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Culture in Crisis: Trends in the Pacific Today

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

May 1993 (MC #10) Cultural Social Issues

The Cruel Dilemma: Customs or Cash

Someone once asked me "What is the most important change that's taking place in the Pacific?" Without any hesitation, I answered, "Money". It is hard to exaggerate the impact of a cash economy on Pacific island societies. We are used to thinking of money as supplementing a subsistence lifestyle, and this is indeed the case throughout the Pacific. But a cash economy stands in sharp contrast with the traditional land-based system that was once the foundation of every society in the Pacific.

The Pacific, of course, has known money and its uses for more than a century. Yet the bedrock of the island economy remained the land and the sea and the products they yielded to islanders. When the islands states began going independent in the late 1960s, however, they committed themselves to a Western economic system. Nationhood in the modern world is founded on economic development--that is, conversion of the traditional economy to a modern cash economy. Money becomes the measure of growth and the goal is to encourage as many people as possible to participate in the cash economy. Those who do not are called "unemployed" and are thought of as a drag on modernization.

Island leaders may urge their people to preserve their own ways, but this has a hollow ring to it. First of all, it is often these same island leaders who are working mightily to bring in logging, mining, tourism, heavy industry, and anything else that might increase the gross national product. And all of these things bring about further changes in traditional lifestyles. Second, a cash economy works its structural changes on the society, regardless of the intentions of those who set the directions. The monetization of a traditional economy is a process with an internal dynamic of its own. Generally speaking, the more money made, the greater the changes.

At a reflection weekend on economic development we once ran on Yap, most of the participants came in prepared to resist cultural change. Then a spokesman for the state government presented the case for economic development. With the reduction in aid from the US under the Compact, he told us, Yap was forced to develop industries. Tourism and fishing and factories meant change, he acknowledged, but what was the government to do? It had to find means of supporting itself and its people. A return to a simple subsistence economy was impossible, since the government was committed to running schools, providing power and water, and furnishing all the other services the Yapese people expected of it.

This is the "cruel dilemma" that all Pacific islands face. How are these people to retain their traditional ways, while embracing the economic development, so essential to modern nationhood, that threatens to undermine these very customs and values? Once they have surrendered to the forces of a modern economy, can people regain a measure of control over their own changed societies?

The New Pacific Economy

The dividing line between the First World and the Third World now runs through the Pacific, as the differences between the wealthier and less wealthy Pacific islands grows more pronounced. At one end of the spectrum are Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tonga, whose foreign aid is low or non-existent and whose industrial potential is extremely limited. At the other end are Nauru, one of the wealthiest of the Pacific nations due to its phosphate earnings, and perhaps American Samoa by virtue of its subsidy from the US.

Guam and the Northern Marianas, which have for years been receiving liberal aid packages from the US, are probably at the head of the ranks of the wealthy, thanks to the Japanese tourist boom of the past few years. In just thirty years the real per capita income of Guam has increased tenfold. The difference between Guam as I first saw it in 1963, when the island had one small hotel, a few two-story buildings, and a plethora of tents to house the victims of Typhoon Karen, and the tourist mecca of our own day is astonishing. Saipan has made a similar transition in an even shorter time; only fifteen years have passed since the birth of the tourist industry and the burgeoning of the garment factories there. Guam and the Northern Marianas are evidence of the speed and the intensity of the change that tourism, the great development hope of the Pacific, can bring.

Resources, of course, are limited in most Pacific islands. None of the Pacific nations has come close to supporting itself by its fishing industry. A few countries like New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and Nauru have minerals of considerable value. Others, lacking resources of their own, attempt to import them to create industries, as when they bring in sawdust for making pressed board or half-finished cloth for making dresses and shirts. In the absence of industry, our own Micronesian nations have tried selling rights to support themselves--fishing rights to other nations, defense rights to a world power such as the US, and sometimes even citizenship rights through the sale of passports. Pacific nations can dream of discovering oil or finding a way of extracting manganese nodules from the sea floor, or they can await the day that visitors begin swarming to their beaches in great enough numbers to set up a viable tourist economy. Options in the meantime are limited, however.

The future for most Pacific islands, we are told, lies beyond their reefs. It is bound to what is known as a MIRAB economy. This acronym stands for MIgration, Remittances, Aid and Bureaucracy. We can consider these, very simply and briefly, in terms of two pairs. The foreign aid provides the funds for a government bureaucracy, which is if not the greatest, then certainly one of the greatest sources of employment everywhere in the Pacific. This is clearly the case in Palau, the Marshalls and the FSM, which depend for over eighty percent of their income on US subsidies.

Paying jobs in the private sector are scarce in nearly all Pacific states. For years now, people who have been unable to find employment on their own island have migrated to other places for work. The remittances they send back to their families are a major source of income for many island nations. Such remittances accounted for fifteen to twenty percent of the import financing in the Cooks, Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu. They probably amounted to an even higher percentage in Western Samoa.

The less well-to-do islands of the Pacific have been supporting themselves for years now through the export of labor. The people of Kiribati have been working in Nauru, among other places, and Samoans have left in great numbers to find work in the US and New Zealand. As we know, Micronesians have recently been turning up on Guam and Saipan for work in the tourist industry and construction. An estimated 6,000 people from FSM are now living on Guam, where they have joined the Palauans (perhaps now as many as 2,000) who have been migrating to the island since the early 1950s. There were another 1,800 citizens of FSM and 1,600 Palauans living in the Northern Marianas as of 1990, according to census figures. Marshallese have sought other destinations--especially Costa Mesa, where over 500 have now settled, and Hawaii. There has been a huge movement of people within and to the fringes of the Pacific in search of work and a better life. This migration has relieved the population pressure and a demand for jobs that simply do not exist, even as it has furnished a considerable source of income for many Pacific island groups. On the other hand, it has also given rise to another set of problems facing those who live and work in a culture that is not their own.

The New Elite and the Traditional Chiefs

All over the Pacific we are seeing the rise of what has been called the "new elite". These are the power brokers in today's modern societies--the individuals who have achieved prominence and wealth through business or government. These are the new leaders of our Pacific societies. Some, like Ratu Mara of Fiji, have parlayed their traditional prestige into modern political status. Others have come from nowhere, like the early English speakers in Micronesia after World War II who became interpreters, then teachers and health aides, and finally congressmen and high government officials.

The members of the new elite have considerable control over money, the new source of wealth and prestige in the modern nation-state. With their inside access to information, they are usually the first to know of investment opportunities, special low-interest loans and other ways of making a financial killing. Time and again the elite are tempted to put personal profit above the welfare of the people they serve, just as they are tempted to seek or retain power for the sake of personal ambition. These temptations are not always resisted, as we know very well from observing what has happened in several countries in the region.

What, meanwhile, has become of the traditional leaders in the Pacific? In many Polynesian and Micronesian societies--in Tonga, for instance--they seem to have retained their authority. At first sight they seem to be as influential as ever. Traditional chiefly authority dies slowly in the Pacific. Beneath the surface, however, there are critical changes taking place. Let me illustrate with an example from Pohnpei, an island with two chiefly lines in each of its five kingdoms. Even in the last century, when the chiefs had full title to the land, the powers of the chief were subject to what we might call checks and balances. Chiefs were expected to be generous in their apportionment of land to their people. They were also expected to redistribute to their people produce and gifts that came to them. Failure to do so could lead to massive desertion by their people. If such a walk-out happened during time of warfare, it could lead to the chief's death in battle.

This relationship has been altered considerably in our own day. Oddly enough, even though the chiefs have lost their rights over the land, the people have fewer ways to check chiefly abuses than formerly. With the population growing rapidly and land dearer now than before, commoners cannot simply leave their homes to place themselves under the protection of a more generous paramount chief. With warfare long over, their desertion does not pose a threat to the chief's life. The old system seems to have frozen in place, thus denying the people some of the protection and benefits they may have had in former times.

When the chiefs bestow high titles today, they are sometimes given in return--instead of the traditional feast with yams, pigs and kava--a check for $2000 or $3000. In one case, a chief was given the keys to a new pickup truck filled with cases of canned food. Are we to believe that the chief redistributed the money, or the parts of the truck, as he was expected to do with the food received in a traditional feast?

There is a story of a chief somewhere who, upon receiving a bright red coat, promptly cut it up into several pieces which he distributed to his underling chiefs. It is unlikely that such a thing would happen today. Chiefs everywhere sense that their traditional power base is fading. Many are scrambling in rather unseemly fashion to build for themselves a new power base safely within the cash economy. All too many are parlaying their traditional authority into cash benefits for themselves, and they are justifying this by their appeal to "tradition".

The Changing Shape of the Family

The shape of the traditional family unit in the Pacific varied greatly from one place to another. Nevertheless, we can make certain broad generalizations about the traditional family. The family unit was usually a rather large group of kin that went much beyond just parents and children. This group operated as a single economic unit--producing and preparing food together, and working together to meet their other needs. They even raised the children together, for older men and women were expected to share in parenting tasks. The traditional extended family was closely tied to the land, which was its livelihood.

Cracks first began appearing in the family unit long ago, but they have widened considerably today. There are probably many reasons for the breakup of the extended family, but the most important is the paycheck. As more and more men (and later women) found cash jobs, there was no need to rely as heavily on the old land-owning family groups for support. Smaller family groups, sometimes parents and children, began preparing their own food and taking responsibility for themselves in other ways. This is not to say that the extended family evaporated. As a matter of fact, it still is an important social group in most islands. It organizes feasts and funerals, represents the smaller families in time of need, but it has lost much of the day-to-day authority it once enjoyed.

The heads of households have become the rulers of their own roosts. The father and mother have to do much more of the parenting alone, without the help of others in the broader family group. Raising children, which was once a communal task, has fallen to them alone. Meanwhile, the relationship between a father and his children has become more intense. Conflicts arise more easily under these circumstances, and it is not as easy to resolve them because aunts and uncles, who once would have intervened, are now reluctant to interfere in the family's business.

This transformation in the size and shape of the family is one of the most important changes occurring in the Pacific. Its consequences are enormous, especially during these transitional years. I am convinced that this, more than anything else, has contributed to the high rate of suicide in the past thirty years in some parts of the Pacific. The breakdown of the extended family also leaves the woman more exposed than formerly to beatings from her husband and other forms of abuse. Her brother or father might have intervened in the past to whisk her back to her family, but they are not quite as likely to do so today.

The nuclear family is now the last line of resistance. When that breaks down, the results can be disastrous. We are moving from a multi-parent family to a two-parent family, but in some circumstances the two-parent family has become a single-parent family. When the father dies or is frequently away on business, the child may not get the supervision he needs. Troubled or delinquent children are often the result, as many of us have noticed in Micronesia. Hence, what is so often called the "youth problem" actually stems from the inadequacy of present-day families to do all that is expected of them.

Child abuse or neglect has become all too common when a man and a woman who have had children by previous spouses marry. One or both show preferential treatment to their own children, sometimes abusing their stepchildren. Formerly the children in this situation would have been looked after by the extended family group of which they were members. Like the mother who is beaten by her drunken husband, they were better protected in an earlier day than they are now. These critical changes in the family are often overlooked, however, for most people have their eyes fixed on the major political or economic institutions in the island societies.

Monetization of islands is also affecting kin ties beyond the inner family. Micronesians, who once could have lived with distant relatives or clanmates when visiting another island, are now much more reluctant to do so. They admit to being ashamed to ask for hospitality because "everything costs money these days". Young men who are having trouble with their own families sometimes prefer to move around in a small circle of close relatives and friends, spending a couple weeks at each place, rather than move in with a relative for a longer period of time. They confess to being ashamed to impose a financial burden on these people.

Reciprocity--"you give to me now; I'll do the same for you at some time in the future"--is the stuff of which social relationships are built. Yet, the inequality that comes with the spread of the cash economy makes reciprocity much more difficult to practice today. Formerly, the country relatives would often come into town and live with their kinfolk to work or to attend school or simply for a change. They might bring in packages of local food and babysit or do small chores around the house in exchange for hospitality. This still happens today, of course, but there is often silent resentment at the unequal exchange. The hosts often feel put upon by their guests, while the country cousins feel bad for not being able to equal the contribution of their town relatives. Rather than endure these hard feelings, many are forsaking the old network and giving up on distant relatives.

Women and their roles

The discussion on women's roles often focuses exclusively on what they may or may not do in the modern marketplace and political arena. I feel that the discussion loses sight of an important element--namely, what has become of their traditional entitlements.

If Micronesia is any example of what has happened in other island societies, women have lost ground in recent decades. Although women never held the center of the stage, they used to exercise real authority over certain areas of family and village life. Nearly everywhere in Micronesia, they had strong say over the land, among other things; they had a strong voice in how lineage land was apportioned and who would use what parcels of land. In Yap, where the position of women was relatively weak, the sisters of a man could disinherit their brothers' wives and children and throw them off the family estate. In Palau, women had even more control than this. They gathered to discuss who in their lineage would be chief and could in effect veto the choices of men. Women in some parts of Micronesia and Polynesia made up what might be called "kitchen cabinets", an informal group with considerable influence over decisions that were made in the name of the kin group.

Most of the roles that women enjoyed traditionally were rooted in the extended family. As the extended family is broken down under the force of modernization, however, many of these former roles are being lost. Women's say over land, for instance, is being weakened as land passes from the control of the lineage to the small family unit. I recently heard a middle-aged Chuukese man who should have known better deny that women ever had any such say at all. This prompted me to make a little speech on the danger of "reinventing custom" to suit our own purposes. Many of the "backstage" roles that women once held now seem to be fading away, and women are becoming domestic drudges. They are expected to cook, care for the children and keep a neat house. The other responsibilities that they once had in the broader family circle tend to be forgotten.

Meanwhile, women are scrambling to find new roles--and new outlets for their abilities--in the modern sector. In this they are encouraged by the modern world-view that tells them they are every bit the equal of men and so deserve access to any job in the modern world of work. Many men would not agree. They would hearken back to the sharp distinction between men's and women's roles. If men fished, women farmed. If men built canoes and made war, women did weaving and housework. If men put up the frame of a new house, it was the women's job to weave the thatch for it. Women and men did work that was complementary, never the same kind of work.

Yet modern societies are run according to different rules. Women, who have lost much of their traditional informal authority, will not be denied their rightful place in the nation-state today. This change is sure to come. But can it be made without turning men and women into adversaries?

The Church: A Prophetic Voice?

The church in the Pacific is in a truly privileged position. Religion has always been an essential element of life for islanders, and the churches are tightly woven into the fabric of these societies. The church enjoys a position of respect and influence that probably is equalled in few other regions of the world.

Indeed, why shouldn't this be the case? After all, the church has been a major force in shaping these modern societies. It provided schooling long before the governments were in a position to begin public education. It taught people to read and write, dispensed medicine when they were sick, improved sanitation, instructed them in new techniques of building and farming, and defended them from the depredations of foreigners. What we today call human development has always been an integral part of church work in the Pacific, as in so many other parts of the world.

As the church worked tirelessly to build a new society, one founded on the love of Christ, it found it necessary to challenge elements of the traditional culture that were at odds with the message it proclaimed. It adamantly opposed tribal warfare and other evils such as infanticide, the strangling of widows, cannibalism and the torture of enemies. The human life of all, it proclaimed again and again, was an essential value. No longer could the great canoes be rolled to sea on the backs of enemies or slaves, those who were deemed worthless in society.

Mindful of the church's past contribution to the making of the modern day Pacific, people look to the church today as a beacon in the fog of confusion. They are besieged by changes that are often incomprehensible to them. The new economy that they are forced to embrace is transforming their social system from the family on up; the power of the chiefs is waning, while new authority figures emerge; gender relations are shifting; rapid modernization appears to subvert much of the old culture; and new tensions arise among ethnic groups and among political factions. Many trust the church and look to it for guidance and help in dealing with these changes. Shall the church offer them a stone when what they seek is bread, or a serpent rather than an egg?

The church is the conscience of society. It is charged with being a prophetic voice calling whole peoples, not just individuals, to the service of the Lord. This means summoning people to fashion a just and humane society, one in which the dignity of all individuals and groups is enhanced. This is a task that the church performed admirably well in the last century. Is it, we might ask, performing its prophetic role equally well today?

The danger in our day is that the church may become rather domesticated. That fitting comfortably into the rather large niche that has been carved for it, the church might be a little too accommodating to society. Yet, who will serve as the conscience of society if not the church? If the risk in the last century was that the church might overlook the value of the island culture, the danger in our own time is that the church might become a prisoner of the culture. Foreign churches may be too critical, but inculturated churches can be insufficiently critical. It is tempting for local churches to abandon their prophetic role on the grounds that the Pacific way is non-confrontational.

Perhaps the most serious threat the church faces is from within. The success of the church in the past can tempt it to turn in on itself, to see the church as an end in itself rather than as a means to something beyond: a summons to holiness and a pointer to God's kingdom. Because the church has a secure place in Pacific societies, there is the danger that it become preoccupied with its numbers and prestige and wealth, as has happened all too often in the West. We run the risk of measuring the vitality of the church by the size of its buildings, the amount of money it receives in offerings, or the status accorded to those who are its leaders. We run the risk of settling into a comfortable "churchiness" and neglecting the role of the church as servant of the world. Like its founder, the church came "not to be served but to serve;" and it retains its ancient mission of offering "liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, release to those in bondage..., thus announcing the kingdom of God."

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