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Traditional Micronesian Societies

Traditional Micronesian Societies: Adaptation, Integration, and Political Organization in the Central Pacific

Glenn Petersen
Copyright Date: 2009
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  • Book Info
    Traditional Micronesian Societies
    Book Description:

    Traditional Micronesian Societies explores the extraordinary successes of the ancient voyaging peoples who first settled the Central Pacific islands some two thousand years ago. They and their descendants devised social and cultural adaptations that have enabled them to survive—and thrive—under the most demanding environmental conditions. The dispersed matrilineal clans so typical of Micronesian societies ensure that every individual, every local family and lineage, and every community maintain close relations with the peoples of many other islands. When hurricanes and droughts or political struggles force a group to move, they are sure of being taken in by kin residing elsewhere. Out of this common theme, shared patterns of land tenure, political rule, philosophy, and even personal character have flowed. To describe and explain Micronesian societies, the author begins with an overview of the region, including a brief consideration of the scholarly debate about whether Micronesia actually exists as a genuine and meaningful region. This is followed by an account of how Micronesia was originally settled, how its peoples adapted to conditions there, and how several basic adaptations diffused throughout the islands. He then considers the fundamental matters of descent (ideas about how individuals and groups are bound together through ties of kinship) and descent groups and the closely interlinked subjects of households, families, land, and labor. Because women form the core of the clans, their roles are particularly respected and their contributions to social life honored. Socio-political life, art, religion, and values are discussed in detail. Finally, the author examines a number of exceptions to these common Micronesian patterns of social life. Traditional Micronesian Societies illustrates the idiosyncrasies of individual Micronesian communities and celebrates the Micronesians’ shared ability to adapt, survive, and thrive over millennia. At a time when global climate change has seized our imaginations, the Micronesians’ historical ability to cope with their watery environment is of the greatest relevance.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6528-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction A Perspective on Traditional Micronesian Life
    (pp. 1-11)

    “Micronesia” is the name scientists have given to a vast expanse of islands in the central and western Pacific Ocean, and the people who live on these islands have long been called Micronesians. This is not, of course, their traditional name for themselves—indeed, they had none. At least some of them, though, being intrepid voyagers and skilled navigators, have always had a good sense of where all the islands lie, who lives on them, and how to sail among them. The peoples, societies, and cultures of these islands have a great deal in common, and it makes sense to...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Micronesia and Micronesians
    (pp. 12-36)

    I would not have written an entire book about Micronesia if I did not believe that it existed—obviously, I do. But there are those who doubt Micronesia’s existence as a meaningful culture area (that is, a region characterized by a range of similar cultural practices; I discuss this concept at length below). Those who dismiss its validity or usefulness as a conceptual category, however, have for the most part ignored the underlying question of whether it makes sense to speak of culture areas or regions at all. To think cogently about Micronesia, it is worth addressing two questions: Why...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Prehistory of Micronesian Societies
    (pp. 37-65)

    My interest in the original settlement and prehistory of the islands focuses not so much on what we have learned from potsherds, adzes, and fishhooks (that is, archaeology), on the one hand, or on vocabulary, sound systems or phonology, and syntax (that is, linguistics), on the other, as it does on the development of Micronesian patterns of social organization. As I have said, it is the interwoven strands of matrilineal descent, chieftainship, and linkages among island societies that give Micronesia its special coherence as a culture area. While scholars call into question Micronesia’s existence as a meaningful category because it...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Descent and Descent Groups
    (pp. 66-84)

    As in all human societies, the various elements of Micronesia’s societies—social, cultural, political, economic—are entirely enmeshed in one another, and separating these strands out from one another is really no more than a useful attempt at understanding them. I do have to begin somewhere, of course, and since one of the primary themes of this work is that Micronesia constitutes a coherent region because of the webs of clanship that link its many islands and communities, I have chosen to begin with descent and with the social groups organized by descent—known in general as descent groups and...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Household and Family, Land and Labor
    (pp. 85-124)

    The shared precepts of clanship linking Micronesia’s far-flung societies are offset by the roots that individuals and small groups have sunk into specific places. Micronesians’ ties to fellow clan members are matched in importance by their attachments to the lands they live on and farm, the communities in which they reside, and the islands they call home. It is no exaggeration to say that Micronesians identify deeply with their land. It provides them with places to live and food to eat, with important elements of their political status, and with symbolic and emotional aspects of simply being alive. To fully...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Chieftainship and Government
    (pp. 125-157)

    This and the following chapter are about the broad sweep of political life in Micronesia. I have divided the topic in two primarily to make it more manageable. In this chapter I deal with what I am calling government, while in the next chapter I treat the overlapping spheres of political dynamics and leadership. The grounds upon which I distinguish between these grow out of my own experience; they reflect the ways in which I have come to understand Micronesian societies, not any preexisting disciplinary or philosophical models. I want to make it clear, however, that my approach is informed...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Politics and Leadership
    (pp. 158-186)

    I am distinguishing between government and politics because even though Micronesian chiefs occupy reasonably well-defined offices, which can be appropriately viewed as island governments, politics permeate nearly every aspect of island lives. Micronesian political life is characterized by opposing pulls between quite inclusive participation in a community’s decision making, on the one hand, and the hierarchical organization of authority and responsibility, on the other. Within lineages, most individuals actually have relatively equal rights and responsibilities; within communities, most lineages have well-established rights and responsibilities. Hierarchy and rank are fundamental to Micronesian political life but exist within a participatory context, recognizing...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Aesthetics, Beliefs, Values, and Behavior
    (pp. 187-212)

    Thus far I have focused almost entirely on institutions and processes—that is, on social organization—because my primary interest has been to show how Micronesian social groups, in particular the clans and lineages, provide the adaptive framework for survival in the islands. I have largely ignored other aspects of Micronesian culture. But there is a great more to life in the islands than the politics of descent groups, the organization of labor, and the management of land. Now I turn my attention to some of these aspects.

    In this chapter I focus on art, religion and magic, and some...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Some Exceptions to the Pan-Micronesian Patterns
    (pp. 213-225)

    I have organized this work around the many commonalities among Micronesian societies, and most of it focuses on similar traits and practices. The societies of the Marshalls, the eastern and central Carolines, and Palau are alike in so many ways that I have drawn on them for most of my generalizations. But I have tried not to overlook the many significant differences among the islands either. There are aspects of society and culture in Kiribati, Nauru, Yap, and the Marianas, in particular, that differ markedly from the rest of Micronesia, and in this brief chapter I examine some of these...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Epilogue Traditional Micronesian Societies and Modern Micronesian History
    (pp. 226-234)

    Throughout this book I have emphasized both that traditional Micronesian societies have much in common and that each society has responded to historical conditions in its own way. Change has been frequent, if not continual, as communities learned new ways of doing things from their neighbors or pursued their own distinctive paths. Some of these changes have come about as consequences of conditions or forces over which islanders have no control, but the ways in which they have actually unfolded are for the most part the result of traditional patterns of social organization, cultural values, and behaviors.

    I have focused...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 235-248)
  15. References Cited
    (pp. 249-268)
  16. Index
    (pp. 269-278)