Insider vs. Outlier Stereotypes in Pohnpei

From Michael D. Lieber’s chapter “Lamarckian Definitions of Identity on Kapingamarangi and Pohnpei” in Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific, edited by Jocelyn Linnekin and Lin Poyer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1990), pp. 88-90:

Pohnpeians [main-islanders] describing other ethnic groups focus on observable patterns of activity or predilections for particular arenas of activity. They describe Kapinga [Polynesian outliers], for example, as good fishermen and craftsmen and as strong, hard workers. But they also think of Kapinga as lacking in ambition and foresight, as unable to plan ahead. From a Pohnpeian perspective, this is a reasonably accurate description. Other than a few men who are active in feasting, even titled Kapinga avoid participation in feasts on Pohnpei, a participation that presupposes careful planning and allocation of one’s time and resources over a period of years. Pohnpeians also point out that very few Kapinga have prepared themselves for administrative or teaching jobs.

Pohnpeians see Pingelapese [Micronesian outliers] as messy, clannish, devout and active in church affairs, and both shrewd and very aggressive. Examples of their clannishness are their preference for en bloc voting whenever a Pingelapese runs for public office against a non-Pingelapese and their purported tendency to route administrative jobs to other Pingelapese whenever they are in a position to do so. What Pohnpeians appear to mean by aggressiveness is the often-mentioned Pingelapese preference for achieving middle-echelon administrative jobs, the vigor with which they pursue those positions, and their consequent prominence in those positions on Pohnpei.

Mokilese [Micronesian outliers] are described by most Pohnpeian informants as ambitious, skilled, and crafty. What is so intriguing about this description is the use of aggressive for Pingelapese and ambitious for Mokilese. When I asked for examples, informants pointed to the prominence of Mokilese in upper echelons of colonial administration—particularly in the former Congress of Micronesia and the present Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia—and in highly skilled technical jobs over which they have a virtual monopoly, such as machinists and mechanics. They are considered very subtle and charming while being very manipulative, particularly in political contexts.

If one takes all of these stereotypes together, they do in fact describe something about the larger Pohnpei social order. Kapinga, to the extent that they are visible at all, are people of the marketplace. They are the suppliers of fish and the purveyors of handicrafts and are otherwise not very visible. Pingelapese have been prominent in church affairs on Pohnpei and in middle-level administration in various agencies, including the hospital and the education department. Mokilese are in fact prominent in upper-echelon administration, especially in Congress. For example, during elections for the Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia in 1979, Mokilese men were candidates for 60 percent of the seats allotted to Pohnpei State. Pohnpeians are prominent at all these levels. From their point of view, that is to be expected, for Pohnpeians consider Pohnpei to be very much their island. Their ethnic descriptions identify whom they believe to be their competitors for control over affairs on the island, and they allude to the contexts of competition. In each case, descriptions focus on the issue of control in the colonial arena. Pingelapese and Mokilese people have been and still are active in the feasting and title system, some having very high titles. Yet no Pohnpeian ever mentioned this in discussions about them. When asked why Kapinga, Pingelapese, and Mokilese are the way they are, Pohnpeian informants responded with answers such as, “They do what their parents did,” or “They grow up with the tiahk ‘customs’ of their island.”

Kapinga descriptions of other island groups put no emphasis on political position and greater emphasis on skills and interpersonal proclivities than do Pohnpeian descriptions. Pingelapese are considered dirty and “careless” in their personal habits, easily angered, clannish, vengeful, very enterprising, and very religious. They are considered powerful curers and sorcerers, good organizers of businesses, and hard workers for their families and friends. Kapinga never pointed to Pingelapese administrative positions in their descriptions.

Mokilese, according to Kapinga, are good at fishing, working, learning mechanical skills (such as boat building), and organizing. Several Kapinga referred to Mokilese as being very personable, but said that one never knows if a Mokilese is really one’s friend. In discussing Mokilese organizing abilities, Kapinga informants pointed to their work in reorganizing the Kolonia Protestant church in 1980. While Kapinga recognize the prominence of Mokilese in Congress, they appear not to think of that fact as particularly definitive of Mokilese.

What strikes Kapinga as being distinctive about Pohnpeians is their haughtiness (putting themselves before others), their capacity for being extremely generous, and their unpredictable displays of almost gratuitous hostility. The charge of haughtiness has to do with the condescension with which Pohnpeians often treat Kapinga and with the ways that Kapinga see higher and lower ranking people interact. Kapinga cite numerous examples of Pohnpeian generosity, both on the part of chiefs and of ordinary people, particularly during World War II, when Kapinga had to leave Porakied and seek shelter in U and Kiti. At the same time, Kapinga fear Pohnpeians as sorcerers. They cite several deaths over the past few years that they attribute to sorcery by Pohnpeians who were supposedly friends of the deceased.

I asked about one other group, the Nukuoro [Polynesian outliers], with whom the Kapinga have long had close relations of reciprocity and intermarriage. While Kapinga gave detailed descriptions, Pohnpeians ventured no opinions whatever, saying only that they did not know anything about them. One can predict that Nukuoro do not form a politically or socially visible group on Pohnpei, and this is in fact the case.

We see that three Pohnpeian ethnic stereotypes (and one category empty of content) concentrate attention on the place that each ethnic group holds in the larger colonial arena of commercial and administrative control over persons, resources, and policies. Each stereotype is referable to the particular sorts of contexts in which members of each out-island enclave exercise political and economic control in the colonial administrative domain. Kapinga concentrate their attention on those observable patterns of interaction that are relevant to face-to-face dyadic interaction, such as visiting, friendship, hospitality, and reciprocity. Generosity, fairness, and trustworthiness are attended to, while political position in the larger order is not.

A similar divergence of reference points seems to show up in urban elitist vs. small-town egalitarian patterns of stereotyping each Other in the U.S. and other larger societies.


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Filed under Micronesia, Polynesia, U.S.

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