MicSem Publications

Chuuk’s Violence: Then and Now

by Innocente I. Oneisom

February 1991 (MC #01) Social Issues

Cash registers are at a constant ring as long lines of people impatiently await their turn at the register tables. A voice calls out, "Another bag of rice." Still another, "A case of turkey tails." From some place in the store comes, muffled by the noise, "Jail House Rock" by the King of Rock & Roll. Outside a constant stream of both men and vehicles move about each other. At the dock boats of different sizes, shapes, and colors are at various stages of loading and, in a few cases, unloading. Others have their engines started up already. The minibuses and vans lining the dock are now making their last sales of the day, with frequent interruptions on their part to the bystanders to allow room for their customers to squeeze through. Suddenly tires screech and people are running in every direction. Within seconds the whole dock area is cleared of man and vehicle, and in the middle four young occupants stand beside a dark-blue sedan brandishing baseball bats. Soon they fan out in different directions swinging at anything and anybody unfortunate enough to be caught in their way. Welcome to Moen on a payday Friday afternoon!

That same weekend on a nearby island the regular group of people gather after Sunday services to play Bingo. For three or four hours a young boy, perhaps ten to eleven years of age, has been on a winning streak. After a short while the young boy leaves the Bingo scene to fetch something from his house next door. Immediately before that his uncle, who had been at the Bingo game, asked to borrow five dollars, which the boy readily gave. Upon arriving at the house, he is scolded by his mother for something he did earlier in the day. The boy starts crying, when his uncle's wife appears at the house. On seeing this, she returns to her husband and tells him about what she has just seen. Her husband, the boy's uncle, decides the boy is crying because he really didn't want to lend him the money. He leaves the game with a piece of three-inch thick, foot-long, rubberized material, and upon arriving at the house starts beating up the boy. In all, there are three beatings that the boy undergoes late that morning. Early in the first one the boy cries, screams, and rolls on the floor as the piece of hard rubber finds its mark on the shirtless little form. The second session of beating finds the boy lying absolutely still on his back, completely numb with pain, with imploring eyes darting back and forth from his uncle to his mother who is standing close by crying. The third session begins with a push-and-shove between the uncle and another woman who tries to intercede, but to no avail. It proceeds without interruption as the uncle lifts the almost lifeless form over his head and throws him down on the wooden floor.

These two cases actually took place in this decade. People in the two cases were fortunate not to have been killed, unlike many of their fellow islanders who were involved or just simply caught in other violent acts. Referring to the first case, some older men, with a look of disgust and a shake of their heads, said, "It is not manly." In the Chuukese sense, a manly attitude or action depicts wisdom, humility, and a lot of sense. All these are said to be characteristics of a man who is older, perhaps in his late 40's. It is common for Chuukese to outgrow their "rough and tough" attitudes. Most of the violent characters settle down upon reaching early middle age. What about the uncle in the second case? He is over 50!

If we look at the first of the two cases as an example of community violence, then we should ask whether there was violence in the old Chuuk communities. If so, how serious was it and what forms did it take? How about family violence? Was there any then? Is this the way violence in Chuuk has always been? With the many cultural changes in recent years, have the forms of violence changed? What could have been the reasons for such acts? These are questions that this paper will attempt to answer.

This paper will look at aggravated, extreme physical violence. But there is other violence too. The non-aggravated violence includes pout (sorcery) and the rest of the magical power possessed by the sourong (sorcerer), of which the Chuukese are known to be avid practitioners. Since it is difficult to find people who are willing to provide concrete and detailed descriptions, we shall have to look at what earlier writers had to say on this subject. Fr. Lorenz Bollig in his book, The Inhabitants of the Truk Islands, published in 1927, describes many types of the sorcery practiced. He wrote that sorcery "prevents women from giving birth, disturbs children's growth, makes limbs swell, spoils one's work, steals the soul and brings inevitable death." He went on to say that "if a sorcerer cannot get a person he hates, he will kill him symbolically, which as a consequence [results in] his actual death."

Any young Chuukese would most certainly have heard legends of fearless Chuukese warriors who killed without any regard for the value of human life. One story I heard when I was a little boy told of two young men–one from Moen and the other from Toloas–who fought side by side in a war on Moen. The story goes that upon capturing one of their enemies, one of the young men who had just been initiated into the rigors of wars hacked with repeated swings of his machete at the neck of a captured enemy. Supposedly, experienced warriors could sever a head with a single chop of their machetes. We catch a glimpse of these violent and fearless men when we examine recorded accounts of early contacts by some of the anthropologists, historians, and others describing early foreign contact.

In the old Chuuk communities a person's primary means of identification was with his lineage and clan. He was known by what "house" (or uut) he came from. It could be the house of (uuten) Saporenong or Fesinim, or one of the many clans found in Chuuk. This was given more importance than the island or village in which one actually resided. A Chuukese from Moen, for instance, could not be involved in a violent act against one from the island of Tol if they came from the same lineage or clan. Yet, he could very well be involved in one that pitted him against another from Moen, his own island. If the two went ahead and fought and one was injured to some degree, then it could be assumed with certainty that the injured party and his whole lineage would retaliate in an all-out war. In this event, all capable men, young and old, got involved in the war of the lineage. They could even request help from other islands, always from the same clans with which they were closely associated. Mrs. Treiber, a Protestant missionary on Chuuk, wrote in 1888 that "the house is the stopping place not of a family but of a portion of a clan… Each one in the clan is bound to protect his fellow. I have not been able to learn of one being murdered by one of his own clan."

As is true throughout history, war has always had various causes. One major cause of war in Chuuk was controversy over land and fishing rights. As the land and the sea were the only sources of food for the islanders, they were to be protected at all cost. People died to keep these invaluable resources. Other causes of disputes included women, repayment for misdeeds, and insults.

Basically, the prevailing rule for that time and age was "an-eye-for-an-eye." One early missionary noted that "a system of blood revenge is the only law. A murder is always avenged by killing, not the murderer, but someone of his clan. Thus, revenge goes back and forth till at times [a] number of districts are involved." The missionary wrote of a case where a chief of Tunnuk, Moen, threatened to come to the mission school of Mwan village to kill the students from Uman attending the school. Apparently, the chief of Tunnuk attacked Enin, Dublon, where some of his men perished. Since the people of Uman were friendly to the people of Enin, the chief thought of avenging his men by killing the children from Uman. People lived by retaliation. In the clan's war as well as in other activities, the final say remained with the chief of the clan or the lineage. Punishment for a murder was murder in return.

Most of the murders occurred through the popular Chuukese strategies of ambush or surprise attack. Mrs. Logan wrote in 1896 that Romanum and Udot had been at war for some time. The people of Romanum sent word to the chiefs of Udot that they wanted peace and that a meeting should take place on Romanum. The people of Udot were suspicious and therefore sent only five representatives, all of whom were killed at the sound of a conch shell as they were sitting down to discuss peace. Another one involved Uman and Toloas on one side against Fefan on the other. During the night the warriors from Uman and Toloas went to Sopore on Fefan. Early in the morning two women, followed by some men, came down the hill to go fishing. They were jumped from behind and killed.

Punishment for wrongdoing must have come as a surprise when the islanders were introduced to the law and order of the foreigners. In 1900, three island chiefs–Ngenimun, from Mwanukun, Uman; Manaman, from Mechitiw, Moen; and Soon, from Nukuno, Toloas–were taken to Pohnpei on board the German warship Cormoran for three years of hard labor as punishment for the many murders they committed. All the murders committed before this time went unpunished, at least by Western standards. Most notable among the victims were two foreigners: August Hartmann, a German, and Akayama Shirosaburo, a Japanese.

In Chuukese legends and written accounts, murderers such as Ngenimun, Manaman, and Soon were known to have killed people from other clans, villages, and islands–but never people from their families. In all my investigations of old records I have not come upon a single written account of violence within the family terminating in death. One of the very few oral accounts of such an instance is the story of a Chuukese fellow whom the Japanese soldiers executed after he was reported to have killed another man. During his few days in the Japanese jail he composed a song telling how he took off into the hills after the killing and was caught one night by the people of Uman while sleeping, and how he invited them to have some of his food which he himself had prepared. In his song he thanked the jail-keeper for finally feeding him, but questioned the reason for that kindness and assumed he was to be killed on Wednesday evening. An informant, close to the man, offered some light on this case. The killer had a male cousin who was known to have been having an affair with either a sister or another cousin of theirs. The alleged killer asked another cousin to kill the man, but to use his machete and to leave it near the body.

The records show that homicide cases during the American administration have become less frequent. But one threatening fact emerges: violence has now taken a new turn towards the Western pattern.

When I started collecting homicide information on Chuuk that went back to the beginning of the American administration in 1946, I found 48 cases in Chuuk. The Trust Territory Annual Reports between 1950 to 1986 reported 36 homicides in Chuuk during that 36 year-period, 12 fewer cases than my figures show. This would give an average of slightly more than one homicide per year. Through the compiled journal letters of Robert Logan and the diary of Miss Kinney that covered the years from 1884 to 1894, I was able to collect data on 18 homicides. Not included in this figure is R. Logan's estimate of "several deaths" on Tol in a war of 1886. In the four full years that Miss Kinney kept her diary, she mentioned nine violent deaths on Moen alone, most of which occurred in Mwan, Nepukos, Iras, and Mechitiw–villages that were involved in wars during this period. Needless to say, however, the statistics collected from these two works do not represent the complete homicide numbers for Chuuk for this period. If we exclude the two years between Logan's death and the start of Kinney's diary, we would come up with an average of 2.25 homicides a year during the late 19th century. Not one of the cases reported by Logan and Kinney involved close or even distant relatives.

Among the 48 recorded cases in recent years, however, 20 (or 42%) were killings in which the perpetrator was related to the victim. The relationships can be broken down as follows: four involving distant relatives from the same clan, four involving uncles and nephews, three cousins, three brothers, three in-laws, one sisters, one father and son, and one friends. This fact probably does not come as a surprise to any Westerner who knows that there is a greater likelihood for a European or American to be killed by a close acquaintance or even a relative. But when the fact is presented to somebody from Chuuk, it causes great shock and disbelief. Yet, it is becoming more and more true of Chuuk today.

Perhaps, the proper question to ask at this point is why. Why has violence taken the direction it has in Chuuk? With time and the gradual disintegration of our culture and the incorporation of outside cultures, numerous changes have occurred in our society. These have touched all aspects of the Chuukese society, including the social aspect of violence. Let us look at these changes as they fit into the social picture, and see how they have contributed to the new direction that violence in Chuuk now has taken.

One major cultural change is the transfer of the main type of resources from land and water to cash, a change which breaks up the unity of the clan and enhances individual family independence culminating in changes in one's identity. In olden days, the produce of the land and the sea were the invaluable resources commonly shared by the clan members. They were given so much value that many lives were snuffed out in wars over their control and stringent taboos bent to ensure against their loss. For instance, cousins, uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews could intermarry (as long as the marriage did not occur within the matrilineage). With time, as the culture underwent tremendous changes, cash took over as the primary resource of the Chuukese people. As this new form of resource became readily available to each member of the clan, the dependence on the larger community for individual sustenance diminished significantly. The individual became rather independent and his sense of identification with the clan was weakened. People now grouped themselves together in smaller families and resided in sections or villages composed of other families not necessarily related, but which perhaps shared the same interest, profession or–as is true in most parts of Moen–ethnicity.

Identification with ethnic groups today have contributed to fights being interisland. In the 1970's the late Petrus Mailo, Mayor of Moen, had to declare Moen closed to two certain areas in the lagoon whose inhabitants had been involved in ongoing fights. When on Moen, people from the two warring islands would search for each other. Without regard to clan, the warring islanders would attack one another if they revealed their island identity.

To analyze the increase in intra-lineal violence a number of contributing factors should be looked into, since there is no single factor that is solely responsible. The clan breakdown has that ripple effect which is felt in various degrees throughout the system. A part of that system which feels the effect is the "respectful distance" that family members have for each other. The "respectful distance" is especially evident between relatives of opposite sexes. For instance, closely related boys and girls put some distance between themselves to safeguard against incestuous relationships. A shocking finding of the study on Child Abuse and Neglect done by the Micronesian Seminar was how widespread this unthinkable sort of incest actually is throughout the islands of Chuuk. Perpetrators in the old days would have faced death at the hands of the relatives once the deeds became public, as in the story reported earlier. Upholding the "respectful distance" in the olden days was a much easier task, since the individual had the clan, a much larger association of people, to deal with.

With the shift in allegiance from the clan to the individual families, we have more of a concentrated focus, attention, and association. Activities have now been restricted to the smaller family. What were once daily functions of the clan have now become daily functions of the household. This "respectful distance" was once employed in relationships between offspring and parents, uncles and nephews, aunts and nieces, and between older and younger siblings. Activities that would have encouraged challenges or rivalries among members of the family or lineage were discouraged. For example, two brothers unintentionally kept a "respectful distance" between themselves by not being together at most family or lineage activities. Today, however, consumption of alcohol is an activity for which the members of the lineage sometimes come together. A brother drinks with a brother, an uncle with a nephew, or a father with a son. The "respectful distance" has broken down in such cases.

Another change, to which I would give great importance as a cause of intra-lineage violence, is the ease with which family members share tension-causing information. All lineages, in olden times as today, have their share of internal problems. In olden times these problems were confined to a few responsible individuals who would see to it that these problems were dealt with responsibly and in a manner most favorable to the well-being of the lineage. When the clan or lineage lived together as a commune, youthful and female members of the lineage were left in the dark as to the existence of the problems. Today these problems still exist, and perhaps have even intensified, but they have also become public knowledge. A small misdeed by "Uncle Satao" or clan chief "Santiago" becomes a piece of information shared among parents and children who comprise the new commune unit. It is very true today that a family freely shares what could be called confidential information among its members. These "bits and pieces" of problems gradually erode the already weakened bond between the lineage members. As each bit and piece of new information is added, "Uncle Satao" becomes a victim of his nephew's anger.

Let us take a hypothetical situation. Uncle Satao and Mother Masako are brother and sister. Uncle Satao sells a piece of their land without informing Mother Masako. When she finds out about it, she confronts Uncle Satao who tells her, among other things in the course of the heated argument, to get lost and seek land for her and her children from her husband. When at home Mother Masako and her husband talk about the incident in front of their children. That evening, their oldest son, after drinking with his friends, arrives at his uncle's house with a baseball bat. He fights and kills his uncle.

Historically, Chuuk was a violent place. In the past, the Chuukese lived with constant wars and cold-blooded murders. By comparison present-day Chuuk is far less violent due to the introduction of Christianity and of the Western justice system. Christianity has done away with wars of potentially high casualties, drawn people of different clans and lineages together, and instilled in each the basic Christian morals and values. Through the aggressiveness of the first missionaries, Christianity spread quickly and wars gradually declined. Early missionaries' written accounts show that on any number of occasions chiefs of different areas in Chuuk, "tired of wars," sought out these people-of-the-cloth to be initiated into the Christian ways. It was mainly through their educational systems and religious services that people of different clans and lineages came together under the same roof. Through constant and daily instructions and sermons the Chuukese people learned new values and morals.

Chuuk's violence has undergone drastic changes. It has gone from interclan violence to interisland, but lately more of the violence has become intra-family. All this could be attributed to a number of factors that are the products of the cultural changes in Chuuk. These factors include change in resources from land to cash, and the shift in personal identity from clan to family. In the present set-up, the family household is solely responsible for its own well-being. Incidents occurring in and around the family are not the responsibility of the clan anymore.

Allow me to conclude by sharing a few thoughts on intervention with you. The problem of intra-family violence presents a major problem, but it would be most foolish to discourage family members from associating with each other. One area that should be looked at and evaluated perhaps is the circumstances under which these people come together for socializing purposes. Twelve of the twenty family homicide cases involved the use of alcohol, with either the perpetrator or victim or both drinking before the violence. Secondly, unnecessary agitation of lineage and family members should be halted. Offensive information, no matter how trivial, should not be shared within the lineage.

The interisland violence could be minimized by increasing the means of peaceful interaction between the youth, a great majority of whom are responsible for the violent acts today. I say "peaceful interaction" because it achieves a great deal as opposed to the kind that involves open rivalry or competition (e.g. track and field, basketball, volleyball, or anything of that sort). After working together in the last three summer youth workshops for all of Truk, many of the young participants felt a certain sense of closeness to their counterparts from the many different islands. As a young man who has become a close friend said to me once, "If it were not for the workshop, I would have never known you."