MicSem Publications

The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in Micronesia

by Francis X. Hezel, S.J.

2008 Cultural


The Western world, especially Europe and the United States, were not the only societies undergoing upheaval during the celebrated youth revolution of the 1960s. The US-administered islands of the Pacific, an area loosely known as Micronesia, was at the brink of a sweeping transformation of its own during those years. The very social foundations of these island societies were at the point of being altered in a fashion that would have a lasting effect on the way life was lived and give rise to a host of social problems that still plague island people today. In this article we will explore the cause of this upheaval and its impact on the that part of Micronesia that comprises the newly formed nations of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Micronesia, then governed by the US on behalf of the United Nations as the Trust Territory of the Pacific, included the Caroline Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Mariana Islands (with the exception of Guam). These archipelagoes, extending over an area of nearly 3 million square miles, contained a total population of only about 75,000 in 1960. Although the islands had been christianized for a hundred years or longer and had been governed by three colonial powers previous to World War II, most of the basic cultural institutions had remained intact. The people in some parts of Micronesia continued wear their traditional loincloth and lavalava, while others had adapted Western dress styles. Some of the more modernized places enjoyed some of the amenities of a modern society such as movies and sports contests, and just about every island had an elementary school of some kind. Even so, the island societies in Micronesia shared a cultural conservatism, notwithstanding the changes they had undergone by this time. The individualism associated with Western societies was incomprehensible to most islanders, for their identity was rooted fundamentally in their lineage, or extended family, and tied to the land from which they sprang. Their culture, although altered in externals, was largely intact.

The Core of Island Culture

What is culture? It may depend on who's asking the question and what they expect the answer to be. When Micronesians are asked to display their culture in public-at a school presentation or at the conclusion of a conference-they may trot out a few island dances, intone an old chant, or describe the sailing canoes and navigation systems that have a four thousand year pedigree. But that's not the guts of the culture, as they know very well. Most Micronesians today have never even traveled on a sailing canoe, and the dances and chants they perform belong to the past rather than to the present. Push people a little further and they may speak of grand chiefly systems and heroic battles-things that appeal to the imagination of islander and foreigner alike. We're getting closer but are not quite yet there!

Pull a couple of islanders aside for a private conversation and ask them the question again. More often than not they will talk about things like this: the respect shown between men and women in the family and between the young and elders, or about knowing who your "people" are so as to avoid offending them, or the importance of sharing within the family. With this we are getting close to the heart of the Pacific culture, that complex network of relationships and obligations that defines the everyday life of people, the mysterious workings of what people call the "family"-something that has little entertainment value at conferences and classroom presentations, but which comes closer than anything else to defining what it is to be an islander.

The bedrock of any Micronesian island culture is its social organization system, and this system is anchored in the family. "Family" is a word that has multiple meanings everywhere in Micronesia; it can mean what Westerners today understand as the nuclear family, a small household group consisting of parents and children, but it more often meant the lineage or extended family, often comprising two or three households, that shared food and work. At bottom the term family refers to the basic social unit and its members-their social roles and relationships to one another, with all the rights and duties these relationships entailed. Families had to find food for themselves, and so members of the family divided up the chores of food-gathering and cooking. They had to rear their children, passing on to them life skills, family history and the wisdom of the past. They had to exercise authority over their own members and maintain relations with others in the larger community, so the family needed leadership. As the basic economic unit, the family had to acquire and maintain the resource base that it would live off-that is, land. Without land there was no hope of survival, and so the use of land and its inheritance was closely supervised by the family. In fact, we might say that the family system and the land ownership system were intimately linked, one fitted tightly to the other. The basic formula in traditional island society was simple: Without land there was no way to live, and without family there was no way to access land.

Dollars are the Difference

There are other levels of social organization in the islands-at the village level and at the island or chiefdom level. It is these higher levels of social organization that draw much of the attention of anthropologists and other social scientists, if only because they are so visible and colorful, so obviously influenced by local wars and colonial incursions. The story of the rise of Koror, one of the villages in the highly competitive Palau Group, to the top of the prestige pinnacle in Palau during the 19th century, with the help of British arms, is a fascinating tale (Hezel 1983:66-74). So is the disinheritance and exile of the people of Sokehs, one of the chiefdoms of Pohnpei, following their uprising against the Germans in 1910, after which their chiefdom was resettled by refugees from nearby atolls (Hezel 1995:132-142). The impact of both these events on the subsequent history of their respective island groups may well have been significant, but their effect on the basic cultural system embodied in the family was close to zero. Chiefs and their chiefdoms can rise and fall, villages can be depopulated or consolidated into larger units, title systems can be altered or done away with altogether-all of this without causing so much as a ripple in the workings of the family system, the social foundation of island society. It is only when the family system is threatened that cultural tremors are felt and people have intimations that all is not well. That is precisely what happened, not at a period of foreign conquest of inter-island warfare, but at a time of peace and at the start of an era of unparalleled prosperity.

Since the mid-1960s, the Micronesian family at its most basic level has been altered as it never had been before. The revolution has been masked by the fact that some of the forms in the family remain much as they were before, and the values of sharing and cooperation endorsed by all Micronesian societies are still practiced. Yet, underneath this apparent continuity lie profound changes that have greatly altered the basic structure of the family in recent times. The reason is the impact of a cash economy on this key social unit. Dollars are the difference-at least when they are available in such a supply that they can challenge the traditional land-based economy. To modify the old saying: Teach a person to fish and he will remain dependant on the old system that offers him fishing rights, but give him the opportunity to work for cash and you've liberated him forever.

Social Impact in the 19th Century

Cash-or, at least, the things that cash can buy-has had a long history in Micronesia. The first intensive Western trade began in Palau, at the western edge of Micronesia, where merchant vessels engaged in the China trade and British naval ships began visiting the island group in the late 18th century (Rydell 1952:23-43; Hezel 1983:60-86). There was some trading, of course, but the items most coveted by Palauans were the gunpowder and firearms the British brought, with the village of Koror gaining a major share of the weapons, thanks to its geographical position and its fine harbor. These early goods may have changed the balance of power between the villages of Palau, but they would have little effect on the inner workings of the Palauan family.

In the mid-19th century, during the height of the American whaling era, some of the islands in eastern Micronesia were exposed to steady Western contact for the first time when whalers in great numbers began visiting these places. Contact was not just a matter of a half dozen ships a year, as might have been the case during the earlier part of the century, but 40 or 50 ships yearly, with each putting in for two or three weeks. This was certainly during the 1850s in Pohnpei and Kosrae, two of the most popular whaling stopovers in the northern Pacific. We know that on Pohnpei, at least, the whaleship trade likely strengthened the power of paramount chiefs inasmuch as the chiefs gathered from their people the supplies sold to the whaleships and often redistributed the goods that were received in exchange. If the chiefs didn't actually redistribute these trade goods, they usually carried away the first share of it, like the foreleg of a pig at a feast (Hanlon 1988:59-60). By 1855, the yearly value of goods obtained on Pohnpei from whaleships was an estimated $8,000 (or about $1 per capita in 1850 dollars), but these were metal tools, cooking utensils, rifles, clothing and tobacco-what would have been regarded in those days as luxury items (Hezel 1984a:13-14). Much the same was true on Kosrae as well. While this added to the inventory of the average household, the impact of this trade on the inner dynamics of the typical Pohnpeian or Kosraean family was minimal. If anything, the trade only served the strengthen the extended family that was producing the local food that was being traded to the whaleships.

Missionaries began appearing at the same time, for the American Board began its evangelization of eastern Micronesia in 1852. Within the next 30 years, there were Protestant missionaries throughout the region urging a change of lifestyle to conform to what they thought of as Christian values and practice. They made some modest modifications in the lifestyle of the people, but were unable to impose the very changes that would have reached into the heart of the family. For instance, although they preached that in Christian marriage a man is to "leave behind his father and mother to become one flesh with his wife," there is abundant evidence to suggest that their most well-intentioned converts were never quite up the task. What Micronesian could bring himself to leave his father and mother to fend for themselves once he took a wife! Not even the common island custom of giving out children for adoption was curtailed by Christian teaching.

But there were other changes occurring in such places as Pohnpei and Kosrae. The shift from matrilocality to patrilocality on Pohnpei, for instance, and the change in land inheritance to a father-son pattern (a change often attributed to the Germans, but just as likely the result of a gradual shift initiated by island leaders during the 19th century (Petersen 1977:118-125). At the end of it all, however, the residential grouping, or "family," remained a large extended family that retained its traditional function as an economic unit and performed much as it always had. The same seems to have been true on Kosrae by the end of the century, where extended family groupings were the rule rather than the exception. If the shape of the family on Kosrae was affected more profoundly than on Pohnpei, this was due to the rapid population decline that transformed the way of life during the 19th century.

Traders and naval commanders could do a lot with their wares: they could help bring about revolutions in the political order (as they did in Palau with the firearms they introduced), and they could modernize the cook house and tool kit of villagers (as on Pohnpei and Kosrae). Missionaries could win over thousands of new converts, introducing new dress styles, banning the use of kava drinking and smoking, and reorienting the weekend activities of their people. But neither missionaries nor ship captains could touch the inner workings of the family with the belief systems they promoted or the wares they peddled.

Toward a Cash Economy

Even before the end of the century, new economic forces had come into play. Foreign currency had become accepted in most of the major island groups in Micronesia, replacing tobacco as a medium of exchange in some places, even though barter continued to be the usual type of transaction. Moreover, stores stocked with foreign goods could be found just about everywhere, thanks to the ubiquity of the resident copra trader. Copra, or dried coconut meat, which was exported to Europe and America for its oil used in making soap, became a valuable trade item from the late 1860s on. With the abundance of coconut trees in the islands, families could harvest and dry copra any time they wished. Islanders usually took their copra to a resident trader, who paid for it with foreign-made items sold in the small store he ran and stored the copra until it could be shipped abroad.

During the late 1800s, the peak of the resident trader, copra was being produced by island families everywhere and sold in exchange for trade goods. By the end of the 19th century, the Marshalls was producing 5 million pounds of copra. At a selling price of a penny a pound, $50,000 a year was being pumped into the local economy-or $4 per Marshallese (Hezel 1984a:14-16, 47-51). But the items purchased with this trade credit were again largely tools, clothing, tobacco, and firearms. Certain types of Western food, such as tinned meat or ship biscuits, were often available, but the average income was not sufficient to allow people to purchase any significant portion of their food this way. A windfall of a few dollars made on copra sales might allow a family to throw a party with corned beef and biscuits and other canned delicacies, but this could not be done very often. Otherwise, it was back to the land, and the extended family, for normal sustenance.

Then, in 1914, Japan took possession of the islands, setting the stage for what some referred to as the "economic miracle" in Micronesia. The Japanese era, especially the halcyon years of the middle and late 1930s, offered full-time employment for cash wages to a significant number of islanders for the first time. The employment, it should be noted, was largely menial-as couriers, domestics, janitors and laborers. The estimated 1,500 jobs held by islanders yielded only about 230,000 yen a year, or a per capita income of 5 yen. Earnings from copra exports might have provided another 2.7 million yen, but altogether this would meant a total per capita income of only 55 yen, or less than $15 in post-war dollars (Purcell 1967:198; Hezel 1989:64). A wide range of new products, including clothing, footware, bicycles and musical instruments, appeared on the shelves of Japanese stores, and people may have enjoyed an occasional bowl of udong or ramen. But the earnings were not adequate to allow these people to sustain themselves on their salaries. Even during the height of Japanese prosperity, then, islanders had to depend on their own land to feed themselves on breadfruit, taro and fish.

World War II brought a major disruption in the lifestyle of Micronesians. The islands, occupied by Japanese, were fortified against the counteroffensive of the US naval armada that swept westward during the final two years of the war. Even those islands that were never invaded by US forces saw the sudden arrival of thousands of Japanese troops who commandeered land and local resources for their own use. Forced migration was common, labor brigades were formed, and outside shipping lanes into the islands were blocked by US submarines. Between these hardships and the regular bombing raids conducted by Allied planes, normal social conventions were suspended and life was reduced to a simple struggle for survival.

Following the war, the islands were placed under US administration as a United Nations trust territory. In accord with its policy, the US administration made every attempt to slow down the pace of economic growth. By 1957, twelve years after US occupation of the islands, 3,000 Micronesians (that is to say, residents of what is now FSM, Palau and the Marshalls) were employed at full-time jobs. Top wages in those days were two dollars an hour, but most earned less than seventy cents an hour. Their total yearly earnings of about $1.5 million, when added to the yearly export total of $1.4 million, yielded a total monetary income of $2.9 million, or $50 per capita income (Hezel 1989:64-65). As in the past, people purchased the usual array of household items, tools, and luxury goods. But even in those years when goods were relatively inexpensive by our standard, no islander could feed himself on store-bought food for merely 15 cents a day.

The Tipping Point

It was only during the late 1960s and 1970s, as the pace of development was deliberately accelerated, that the tipping point was reached. When US policy towards the Trust Territory was sharply reversed during the Kennedy Administration in the early 1960s, funding from Washington expanded each year. Government positions in the islands multiplied and thousands of Micronesians were added to the payroll. By 1977, 18,200 Micronesians had found full-time employment, a six-fold increase from the 3,000 receiving regular salaries just twenty years earlier. Their total earnings amounted to $42.8 million. Percapita income rose to $412 a year (Hezel 1989:65-66).

The growth in income between 1937 and 1977 represented an economic sea-change. Percapita income, as measured in constant 1950 dollars, had grown from $15 in 1937, to $42 in 1957, to $114 in 1977. From the boom days of the Japanese "economic miracle" in the islands, the average income for Micronesians-every man, woman and child-had skyrocketed by 760 percent in forty years. For the first time in history it was possible for workers to feed their families on their own cash earnings without recourse to food produce from the land. The conditions were in place for one of the greatest upheavals in island history, all because of the significant increase in cash.

Prior to this time it was unimaginable that an islander provide for his family through the fruits of his own labor. To support those who depended on him, an islander would have had to rely on the yield of the land and access to resources from the sea. This meant that his survival was dependant on land, which was corporately owned in all but a few cases, and on the labor utilization that was intimately tied to his kin system. But during the US-funded revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the cash earnings of the breadwinner reached a new high; they were adequate to provide store-bought food for members of his household over a significant portion of the year.

Sharing of resources within the kin group continued, as it must in an island society, but now the wage earner was in a position to have a say on the extent to which he would share his resources. The distribution of goods within the family could be renegotiated since the individual with a cash income did not rely on his extended family for sustenance. Land rights continued to be granted through the kin group-at least for a time, until individual land ownership became ever more common-but the wage earner no longer needed land and its fruits to provide for himself. Hence, the full-time employee could declare his independence of his extended family.

This liberation from the extended family or lineage was compounded by the geographical distance between households that once made up a single extended family unit as hundreds of job-seekers moved to the district centers. Although some of these migrants brought with them relatives besides their wives and children, it could no longer be assumed that a person would have regular contact with the members of his own extended family.

Independence from the extended family did not mean rejection of it. The head of the household did not simply pile his wife and children into the family vehicle and strike out for a new place to live. He and the people who shared his house did not lock the doors against their relatives, or absent themselves from the social functions that the extended family organized. For those still residing on their family land socialization continued much the same as it always had, and food was shared among households as before; life within the extended family was lived pretty much as it always had been-at least to all outward appearances.

But the externals masked deeper changes that were taking place in the family structure. The household head was assuming an ever greater responsibility for feeding his own household members, although it was presumed that he would continue to send food to others in the extended family. At the same time, authority within the extended family was shifting-away from the head of the lineage and towards each household head. With this shift came greater responsibility for providing for the security of his household. No longer could the parent count on the extended family to help raise his or her children, counsel or correct them when they had strayed, or calm hurt feelings at times of conflict.

Results of family change

The change in the family structure at the most basic level revolutionized society in a way that dissolution of chiefdoms and changes at the village level could not. It fragmented the family, as households began to provide for themselves, even as they maintained the tradition of sharing within kin networks. This revolution left the family smaller, weaker, and stripped of the resources on which it could once depend to resolve many of the problems it faced. The extended family network continued to function, of course, but without the clout that it once exercised over its members. After all, in Micronesian societies the inexorable but unwritten rule is that the one who provides sustenance also has the right to exercise authority.

From the outside, the shape of the family may have looked pretty much as it had years before. Houses of closely related kin were adjacent to one another on the same parcel of land, with a meeting house and even a cookhouse nearby. But this concealed the shift in authority that was occurring as the head of the household assumed ever greater control of the affairs in his own small family circle. Grandparents and uncles and aunts often lived in close proximity (although in time they began drifting off to other places), but they no longer enjoyed the mandate to intervene in domestic affairs that they once had. What older relatives once did as a matter of course to protect their kin and head off conflict gradually came to be regarded as an intrusion. They no longer felt entitled to exercise authority over the wider kin group.

When a conflict occurred between a father and son, the maternal uncle, who had once been a key authority figure in nearly all the island cultures, no longer felt free to counsel the young man or to offer strong advice to the father (Hezel 1987:289-290). Parents might be more reluctant to intervene when their married son began striking his wife or mistreating his children. The upshot of this was loss of protection against suicide and incest and domestic abuse, to name just a few problem areas. What could be called the social safety net for the young was torn apart. Persons who would have formerly depended on the protection of older relatives now found themselves exposed to the whims of the head of their household. The smaller, stripped down family might have gained considerable independence, but it was now vulnerable to problems from which it had been protected by the larger kin group.

At the same time, gender relations were shifting, while land tenure and inheritance patterns were altering. Women were now in the marketplace holding jobs, an area that would have been a male domain in the past. With the shrinking of the family, land was passing increasingly from father to son rather than along the traditional lineage lines, and land disputes within the kin group were becoming an all too regular occurrence (Hezel 2001:33-50).

When the family, the foundational social structure of a society, is shaken, the whole edifice feels the impact. The extended family system delineated roles for its members, organized labor to meet the needs of the family, provided the resources to feed its members, offered clear lines of authority to resolve disputes, and protected members from one another's excesses. When what had once been a well integrated system began to dissolve, the tremors were felt throughout the culture. The clearest example is probably suicide, as I have suggested in a series of articles and presentations on the subject (Hezel 1984b, 1987, 1989). Suicide may have been an age-old phenomenon in the islands, but the rates quickly escalated during the 60 and 70s until they reached the highs that are still being recorded today-a rate of 25 per hundred thousand that is five times what it was before the social revolution of the 1960s. Moreover, the data we have collected on suicide over a 40-year period clearly indicates that the rates are far lower even today in more traditional outlying islands than on the more modernized main islands. But why wouldn't suicide increase when the maternal uncle was becoming no more than a shadowy, impotent figure, and when older relatives who would have formerly stepped in to heal the wounds of the offended young man were melting into the background?

[Figure 2. Graph on rising suicide rates]


Or consider the problem of what we call domestic violence. It's unlikely that a husband who was living in close proximity to his wife's extended family, or even his own, would thrash his wife or children when their sobs or whimpers would carry to nearby relatives. After all, these relatives would have once had a legitimate claim to a stake in his family. Deny the relatives any authority in his household, however, thus increasing the social distance, and transfer his household to town, adding to the geographical distance as well, and you have a very different dynamic at work. The social forces that would have once acted to restrain the husband's display of anger are no longer present. We don't have to invoke long and convoluted arguments suggesting new levels of tension in the family in order to explain why his wife or children so often show up with bruises.

I could go on to list a number of other social problems that Micronesians face today-from child neglect, to drug use, to family battles over land, to incest. None of these problems originated from the social revolution of the 1960s and the upheaval of the family that followed. They stem from the flood of human passions that has always threatened to wash over the cultivated terrain of island societies. The difference between then and now is this. The seawall, in the form of the traditional island family, that has always protected islanders from this flood is broken.


Those who are engaged in a frantic campaign to preserve the "traditional" features of island culture would do well to rethink their position. The island cultures have already been substantially transformed, thanks to the cultural revolution inaugurated in the 1960s. The transformation isn't simply the loss of navigation or canoe-building, nor the change in dress styles, nor the passing of the old dance forms. It's one that reaches more deeply into the heart of the culture than any of these material items, touching as it does the island family and the way that the family operates. What could be more deeply rooted in the culture than that?

The changes in the family are not, as many people tend to think, the result of too much TV or the acculturation brought by outsiders or even returning Micronesian college students who have absorbed a little too much of their host country's influence. The changes are more profound than that; they are structural changes that have occurred as a result of the monetization of the economy. By this is meant not the first introduction of cash (which happened a century and a half earlier without any disastrous consequences), but the gradual introduction of the cash economy to the point where money could supply basic household needs for the first time in history. What people choose to eat, local food or rice, is of little importance here; both kinds can be purchased by a hungry household. The nub of the matter is who controls the resources that feed the household. When a significant number of people in island societies began to live off paychecks rather than land-in other words, a resource owned by the head of a household rather than one controlled by the extended family-island societies reached the point of no return and the structure of the family was altered.

The redefinition of the family is sometimes called the transition to a nuclear family, but this does not come close to capturing its significance. It might be better to see it as a reorganization of the basic social system of the island society. With the redefinition of the island family, the protections embedded into the broader traditional family were lost, thus bringing about an increase in those problems that the old family was designed to offer its members. These problems include suicide, wife-beating, unresolved family conflict, failure in child rearing, even incest-in short, most of the issues that have made it to the top of the social agenda in Micronesia during the past two or three decades. Micronesians have made inroads on resolving some of the social problems that have stemmed from the revolution of the 1960s, but they will still be dealing with the consequences of this upheaval for many years to come.


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