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A Hibiscus In the Wind: The Micronesian Chief and His People

By Francis X. Hezel, SJ

December 1997 (MC #20) Cultural

Not so long ago a traditional chief on one island in Micronesia helped himself to a sizeable amount of the money that had been appropriated for a public works project in his community. When asked by a foreign correspondent to explain why he took the large sum of money, knowing that he would leave his people bereft of the project they badly needed, the chief simply replied that he was entitled to do so. According to his tradition, chiefs were expected to take a hefty cut of the food or goods produced by the community, he told the newsman; he was only claiming the same rights over the present-day commodity that had replaced local produce-money.

This acquisitive chief is by no means an isolated example. Traditional leaders from many parts of Micronesia are insisting on their privileges today, perhaps much more strongly than ever before. Their vigorous assertion of their rights may stem from the feeling that their authority is under more serious challenge in the modern world. Clinging desperately to what they would call a sense of tradition, the beleaguered chiefs contend that they have a right to much of what rolls in from the outside simply because they are chiefs. In a new society in which elected political figures threaten to subvert the respect traditional chiefs command from their people, the latter seem poised to fight for their position.

Traditional leaders may have some legitimate cause for concern. They have been excluded as a group from the chambers of the modern political system for the past half century. In the very first popular elections held by the US administration after World War II, Micronesians voted for their chiefs almost en bloc to fill the new elected positions, but an arrangement in which chiefs and others shared responsibilities in a single legislative chamber soon came to be recognized as untenable. If the type of free and open discussion that is supposed to take place in the democratic process was difficult for islanders in ordinary situations, it was unthinkable in the presence of their chiefs. A few of the "districts," as the island groups were then called, created a special chamber for their traditional leaders to allow them some voice in the modern political system, but this too proved unworkable and was eventually abandoned everywhere but in the Marshalls. There the traditional chiefs constituted the equivalent of a House of Lords and later became an important power block in the Nitijela. Perhaps because they have retained ownership of the land, chiefs in the Marshalls exercise a position in the modern government that is not paralleled in any other part of Micronesia.

The Marshalls aside, most island people did not seem to want their traditional leaders sullied in the give-and-take of the new political process. They preferred that the chiefs be relegated to the traditional sphere where they could continue to command respect from their people. When one or another of these traditional leaders attempts to overstep his sphere and run for elected office, as happens at times, he will almost always lose. The election returns are a sharp reminder that the people would prefer to keep their chiefs far from the hurly-burly of the modern political arena. Now and then a small faction in the FSM proposes that the constitution be amended to grant traditional leaders a formal place in the government, but this has never had strong popular support and probably never will.

We need not weep for our traditional leaders on this score, however. Even though chiefs have been excluded from the workings of the modern political system, they have done rather well just the same. Their prestige is still surprisingly high, even in those places where they have lost their former ownership of the land, and they receive recognition from their people in the form of both respect behavior and local produce. Pohnpeians still engage in extensive competition aimed at winning recognition from their chiefs and acquiring titles. Chiefs from the outer islands of Yap are still capable of imposing sanctions against those who fail to observe the traditional forms of respect, as was exemplified a few years ago when they denied the people of one island use of the sea for several months for butchering and eating a turtle instead of offering it to the appropriate authorities on Mogmog. Even in Palau, as modernized as it has become, traditional chiefs are treated with reverential awe more often than not. Traditional leaders still command respect from their people, even if they have not gained access to modern elected office.

Even so, some traditional leaders seek more than this. Like the chief who helped himself to public money, they appeal to tradition to justify their claim to something more tangible than respect. They assert that by virtue of their position they are entitled to the first cut of the pig, so to speak-a major share in any cash inflow into the community. After all, they are chiefs and it's only fitting that chiefs receive the first fruits.

When we look more carefully at the historical record and probe the tradition to which many of these traditional chiefs appeal, we find another side to the whole matter. Chiefs had obligations toward their people that were every bit as real as their entitlement, even if the latter were not as apt to be noted by the foreign observers of an earlier age. "A chief is a hibiscus in the wind," as one Pohnpeian proverb puts it, meaning that the chief is expected to bow and bend in response to his people's needs. Other islands had different metaphors to express the solicitousness that a chief was expected to show for his subjects.

Chieftainship in Micronesia, we know, came in various shapes and at different levels; powers varied from place to place, as did respect forms. Even so, there was the common expectation everywhere in Micronesia that the chief was to serve the people by what we might today call community-building. Chiefs did this, first of all, by initiating public projects-including the construction of community buildings and docks, the paving of public paths, and village cleanups. This role was recognized by colonial administrators, who worked through the chiefs to set into motion projects that they devised for the public good, as when chiefs were enjoined to oversee the planting of coconut trees under the German and Japanese administration. Chiefs were also expected to stimulate productivity in the community by inviting their subjects to plant and harvest more, sometimes offering the incentive of public recognition or titles as a reward for the achievements of individuals. Finally, they were also entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the peace within their realm by reconciling conflicts that broke out in the community.

The "first cut of the pig" or the other gifts they received came in return for services performed (although neither people nor their chiefs would have put it this way). A good chief was expected to look out for the interests of his people and advance the social status of his community.

He was not only expected to keep an eye on his people's well-being, but to consult their desires in doing so. There is the story of a highly respected village chief in Chuuk who stood up in a men's house to give a speech laying out a course of action that he was proposing to the village. Hardly had he starting spelling out his plan when his audience dissolved into small groups with the men murmuring to one another even as the chief continued his speech. The chief went on for another twenty minutes, but by the end of his talk he had swung from his original proposal to a very different plan that he judged more acceptable to the people of the village. As he had been speaking, he was also weighing the response and making appropriate changes in the plan he was presenting. He was-as the Pohnpeian proverb suggests a good chief must be-a hibiscus blowing in the breeze.

Even the tribute chiefs received was largely supposed to be at the service of the community; most was to be redistributed to their people. What else could they have done with perishable items before the invention of cold storage, after all? As one anthropologist with years of experience on Pohnpei remarked, "accumulation serves only as preparation for distribution." A popular Marshallese saying makes the same point more poetically: "The paramount chief has three stomachs: one for food, one for storing people's gossip, and one as a storehouse of goods for the people." When needs arise in his people, the chief was expected to 'regurgitate' his goods to provide for the community, even at his own personal expense. Marshallese paramount chiefs in an earlier day, for example, would purchase tools for their workers and pay the passage to Jaluit, then the administrative headquarters, for anyone who needed medical attention. In this respect, Marshall chiefs were not unlike traditional leaders in other island groups.

Although the popular supposition is that chiefly authority was unchecked, constituting a kind of autocracy, such was not the case. Traditional societies had checks and balances which were sometimes far more effective than those built into our modern political systems. Chiefs had to walk a fine line between exercising authority and appearing to be authoritarian. Like the Chuukese chief speaking to his village referred to above, they were expected to consult before, or at least while, giving directions to their people. They were, after all, a 'hibiscus' subject to the breezes of opinions that blew among their people.

What might have happened to a chief who proved unpopular with his people? A chief who was regarded as rapacious and greedy and who did not discharge his obligation to care for his people? An anthropologist writes of one such chief, a paramount chief of Madolenihmw in Pohnpei long ago, who made many decisions without consulting his subjects. They rose up and marched against him, at which he called on his own clansmates for help. They would not come to his aid since he had alienated them, so he was killed. In some islands, Palau for one, unpopular chiefs were assassinated outright, sometimes even by their kinspeople. In most islands, however, the people's recourse lay in withdrawal of their support from their chief, leaving him unprotected in the face of his enemies, an almost sure sentence of death. Marshallese recognized the power that people enjoyed in their relationship with their chiefs by referring to the chief's subjects as "kajur,"or "strength."

Today these sanctions against chiefs have disappeared, of course. Not only will a greedy chief-one with a single stomach rather than three-escape an early violent death at the hands of his enemies, he might even convince his followers that the tradition they serve decrees that the chief should be allowed to continue his plundering. The sanctions have vanished and with them the very memory of such counterbalances to chiefly authority, leaving us with a very distorted view of what chiefs are and what is permitted them.

Once upon a time Micronesian chiefs needed their people as much as the people needed them. Today, with the erosion of the controls that people held over their chiefs, the reciprocity that has always been a hallmark of the relationship between traditional chiefs and their people is also disappearing. What, then, is to restrain chiefs from taking the "first cut" even when they have done nothing to deserve this? What is to prevent them from plundering the communities they were meant to serve?

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