views updated May 14 2018




Identification. Yap is one of four states in the Federated States of Micronesia, which were part of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. The Yap State includes Yap proper, Ulithi, Woleai, and other atolls east of Yap, in what was once the Yap District of the Trust Territory. The Yapese language, culture, and people are distinct in Yap State from the inhabitants of the atolls (Carolinians), The Yapese people are only those who are born in the Yap Islands and who speak the Yapese language.

Location. The islands of Yap are located approximately 720 kilometers southwest of Guam and approximately 480 kilometers northeast of Palau, in the Western Caroline Islands. Yap proper is comprised of four contiguous high islands Inside a fringing reef. The land area is approximately 100 square kilometers, much of which is rugged, infertile grassy hills and forest. The climate is tropical, subject to easterly trade winds, typhoons, and a monsoon rainy season from May to October.

Demography. Yap suffered critical depopulation, caused by European diseases and aided by cultural practices of abortion. Since World War II the use of antibiotics has controlled venereal diseases and the islands are currently experiencing a population explosion. The population has recovered from a low point of 2,582 in 1946 to more than 7,000 people in the 1980s.

Linguistic Affiliation. Yapese is an Austronesian Language, but it is distinct from the nearby Palauan and the Carolinian languages. Some linguists regard Yapese as closer to Austronesian languages of Vanuatu (New Hebrides).

History and Cultural Relations

In the period prior to European contact, the Yapese had extensive relationships with the other island groups in the Region. Yapese sailors traveled from Yap to Palau where courageous men quarried stones in the Rock Islands to be carted back to Yap and utilized for ceremonial exchanges. People in the eastern villages in Gagil had extensive relationships with Carolinean sailors from Ulithi, Fais and other atolls to the east. These sailors came to Yap particularly during times of food shortage and typhoon crises in the atolls and Yapese often sailed with them back to their home islands. With the entrance of European traders into the area as early as 1526, Yapese continued their exploration of the surrounding Islands in the company of European sailors. It was in this early period that European diseases spread from Guam, resulting in devastating epidemics. In 1872, David O'Keefe arrived in a Chinese junk and immediately set up a copra and trepang trade. He transported large Yapese stones from Palau in Exchange for payment in copra and trepang. Yap was officially colonized by both Spain and Germany in 1885. Carrying their dispute to the pope, Germany achieved sovereignty over the island, and the Spanish were allowed to continue their Religious work to convert the Yapese to Christianity. The German era ended in 1914 when the Japanese navy seized control of Yap. Japanese development projects on Yap proved to be of little economic value, but as World War II neared, they constructed military bases, including troop garrisons and two airfields. During this period, the Yapese attended a five-year school in Japanese language and culture; the most promising students were sent to craft schools on Palau where they studied agriculture, carpentry, nursing, mechanics and other practical occupations. In 1944, the United States bombed Yap, and at the end of World War II the U.S. Navy set up an occupation government that lasted until June 1951. The United States Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was formally established in 1951, and Yap was one of six districts in the trust territory. During this era, the U.S. government emphasized education and political development among the islanders. The Yap Islands Congress first convened in May 1959 and established the foundation for Yap State, which was formally organized in 1978. In 1964, the Yap High School was opened and American contract teachers were hired to staff it. By 1980, Yapese fully controlled the state and local governments and administered their schools and churches. Many Yapese men and women today are graduates of colleges and universities in the United States and hold positions of leadership in the economic, educational, and political life of the islands. Yap State is now part of the Federated States of Micronesia, which also includes the states of Truk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae.


During the periods of heaviest population, the Yapese recognized over 180 separate villages. In recent years 91 of those villages contain at least one resident household, and the largest villages have forty to fifty households with up to 300 People in residence. Most of the inhabited villages lie in close proximity to the sea, and households are dispersed over a fairly large area along the shoreline. Since the construction of roads in the late 1960s and the extension of electricity along these roads in the late 1970s, many people are now building houses on the roads for accessibility to the town and to electricity. The largest villages are located in the administrative town of Colonia. These villages include inhabitants from all areas of the island. Rural villages are inhabited predominantly by people who are born or marry into them. Traditional Yapese villages are a marvel of stonework. Yapese houses are surrounded by stone platforms and are constructed on a coral stone foundation. Stone pathways connect houses in one section of the village to another. In the center of each village, a public meeting area and community house are marked by extensive, wide stone platforms for seating guests at public ceremonies and the large stone foundations for the traditional community house. Each village also has constructed taro patches, usually bounded by stone paths and stone retaining walls to contain the water for irrigating these swamp gardens. On the shoreline of many villages, men have built stone piers out into the water and the very large stone platforms on which men's houses have been Traditionally constructed. The contemporary Yapese house is generally made of plywood and corrugated metal with a planked or cement floor. Some of the more prosperous Yapese are building concrete-block or poured-concrete houses today because of the extensive termite damage to wooden structures. In sandy beach areas and in the urban center, many people build houses on posts, raised off the ground, closed in with bamboo or plywood, and covered with corrugated iron.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most Yapese today combine some wage work activities with subsistence farming. Many Yapese are employed by the government, and private trading companies and service industries provide additional jobs, so that more than half of the adult male populationand up to 20 percent of the adult female populationearn wages. In addition to wage employment, nearly all Yapese engage in some subsistence food production. Swamp taro is the primary staple crop of the Yapese, and most villages have large taro swamps that have been constructed as village projects in the past. Individual families own parcels of the Village taro patches and also have garden plots in the surrounding hills on which they produce yams, bananas, breadfruit, and other supplementary fruits and crops. A few farmers produce copra as a cash crop, and a handful of entrepreneurs raise chickens, pigs, and other cash items for the domestic market.

Industrial Arts. The primary tools for traditional Yapese production included the shell adz, bamboo knives, and digging sticks made of mangrove. Steel adzes and knives have replaced their traditional counterparts, and contemporary Yapese continue to use these tools in their daily subsistence activities. Sennit made from the coconut husk is used for nearly every type of construction task. The blades of the adzes, the beams of the houses, the outriggers on the canoes, the bamboo of the fish traps, and the thatch of the roofs are all tied together with this coconut sennit. Skilled artisans include canoe builders and house builders. Canoe building has nearly disappeared in contemporary Yapese culture, but the experts in house construction continue to play an important role in Yapese villages.

Trade. Two eastern villages in Yap, Gachpar and Wonyan, hold traditional trading rights to the atoll groups in the Central Carolines, including Ulithi and Woleai. For the atoll dwellers, trade with Yap provided a source of lumber and food not available to them in their restricted environments. The Yapese in these two villages gained supplies of sennit, valuable woven mats, fiber loincloths, and shell valuables that were important for ceremonial exchanges and political Prestige and power in Yap. Yapese sailors often made extended trips to Palau and to Guam where they quarried stone disks, which also were of value in the ceremonial exchanges of Yap. These stones were not technically items of trade since they had no value in Palau or in Guam where they were quarried. Yet, as a special-purpose money, they were very important in the internal relationships and political struggles in Yap.

Division of Labor. In the subsistence economy, Yapese women care for the swamp taro patches and the yam gardens. Men aid their wives and sisters in the clearing of fields and in heavy agricultural work, but the primary subsistence role of men is in fishing. Reef fish, caught with spear guns, nets, and fish traps, are the predominant source of protein for Yapese families. Men who engage in regular wage labor buy canned fish and canned meats to provide their portion of their Subsistence diet for the family.

Land Tenure. Rights to land, lagoon, other fishing and agricultural resources, and village authority are held corporately by the patrilineal estate group. The heads of estates in consultation with their junior members exercise authority over these rights on behalf of the members. Male members have use rights to estate resources with which they may support a wife and children. Succession to headship is based upon generation and seniority.


Kin Groups and Descent. The concept of tabinaw governs Yapese thinking about family, kinship, and social Organization. In its primary reference, tabinaw refers to the Household or nuclear family. However, each nuclear family is part of an estate group, comprised of adult men and women who hold common rights to land and who share resources and labor in reference to exploitation of this land. An estate group may include three or four generations of men with their wives and children. Each married couple will have a separate household located on estate land. Yapese practice a variation of double descent. Every individual has a matrilineal kinship affiliation, termed genung, which plays a predominant role in the definition of sibling relationships and the identification of kin ties for mutual support and assistance. In Yapese thought, one obtains one's blood relationship through one's mother. In addition to this matrilineal principle, Yapese trace their spiritual and subsistence relationships to the land through their fathers. Each Yapese receives a name from one of his or her patrilineally related ancestors who have occupied the land estate upon which he or she is born and nurtured. The ancestral line of land and nurture comes through the patrilineally inherited estate. The matrilineal principle does not define significant descent groups on Yap, but only an affiliation of kin to whom one relates to serve significant individual interests. The estate group is formed more appropriately in terms of relationship to land than in terms of patrilineal Descent. With these qualifications we may speak of double Descent on Yap.

Kinship Terminology. Traditionally Yapese have a Crow-type pattern of cousin terminology. In the present younger generation, a Hawaiian-type pattern is emerging as the dominant pattern of kinship classification, complicated further by the introduction of English cousin terminology in schools.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Yapese consider it improper to marry anyone who may be kin. Yapese young people generally select their own mates, and most have one or two trial marriages before they establish a permanent relationship that results in Children. Yapese parents prefer that their children marry in the same village or among similar ranking villages. However, today with the central high school on the island and young people commuting by bus, many Yapese are marrying people from other villages and other districts of the island. Generally, a Yapese couple resides initially with the husband's Family and establishes permanent residence on the husband's land in the husband's village. Divorce among the Yapese is common and is effected by mutual agreement. The young woman returns to her household of birth, leaving the children and property with her husband.

Domestic Unit. People who eat together constitute the tabinaw. This household is usually a nuclear family in which a husband and wife work according to a complementary division of labor and responsibility for their subsistence and Children. A newly married couple may join the husband's father's household for a temporary period until they establish their own gardens and build a sleeping and cooking house.

Inheritance. Fathers distribute land to their sons according to need and age. The oldest son receives the rights to titled parts of the estate and will assume the father's leadership role among his siblings upon his father's death and in his younger brothers' families upon and their deaths. Younger sons receive an appropriate portion of the estate to support their families. Daughters do not inherit land, but they may be given a gift of a small parcel to provide support in case of Divorce. Parents provide support for their adult unmarried or Divorced daughters.

Socialization. Yapese parents and siblings share responsibilities for care and upbringing of children. Yapese emphasize generosity and sharing, and they give elder siblings the primary responsibility for the protection and care of the younger. This pattern is carried into adult life and characterizes the Relationship between siblings until death.

Sociopolitical Organization

Yapese say the land is chief. It is their primary focus on land that organizes the social and political aspects of Yapese life.

Social Organization. The estate group and the village are the primary units organizing the social life of Yap. Within each village, family estates place individuals in a hierarchy of relationships within the community. Particular estates own titles that confer authority and prestige upon the members of that estate group. Villages in Yap are also ranked to include two major divisions: "Pilung," or "autonomous villages"; and "Pimilngay," or "serf villages." The autonomous villages are further ranked in three divisions: chief villages, noble villages, and commoner villages. The serf villages are ranked in two divisions: chief's servants and serfs. All the inhabitants born in a particular village automatically carry the rank of that village. One may marry people from other ranks, but one can never change the rank of birth. Within each village people are also ranked according to relative age, sex, and title from one's estate.

Political Organization. Each village in Yap is led by at least three titled estates: village chief; chief of young men; and chief of ritual. The men who speak for these titled estates oversee a council made up of men who represent lesser titles in the village. To hold political authority one must be the eldest living member of the family estate and be capable of speaking articulately for its interest in public. Decision making on Yap is characterized by indirect communication and consensus. The village chief articulates for the public the decision that has been made by consensus of the group. Prior to American administration, the government of the Yap Islands was organized by the chiefs of the paramount villages Scattered around Yap. Three paramount villages located in Gagil, Tamil, and Rull provided the locus of power from which were formed two major alliances of villages and chiefs. These Leaders maintained power primarily by controlling communication through legitimate channels connecting villages and estates and by planning punitive wars against those individuals who violated the decisions and expectations of the majority in an alliance. Today the Yap state government has supplanted the traditional system of alliances and governs through the legislative, administrative, and judicial branches. While contemporary Yapese officials are elected to their positions, many hold traditional titles and traditional bases of support. However, in the situation of contemporary politics, education and expertise in the functions of modern government are essential to political success.

Social Control. In the traditional village setting, the Council of elders maintains social control through a system of punitive fines and mediation by the chiefs between families in conflict. In the contemporary setting the state court plays a major role in the adjudication of disputes among Yapese. The court has effectively replaced village elders as the arena and process for the resolution of contemporary disputes.

Conflict. Excessive consumption of alcohol and limited opportunities for employment following graduation from high school create an atmosphere in which young men on Yap have little to challenge their ambitions and interests. Village divisions and hostilities that characterized the preContact period have reemerged in the 1980s as a basis for gangs and for intervillage and interregional conflicts. Gangs of youths in each of the major regions of Yap stake out their territory and threaten violence to those who dare enter. Incidents of violence usually end in a court case in which the injured parties seek punitive action against those responsible.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Catholic Christianity is the central and unifying belief system in Yapese society today. People attend Catholic churches in every major district on the islands, and the first Yapese Catholic priest was ordained in the mid-1980s. Deacons in each area organize local church activities and support. Protestant and other Christian sects have small congregations scattered through the islands.

Religious Beliefe. Animistic beliefs in spirits and magic persist in Yapese culture in spite of nearly a century of Christianity. Most Yapese fear ghosts and many use magic for health or protection from spirits who may threaten their enterprises. The Yapese divided their traditional world into domains of spirits and humans. Female spirits inhabited the sea and threatened the lives and work of fishermen. Male spirits inhabited the land, threatening the livelihood and produce of the women gardening. Some Yapese still follow customs of abstention and rituals of protection in fishing and gardening activities.

Religious Practitioners. In traditional Yapese villages, specialist magicians addressed the uncertainties of house building, fishing, gardening, and warfare. Today most of these specialties have been forgotten and people turn to the local deacons or the priest of the Catholic church for assistance in these uncertainties of life. Whereas once priests and magicians mediated between humans and the spirit world, now these tensions are addressed by the leaders of the church and by psychiatric doctors in the local hospital. Folk Medicine has a limited following, and Yapese rely almost exclusively on the hospital for health care.

Ceremonies. Prior to their conversion to Christianity, Yapese prayed to ancestors, breaking segments of mother-of-pearl shells as offerings. The welfare of all Yapese was thought to reside in several sacred places for which particular families had responsibility and from which they derived power. The traditional priest cared for the sacred place and organized the sacred calendar, which included rebuilding the sacred house, making annual offerings to the spirits of these places, and divining the future of warfare and politics in Yap. The eating-class initiation, still observed by a few contemporary Yapese, involved periods of isolation, preparation of new loincloths and personal items, fasting, and ceremonial feasting at the end of the isolation period. Individuals who observed this Ritual moved into a higher-ranking eating class and gained Political and social influence in their villages. Traditional Yapese ceremonies have been all but forgotten by Yapese people. The only persisting forms of traditional ceremonies are the sitting dances, which provide a public drama of storytelling and recounting of myth. People have also borrowed standing and stick dances from other Micronesians. The religious calendar today includes Christmas, Easter, strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest and worship, and large public funerals.

Arts. Items of great value to the Yapese included the white coral disks known as Yap stone money, mother-of-pearl shells that were collected and exchanged in village ceremonies, and long necklaces of red shells and bracelets of white shells made famous by Bronislaw Malinowski in his description of the kula in the Trobriand Islands. Yapese also make ceremonial betel pounders and decorate their houses with unique patterns of rope tying.

Medicine. In traditional times, the Yapese people did not have specialized medical practitioners. In every family the members who had knowledge of magic associated with Controlling weather, warfare, or fishing also had knowledge with regard to health and disease. These magicians gained prestige based upon the effectiveness of their knowledge in curing those who were ill or in aborting or controlling potential disasters in nature. Today, few Yapese use herbal medicines; most rely on the local hospital.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral is the most important life-cycle event in Yap. Even for an ordinary family member, it is a time to gather the most distant relations from various parts of the islands. Everyone who comes brings gifts of cigarettes, food, money, or liquor in support of the mourning Family. Members of the family prepare the body and wait for the guests for three days. The funeral concludes with a Christian service and the deceased is buried in either a church burial ground or an ancestral plot. About one month after the burial, the members of the family repay their guests by sponsoring a large party. The funeral and the following party reestablish kinship connections among dispersed relations.

See alsoKosrae, Pohnpei, Truk, Ulithi, Woleai


Labby, David (1976). The Demystification of Yap: Dialectics of Culture on a Micronesian Island. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood Galen (1975). Yap: Political Leadership and Cultural Change in an Island Society. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood Galen (1977). "Ernic Structure and Decision-Making in Yap." Ethnology 16:331-352.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood Galen (1979). "Yap Eating Classes: A Study of Structure and Communities." The Journal of the Polynesian Society 88:415-432.

Müller, Wilhelm (1917). "Yap." In Ergenbnisse der Südsee Expedition, 1908-1910, edited by Georg Thilenius. II. Ethnographie; B. Mikronesien. Hamburg: Friedenchsen.



views updated May 11 2018

yap / yap/ • v. (yapped , yap·ping ) [intr.] give a sharp, shrill bark: the dachshunds yapped at his heels. ∎ inf. talk at length in an irritating manner.• n. 1. a sharp, shrill bark. 2. inf. a person's mouth (used in expressions to do with speaking): shut your yap.DERIVATIVES: yap·per n.


views updated Jun 08 2018

yap bark sharply. XVII. of imit. orig.