Youth Drinking in Micronesia

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Alcohol in Micronesia

Alcoholic beverages are clearly a Western contribution to Micronesia. Prior to European contact, the peoples of Micronesia possessed no alcoholic beverages at all, not even tuba, although the drug substances of betelnut and kava were used on some islands. The earliest European visitors to the islands carried on shipboard wine and liquor, which they occasionally offered to islanders as a sign of good will. More often than not, local people simply spat out the strange beverages that burned their throats and refused to drink any more of the foul-tasting stuff. As their contact with Europeans became more intense during the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century, however, islanders had ample opportunity to observe the strange changes in mood and behavior that alcohol produced. When local people finally began to purchase gin and rum from foreign traders, and even to ferment and distill their own beverages, it was in order to place ourselves under the odd but enchanting spell of "the water that takes away one's wits." They were quick to learn that the purpose of imbibing alcohol was to become intoxicated (Marshall and Marshall 1975).

The brawling and boisterous conduct that frequently followed upon local drinking led the colonial powers that ruled Micronesia from 1885 on to ban alcohol among the islanders. Although the Spanish in the Carolines were rather lax in the enforcement of this ban, the Germans and later the Japanese imposed a strict prohibition on all alcoholic beverages for local people, a policy that was continued through the early years of American administration after World War II. By the late 1950s, however, there was a growing reaction among Micronesians against the discriminatory liquor policy of former years and an insistence that the laws be changed to allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages by local people. In early 1959 the public sale of beer was permitted in Palau, and in subsequent months in the other districts of Micronesia as well. By the summer of 1960 further changes in the legislation were made to allow for the sale of distilled beverages as well (Mahoney 1974:12).

The legalization of alcohol for Micronesians, in the politically charged atmosphere of 1960, represented a decisive triumph over a colonialist mentality that had long denied local people the same right to drink that foreigners enjoyed. This liberalization of liquor laws, however, happened to coincide with the increase of US funding for the Trust Territory, a move that led to the availability of more jobs and gradual pay raises for Micronesian government employees, as well as the growth of the work force in district centers. In a word, there was more money around with which to purchase beer and liquor, and more people in town to enjoy these pleasures. The consequence of all of this was, quite predictably, a good amount of drunkenness and mayhem, as anyone who has lived through these years can attest. In 1965, in Truk alone, there were five killings, all of which were occasioned by drunken quarrels, and other districts showed similar signs of stress and strain.

In the two decades since the repeal of prohibition, alcohol has become a mainstay in a social life of virtually all the towns and many of the villages in Micronesia. Between 1969 and 1977, the only years for which dollar figures of imported alcoholic beverages are recorded, consumption of beer and liquor increased steadily. Expenditures on alcohol rose from $638,000, or 4.6% of the total value of imports, in 1969 to about $2,392,000, or 8% of the dollar value of imports, in 1977 (See Table on p. 18). Even with allowances made for inflation and population growth, the yearly per capita expenditure on alcohol during this period rose from about $13.50 to over $34. According to the most recent data available, the per capita expenditure on alcohol in Yap and Palau has been considerably higher than that in other island groups. It is estimated that well over $3 million, a year is now spent on alcoholic beverages in the FSM, Palau and the Marshalls, and there is every expectation that this figure will increase in the future.

The Drinking Problem Among Youth

Drinking among youth has become rampant during the past twenty years and, in the judgment of most observers, has given rise to a host of community problems. The impromptu parties at which bleary-eyed young men pass around the vodka bottle seem to end all too often in fighting or worse. One report from Pohnpei a few years ago begins with several graphic illustrations of the damage caused by young drinkers: jeeps are vandalized while their owners attend a farewell party; drunken marauders slash screens in private homes an classroom buildings; a young drunk terrorizes his family while smashing a glass and pounding it again and again on the cement porch of his home; a drunken brawl during a variety shown ends in the hospitalization of one young man in Hawaii for serious neurological damage (Rothgery et al, n.d.). In Weekend Warriors, Mac Marshall's study of alcohol use among young Trukese, the author recounts one instance after another of the mischief that followed upon drinking sprees by young men of the village in which he was living. These range from humorous demonstrations of kung fu kicks, to shattering louvres and showering rocks on nearby houses, all the way to inflicting serious personal injuries like fractured skulls or several arteries (Marshall 1979:70-81). What has been recorded on Pohnpei and Truk is true of the other island groups in Micronesia as well.

Youth drinking has, over the past several years, been strongly associated with criminal offenses. In his report on youth in Micronesia that was published some years ago, Michael Kenney states that interviews with police officers throughout the Trust Territory revealed that 90% of all arrests of juveniles under the age of 18 were for "illegal possession and consumption of alcohol; disturbing the peace while under the influence of alcohol, assault and battery while under the influence of alcohol; vandalism while under the influence of alcohol; and burglary and larceny to get alcohol or money to purchase alcoholic beverages" (Kenney 1976:54). That trend appears to continue through later youth, a period of life that is culturally defined as extending through the late 20's and early 30's in most Micronesian societies. Although police and court records are not always reliable, Mahoney (1974:25) suggests that upwards of 70 percent of all those who were sent to jail in the Trust Territory during the early 1970s were 25 years old or younger. Most of them were imprisoned for crimes committed under the influence of alcohol.

By way of summary, then, it would appear that at least in the last two decades it is the youth who are responsible for most of the crime, and it is alcohol that furnishes the impetus or the occasion for most of their criminal acts.

The Aims and Methodology of the Seminar

To explore the problem of youth drinking in greater depth, the Micronesian Seminar, the research-pastoral institute of the Catholic Diocese of the Caroline and Marshall Islands, conducted a three-day working seminar in Kolonia, Pohnpei. This seminar was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Government under the title of the White House Conference on Children and Youth. It was attended by over twenty participants representing Palau, the Marshalls, the Northern Marianas, and each of the states in the FSM, as well as the outer islands of Yap.

Alcohol use and abuse has been the subject of numerous past conferences in the Trust Territory, but more often than not these have treated the problem of youth drinking from the perspective of the clinical psychologist or social case worker, as a symptom of personal maladjustment or social malaise among the young in Micronesia. This recent seminar took a different approach altogether, more that of the cultural anthropologist than of the social case worker. The major aim of the conference was to examine as thoroughly as possible in the limited time available the cultural meaning and context of alcohol use in the different Micronesian societies. Instead of isolating youth drinking from the cultures in which it has become so deeply embedded, as has been done so often in the past, we proposed to examine how and why alcohol is utilized in our island societies. The scope of the seminar, therefore, was necessarily broader than simply youth drinking, even though its focus remained specifically on youth.

At bottom, the aim of this seminar was every bit as practical as those of the conferences that preceded it. With a better and more explicit understanding of how alcohol really works in a society, concerned community members are in a better position to identify and utilize those controls, traditional and modern, that might effectively check heavy drinking among youth and the excesses to which it often leads. Sound public policy, on drinking as on other issues, always proceeds from an accurate grasp of the nature of the problem and a knowledge of the various means at the disposal of the community to deal with the problem. So it is that this seminar might be seen as a preliminary step, albeit a small one, in the eventual formulation of sound public policy on alcohol.

The methodology used at the seminar was a simple type of social analysis. The main instrument was a set of questions designed to shed light on the cultural norms that currently determine how and under what conditions alcohol is used. (This set of questions is appended to this report.) Participants were broken down into cultural groups and asked to reflect on one set of questions at a time. Each group then had an opportunity to share its responses with all the other participants, and a general discussion almost always followed. The fact that all the major island groups in Micronesia were represented guaranteed intellectually stimulating cross-cultural comparisons.

Who Drinks?

Participants from just about every area agreed that drinking is a predominantly male activity; only in the Northern Marianas was drinking reported to occur indiscriminately among men and women. There are times and places, particularly in connection with village celebrations, at which female drinking is countenanced — this appears to be especially true in Palau and in the outer islands of Yap during major community events — but in general female drinking is looked upon as unseemly. Nonetheless, there does seem to be a growing number of women, especially young women, who are drinking today. For the most part, these female drinkers fall into two distinct groups: bar girls and other young hangers-on in the towns who, despite the loose reputation they have often acquired for themselves, still tend to drink as inconspicuously as possible, and young women with some years of college abroad, who tend to drink openly as if in defiance of the traditional norms governing female behavior.

In most parts of Micronesia, drinking is regarded as an activity in which principally, though not exclusively, young men engage. Once again the exception is the Northern Marianas where young and old alike consume alcoholic beverages. The general feeling among the participants was that drinking is looked upon as something akin to a rite of passage into adulthood. Parents and older members of the community, while they may counsel against drinking and bemoan its disruptive effects in the home and village, fully expect that young men will drink regardless, since they see drinking as an inevitable part of growing up. About the best they can hope for, it would seem, is that drinking will be done discreetly and out of sight of themselves and other authority figures and that the secrecy that surrounds it will inhibit any public display of drunkenness.

Drinking may be aptly compared to youthful love affairs in that both are looked upon as "necessary evils" concomitant with the rather long period of freedom and experimentation that Micronesian cultures traditionally allowed young men before they took on adult responsibilities and status in the community. As one of the participants put it, drinking is an "adventure" that has an almost irresistible appeal to young men who are still growing up. This fact is recognized by adults and accepted with resignation even, if not with approval.

Since drinking is primarily a youth activity, it is not surprising to find that the great majority of young men engage in this pastime on at least an occasional basis. Marshall (1979:67) reports that in one village on Moen, the district center of Truk, 50 out of 57 of the males in the age group of 18-25 drank from time to time. Participants from all areas except Kosrae, where the strongly established church frowns upon the use of alcohol, confirmed the fact that a very high percentage of male youth engage in some drinking, and even in Kosrae there are some young men who flout church rules and engage in clandestine drinking parties. The exceptions are almost always young men with strong church affiliations: members of the smaller sects that strongly oppose drinking (eg, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses), and young people who are active in Protestant or Catholic church groups like the Mwichen Asor, a Trukese church group whose members take a religious pledge to abstain from alcohol for varying periods of time. Relatively few young men, however, are able to successfully resist the temptation to enjoy the forbidden pleasure of the bottle, especially in view of the strong peer pressure that is brought to bear on them. Those who might prefer not to drink invariably find it easier to join a party than to run the risk of offending their friends and be labelled as sissies.

Drinking patterns everywhere seem to undergo a marked change when young men enter adulthood, usually around their early 30's. In Truk it is expected that young men will gradually decrease the frequency and amount that they drink as they are making the transition to adulthood, and eventually stop altogether in conformity with the requirements of their new status in the community. Most Pohnpeian adults seem to give up drinking alcohol, except perhaps on a very occasional basis, and turn to traditional Pohnpeian sakau instead. In other parts of Micronesia, adult males may be under less social pressure to give up drinking itself, but they are expected to alter their behavior when drinking and to shun the recklessness and fighting that is associated with youth drinking patterns. The facts seem to indicate that many males in Palau, Yap and the Marshalls do continue drinking as adults. In most cases these are government employees or others earning a regular salary, usually men in their 30's or 40's, who drink regularly on weekends. Although these adult drinkers rarely cause any public disturbance, their numbers include those who might be called "hard-core" drinkers or out-and-out alcoholics. According to a recent survey conducted in Palau, 30% of the drinkers in this category become intoxicated nearly every weekend. In Yap, where much more of the drinking takes place in homes rather than in bars, some men may have a small backyard party virtually every evening. The damage done by this class of more mature drinkers is not an immediately visible as that of youth, participants agreed, but it is probably more serious because of the strained relationship and economic hardships that their drinking brings upon their families.

How and When Do They Drink?

Drinking patterns differ so widely throughout Micronesia that it might be well to describe briefly the conditions in each island group before making any generalizations.

In Yap (both Yap Proper and the outer islands), Palau, the Northern Marianas, and the Marshalls, alcohol has been incorporated to a greater or less extent, into major community events. In the Marianas, the most modernized part of Micronesia, the integration of alcohol into the social life of the community has probably been the most complete. Beer and liquor are almost always served at weddings, fiestas, political rallies and family parties, and in recent years at funerals and novenas as well. In Palau, the villages as well as Koror, drinking has become a standard part of virtually every large community event, particularly weddings, funerals and the traditional celebration in honor of women at the birth of their first child. In Yap, alcohol is widely served at village feasts, weddings and funerals, but it has still not yet become acceptable at the novena party that is held nine days after a death. Beer is also frequently distributed at the Yapese mitmit, a traditional ceremony held in honor of a special event in the life of the family or community. Moreover, beer is becoming a part of the ritual of hospitality in the villages; a can of Budweiser is offered to visitors today, one participant observed, the way coconuts were in former days. The Marshalls, with its large Protestant population and long tradition of church opposition to drinking, has not incorporated alcohol into community social activities to the same degree as these other islands. Only on the semi-urban settlements of Majuro and Ebeye is alcohol used in community celebrations, and there only on certain occasions and among more liberal families. Drinks are often served at weddings and other type of parties, but never at funerals or wakes.

In the outer islands of Yap, the completion of a men's house, canoe or other project has long provided the occasion for a party at which tuba, the fermented sap of the coconut shoot, is served in plentiful supply. For some years past, however, the drinking of tuba has become a daily event. In the late afternoon all the males of perhaps high school age and older gather in the canoe houses to begin the long drinking session that continues through the early evening. Traditionally, cutting and drinking tuba was subject to the authority of the island chief, but there are some indications that chiefly prerogatives in this area are being ignored. On some islands the tuba sessions are beginning to be held at homes rather than in the canoe house, and mid-day "tuba breaks," taken on the sly and without the consent of the chief, are gaining popularity. Moreover, the foreign whiskey that is being brought to the islands in ever increasing amounts is being drunk privately in a small circle of close friends and without the knowledge and approval of the island chief.

In the remaining districts –Truk, Pohnpei and Kosrae — alcohol is not used to any great degree in community events. The traditional sakau is the preferred drink of Pohnpei and is used at all village celebrations and feasts. Alcohol is still not used openly at such occasions, although it is "coming in the back door," as one participant remarked when commenting on the recent practice of dispensing liquor in coffee cups to dignitaries seated on the platform of the meeting house. In Kosrae, an island on which drinking has been legally permitted only since 1977, alcoholic beverages are very rarely served at community functions; when they are provided, it is usually for the sake of off-island guests. Truk, where legislation prohibiting alcohol has been in force for the past four years, still has a good many leisure time drinkers who purchase their beer and whiskey through the numerous black market channels. Nonetheless, alcohol is decidedly not a part of the formal social life of the community; it is used in virtually no weddings, funerals, village or island feasts, or family celebrations. It is probably safe to say that drinking has been integrated into none of the traditional social institutions in Truk.

Apart from the festive drinking that is carried on at community events, there is the usual recreational drinking that occurs during leisure time, especially on weekends. This type of drinking is far more common throughout most of Micronesia. Except in the Northern Marianas and among more acculturated families in the towns, where drinking is done at home in the family circle, the usual venue is either the bar or the bush. Both serve their different functions and their different clienteles.

For the most part, those who patronize bars are older persons with a steady income, if only because drinks there are far more expensive than at a take-out store. Yet, there are exceptions. In Koror, for instance, the bars are age-graded much as the traditional clubhouses were fifty or a hundred years ago. There are more expensive and more comfortable places to which the higher paid government employees go for a drink, while at the other end of the spectrum there are disco bars with blaring music that draw crowds of young people in their late teens and twenties. The same is true of Majuro and Saipan, two islands that also have a great number of different types of bars. Kolonia, Pohnpei, has several night spots for tourists and government employee types, a couple of disco places for the more affluent among the older youth, and two seedy bars on the town's main road that attract a younger and wilder crowd. Only Truk and Kosrae have no real bars open at this time.

Most of the drinking done by youth, however, takes place in the bush. Typically, a small group of friends will pool their resources and go to a package store to buy a bottle of vodka or a case of beer; they will then go off to an out-of-the-way spot and begin drinking until their supply is exhausted. Vodka or other hard liquor is drunk more frequently than beer because it offers more "kick" for the dollar. For four or five dollars a small group of young men can become intoxicated on a bottle of whiskey, whereas the amount of beer that could be purchased for the same price would scarcely make them misty-eyed. In some islands local brew is often used for drinking parties; stores in Saipan have begun to sell bottled tuba, and in Truk yiis, a fermented mixture of yeast, sugar and water, or choriuw, a distilled form of the same product, are commonly drunk by village youth. Other forms of homebrew made elsewhere, such as Palauan takara or Marshallese jakaru, seem to be much more popular among older people than among the young. Whatever form of alcohol is chosen, the drinking group will do its best to finish every last drop before the group disbands and the young men return to their homes.

"While it is there, enjoy it all because you may not have the chance again" is the ordinary attitude towards drink just as it has been towards food and other perishables from pre-contact days on to the present. The main factor governing the amount of alcohol consumed appears to be the size of the young men's pocketbooks, but this limitation is an effective one owing to the limited financial resources available to most bush drinkers, many of them young men without any steady source of income.

There are other reasons besides financial ones for the predilection of young people for bush drinking. For one thing, teenage drinkers can more easily circumvent the legal restrictions on the sale of alcohol to minors by simply asking an older person to buy their whiskey or beer for them and then retiring to a secluded spot away from the prying eyes of the police and other authorities. Privacy is an important concern for young drinkers, even for those who have reached the legal drinking age, since they know that their families, village and church leaders, and other adult members of the community generally disapprove of their drinking. To drink in plain sight of their relatives and older members of their community would be to invite criticism and perhaps even a severe scolding or beating. Hence, even more aggressive young men who have won reputation as trouble-makers retreat to the privacy of the bush far away from their homes to avoid detection. Only in Yap, where drinking by young men in their twenties and up is more widely tolerated, though youth tend to drink rather publicly, and even there they are careful to avoid parents and police. Invariably some of the favorite gathering places for drinkers will become known as "hotspots," places to be avoided by passers-by who want to keep out of trouble. When this happens, young drinkers are likely to choose another spot so as to keep a step ahead of law enforcement authorities. At the end of a drinking bout, young people may sneak into their house while everyone is asleep or perhaps remain where they are to sleep off the effects of the alcohol and return home sober the next day. Even when drunk, most young people are not eager to precipitate a confrontation with their families.

Why Do Youth Drink?

The answers given to this question are usually many and varied. Young people drink because they are frustrated. They drink to "show-off." They drink out of boredom or to identify with their peer group. They drink to have an excuse for anti- social conduct, or because they have no other recreational activities to occupy their leisure time. They drink to escape frustrations and failures, or possibly to celebrate minor successes. The list of explanations for youth drinking is almost endless, as a glance through Mahoney's report shows (1974:44-55). Many of the same reasons were voiced again at the seminar until an attempt was made to organize these into broader categories that better reflected the cultural ambience in which Micronesian youth live and work and play.

It has often been suggested in discussions and reports on youth drinking that alcohol abuse and the kinds of deviant behavior can, to a large extent, be explained by rapid cultural change and the discontinuities and tensions that it has brought to modern-day Micronesia. Rapid change brings about a sense of rootlessness as it disrupts traditional institutions and values, and this in turn leads to anonie or "crazy" behavior among the young. This was the underlying assumption of the Micronesian Seminar conference on "Micronesia's Youth Today" held in April 1977 (Hezel 1977). While there is undoubtedly some truth to this assumption, such an approach fails to take account of the fact that drinking and other so-called "deviant behavior" can actually perform positive functions in certain tension-laden areas of society. They can, for instance, provide an aggressive outlet for youth that is relatively harmless, certainly much less so than a head-on confrontation with adults. Looked at in this perspective, drinking may serve as a culturally accepted device to defuse generational conflict, a sign of the cultural stability rather than disintegration. This approach is the one taken by Marshall in his study of drinking on Truk (1979) and by Rubinstein in his report on juvenile delinquency in the Trust Territory (1980). It was from this perspective, too, that we viewed youth drinking in our recent seminar.

Drinking serves several functions for young people. First, it provides them with the opportunity to express themselves despite the severe restraints on self-expression that Micronesian cultures impose on the young. It allows them to give vent to emotions that it would not otherwise be proper to express. The way that many young Micronesians would put this is that drinking gives them the courage to do or say things that they could not do or say if sober. It might also be noted that it provides an acceptable excuse if the drinker should ever be called to account for his behavior. This self-expression may take any number of different forms: voicing a grievance against some older member of the family, talking freely with an attractive girl, or even provoking a fight with another young man who has been the object of a long-standing grudge. Mahoney (1974:53-4) tells of a young Yapese father inviting his American neighbor to share a case of beer with him in the backyard. After a few cans of beer, the Yapese mentioned that he was offended at the scolding given to his children by the American earlier in the day. Finally, as the drinking progressed, he became so enraged that he began destroying the furnishings in the American's home. On one or two occasions at Xavier, I have been approached by students who had been drinking just so they could work up the nerve to complain about what they regarded as unjust measures taken against them by myself or other faculty members.

Micronesian societies generally expect their members to keep a tight rein on their emotions, particularly negative ones. Outburst of anger are not taken lightly nor quickly forgotten, and the island cultures do everything possible to minimize the opportunity for such embarrassing occurrences. The deference that young people are expected to show to older persons in the family and community acts as a further restriction on their self- expression. Drunkenness furnishes one of the rare opportunities for a young person to speak his mind and unburden himself of whatever strong feelings he may have had to suppress.

Drinking also serves the function of gaining recognition for young people. Youth do not enjoy an especially high social status in Micronesian cultures with the premium that they place on age. Young people are expected to be rather irresponsible and are very often treated accordingly by their elders. Relatively little notice is taken of their desires or opinions, but by the same token their mischief is also lightly dismissed as the sort of frivolous or foolish behavior that one must expect of the young. The point has been made again and again that young drinkers are seeking to identify with their peer group, possibly in lieu of obtaining any real respect from their family. In this view, participation in drinking bouts is a way of solidifying close ties with friends, doing some public posturing, and perhaps establishing a reputation among other members of one's age set. This is probably true as far as it goes, but many participants at the seminar felt that this explanation overlooks the important point that youth drinking is as much an attempt to seek recognition from the family as from peers. One of the participants from Truk observed that many of the young problem drinkers on his island are youth from broken families, and he felt that their drinking was a plea for recognition from their own parents, step-parents or guardians. After all, a drunken son who is normally shunted aside by his family will almost always be the center of attention for at least a few hours when he returns home after his caper. Even those youths whose parents are still living together have come to appreciate and utilize the hold that their drunken state gives them over their family. As the group from Pohnpei put it at the seminar, "drunks are pampered by their families." When the young man returns home, members of his family will usually lavish attention on him to avoid any unseemly confrontation. His wife will submissively prepare his food, the children will cringe in readiness to do his bidding, and the rest of the family will make every effort to humor him. The axe may fall the next day when he is sober, but for the time being the drunken young man is the lord of his household.

The third major reason that young people drink is for the sheer fun of it. It provides an exciting interlude and a brief escape from the otherwise monotonous routine of daily life. Drinking, as was mentioned earlier, is something of an adventure, especially since it is usually done clandestinely against the wishes of parents and authorities. The element of risk is increased by the uncertainty that ordinarily surrounds youth drinking parties; after all, one never knows if they will end in a fight or worse. Like going to sea or going to battle, drinking is a somewhat dangerous venture that has special appeal to the young man. "There is an animal in Micronesian youth that needs to be fed," one of the participants wisely observed.

In the final analysis, we might say that young people in Micronesia drink because it is expected that they will drink. This is what youth normally do, it is the mark of their coming of age, notwithstanding the earnest protests of parents to the contrary. The animal must be fed, nearly everyone admits, and so it is — on alcohol. Adults may wring their hands afterwards, but they knew in their hearts all the while that youth drunkenness was all but inevitable. And youth are quick to read this message.

How Do They Act When Drunk?

There is, as Marshall shows in his study of youth drinking on Truk (1979:116-7), certain ritualized behavior by which young men publicly designate themselves as drunk. In Truk this behavior includes whooping and shouting, loud talking, boasting, exaggerated staggering and perhaps a few kung fu kicks and thrusts. Much the same is true of other island groups, although there may be some minor changes in the form of the ritual. On Pohnpei young drunks have a propensity for shaking hands with everyone they meet, while in Truk until a few years ago they were more liable to stand in the middle of the road and challenge passers-by. In some places, drinkers may confine themselves to loud singing or chanting. Nearly everywhere young drinkers converse in English whenever they can without the least shame, no matter how little of the language they may know. Whatever particular forms this drunken behavior may take, it appears that there are indeed rituals that young drinkers perform so as to declare themselves inebriated.

Once they have defined themselves as drunk, whether they have had one can of beer or twenty, young men are exempted from many of the rules of social conduct that apply to sober members of their community. Whether they are classified as canned sardines who have lost their head (as in the Mortlocks), or as possessed by the spirits (as in Palau), the effect is the same. Drunks are regarded as persons who have lost the power to reason and are capable of doing anything at all, and the usual response of others is to give them a wide berth to avoid any unnecessary conflict. At least this is how people ordinarily talk about drunks and their behavior! The matter is more complex than that, however. In actual fact, there are unwritten rules that govern the behavior of drunks — rules that give them much more freedom than sober persons, but rules, nonetheless, with limits of their own. One of the most important contributions of Marshall's work on Truk was to define the limits of acceptable drunken behavior (1979:122-3). Although these rules are hardly ever articulated, people in every society know very clearly what these rules are and when they are being transgressed. Outsiders may have the impression that "anything goes" for drunken Micronesian youth, that any offense may be executed on account of alcohol, but the Micronesian knows differently. He knows that young men who have been drinking transgress the unwritten rules of drunken behavior only at their own peril and at the risk of almost certain retribution.

What are these rules governing the behavior of drunks? There is, as might be expected, some variation from place to place, but there are a number of common elements throughout Micronesia. Young men who are drunk may express anger against and insult parents and older relatives, something that is strictly forbidden under ordinary circumstances. They may even destroy property belonging to their parents and older relatives, but they are not permitted, even when drunk, to assault or physically harm these persons. More than one Trukese young man who has overstepped this prohibition in a fit of drunken anger has later committed suicide out of shame for his disgraceful conduct. In Truk, as Marshall points out (1979:122-3), drunks may threaten and chase women and children, but they may not harm them with impunity. Any violation of this rule will almost certainly bring about swift retaliation from the family of the offended person. In most places siblings, either male or female, and other young men are fair game for drunk. He may strike them without transgressing the rules governing drunken conduct, but her must be ready to accept the consequences of his rash behavior. Since the latter may include a good thrashing from his own relatives or those of his victim, the drunken young man is seldom prepared to go so far as to attack another person in his dramatic outburst.

The madness and mayhem that sometimes follows drinking, therefore, is not as uncontrolled as it would at first seem. Appearances to the contrary, anything does not go among drunks in Micronesian societies. This is not to deny the embarrassment that onlookers feel at a drunken incident, nor the very real threat that the situation may get out of hand and result in serious injury and bloodshed. It is only to say that the drunken person and other participants are almost always aware of what is and is not permissible and will usually act out their drama within the limits set by this unwritten code of conduct. Fights and killings occur from time to time, but they are the exception rather than the rule; most participants felt that serious fights are far less frequent today than they were ten years ago. Unprovoked attacks by drunks on passers-by are so rare, in the opinion of the participants, that they present very little real threat to people in the community. In Truk, which was notorious for such incidents in past years, there seem to have been very little interference with bystanders since the beginning of prohibition in 1978. Even the crime that is often associated with drinking may be over-stated. One court official in Palau noted that youth crime, when examined more closely, may not be as serious as justice statistics suggest since most of the offenses are rather mild in nature: illegal possession of alcohol, violation of curfew, disturbing the peace, and the like (Rubinstein 1980:6-7). Most of the more serious crimes such as grand larceny and assault with a deadly weapon are committed by a small group of young men who have established a long police record and a reputation for delinquency. They are drinkers to be sure, but they are not by any means representative of the typical young Micronesian drinker.

The question of whether young people are accountable for damage that they may have done while drunk is an interesting but complex one. Micronesians are seemingly quick to excuse the conduct of intoxicated young persons with a remark such as "He didn't mean it. He was just drunk!" Most people go well out of their way to avoid contact with young drinkers, and when they find themselves confronted by them, they adopt a passive stance and interfere as little as possible with the drunks. They smile patiently as the drunken youth stages his show of bravado, dodge the rocks that he may hurl, and shrug off the stream of verbal abuse that he may let loose on them. All of this is bound to give the impression that the drunken young man is held responsible for nothing of what he says or does. Such an impression is understandable but incorrect.

A closer look at the facts reveals a far different story. In the villages of Palau and Yap, for instance, a drunk is held responsible for any damage that he may inflict on public and private property, and he is held liable for restitution just as any sober person would be. In the outer islands of Yap, no man, whether drunk or sober, may draw blood from another without paying an indemnity, usually in the form of land, to both the injured party and to the island chief. Elsewhere a person who does serious damage to the person or property of another will be expected to offer adequate compensation, whether this is handled in or out of the Western court system. It is clear from a survey of customs in different islands that drunks are, in fact, held responsible for major harm that they inflict on others, notwithstanding the fact that they were said to be "possessed by spirits" or "out of their head." Only Pohnpei seems to lack a formal system of restitution for damage done by one individual to another; blood retaliation, one of the participants suggested, was the mechanism used in days gone by.

Each of the island groups has its own tradition of retaliation that has continued, to some extent, up to the present, and the fear of becoming the object of retaliation undoubtedly acts as a very real check on the behavior of drunks. Those passers-by who smile patiently through the curses and the rock-throwing may not act immediately, but who is to tell whether they might not demand redress at a later time on their own terms? To underscore this point, one participant told how a policeman was insulted by a drunk as he was arresting the young man. The policeman bore the abuse stoically at the time, but a couple of weeks later when he himself was half drunk he sought out the young man and repaid him with a terrible beating. This is by no means an isolated incident and young drinkers know it.

What Can Be Done About the Problem?

What exactly is the problem and how great is it? If by the problem we mean the socially disruptive behavior, the injury to persons and damage to property that is caused by youth drinkers, then the general feeling to participants by the end of the seminar seemed to be that the magnitude of the drinking problem in Micronesia has been exaggerated. Throughout our discussions there had surfaced surprising but convincing evidence that Micronesian societies have been exercising a greater degree of control over the behavior of youth, even when they are drunk, than most of us might have imagined. The sanctions and controls that these societies employ may not always be easy to perceive, but they are nonetheless present and seem to be reasonably effective overall.

Yet, in a seminar such as ours, the danger remains of dismissing the problem with a wave of the hand and a declaration that all is well with Micronesian youth and their cultures. There are still the slashed screens, the vandalized jeeps, and the ambulance carrying wounded bodies to the emergency room door of the hospital after drunken brawls. If the youth drinking problem is not as bad as many might have imagined, it is still far from being entirely solved. In the final session of the seminar, therefore, we reflected on what steps might be taken to improve the situation.

Several measures have already been taken to control youth drinking and divert the energies of the young into more productive, or at least less harmful, activities. Some years ago Alcohol Beverage Control Boards were established in many districts and drinking permits were issued in an effort to curtail the sale of liquor to minors and to those most likely to abuse it. These measures had only limited success, it seems; none of the states has retained drinking permits and most of the ABC boards have long since ceased to function. Temporary prohibition was tried on Pohnpei in 1971 when the bars were closed for a few months following two killings within a month, and Truk has now had a prohibition experiment of its own for nearly ten years. The immediate result of the liquor ban in both places was a startling drop in the number of arrests and troublesome incidents, but it remains to be seen what the long- term effects of complete prohibition will be in Truk (Hill 1971; Falcam et al 1978:28). These legal efforts to make alcohol more difficult to obtain have been complemented by the creation of new programs for youth. Micronesia Bound was founded a few years ago on Pohnpei to help rehabilitate troubled youth. There are new recreational centers and sports programs in every island group, some of them funded by government youth bureaus and others run by private individuals and institutions. There are also church- sponsored programs for youth that offer group singing and a variety of other activities to their members. Finally, in recent years, the government has offered employment opportunities to many youth through CETA and a network of other US Federal Programs.

Naturally it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of these or any programs in combating youth drinking. There are indications that the problem of drunken misbehavior is diminishing throughout Micronesia — participants agreed on this point — but it is far from clear why this is so. Some believe that as people gradually become accustomed to alcohol they learn to avoid some of the excesses of drunken behavior. Others feel that the growing popularity of marijuana among youth is responsible for the decline in enthusiasm for alcohol. It is also possible, of course, that those subtle controls which communities have been exercising over the drunks for some years have had the effect of teaching young people that if they drink they must also mind their manners. Whatever the case maybe, the problem does seem to be on the decline.

Where, then, should we go from here? No one at the seminar seemed too sure of what ought to be done right now. A few recommended that formal educational programs on how to use alcohol properly be conducted through the schools and media. Others agreed that education was called for, but not so much to impart information as to change society's attitudes. At present Micronesian adults tend to shake their finger at youth and tell them what a terrible thing alcohol is. Because ofprohibitions with which older people have surrounded alcohol, it has taken on an "aura of mystery" in the eyes of the young; it has become the object of a taboo, a forbidden fruit that tantalizes the young until they taste it secretly. If it has become an "adventure" for young Micronesians, this is partly because it is interdicted so strenuously by adults. The suggestion of some of the participants, therefore, was that we modulate our admonitions on alcohol and, instead of presenting it as the darkest of evils, we admit quite honestly that it brings both benefits and its dangers. If we were to take this approach, however, we would also be required to change our attitude towards youth itself. As long as young people are regarded as reckless and irresponsible, we cannot hold them fully accountable for their decisions and their behavior. We will continue to expect the worst from them, and we will be incapable of challenging them to moderate their drinking behavior out of anything but fear. Yet such a change in attitude towards youth would require nothing less than a major cultural shift in thinking, and for that reason it may well be hopelessly impractical.

Yet the dilemma that surfaced many times in our discussion remains. Micronesian youth are admonished not to drink, but the general expectation of adults is clearly that they will do so. After all, drinking is one of those irresponsible activities to which males of this age group have always gravitated. Young people, sensing this expectation, conduct themselves accordingly. To change adult expectations of youth is a slow and painful process that strikes at the very roots of the cultural norms and values of most Micronesian societies. At present, the attitude of communities to youth drinking would seem to be one of cautious tolerance: reluctant acceptance of youth drinking as a fact of life in Micronesia, but a determination to keep it within those limits that have already been established by silent consensus of young and old.

Table 1: HOW MUCH IS SPENT ON ALCOHOL? TT's Imports of Alcohol (thousand $)

Year Beer Total Alcohol Alcohol % 
of imports
Per capita imports
of alcohol
RealA per capita 
imports of alcohol
69B 638.6 4.58% $ 6.52$13.49
70 628.1 1,066.8 5.07% $10.40 $18.25
71 1,058.2 1,695.4 6.48% $16.03 $27.73
72 1,165.5 1,688.9 6.41% $15.50 $20.20
73 1,250.3 1,680.6 6.46% $15.03 $14.84
74 1,601.3 2,150.9 7.35% $18.63 $14.79
75 1,706.3 2,372.5 6.11% $19.93 $15.45
76 2,251.4 3,123.6 8.14% $25.45 $24.45
77C 1,824.5D 2,392.4E 8.00% $34.04 $24.45

A. Price Index == weighted retail prices of Rice, Sugar, Flour, Canned Sardines, & Canned Corned Beef. Base year = 1977.
B. 1969 data is plagued by poor reporting.
C. 1977 data includes only the Marshalls, Palau, Pohnpei, and Yap.
D. Estimated Values.
E. Prior to 1969 and subsequent to 1977 separate-data on alcoholic beverages was not reported by the Trust Territory.

Table 2: 1977 Estimated by Expenditures (thousand $) on Alcohol by District



Total Alcohol

% of Total 

Per Capita Expenditure 
on Alcohol
Marshalls 494.0 651.5 6.8% $24.04
Palau 556.4 738.2 8.11% $54.60
Pohnpei 297.1 441.8 5.81% $20.85
Yap 477.0 560.9 15.51% $66.14
Totals or Weighted 
1,824.5 2,392.4 8.00% $34.04

Sources: TT Reports to UN 1969-1977 and TT's Bulletin of Statistics. Vol. II, No. 2.


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