ones. The system of nomenclature serves both for purposes of reference and of address.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is monogamous. Residence is patrilocal, but the residence rule is somewhat elastic, especially Because a husband spends long stretches of time helping in his wife's gardens if the land assigned for her use by the prevailing system of land tenure is on another islet. In actuality there is some matrilocal, avunculocal, and neolocal residence. Until the advent of Catholicism divorce was very common and easily accomplished by mutual agreement.

Domestic Unit. While the nuclear family is the basis of the domestic unit, in actuality households consist less of a husband and wife and their offspring than they do of either extended families, composite families, or units not involving a marital pair. Although members of a nuclear family may live under one roof, for purposes of eating they may be scattered among commensal units.

Inheritance. Individual inheritance is greatly restricted by the rights of the matrilineal corporate group, which has its traditional lands, traditional house, common hearth, canoes, and canoe sheds. Individuals acquire usufruct tenure to a plot of land in three ways: intralineally, by matrilineal inheritance through another member; extralineally, as a result of patrilineal inheritance of usufruct tenure originally acquired by gift exchange or purchase; and, last, life usufruct tenure, which is held only for the lifetime of the individual or for even less time. The system of land tenure is basically a matter of lineage "ownership" and the granting of rights to individuals either matrilineally or patrilineally.

Socialization. The social personalities of infants and Children are shaped mostly by their mothers, but other kin are very crucial. These include their fathers, older siblings, Lineage mates, and also members of the kindred, or iermat, who are all the people who are their cognates. When children are adopted, which is always before they are bom, they continue to be domiciled with their real parents until the ages of 5 to 10, because these years are considered to be the most crucial formative years of their lives. Much permissiveness characterizes child rearing, which involves a minimum of corporal punishment and an abundance of scolding and ridicule. Affection is lavished on children by all those around them, giving them a strong sense of security.

Sociopolitical Organization

Kinship factors dominate the whole sociopolitical Organization.

Social Organization. Although certain lineages outrank others, there is virtually no social stratification. Such ranking seems to be lost in historical factors. Individuals may rise to a favorable position by virtue of the acquisition of certain specialties and skills, none of which are hereditary.

Political Organization. The basic unit of government is the village council, made up of all elderly men except for outright incompetents. The head chief and district chiefs are hereditary. These chiefs each succeed to their positions by virtue of their status as the oldest male member of certain lineages, which being matrilineal do not allow a man to succeed his father. Complicating what is otherwise a simple local system is a highly complex arrangement superimposed on Ulithi by its "owners" in the Gagil district of the Yap Islands to the west. Gagil extends its dominance also to all the Islands east of Ulithi as far as Truk. Yap's caste system is applied to all of these islands.

Social Control. Pressure to conform to social norms comes not from law, which is only rudimentary at best, but from the fear of criticism, public contempt, ridicule, and ostracism, as well as the utter need for cooperation in a small Society dependent on mutual assistance for its very existence. Litigation is suppressed. The gods and the ancestral ghosts are major influences in controlling social behavior. With the advent of foreign control some law has been introduced and traditional restraints that were operative under the old Religion have been weakened.

Conflict. Warfare internally and externally ceased long ago because of its suppression by foreign powers, but oral tradition proves conclusively that it was not uncommon in the past.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Since the 1930s Ulithians have Gradually been converted to Roman Catholicism. But the old beliefs and practices persist in the minds of the elderly. There is a mélange of many diverse elements: celestial and terrestrial deities, nature spirits, demons, and ancestral ghosts, supplemented by magic, divination, and taboos. The gods of heaven, earth, and sea are lofty, but they are really more the objects of mythology than participants in everyday life, a sphere that is dominated by the ancestral ghosts. Nature spirits are characterized as being either malevolent or benevolent and are thought to be active in human endeavors and conditions.

Religious Practitioners. Lineage ghosts are the object of ritual attention through mediums, who transmit advice through them. Four major part-time magical practitioners are recognizedin navigation, typhoon control, community fishing, and palm-leaf divination, with medicine not far behind. There are also sorcerers and countersorcerers.

Ceremonies. A rite of passage is important for girls but less so for boys. One major ritual, prolonged for weeks, is designed to promote an abundance of fish for the community. Other rituals are political, magical, and religious.

Arts, Artistic expression occurs mostly in song and dance. The graphic and plastic arts are minimal

Medicine. Illness is believed to be essentially supernatural rather than natural in origin. Healers may be either specialized or domestic.

Death and Afterlife. According to traditional beliefs, death is the result of sorcery, taboo violation, or the hostility of spirits, except when the deceased has reached old age and succumbed to natural causes. After burial the soul lingers for four days on earth and then journeys to Lang, the sky world, where a god assigns the soul to either a paradisal or a tortured afterlife, depending on the person's behavior while alive. A period of mourning lasting for four lunar months is ended when a large feast, called "pay stone," is given for those who washed the corpse or dug the grave. The numerous taboos imposed on the living are then lifted. The dead often visit their relatives and communicate with them through mediums.

See also Truk, Woleai, Yap


Lessa, William A. (1966). Ulithi: A Micronesian Design for Living. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Reprint. 1980. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Lessa, William A. (1980). More Tales from Ulithi Atoll: A Content Analysis. University of California Publications: Folklore and Mythology Studies, no. 32. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Lessa, William A. (1987). "Micronesian Religion: An Overview." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade et al., vol. 9, 498-505. New York: Macmillan.



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