The Rise of the Elderly Women: Controversy, Hierarchy, and Matriliny in Yap (Wa'ab), Federated States of Micronesia

Huang, Yu-Chien, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bashkow, Ira, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

My dissertation describes the intricate interplay among land, leadership, and matriliny on the Pacific island of Yap (Wa’ab), in Micronesia, as the background needed for understanding perplexing local responses to a proposed resort development. Since 2011, a Chinese business consortium headquartered in Chengdu, Sichuan, has presented a plan to build the resort on a large tract made up of adjacent land parcels owned by several Yapese households and communities, which were asked to formalize title to their lands and lease them to the project for a term of at least ninety-nine years. The plan provoked an unprecedented dispute over the legitimacy of traditional chiefly authorities in Yap, an island society (population approx. 11,500) long known for its robust hierarchy, strong traditionalism, and cultural pride.

The controversy undoubtedly reflects the erosion of the land basis for traditional chiefly authority, itself a concomitant of the gradual transformation of Yapese life since the nineteenth century: whereas previously land was the main source of sustenance and the primary referent of personal and political identities, Yapese today are increasingly involved in the cash economy, leading to intense anxiety and doubt over the long-term viability of the island’s fragile economy. But the controversy also expresses the culturally unique position of Yapese elderly women (pulwelwol) who are highly respected for their long experience of years of difficult labor on the land, a labor that is culturally elaborated as the physically exhausting work (magaer) that produces nourishment along with a deeply embodied tie between specific land parcels and their own uterine offspring. This work of the elderly women is central to the dynamics of traditional Yap land transference. While Yapese men represent themselves as the land’s “voice,” claiming a form of authority that is symbolically sedimented in named land parcels, the elderly women are recognized as embodying the physical labor essential to reproducing the land in its productive, socially meaningful forms, and they are accorded a decisive, behind-the-scenes authority in land-ranking, landownership, and land-transference. This authority is expected to be exercised very quietly, and elderly women are ordinarily reticent to take public speaking roles beyond their immediate village communities.

In the controversy over the Chinese resort, the elderly women have for the first time in Yap history presented themselves in island-wide public forums as an organized political force. They have taken on the role of ethical guardians of the land itself. Their demonstrations spotlight the most important dilemmas and dangers facing Yapese in the resort development controversy, and by implication the contemporary era: whether to hold fast to a way of life that is increasingly challenging but where the land is still in their own hands.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
hierarchy, matriliny, Yap, Micronesia, development, land rights
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