A current article by Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discusses the traditional culture and values of the Ifaluk Islanders. His article is to appear in an edited volume, though apparently that work is not far enough along in the publication process to merit listings in bibliographic databases. But since Sosis has made his preliminary version available on his website, it is reasonable to comment about it as it now appears in draft form.
The major point of his article is to provide descriptions of the fishing by Ifaluk men. The author explains that he concentrates on fishing—men’s work—because he would not have been allowed to observe the Ifaluk women working in their taro patches. He describes the ways the men share their catch after their torch fishing at night, their rope fishing along the reef, and their cooperative fishing at another reef nine miles out to sea.
While the author’s details about the rituals practiced by the Ifaluk when they prepare to start fishing, their methods of catching fish, and the ways they distribute the fish afterwards are all interesting, his general discussions about Ifaluk society may be most useful to a general audience.
He begins by locating the island and its economy in the vastness of the Caroline Islands, within the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). His maps show the four islands that make up the Ifaluk atoll, the two largest of which, Falalop and Falachig, are the ones that are inhabited. He reviews the population, land tenure, employment, education system, residence patterns, marriage arrangements, clan structures, and social control practices of the people.
The author makes it clear that Ifaluk is still very much cut off from the mainstream—the atoll has no roads, no motor vehicles, and no electricity. A supply ship run by the government of the FSM’s state of Yap, of which Ifaluk is part, reaches the islands about every eight weeks. The ship, the only regular means of transportation, brings medical supplies and food to all of the outer islands of the state. Sosis writes that “ Yap State is unequivocally referred to as the most traditional state in FSM, and Ifaluk the most traditional atoll in Yap State (p.13).”
The chiefs on Ifaluk like it that way, and they are openly trying to slow down the Islanders’ acculturation to modern ways. Residents of neighboring islands turn to the Ifaluk for fabrication of traditional goods, such as fishing nets, ropes, or looms. The chiefs prohibited western clothing, at least as of 1997 during the author’s most recent visit. Shirts, shorts, and sunglasses are banned, in favor of loin cloths for men and lava lava skirts for women. The chiefs also prohibit people from owning motor boats.
Of the two inhabited islands, Falachig is less traditional than Falalop. Modern facilities such as the elementary school and the medical dispensary are on Falachig. The channel between the two is only a hundred yards across and it is easy to wade even at high tide. The residents of Falachig to the north view their neighbors on Falalop as superstitious, while the people on the southern island see the folks to the north as regrettably forsaking their Ifaluk traditions.
However, the chiefs are getting elderly, and the sole remaining magician, who takes charge of ritual practices of the islanders, was nearly 70 as of 1997, and he had not taken an apprentice. While the Ifaluk are nominally Roman Catholic, missionaries have never been allowed on the island, so the rituals associated with their fishing and daily activities still play an important role in their lives. The author speculates that their cultural ways may soon be lost.
Sosis describes the nature of cooperative labor on the atoll. He explains how the men will be directed by the chiefs to contribute to the work of re-thatching a house for someone. All of the families will contribute specified amounts of thatch to the project, and they will turn out for a few hours, when directed by the chiefs, to do the work. Once the old thatch is removed from the needy house, teams of men will bring bundles of new thatch to the building, others will toss them up to the men on the roof, and other men will sit on the roof and tie them on. A thatching event typically takes an hour and a half. The owner of the house provides cigarettes to everyone who participates, as a form of payment.
The author also describes how the Ifaluk handle people who shirk their duty to assist others; he tells how one slacker was treated. Although the man needed to put a new roof on his home, he realized his name was associated with laziness everywhere on the atoll. If he asked the chiefs for assistance, few people would heed their call to come to help him. In addition, he did not have the money to purchase the cigarettes that he would need to provide as payment for the help of others.
The chiefs had forbidden the author from giving the man money, despite his frequent requests for help from him. All the man could do was to put plastic sheeting temporarily over his house to protect the inhabitants. After five months of this, the man had saved up enough thatch to make the new roof, so he asked the chiefs for their support. They granted his request, and with the help of some of his wife’s relatives and a small number of others, the house was re-thatched. His helpers grumbled when he paid them with taro and breadfruit rather than with cigarettes, as was customary.
Sosis, Richard. Forthcoming. “Ifaluk Atoll: An Ethnographic Account.” In Culture Conservancy, edited by Carol Ember [Further publication information not available]. PDF on the author’s website.