Political Relationship Between Yap and the Outer Islands

The societies of the twenty-four coral islands between Yap and Truk were tied to Yap in a supra-island political system. These islands were obliged to send tribute once a year to the Gagil district of Yap until early in this century. This system of tribute, called sawei, defined the “Yap Empire” (Lessa 1950:42). Similar ties existed between the various groupings of outer islands: Woleal, Lamotrek-Satawal-Elato and Puluwat-Pulap-Pulusuk (Alkire 1965:145-149, 1978:119; Flinn 1982:35).

Sawei: Politico-religious tribute system

Yap domination linked the outer islands to one another in a single political system. In general, rank decreased with distance from Yap. Orders for tribute were sent out from Yap through a chain of authority from the highest to the lowest ranking island, beginning with Mogmog on Ulithi and ending with the easternmost of the outer islands. As the lowest in rank, the people of Namonuito Atoll were annually the first to embark on the reverse tribute voyages toward Yap. Tribute goods moved from lower to higher ranking islands until they reached the Gagil district (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The flow of the tributes (Ushijima 1987).

Figure 1. The flow of the tributes (Ushijima 1987).

Representatives of each of the islands carried three categories of gifts, which were “Canoe Tribute”, “Religious Tribute”, and “Tribute of the Land” (Alkire 1970:5-6). Canoe Tribute and Religious Tribute usually consisted of woven fibre cloth, pandanus mats and coconut oil. They were handed to the chief of Gachapar by the highest ranking island chief, the paramount chief of Ulithi. Canoe Tribute was passed into the hands of the ranking chiefs of Gachapar and Wanyan villages in the Gagil district. Religious Tribute consisted of offerings to the mythical Yapese founder of the sawei, Yangolap, who was enshrined on the estate of the chief of Gachapar.

On the other hand, Tribute of the Land was kept by the representatives of the outer islands and given to their respective sawei partners on Gagil, whose estates held title to particular plots of land on their islands (Alkire 1970:6; 1980:232; Ushijima 1987:304). This tribute included woven cloth, mats, sennit rope, coconut oil and various kinds of shell. When the outer island people returned to their own islands, their Yapese partners provided them with a number of gifts, including turmeric, yams, bananas, sweet potatoes, bamboo, red soil pigment, pots, and manufactured items which were scarce in the outer islands.

The ideology of sawei maintained that the estates of Gachapar and Wanyan villages in the Gagil district held suzerainty over specific outer islands or districts of these islands. Therefore the sawei relationship was one of landlord and serf (Lessa 1950:32, 1966:36-39). The superior status of the Yapese over the outer island people was also described in the idiom of a fictive “parent-child” relationship. As “children”, the outer island people were obligated to send tribute to the people of Gagil (Lingenfelter 1975:147). In return they were given food and shelter in Gagil whenever they visited Yap. However, they were considered low caste, with the same rank as the lowest ranking members of Yapese society. They were therefore expected to show deference and were prohibited from marrying Yapese (Lessa 1950:144; Ushijima 1987:305).

If tribute was not sent, a Yapese chief or magician might cause storms or epidemics to decimate the offending kin group or to destroy the island which had failed in its obligations. Canoe voyages over long distances were prohibited by the Japanese government in the 1920s so that this system no longer operates. However, on the outer islands, aged men still hold a deferential attitude toward the Yapese and fear Yapese sorcery. The Satawalese people still rely on traditional knowledge of weather-forecasting based on the rising and setting of particular stars and constellations to predict the periodic storms which strike the island each year from the northeast or east (Akimichi 1980:16-29). On the other hand they cannot foretell by such traditional methods the tropical storms and typhoons that strike the island from the west. These, which sometimes cause severe damage, are thought to be caused by Yapese magicians or sorcery.

Although oral traditions of Ifalik suggest that the Yapese invaded the outer islands, there is little archaeological or linguistic evidence to support these narratives. Linguistically the central Carolinian languages belong to Nuclear Micronesian and are grouped with Trukic (Bender 1971:438; Goodenough and Sugita 1980:xii; Tryon 1984:157). The affiliation of Yapese is still unclear. According to archaeological evidence the occupation of Fefan on Truk began by 2000 BP (Shutler, Sinoto and Takayama 1984:60) while Yap was occupied as early as 176 AD (Gifford and Gifford 1959:200). Although archaeological excavations in the central Caroline Islands are still few, they indicate that Lamotrek island was inhabited by 1000 AD and possibly as early as 300 AD (Fujimura and Alkire 1984:125).

In addition Yap is culturally and physically distinct from the central Caroline Islands (Bellwood 1978:285). The central Carolinians from Woleai to Namonuito share some clan names, a similar socio-political organization, traditional belief systems, and many features of material culture with Truk. The people of these islands also made canoe voyages to Truk every two or three years where until the 1960s they exchanged products and turmeric and maintained reciprocal relationships with the Trukese. They were thus able to obtain all their necessities, which were not produced in their island, from Truk, without going all the way to Yap. The central Carolinians were migrants voyaging from Truk, not from Yap (Alkire 1984:3-4). For the outer islanders, sawei or tribute and deference paid to Yapese seems to have been based on fear of Yapese sorcery.

Sayiniké: Political ties of Lamotrek and Satawal

A smaller system of tribute and exchange persisted in the Lamotrek-Satawal-Elato Islands until the 1950s. Lamotrek was ranked politically above Satawal and Elato. The relationship between the three islands was called or “fish hook”, because Lamotrek politically controlled the other two islands (Alkire 1965:145-149).

Satawal and Elato Islands were obliged to send semi-annual tribute to Lamotrek. The chiefs of Satawal required each homestead to contribute one basket of preserved breadfruit and hundreds of coconuts. These foods were sent to Lamotrek by sailing canoes. This tribute voyage was called sayiniké or the “voyage of the fish hook”. The paramount chief of Lamotrek received this tribute and offered some of it to his ancestress. The rest was distributed to all the homesteads on the island. Lamotrek was not required to return anything as a counter-gift because this tribute was recognized as a token payment in return for which Satawal was allowed to exploit the nearby uninhabited islands controlled by Lamotrek. On the other hand, Satawalese people considered these prestations as offerings to their ancestress, from whom the ancestress of the chief of Satawal descended. When Satawal was hit by storms or typhoons and there was a scarcity of food, the chief of Satawal could ask for assistance of taro or coconuts from the chief of Lamotrek.

These tribute systems of sawei and sayiniké can be interpreted as exchange systems involving “mutual assistance in the form of subsistence” between the high island of Yap and low islands, or between the outer islands and the neighbouring coral islands. On the other hand this system was maintained both politically and religiously by a lineal chain of authority based on a tradition of priority of settlement or resettlement (irrespective of what can be established as the actual historical order of settlement). The important point to emphasize is that the oral history of Satawal, Pulap, Ulul and Ifalik portray the chiefly clans of the outer islands as having migrated from the west; i.e. from Yap, Woleai, Ifalik or Lamotrek, in accordance with the hierarchy as formed by tribute relations.