MicSem Publications

Changes in the Yapese Family

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

January 30, 1988 Family Change

Reflection Weekend in Yap
January 30-31, 1988

Originally the Yap reflection group wished to discuss value in their islands. The impact of Westernization on traditional values in Yap was their principal concern, but the facilitators were afraid that the discussion might be too loose and general unless rooted somehow in more specific changes. Hence, after an inventory of some of the more notable value changes in Yap in recent years, we fixed on the Yapese family a8 the main focus of the weekend. Participants were promised that before concluding the two-day reflection period we would look at the value changes that might have been caused by structural changes in the family.

The Traditional Yapese Family

The traditional Yapese family unit, known as the tabinaw, is a patrilineal group (not matrilineal as in most other parts of Micronesia). The family unit ideally consists of an older couple, their children and sometimes their married sons' children. Married daughters ordinarily leave to take up residence on their husbands land.

This family group lives on an estate that is headed by the eldest man in the group. He takes his name from the highest-ranking piece of land on the family estate and others in the family receive their names from other plots on the estate. These various land plots are all recognized as part of the family estate even if they are located in different places on the island. The younger men hold their titles to the land, and the names that come with them, provisionally. They are obligated to take care of their father and to put all their resources at his disposal: if they fail in this they can be stripped of their name, their land, and even their place in the family.

The eldest man, as head of the family unit, has the highest authority over all the affairs of the family, although he may delegate some of this to his sons. His oldest sister also has an important role in the family. She functions as the guardian of the estate; she formally bestows the name of the child shortly after birth, she shares in such decisions as whom they will marry, and she can even disinherit disobedient children and disown them in the name of the family. The roles of men and omen in the family are clearly defined; women do the gardening and men provide the fish. A strict division in the family along age and sex lines, while true everywhere in Micronesia, was especially pronounced in Yap. In the past there were different pots out of which various individuals in the family ate: grandfather, grandmother, father, other, and young children, and adolescent daughters. As one participant sagely remarked, eating was a function that did not draw people together, as it does in family meals in other cultures, but reasserted the distinct roles of members of the family. Certain taro patches were reserved exclusively for different groups within the family, and strictures were imposed on who could work in which taro patch.

Respect behavior in Yap was not unlike that practiced in the other island cultures of Micronesia. Certain topics, particularly those with sexual overtones, could not be discussed by men in the presence of female relatives. Women were required to show respect to their brothers by refraining from walking ahead of them or from standing while they were seated. Mothers and sons were not to touch one another nor were fathers and daughters permitted to touch each other. The mother's role included the care of all the smaller children in the family. As boys grew older, however, their father took more direct responsibility for them. As children reached adolescence, the village began to assume a much larger role in educating them and providing social outlets for them. At the time of their first menstruation, girls were brought to the village menstrual house for several months; there they were, instructed in sexual matters and other things that girls their age were expected to know. Thereafter they returned to the menstrual hut at the time of their monthly period. Adolescent boys were brought to the men's house (falu) where they learned skills, lore and the rules of behavior from older men in the village. There also –at least until colonial times — they were initiated sexually by girls attached to the house.

Despite the prominence of the patrilineal group or tabinaw, in the life of the individual, he was also a member of a clan through his mother's side. The Yapese may have had to work to retain his place in his tabinaw, but he could always count on a place in his mother's clan, no matter what he did or failed to do. If he was ever disowned by his family, or tabinaw, he could turn to his mother's relatives for support. His clan ties, then, were a kind of safety net for the individual.

Changes in the Yapese Family

Many of these traditional features of the Yapese family remain unchanged, at least in outward form. The child still receives his name in the same way, land inheritance is essentially the same, the division of labor in the family continues, and the roles of different family members are much as before.

One of the most visible changes is the disappearance of the separate cooking pots for different groups in the family (although taro patches are still reserved for particular groups). Other customs relating to contamination have passed away adolescent girls are no longer forbidden to walk on certain paths, and the ritual purification ceremonies after funerals and before serving food are no longer observed. Menstrual houses and the customs associated with them have disappeared, although the men's house is still in use.

There are still other changes that have occurred, which although less visible, may be as significant or even more so than those just mentioned. Most of these have to do with alteration of roles in the family. The authority of the head of the tabinaw seems to have weakened in some respects. The father's role in food production has diminished as canned meat and fish become more readily available. The disciplining of children seems to have become the sole responsibility of the parents rather than a task that was shared by paternal uncles and aunts. There seems to be less interaction between children and their parents, for children no longer are told stories while eating, nor are they required to report on their activities to their parents at the end of the day. The once strict taboos between brother and sister have been considerably weakened due to the vulgar language and love scenes that they frequently encounter while watching television together.

Value Changes

When an institution breaks down, there is frequently another substituted for, the first –but this often functions in a different way. Young men in Yap now depend on the village school to provide the education that the men's house once furnished. The modern classroom may teach skills –although certainly different ones from those learned in the men's house –but it cannot provide the guidance and social support that young men found in the traditional village house. Consequently, the young Yapese of today is under less supervision from community elders and more free to pursue his own associations –and his own behavioral models –than in the past.

When separate cooking pots for different members of the family disappear, other changes may follow. The respect for parents may diminish as the distinct statuses of members of the family are reinforced less frequently and the lines become blurred. Then, too, the burden of washing dishes is lightened considerably and there is more leisure time. Expectations have also changed today. One example cited by the participants was that in the past children were taught to be sparing in their consumption and eat only a small amount of fish. Parents repeatedly told their children that they were poor and so they had to be thrifty in their use of family resources. In many households today however, children are given much more and so are taught to expect more of their parents. This in itself represents a significant value change.

Some participants felt that one of the most important changes in the family is that its members do not spend as much time together as in the past. The reduced interaction between parents and their children means that parents are not in a position to provide the guidance and advice to younger members of the family that they would have provided in the past. Moreover the authority that parents once held is now shared with others, particularly in the schools. Perhaps one of the most critical changes has occurred not in the family itself but in the village. Traditionally the family transferred to the village a good measure of authority over children when they reached adolescence; this was exercised through the institutions of the men's house and the menstrual hut, but the final authority rested in the person of the village chief,' the head of the highest ranked estate in the village. Although the village chief retains much of his former authority in more traditional villages his power is much attenuated in villages close to or part of the town. Even in more outlying places there is a tendency of the chiefs to abrogate some of their traditional powers in favor of the police and law courts. This leads to a breakdown of a centralized authority and the system of social controls that once supported it.

Some of the participants seemed to regard the school with its Western value system and the new ideas that it propagates among the young, as the main catalyst for change in Yap. But such patently foreign institutions offer little danger for the local system unless there is some attrition in the society's own indigenous institutions and value changes generated from within. The main value of the reflection program in Yap was that it offered all of us a look at some of the subtle changes within the family –and within the village –that may generate more profound changes of values in years to come.