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Micronesia - Aspects of Pohnpei



On the island of Pohnpei, there are four prominent clans named Dipwinpahnmei, Lasialap, Dipwinmen and Sounkawad. These four clans have the five high chiefs or Nahnmwarkis of the five municipalities of the island with Sounkawad having two high chiefs of two different municipalities. Clan membership is matriarchal and so members of the clan always come from the mother's side. As a result of this, a son and a daughter from different mothers that belong to the same clan, according to tradition, cannot be married.

The traditional government of the island is in the hands of the high chiefs. Each of the five municipalities has its own local government and contains a group of people appointed by the high chief. These groups have the highest titles in each municipality and are also the leaders of the community. The group always comprise the men. When the high chief has important decisions to make, he assembles this group. The function of this group is to suggest decisions to the high chief. If, however, the high chief does not agree with the decisions presented to him, he will protest at the meeting and sometimes will go direct to an individual. If the individual cannot meet the request, he will try to find what has been asked for.

There are reasons why a request from a high chief should be obeyed. Firstly, among these is the fact that they are still highly respected as the traditional leaders on Pohnpei. The high chiefs have no real power although in the past, their power was much stronger as they owned all the land.

Around the year 1910, the German administration under Governor Kresting, introduced the concept of private ownership of land to Pohnpeians. Under this system an individual or group of relatives could privately hold a title to a parcel of land. This document took actual land ownership out of the hands of the traditional leaders.

It is interesting however that in many aspects the traditional high chiefs still control much of the land. The people on Pohnpei still ask the traditional leaders for permission to use the land for such things as burying the dead. Also, any visitor to the famous ruins of Nan Madol is expected to ask permission from the high chief of Madolenihmw municipality.


Several legends exist about how the kava plant, sakau, came to exist on Pohnpei. The legends say that sakau was first made by two brothers Widen-ngar and Luhk through magic. Widen-ngar was a ghost who appeared in the form of thunder and Luhk was also a ghost who lived below the surface of the earth. One day Widen-ngar came down to earth and joined Luhk, who came up from beneath the surface. They journeyed together from Saladak in Uh to Nahpali Island in Metalenihmw. Luhk, unfortunately, injured his foot on the way to the island. When they arrived, they took the skin from the injured foot and pounded it into small pieces. They then squeezed out the liquid using hibiscus bark. Widen-ngar took off his knee cap to use it as a cup to catch the liquid. When they finished, they went to the sky and changed their skin into the form of a plant called the sakau plant. Years later, this plant was found in Saladak, Uh, and the people considered it to be the most important on Pohnpei. The liquid, when consumed, had a calming effect and so it was given to the king or high chief to calm him down whenever he became angry. Nothing could calm down the high chief except this liquid. In the early days, only the high chief could drink sakau as there were not many plants and it could only be prepared by his relatives.


Pohnpeian sakau has a most important role in traditional custom. Sakau is prepared whenever feasts, parties, meetings or other important occasions occur. There is, however, an important procedure to follow when preparing sakau. These are basically as follows:

1. Do not bring the plant inside the house until the high chief is seated.

2. Cut branches from the plant and the roots into small pieces for easy cleaning.

3. Place the root on the stone and put a taro leaf beneath to protect pieces from the dirt.

4. After the root is pounded, use a hibiscus bark to squeeze the liquid into a coconut cup.

There is also priority in serving sakau and this is based on traditional rank. The first cup goes to the high chief and the second goes to the next highest leader. The third cup goes to the queen and the fourth goes back to the high chief again. The next cup goes to those who prepared the sakau.

Today on Pohnpei, sakau is served in small bars on the islands. The most important function of the drink, however, is serving it at traditional feasts and activities in the traditional manner.

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