MicSem Publications

The Changing Family In Chuuk: 1950-1999

by Innocente I. Oneisom

March 1994 (MC #14) Family change

The Ideal Chuukese Family

The basic unit of Chuukese society has always been the eterenges, or lineage. The lineage is traced along female lines and consists of all the descendants of the oldest female–all the women and their children in the line. Ideally, the entire matrilineal group would reside together on a single estate and work together as a single economic unit. Although there were exceptions to this pattern, the preferred arrangement in Chuuk was always that a newly married couple would move in with the woman's family rather than the man's. The term "family" in traditional Chuukese society meant the matrilineal group.

The ideal Chuukese family, or matrilineage, consisted of a senior woman, all her married daughters with their spouses and children, and possibly even the married granddaughters with their families. These lineage members were usually distributed in two or three residential houses (ihmw) on the estate. Nuclear families slept together in the same house, but they often shared their house with another nuclear family and/or unmarried relatives. Each lineage estate had a single cookhouse, or fanang, that was used for the preparation of the food. There the breadfruit, when in season, was cooked, pounded, wrapped in banana leaves and readied for distribution to all in the lineage. At other times, taro would be similarly prepared there. The central gathering place for the lineage was the uut, or meeting house. When there was no special meeting or celebration being conducted, the uut served as the hangout for males in the lineage and the sleeping quarters for unmarried young men, who were not permitted to sleep in the same house as their adolescent sisters. The lineage uut and its fanang were the emblems of its unity and identity. They symbolized, as one informant put it, "oneness of heart, oneness in thought, and oneness of mind".

The lineage members lived off the land, which was corporately owned by the lineage. The various households that made up the lineage might be allowed the use of certain parcels of land, but all residual rights remained with the lineage. The highest authority in the lineage was always a male, theoretically the brother of the oldest woman. He had the final say over the lineage land and resources, although it was expected that he would discuss these and other important matters with the rest of the senior lineage members. The lineage group worked together to produce food that they shared among their households. They fished together, cultivated taro, picked and pounded breadfruit, and ate from the food prepared at a common cookhouse. They met to discuss their participation in community events as well as problems with other families. Adults jointly cared for the children in a kibbutz-like arrangement. To say that the lineage was important in the life of Chuukese is a gross understatement; each person drew his identity from the lineage and found in it his last line of defense.

Lineages in Chuuk were parts of larger clans, and each bore the name of the clan (einang) to which it belonged. The lineage representing the first clan to settle in an area was recognized as the one with ancestral claims to the land, and the other lineages that grew up in the same area were regarded as subordinate to it. Their lineage estates were expected to recognize the prominence of the main lineage by offering first fruits to this lineage at the opening of the breadfruit season and other harvest times. As the area became more densely settled and grew to be a village, the head of the most prominent lineage evolved into the village chief.

Such is the ideal picture of the Chuukese lineage unit. The reality, even 40 years ago, however, was a bit more complex. The various households that made up the lineage were headed by men who had married women of the lineage and who were not themselves members of the lineage. Thus, while the entire lineage was under the authority of the lineage chief, its subdivisions or residential units were under the control of outsiders. One might easily get the impression, to hear people tell of the old days, that the lineage had almost total authority over its members and the resources they used. Yet, the households of which the lineage was composed did seem to enjoy a certain measure of control over their own affairs. They were an entity in their own right despite the fact that there was no clear term in the Chuukese language for "household". There was probably always a certain tension between the lineage and the households, but the balance of power today has clearly swung towards the household.

This report offers a look at some of the major changes that have occurred in the Chuukese "family" between 1950 and the present. The report draws on interviews with five or six Chuukese families, most of them from the island of Tonoas. This study will examine changes in the Chuukese family under several headings: resources, food distribution, family labor, child rearing, adoption, celebrations, respect behavior and conflict resolution.


The main resource of the Chuukese family prior to the Second World War was the land and produce acquired from it. Lineage land was a shared resource that was jointly owned and meant to be used to support all members of the group. Although the land was not divided up among the members, certain food-bearing trees were assigned to individuals in the lineage. The individuals were given exclusive rights to gather food from their own trees.

Not all the land used to feed the family was owned by the matrilineage, however. Land also was passed down to children from their father; this affiliation was known as the éfúkúr. Hence, land could be acquired from either one's mother (through her lineage) or from one's father (through the éfúkúr), although there was a difference in ownership rights between the two. Both the household head (or father) and the lineage head (mother's kinsmen) usually had land resources at their disposal. Even in traditional times, therefore, there was a certain balance to the distribution of resources, although the lineage land constituted the major resource and was under the authority of the lineage chief.

This land and its produce eventually gave way to another appealing resource which became more accessible during the American Administration. This resource was cash. As the cash economy became an increasingly important part of the resource base of the Chuukese family, it affected the way in which other, traditional resources were handledand it changed the shape of the Chuukese family.

The sale of copra for money has a long history in Chuuk that goes back to the end of the last century. The mode of sharing the cash obtained through the sale of copra, however, is markedly different today from what it was in the 1950s, let alone before that time. Generally in the 1950s the head of the lineage was the one who decided when copra to be gathered and prepared for market. In some families all the proceeds from the copra were turned over to him, and he would give a few dollars to each of the people who worked the copra. In other cases, the head of the lineage would apportion to the women of the lineage and their husbands (who were also the heads of households) sections of land on which they could gather copra. Household heads might request the master of the lineage to let them gather copra, or simply inform him that they intended to do so. In such cases, the money from the sale of the copra remained in their hands, but they would invariably feel an obligation to give some of the copra money to the lineage head.

The control that the lineage head once exercised over copra making diminished over the years, according to the older men interviewed. When the price for copra reached new heights in the 1970s, informants say, the head of the lineage lost all vestige of control over the production of copra. By that time each household was gathering copra whenever it wished, usually without so much as a nod to the lineage head, and disposed of the money as it saw fit. Out of politeness, however, the household would often give a little of the money to the lineage head. This is the practice today.

Cash obtained through salaries was handled differently. Paychecks were never turned over to the lineage head, although they might be presented to the recipient's parents. One man, who was working on an agriculture project right after the war, recalled that his father always picked up his paycheck, which the father used to provide for the household. A few years later, however, when the young man became a sailor, he began collecting his own salary. Another man, working as a policeman between 1946 and 1952, used his salary to support his parents and siblings. By the mid-1950s a pattern seems to have evolved for disposing of personal salaries. If the wage-earner was unmarried, he turned his paycheck over to his parents. Otherwise, he kept the money and used it to support his own family. It was customary for him to share the incidentals he bought–kerosene, matches, mosquito coils, cigarettes, canned fish, etc–with his parents and sometimes with other members of the lineage, especially the older members. This remains generally true today.

Food Distribution

Even as early as 1950, most of the food preparation was being done by the separate households rather than by the lineage as a whole. Every few days one of the households would pick and pound breadfruit, afterwards distributing it in wrapped bundles to the other households on the lineage estate. All the households would take their turns preparing food in this way, with small household groups combining with one another to perform this task. The food, although prepared by a single household and eaten in small groups, was made available to the entire lineage.

Modernization had already made inroads on Chuukese practice by the end of the war. In larger lineages, like Imwo lineage on Tonoas, the lineage unit was already breaking down into smaller groupings. Food was prepared in common for brothers and sisters living on adjoining parcels of land, but not for more distant relatives living on other parts of the lineage land.

The traditional Chuukese umw, or earth oven, had almost entirely disappeared by the 1950s. There was one umw in Tonoas that was used from time to time, but the lineage that cooked in that earth oven was exceptionally large and industrious. The preparation of an umw was arduous work and demanded considerable manpower. The cooking pots that were sold during Japanese times offered a far easier means of preparing food, but their widespread use also made it possible for people to cook in smaller groups. A household could easily provide for its own needs alone with a medium-sized cooking pot. As cooking began to be done in pots, there was a tendency to share food among a smaller circle of kinfolks–often among the closest of lineage mates, and sometimes solely within the confines of the household. Some food–a bundle or two of pounded breadfruit or preserved breadfruit and perhaps a bowl of boiled fish–might be sent to the other houses of the lineage, but food was not prepared for the whole lineage on an everyday basis as frequently as before. Increasingly, as time went on, much of what was prepared in a household stayed there and was consumed by the household members. The proliferation of portable kerosene stoves during the early 1970s only aided this change.

In the 1950s all the households would work together to prepare food on two sorts of occasions: when the lineage was contributing to the food supply of the village in preparation for competitive feasting, and when the lineage was readying its first-fruits for the village chief or the lineage head. There were a number of times during the year when food was offered to the person who was recognized as having first claim upon the land. These food offerings included mwen-uwa (first-fruits), emumei (last fruits) and ponumar (first preserved breadfruit). The custom of providing first-fruits has fallen into general disuse on most parts of Chuuk. Even in those relatively few places where the practice is continued, the households usually make their offerings separately and at different times. Rarely is this done any longer as a lineage-wide activity.

Family Labor

There has always been a strong division of labor along sex lines in the Chuukese family, and this remains just as true today. Women perform housekeeping chores, take care of the children, do the laundry, cook the meals, and do some weaving and sewing. At times they may also do net fishing on the shallow flats offshore. Men, on the other hand, do the heavier work, including house construction and boat-making. They also normally pick, pound and prepare breadfruit and taro, as well as tend the family gardens. All this remains largely unchanged.

Most of the day-by-day food preparation, even in the 1950s, was done by the household, as we have seen. Nonetheless, there were a number of other tasks that were done by larger lineage groups. Fishing was sometimes done in larger groups, especially when fish traps or nets were used. Preparation of food for special occasions, such as the first-fruits offerings and the betrothal food gift (kiis), was also done by the whole lineage. There were a number of other tasks that the head of a lineage might call on all his members to perform together–the construction of a meeting house, for instance.

The lineage head and maternal uncles can still call upon the labor of younger members of the lineage today, but these occasions are rarer, it seems. Nowadays, young men can expect to be summoned to work for their uncles on Saturdays, but for the rest of the week they remain under the supervision of their parents.

Child Rearing

The main responsibility for the rearing of children has always lain with the mother and father. The mother cared for the young children and the older girls, while the father often took charge of the boys, especially in relation to work. Nevertheless, other older men and women in the lineage group also took a rather free hand in supervising the children, correcting them when they had reason to do so. In the past the maternal uncle had a particularly important role in the upbringing of his nephews and nieces. He might be called on to settle conflicts between the young person and his parents, and he had bore much of the responsibility for socializing young men who had reached adolescence and were sleeping in the uut, or meeting house. Children, especially the adolescent boys, would roam easily from house to house in the lineage, staying with one family for a time and then moving on to another. One man related that during his childhood he stayed with his matrilineal relatives on three different islands from time to time. The youngsters could expect to be treated the same way as the natural children of the families with which they stayed. They had a real home in any of the households of the lineage.

Today the child is much more tied to his own household than in the past. Children do not roam as freely among the other houses of the lineage as they once did–a restriction that is itself a sign of the change that has occurred. If an uncle were to attempt to discipline a young man while the latter was living with him, as he might easily have done in the past, this could provoke the wrath of the young man's father. Many parents today feel that they have the exclusive right to correct their own children. In most Chuukese families, the natural parents are nowadays not merely the main caretakers of their own children; they are the only caretakers. This is particularly true in cases where the family has moved away from the lineage to a new residence site. The older members of the lineage, even the maternal uncles, lose whatever effectiveness they might still have for providing supervision and advice for their nephews.


Adoption in earlier days was commonly practiced, but only under certain conditions. It occurred almost always between close relatives, especially between brother and sister. A brother's child might be adopted into the lineage by his sister and her husband. Not only would the adoption serve as a bond between the two families and the two lineages, but it would keep the child in his sister's lineage and insure that the land eventually given the child remained in the lineage. The child of a close relative of one of the men marrying into a lineage might also be adopted by one of the lineage women for the same reason. Adoption was a device used for providing childless couples with children who could be a source of support in their old age, but it was much more. It protected the lineage land and resources from alienation, much as cross-cousin marriage (marriage between the children of a brother and sister) did in other islands of Chuuk.

Adopted children were always well provided for in the past. One of the informants made the point that they were treated even better than natural children. Adopted children were usually given a breadfruit or coconut tree of their own when taken into the family, and sometimes would be given a parcel of land as well.

Today adoption seems to have taken on a new meaning. The word is now used when a daughter turns one of her children to her mother, or when a woman offers a child to her sister. In the past this would not have been regarded as adoption since the child remains in its own lineage. It would merely have been passing a child to another household for rearing. The fact that such cases are regarded as adoption today shows the degree to which lineage unity has already broken down.


Celebrations have always had a great importance in the life cycle of Chuukese people, for they are occasions for the lineage to gather and reassert its identity. Among the major celebrations in the past were the several presentations of food offerings to the village chief; they included the first-fruits for the different crops at the beginning of each season, the offering of last-fruits, and the lineage's contribution for the competitive feasts that the village held. In one village on Tonoas, there was a special feast held each year on New Year's Day. Each of the lineages married into the largest and most prestigious lineage in the village would prepare food for this lineage, while the lineage offered food gifts to them in exchange. Cash prizes were given to the lineage that produced the best food offerings.

In addition to these village-wide celebrations in which the lineage participated, there were other celebrations that provided the occasion for feasting. Funerals were the occasion of lineage gatherings, as were winimechen, or the days when the taboo imposed on sections of the land or sea following the death of a lineage member were removed. There were celebrations to mark the near completion of a house (assóp) and the final dedication of the building (efinún). At the betrothal of a young man or woman, food gifts prepared by the whole lineage were exchanged and the food distributed among lineage members. The arrival and departure of guests were also occasions for a lineage feast. Christmas and other special religious days, too, were also celebrated by the entire lineage.

Today this list of celebrations has changed. Most of the traditional offerings to the village chief–what was once called the umwusamon–have been discontinued. The major occasions for a lineage-wide feast today are weddings and funerals of lineage members, holidays such as Christmas and New Year's Day, the completion of a house or other major construction project, and the welcoming of visitors. At all these times the entire lineage works together to prepare the food and shares in the feast. There are other celebrations, however, that are often conducted in the household rather than with the whole lineage. Birthday parties are an example.

In general, it seems that as the importance of the lineage as a working unit has gradually given way to the household, there is a deliberate effort to reassert the place of the lineage. Most lineages today value occasions to work and eat together as a sign that their family unity remains intact. Even if some traditional occasions for lineage-wide celebrations have been lost over the past few decades, many others are being deliberately retained and new occasions are being sought for lineage get-togethers.

Respect Behavior

One characteristic of the traditional Chuukese family was the clear definition of the status of each individual, especially along age and sex lines. Respect behavior served as a way of marking the status of each person in relation to others in the group.

In the 1950s the old rules for proper behavior were still strongly in force. One did not mingle indiscriminately with those of other age and sex groups within the lineage. As they grew older, sons kept a respectful social distance from their fathers, as did daughters from their mothers. There was a similar social distance between older and younger brothers, and between older and younger sisters. Younger children showed their respect for their older siblings by avoiding their presence as much as possible, and so minimizing the risk of a conflict with them. The age line was an important one, no matter how small the age difference. Younger brothers and sisters were expected to do without question what their older siblings told them to do. This was even more true when one was given orders by a senior lineage member. Generally, young people were expected to listen quietly at family gatherings and only speak when they were so requested.

In the past contact between family members of a different sex was also strongly hedged with restrictions. Brothers and sisters especially were expected to avoid any strong language or reference to sexual matters or natural bodily functions in one another's presence. They kept a distance from one another when at all possible. The girl was not supposed to enter any area of the house in which her brother ordinarily slept or relaxed. On the other hand, the adolescent boy was obliged to move out of the house and sleep elsewhere if he had teenage sisters in his family. He usually moved to the uut, or meeting house, which often became a dormitory for teenage boys. The brother was also prohibited from cursing or beating up his sister.

There have been a number of gradual changes in this code of respect behavior. Parents complain of their children talking back to them more frequently than in the past, but an even more common complaint is that young people often use strong language, sometimes very crude language, in the presence of female relatives. Perhaps the most serious breaches of traditional respect behavior today have to do with the relationship between the sexes. Young men need no longer move out of the house when they reach adolescence, even if they have sisters sleeping in the house. Sometimes they will merely sleep in another room, and often not even bother to do that. Another significant change has come with the introduction of video cassette recorders and home movies to the household. Young men and their sisters, as well as other members of the family, are exposed to explicit sexual scenes on tape in one another's presence. This is an indication of how much modernization has eroded the norms of traditional respect behavior, just as it is a sign of other changes to come.

Most informants feel that the money income has contributed greatly to the disruption in the old standards for proper behavior. It is undeniable that in some families the traditional ranking order of sons by age has been upset, for when a younger son shows exceptional ability in school or has a good-paying job, parents and other siblings will often treat him with the respect that would normally be due the eldest son in the family. Similarly, the household heads who married into the lineage and would have been expected to defer to the word of the lineage head are sometimes more highly regarded than the master of the lineage, especially if they have a good income. One's cash earning power, real or potential, has become a real factor in determining status today.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is a sensitive but essential part of the life of any family. Conflicts between parents and their children were, in the past, settled by the chief of the lineage or, in some cases, by some other senior member of the lineage who happened to be close to the family. The lineage head would also be called upon to resolve problems between other members of the lineage, especially between two older persons. In early days he would call for a gathering of the lineage to settle the matter. If he should anticipate any resistance to settlement, he might call on the first-born male or female in the family of the aggrieved party to intervene, for he knew that it was nearly impossible for Chuukese to resist the pleas of their eldest children.

There were special occasions when lineage disputes, especially over land or trees, were ordinarily settled. Especially favored times were at a funeral in the family or when one of the lineage members fell ill. These family crises were opportunities for the members of the family to give vent to their emotions, something they were not permitted to do under ordinary circumstances. Each family member was given time to voice his frustrations, talk about his problems, and express his hard feelings towards other individuals in the family. The occasion was marked by finger pointing, loud accusations, tears, and finally apologies.

Today such times as funerals and sickness remain important as occasions for resolving family conflicts. At such events the lineage head continues to play a key role as mediator and facilitator. At other times, however, his role is much diminished. He no longer is free to intervene freely to settle squabbles between parents and their children, and he is called on less frequently to resolve disputes between adult members of the lineage. Nowadays family members often call in religious leaders and other respected members of the community to do what the lineage head once was expected to do.