MicSem Publications

Palauan Custom

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

November 22, 1986 Cultural

Reflection Weekend
Koror, Palau
November 22-23, 1986

The topic of the Reflection Weekend in Palau, as suggested by many of the people themselves, was Palauan custom (siukang). People often refer to "custom" as a matter of concern, although feelings towards it seem to be ambivalent. On the one hand, it is something closely identified with Palauan identity and seen as a part of the very life of the people. On the other hand" it appears to have become burdensome to many today and is seen by some to be in conflict with Christian values to a certain extent.

Custom: Siukang. When people speak of Palauan custom (siukang) , they seem to refer primarily to those customs that entail financial obligations, often considerable, to family and friends. These include the following:

ocheraol: a custom on the occasion of the building of a house, but which can also help pay for a new boat or something else;

house party: a custom of much recent vintage for the building of a house or financing major repairs on a house;

chebechiil: marriage;

ngasech: the traditional ceremony held in honor of the first born child.

kemeldiil: the wake at the death of someone;

sis: a traditional ceremony held four days after the death that involves food offerings to the spirit of the deceased;

omengades: a ceremony traditionally held nine days after death in which stones are placed on the grave;

cheldecheduch: held some months after the death to settle the debts and funeral expenses and to make other settlements between the families of the deceased and his spouse.

Rather than deal with this whole panoply of customs, we decided to have a closer look at one of them so as to better examine the changes that have occurred in the custom. The participants chose ocheraol as the one custom that we would analyze in detail, although many felt that the customs related to funerals were as burdensome and perhaps even more problematic. These were also more numerous and complex, however, and so were less easily analyzed in the relatively short time that was available during the weekend.

The facilitators of the Weekend Reflection took pains to make clear to the participants that the framework for the workshop would not be customs versus Christianity. The purpose of the weekend was not to make any pronouncements on whether any particular custom was compatible with Christianity or opposed to it. Rather, it was to be an opportunity for participants to reflect on how they as Christians should respond to these customs in a nuanced way. The supposition was that these customs contained much of value and originally were designed to foster human and community growth. Yet customs change over time, and it is possible that some no longer serve the same purpose for which they were originally intended. Hence, it was important to view these customs in a historical perspective and compare the way they functioned in the past with their real functioning today. Moreover, participants were advised to remember that their own culture, and the identity that their culture provides for them, is never to be equated with a single custom. It was within this framework that the discussion was to be carried on.

The Ocheraol As Originally Practiced

Ocheraol is distinguished from house parties in Palauan custom, although both have the same basic purpose: to raise the money needed for a new house or other major expense. The newer custom of the house party is a variant of the ancient Palauan practice. In the past the ocheraol could be held only under certain circumstances. The head of a lineage was the only person who could run an ocheraol since he had the responsibility of "holding the family purse." Even so, not all lineage heads could do this, for a person would have had to have performed services to others in the community and thus be entitled to some form of return from them. The lineage head who called an ocheraol would have been expected to have already made an investment prior to the event.

At the completion of the new lineage house, the head of the lineage would summon his relatives to the ocheraol. Food gifts were prepared by his wife and her blood relatives and sent out to those participating in the event. At the party his sisters' husbands and their lineages would bring Palauan money to turn over to him and his lineage. Some of this Palauan money would be given to those who performed special services in the construction of the house. This institution, therefore, was founded on a triple reciprocity. First, the lineage head's wife and her relatives provided the food gifts, while his own relatives and those married to his sisters furnished the Palauan money. Second, the lineage head was expected to have already provided other services to those contributing to the ocheraol. Finally, the lineage head would be himself called upon by his wife to contribute to other ocheraol in the community.

The group in its discussion of this traditional practice recognized some obvious values in the ocheraol. It allowed lineages to build their houses in a manner that drew upon the rest of the community for support. This helped solidify the community as it strengthened the lineage's own sense of belonging to a larger whole. To some extent, it also provided material support for poorer lineages, although it is clear that some of the poorer lineages in traditional times would not have had the power base or resources to call a ocheraol. Lineages with an insufficient number of married sisters could not have done so. For this reason, traditional families might have put pressure on their girls to marry so that they could bring in contributions on the occasion of an ocheraol or other family event. ,Our discussion revealed that this custom, as good as it might have been, was not without some disvalues as well.

By way of summary, the traditional ocheraol appears to have served three major functions. First it helped the family meet a real material need: usually the construction of a new home or canoe. Second the custom worked to unify the community through reciprocal gift giving, something that was of major importance in all of Micronesian societies. Third, the exchange of Palauan money at the ocheraol was an opportunity for the lineage to engage in some social maneuvering –another important feature of Palauan life with its emphasis on competition –for the lineagewould usually attempts to "buy cheap and sell dear."

The Ocheraol Today

It would seem that the practice of the ocheraol has changed considerably since traditional times, although it is not clear when these changes were introduced. One of the most obvious changes is in the type of money contributed; today it is Western money rather than Palauan money that is used (although Palauan women's money is often given along with food by the relatives of the wife). The money from the ocheraol is most frequently used to payoff the bank loan for the construction of the house. More food must be provided by the wife's family since there are far more guests than there would have been formerly, and inasmuch as the food is largely imported it is much costly to the family. Houses are more luxurious today than formerly and entail greater expense, if the expense of building a traditional house out of local materials can be compared to the cost of a cement house with stucco finish. Because of the emphasis on cash, the ocheraol is always held in Koror rather than the outlying villages and is scheduled for payday weekends.

The ocheraol is held much more frequently today than it was in the past. Whereas formerly only the lineage head (and not every lineage head at that) could call an ocheraol, today virtually any nuclear family is free to call one. Even women have been known to initiate their own ocheraol. Moreover, some families have held an ocheraol more than once –sometimes for a second house, which they may even rent out; and sometimes to obtain what they need to finance their house if their first ocheraol falls short of this amount.

The number of people who participate in an ocheraol today is much larger than formerly. Announcement is made over the radio and printed invitations are sent out, frequently addressed to children as well as adults. Those invited include not only families married to one's sisters and other female kin, but members of the clan who have no close blood ties with the person running the ocheraol. Now even unmarried females in the family are expected to contribute because of their access to cash through their salary. There has been a recent tendency to look for support more from daughters than from sisters, possibly because the younger generation would be more likely to have employment. The wife's family is sometimes asked to contribute money towards the ocheraol besides handling the cost of feeding the people who attend.

The size of the contributions in the past was determined by several considerations. One of these was that families of commoners could not contribute more than the highest-ranking families. With the democratization of Palauan society, families are no longer bound by these limits. People are subject to pressure to increase the size of their contribution in keeping with the higher cost of construction today. Overall, it seems that there are many more ocheraol today than in the past, not so much because of the increase of the population as the breakdown of the lineage group into nuclear families and the relaxation of the controls governing the institution. Moreover, more people are invited to participate in the ocheraol today and various kin groups that formerly did not bear any responsibility are today mobilized for support. Finally, the greatly increased cost of house construction has resulted in a proportionate increase in the food (most of it purchased) supplied by the wife's relatives. Both the wife's and husband's relatives must bear a larger expense. Thus, people are asked to attend more frequent and more expensive ocheraol –a burden that becomes all the more serious when other forms of customary obligations, such as funerals, are taken into account. One woman attending the workshop reported that she had received invitations to two ocheraol, four house parties and three funeral customs that same weekend.

While participants acknowledge the value of the ocheraol even in its changing form, there are clearly difficulties with the present practice. In the past one was required to "pay his dues" first by contributing to the community and only then was he entitled to hold an ocheraol. Today, as with commercial loans, one spends first and pays later. With the greater sums of money being asked for today in the ocheraol there is an obligation to provide more food, much of which ends up wasted. The driving force behind the escalation in the price of the ocheraol would seem to be a sense of competition –competition to provide better food than at the last party, competition to build a bigger and better house, and competition with other contributors for status and respect. Admittedly competition can be and was very valuable insofar as it motivated people to outdo themselves, work harder, produce more, and make a greater contribution to the community. Yet precisely because it is such an important feature of Palauan life, it can push people beyond their means.

At bottom, the most significant change in the ocheraol today is that the limits that governed its use in traditional times are gone. The ocheraol of our own day are far more frequent and expensive than in the past. The resulting financial demands imposed on people through this custom and some of the others seem to have become a harsh burden for many. The financial pressure that is put on families can and does cause strains in marriage and may lead to a variety of social problems. No doubt these burdens also have something to do with the incessant demands for higher salaries for government and private employees.

This is turn leads to increased in the cost of government, and perhaps indirectly to the political pressures on the government to conclude its political agreements with the US to get the government bills paid. In addition, the financial burdens that families themselves must fact could act as an incentive for emigration. Palauan emigration rates have been so high in the last fifteen years that the on-island population has remained almost constant during this time. Exactly how Palauan custom, as exemplified in the ocheraol, affects the economic and political sectors is not clear, but participants were encouraged to look beyond the family to consider implications on the nation itself.

The Christian Response

On the afternoon of the second day, after time for reflection and prayer, participants were asked to discuss what the Christian response to all this might be. It was clear from the discussion that the participants experienced a real dilemma. They were expected to provide the necessities of life –food, tuition, clothing, etc. –for their nuclear families, while also coming to the aid of relatives in substantial ways through Palauan customs like the ocheraol. The responsibility to the nuclear family is of fairly recent origin but is very real and deeply felt by all. Likewise, the age-old responsibilities to blood relatives cannot be denied, and none of the participants were tempted to dismiss these as unimportant. The problem was to balance somehow the dual responsibilities towards family and kin.

Most of the participants, particularly the older and more experienced ones, thought that the needs of the nuclear family today must come first, even if this means that they would have to limit their contributions to ocheraol and other forms of custom. They acknowledge that to limit their contributions on these occasions would give rise to some criticism and resentment from other relatives, even after they explained why they were forced to limit their contributions. Some of the women present spoke of the scornful nicknames they had received from others in their family for what was taken to be stinginess on their part. Yet the fact is that they did not have to make an absolute choice between nuclear family and blood relatives. Their explanations may have been met with reproach at first, but they gradually came to be accepted by their kin. These individuals had to confront the financial realities of their situation, chart a course that would involve some conflict with relatives at first, and overcome the natural sense of shame that they might feel for falling short of what was expected of them before they could re-establish comfortable relations with their extended family. It was the testimony of persons such as these that represented what might be the best solution to the problem of dealing with Palauan custom.

When the detailed legislation governing the observance of the Sabbath became such a burden, Christ reminded the people of the original purpose of the Sabbath. We hope that our short analysis of the ocheraol served to recall its original purpose and functions. Christ also reminded his listeners that man is to control the Sabbath, not the reverse. All custom is meant to serve the growth of the people in the community. This is no less true of Palauan than Jewish customs. If the limits that were traditionally associated with the ocheraol have been lost in recent years, then it is the task of Palauans to somehow impose new limits so they can discharge their other obligations today.

The Reflection Weekend ended with a reminder from both facilitators that participants should do more than find a personal solution to the problem of custom. Once they have resolved the tension between family and kin in their own lives, they have an obligation to help deal with this question at the societal level. After all, they are enjoined not just to see to their own welfare but that of their neighbor also. At very least, it would seem that some form of community education or conscientization is called for. While it may be true that customs such as the ocheraol are still in the process of change and some of the difficulties will work themselves out in time as new forms evolve, there are many in Palauan society who even now are struggling to understand and control custom. They are the ones who demand our assistance.