MicSem Publications

Where Do Traditional Leaders Fit in Today’s Society?

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

May 12, 1994 Cultural Government


In the days before colonial rule, the chiefs enjoyed uncontested authority over the people. Traditional political systems may have differed from one island to the next, chiefs may have been challenged by contenders for their titles at times and quarrels arisen over jurisdiction, but the system itself stood intact and inviolate. That has changed since the introduction of a modern political system during the years of foreign rule. The change has been especially noticeable during the forty years of American presence, a period that saw the rise of the modern democratic apparatus of government in Micronesia. We now have legislators, presidents, governors, judges and other officials serving in the modern government. The FSM and each of the states now has a political system that purports to be a government "by the people, of the people and for the people." Yet, islands in Micronesia also have their traditional chiefly systems superimposed on the modern political system.

The two political systems, the modern and the traditional, appear to be on parallel tracks. Traditional chiefs still enjoy considerable respect in their own sphere, but it is modern political leaders who control today's Western government. Will the parallel tracks continue indefinitely, or can we expect to see one political system wear away the other? Should an attempt be made to integrate the two systems into a single system, as some suggested at the FSM Constitutional Convention? Or should they be left to operate as they do now?

Bringing Chiefs into the Modern System

In the early years of US Trusteeship, various attempts were made to incorporate traditional leaders into the modern system of government. Many of the early legislatures, in some parts of FSM as in Palau and the Marshalls, set up separate chambers for traditional chiefs. This arrangement was apparently found unsatisfactory for it has been discontinued almost everywhere in Micronesia. Today's legislatures in the FSM are composed entirely of elected representatives.

The issue of the role of traditional chiefs in the modern government was hotly debated at the FSM Constitutional Convention in 1975. In the end, a compromise was settled upon. Article V of the FSM Constitution contains a clause stating that a chamber of traditional chiefs could be set up on the state level or national level in the future if such was needed in the future. Yet, the delegates did not actually establish such a chamber, nor did they provide any other formal role for chiefs in the new government.

Traditional leaders did have their part to play in the preparations for self-government, however. Several of them, as delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1975, took an active role in framing the constitution. They were also pressed into service a few years later to visit different islands and campaign for Micronesian unity. Their role in this latter case was an informal one, but one at which they seemed to be very effective in places like Pohnpei.

The legal groundwork has been laid to give chiefs a formal role in the government, although to some Americans (such as the author of an article on Yap that was published in the Harvard Law Journal) a move in this direction would appear to be a return to the islands' predemocratic days. Not many of the participants seemed confident that chiefs will ever have a niche of their own in the modern government. The closest thing to this are the two councils of chiefs in Yap: the Council of Pilung and the Council of Tamol. These councils, although quite separate from the rest of the apparatus of government, can jointly veto any legislation that "has to do with custom and tradition." Whatsmore, their veto may not be overriden. The main role of the councils, however, seems to be to provide some a forum for the discussion of issues not directly related to governmental authority. None of the other states of FSM has anything quite as formal as the councils.

If traditional leaders are to be connected to the modern government, it should be at the state rather than the national level, one participant argued. After all, there are no traditional leaders at the FSM level. But even at the state level there has been no strong movement to provide chiefs with a power base in the modern government. This is very different from what we see happening in other parts of the South Pacific. In Tonga and Fiji, for instance, high chiefs have maintained a strong hold over the modern government, whether through their membership in the parliament or their monopoly over other political forms. It does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that the chiefs are expected to preserve the modern government.

Some chiefs are extending their own power base by running for elective office. One of the most famous examples was when Ibedul ran for governor of Koror State in Palau over the objections of many of his people. There have been some chiefs in Pohnpei who have done the same. Most people seem to feel that there is something cheap about their traditional leaders running for office. Their chiefs should remain aloof, they think. The chiefs themselves are not usually eager to be openly involved in politics; otherwise, they would have to take the blame for water and power problems and all the other minor catastrophes that befall the island. The position of the chief requires that he distance himself to some extent from such mundane considerations.

Can Chiefs Survive?

In the post-war days of the late 1940s when the first elections were held in Micronesia, chiefs were were often picked as the magistrates of their islands or municipalities. Soon many of them delegated one of their school teachers or someone else who spoke a little English to act as their stand-in. It was not long before the magistrate developed a following of his own and became a more independent voice in the community. In other words, early efforts to integrate the two political systems proved unsuccessful and a two-track system evolved.

As the modern political system developed, the power of elected officials increased. This was in large part due to the increased powers of these officials and the access they enjoyed to government funding. Since then modern and traditional leaders seem to have staked out separate spheres of influence, with traditional chiefs retreating to the domain of customary rule and elected leaders becoming the major agents in development programs and the like. But these areas are by no means entirely distinct; there is sometimes much overlapping of powers. On Pingelap, for instance, the island chief once had the authority to impose bans on fishing in order to conserve valuable fish resources, but since the creation of an island legislature the chief can not effectively utilize this power any longer.

The two-track system of political authority remains in effect today, but clashes between the two continue to occur occasionally. The councils of chiefs in Yap once vetoed legislation appropriating funds for a school bus that would carry children from an low caste village to school. The chiefs of Pohnpei have strongly opposed court rulings on two separate occasions within the last few years. Even national celebrations can bring on conflict over protocol. Who are to be given the most honored places-nahnmwarkis or the top FSM officials? It would appear inevitable that the two political systems, although they seem to operate on parallel tracks, will collide from time to time.

Time and money appear to be on the side of elected officials and the modern government. Many might wonder whether the traditional system can survive. Nonetheless, chiefs seem to have a surprising staying power in island societies. Pohnpeian chiefs are a good case in point. At one time, the Pohnpeian chiefly system was propped up by several supports: the semi-religious nature of the chieftainship, chiefly ownership of the land, and chiefly control of all means of production. Then, one by one, these props slipped away. The old religious beliefs faded as the island was converted to Christianity, German land reforms gave ownership rights to commoners, and chiefs no longer held a monopoly over production. Even so, chiefs have retained their authority and the titles they confer appear to be as sought after today as ever. Against all odds and the expectations of many outsiders, the chiefly system seems to be surviving nicely. This is so in other parts of the nation as well. Only in Kosrae have traditional leaders faded entirely from the scene, but this happened in the last century and was in large part owing to the terrible depopulation that wiped out the early social system as it destroyed ninety percent of the people. To all appearances, the chiefly systems in other places have an astonishing resilience. Chiefs are not yet even close to being an endangered species in FSM. If they show proper restraint in using their authority and show a respect for the people they lead, they will probably maintain their authority for a long time.


The discussion ended with a summary of what we see as trends in the dual political system.

  1. Traditional leaders seem to have a secure place in the island societies of Micronesia. Although they have lost much of the economic clout they had in former times, they are still greatly honored. The younger generation today may not be as respectful of traditions as older people, but they will probably fall into line like everyone else.
  2. There will be little or no place in the modern government for traditional leaders as such. They will be an influential voice on elected officials, but in an informal way. Some of these individual leaders will run for elected office, but this will probably continue to be the exception rather than the rule.
  3. The two political systems can coexist as long as chiefs have the good sense to keep conflict with the modern leaders to a minimum. If it ever comes to a showdown between the two political systems, the chiefs will lose and the traditional system erode.
  4. Modern political leaders will be expected to defer to traditional chiefs in the latter's realm. Chiefs will be expected to submit to modern political authorities in the arena of modern day life and law. One of the expectations of people today is that all should be equal under the law. To the extent that chiefs try to comply with this principle, they will be more likely to preserve their own traditional prerogatives.