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Vern Carroll


Unlike some of the other groups reported on in this volume, the Nukuoro have not formed a daughter community in some other place. The opportunities available to them have been identical to those afforded the Kapinga people (chapter 3), but those opportu­nities have been scorned: At present there is a Kapinga village on Ponape (just as there is for each of the other out-island ethnic groups in Ponape District), but one searches in vain for a Nukuoro village. The Nukuoro on Ponape seem to prefer not to live com­munally; they seem to have actually resisted all efforts to push them in the direction of forming a community on Ponape such as other ethnic groups have formed. This chapter is devoted to ex­plaining this preference. The chapter can also be read as a lesson: History is not always dealt with most adequately by framing one’s analysis in historical terms. I shall return to this point at the end of the chapter.


As Michael Lieber has pointed out (chapter 3), the Kapinga on Ponape live mostly in a small village located on a tract of land awarded them by the Japanese colonial administration in the early 1920s. The village is organized into sections, with section leaders 69under the village chief. All Kapinga who come to Ponape are wel­comed to this village and assigned living space. The village en­gages in many communal activities and has become a minor tourist attraction because of its authentic South Seas charm.

There are also a fair number of Nukuoro on Ponape (about 151 in 1965—see Carroll 1975b). To be sure, most of them live in and around the port town of Kolonia (see map 4), the only location on Ponape where non-Ponapeans can obtain land-use rights without acquiring long-term commitments.1 But within the precincts of Ponape the Nukuoro are widely scattered among members of other ethnic groups. They do not have a community organization—and all efforts to form one have failed. Nukuoro on Ponape, ex­cepting those in the same household, appear not to interact with one another more frequently than with non-Nukuoro, and most Nukuoro agree that the relationships between Nukuoro on Ponape are something less than ideal

This state of affairs is surprising—when contrasted with the Kapinga case—since the Nukuoro have had precisely the same op­portunities for community development as the Kapinga have en­joyed and the two cultures—both Polynesian outliers—are as similar, in most obvious respects, as two distinct cultures can be. Moreover, the ecologies of their home atolls are very similar (Kap­inga being more subject to drought and somewhat less well en­dowed with land suitable for taro excavation).2 The Kapinga birth rate appears to have been somewhat higher in the first half of the present century (judging from the rapid increase in Kapinga popu­lation), but population dynamics can be safely ruled out—along with ecology—as the main factor in the contemporary difference between the behavior of the two ethnic groups on Ponape. What then accounts for this difference?

Historical investigation yields the following information. The tract of land on which the Kapinga village on Ponape is presently located was given to the Kapinga chief “on behalf of the people.” A similar tract of land nearby was given, at about the same time, to the Nukuoro chief “on behalf of the people.” The Kapinga chief set about exercising his mandate in the Kapinga fashion—with the results noted above. The Nukuoro chief also exercised his man­date, but in a different manner: The Nukuoro chief took possession “for the people” and during the 1920s and 1930s he brought 70groups of workers from Nukuoro Atoll to clear the land, plant co­conut trees, and build houses for him and his family. The workers who came were housed and fed generously, their incidental ex­penses were taken care of, and many volunteered again and again for the work party (which was rotated every six months or so). Nukuoro who came to Ponape on other business, and there were very few, stayed at the chief’s house as his guests. As far as one can ascertain, there were no complaints about the chief’s administra­tion of this public trust, which continued until his death in 1953.

Although the American administration after World War II en­couraged complaints against traditional leaders (and acted on sev­eral complaints directed at the Nukuoro chief by dissidents), there was—as far as we were able to ascertain—still no outcry about the chief’s management of this land. Indeed, in the mid-1950s, after the chief died, his eldest son—then resident on Ponape—managed to obtain exclusive title to the land. He was apparently unopposed in this endeavor, even though he made no promises about his fu­ture use of it.

Today the tract lies overgrown and all but deserted; a couple of ramshackle structures are sporadically occupied. The new owner lives elsewhere.


One might be tempted to explain the peculiar fate of the Nukuoro on Ponape as resulting from nothing more than the behavior of an autocratic chief and his greedy son. But the lack of public outcry even with governmental encouragement to complain (and a dem­onstrated capacity on the part of the Nukuoro for doing so) sug­gests that the chief was merely doing what people wanted him to do. It appears, then, that the Nukuoro did not want a community (of the Kapinga sort) on Ponape. But how could this be?

A useful perspective on this problem is gained by looking at the cultural context of Nukuoro emigration. The story begins with the settlement of the atoll about five centuries ago.

Tradition records that a man in some far-off land (now popular­ly thought to be Samoa) had a quarrel with his elder brother who was a chief (or, in some versions, with a younger brother who was their mother’s favorite). The man gathered his affines and retain­ers together and did battle with the brother. Losing the battle, he 71was obliged to flee. Taking his party in a double canoe (or two double canoes) he sailed away. After many vicissitudes the party arrived at Nukuoro, which was uninhabited (or nearly so), where they established a permanent settlement. The leader of the party was now chief, and when his son grew up there was bad feeling between them. The son went off in a canoe one day and was never heard from again. But by and by, a castaway came to the atoll. After the castaway had been nursed back to health, he visited fre­quently with the chief. During these visits the chief noticed that the castaway was fascinated by the chief’s tattoos, which covered the upper part of his body in a pattern distinctive to his family. The castaway explained that he had seen the same tattoo pattern on the torso of a man who was being roasted on a spit at an island he had visited. The chief, realizing that only his son bore the same markings, gathered a party together and embarked on a canoe voyage to find out more about the circumstances of his son’s death. The party sailed and sailed but they found themselves even­tually in the open sea with no prospects of a landfall. The chief asked his wife to ask her father (a diviner) to determine why they were unable to find land. The diviner, with considerable reluc­tance, advised that they had been bewitched and only the death of either the chief or the rest of his party would break the spell. The chief volunteered to sacrifice himself, and after leaving instruc­tions to his party concerning their future conduct, he was swal­lowed up by a whale. The party soon made a landfall on Nukuoro, and after having followed the chief’s instructions, they saw again the whale that had swallowed him.

One notes in this story that in both cases of interpersonal con­flict, emigration was precipitated by a serious rupture—and in neither case was the rupture mended: The Nukuoro chief was a refugee from his home island; his son was lost to him forever; and the chief lost his life in a futile effort to follow his son’s path. In both cases the person leaving was in the wrong.

Nukuoro emigration today has much the same character. Ex­cluding those visiting on Ponape temporarily in connection with schooling, medical visits, church business, and the like, all the Nukuoro on Ponape are thought to have left home owing to distur­bances in their close interpersonal relationships (with ‘parents’, ‘siblings’, or ‘children’). Those who have emigrated return home rarely, and they do not seem to identify with the interests of their 72home community. Whereas the Kapinga community on Ponape has been active in advancing Kapinga interests with the district administration, the Nukuoro who permanently reside on Ponape are thought to be particularly unhelpful in this regard. If anything—it is said—they appear, as individuals, to work against the in­terests of the home community and appear contemptuous of their kin at home.3 One index of the alienation of emigrants is the fact that a large percentage of married Nukuoro emigrants are married to non-Nukuoro (although most of these had been married to a Nukuoro at some time in the past).4

It cannot be said that the life of Nukuoro emigrants on Ponape is easy. Most do not have secure access to land and steady employ­ment. Few Nukuoro have achieved positions of influence in the district government, and few are comfortable financially.5 Most are living a marginal economic existence—by their own admission—in housing that is overcrowded with dependent relatives. All ad­mit that the conditions of life on the home atoll are far superior to the circumstances in which they live on Ponape. Why, then, do they emigrate?

By and large, they leave the atoll for the same reasons they might leave their domicile on the atoll or move elsewhere in the same village or (occasionally) to an islet of the atoll other than the one on which the main village is located. The person moving will always claim force majeure—a sick relative needs help elsewhere. But although no one can criticize such a statement (since to be a good kinsman is to be a good person on Nukuoro), no one is de­ceived. Anyone will tell you that people leave home because they are unhappy. Once upon a time, before the coming of Europeans, one could not easily express one’s alienation in this way (the Nukuoro, at contact, had no canoes suitable for ocean voyaging and no long-distance navigation methods). Until the 1960s, few Nukuoro had kin on Ponape with whom they could stay, although many people on Nukuoro expressed an interest in going there. In­deed, it seemed to me during the course of my fieldwork that the Nukuoro village was bursting at the seams—that many people felt trapped there and would be happy to emigrate if given the op­portunity.

As more Nukuoro became established on Ponape (map 5) it be­came easier for others to find a place to stay. On 18 September 1973 the village population (245), according to an official Trust Territory census (TTPI 1974), was actually less than in 1965 (278), despite considerable growth in the total ethnic population. 73


But the question of why or how Nukuoro emigrate is not the same as the question of why they fail to form an emigrant com­munity on Ponape—despite the obvious advantages of doing so. Here we must look closely at the sense of emigration on Nukuoro, once again using Kapinga as the point of contrast.

Whereas the Kapinga seem to assume that disruptions of close relationships can eventually, with patience and goodwill, be mended, the Nukuoro tend to assume that a serious rupture is irre­versible. The Kapinga are quicker to explode whereas the Nukuoro continue to act as though all were well long after it is not; but when the climax is reached the Nukuoro incline to walk away from the situation and not look back. The first Nukuoro emigrant in the postcontact period (probably in the 1870s) was a middle-aged man who asked the captain of a visiting ship to take him aboard as part of the ship’s crew. The man’s relatives were aghast and pleaded with him not to go, bewailing the fact that they might never see him again. The man replied that he was tired of sitting in the men’s house day after day munching on a piece of dead coral while his mates ate the food prepared by their devoted relatives. Despite all entreaties, the man left his relatives behind. He never sent word back to them and was never heard from again.

The Kapinga settlement story reflects a somewhat different pre­mise about the consequences of interpersonal blowups. According to Kapinga tradition (Elbert 1949), a man’s wife grew angry with him for leaving her alone frequently while he strolled on the lagoon shore, so she swam out to sea. When the man returned home he noticed her absence and was extremely upset. Ascertain­ing the reason, he caused a canoe to be built at top speed. Though the canoe was imperfectly finished, the party set out after her. They found her in the open sea, near death from exhaustion, and lifted her into the canoe. After many days of further voyaging, they arrived at a place hitherto unknown to them—the atoll of Kapingamarangi. Although the husband tried to feed his wife var­ious delicacies, she was too weak from exhaustion and exposure and she died. As far as anyone knows, the Kapinga people lived on in happiness in their newfound land.

In this story the rupture is impetuous, not calculated. The es­tranged person (who is in the right) manages to get away only by 75stealth (since her husband would surely have prevented her going had he known her intentions). The wrongdoer is immediately con­trite and takes quick steps to make amends. The consequences of the rupture are serious (the woman did eventually die, after all) but a reconciliation is effected. The unhappy incident does not en­tail a long series of similar misfortunes.

Although Kapinga may leave their home atoll today owing to interpersonal difficulties, it is rarely with the suggestion that they are leaving for good. Rather they seem to think more in terms of a “cooling-off period” or an opportunity “to get away (from certain people) for a while”—not to get away from the whole community. And, in fact, most Kapinga return frequently to their home atoll for visits (and in the absence of visits, they send presents).

The differences noted between the Nukuoro and the Kapinga premise structure can be related systematically to other differ­ences in premises about interpersonal relations, although I shall not undertake to do so here. The differences may seem slight in comparison with the obvious cultural similarities, but the behav­ioral outcomes are enormously divergent. The Kapinga regard themselves (in comparison with the Nukuoro) as more cooper­ative, more outgoing, quicker to criticize and offer help, more good-natured, more lighthearted, more jovial, and more industri­ous.6 Related to these differences are differences in childrearing, land tenure, and political organization.

Thus, although the Nukuoro and the Kapinga are very similar “culturally” (in the ways cultural difference is usually mea­sured—language, customs, technology, and so forth), a more in­cisive and therefore more useful notion of culture as premise struc­ture reveals significant cultural differences between the two com­munities. It is my contention that these cultural differences are sufficient to account for the observed differences in aggregate be­havior and that other explanations are not required.


The movements of individuals or whole communities from one place to another present themselves to us (through our conventions about these matters) as historical events—that is, as events whose main feature is that they are located at some definable place in the passage of time. Such events are preceded, of course, by antece­dent 76 events, which are thought to bear directly on them, and are followed by consequent ones. Historical events are perceived or­dinarily as such because they stand out—they are different in some interesting way from what usually happens.

By convention, one looks for the explanation of a historical event in what happened just before. A common temptation in his­torical analysis is to seek the explanation of a historical event not in all antecedent events but in those which are historic—that is, in events which are novel. Analysis in terms of antecedent “historical events” appears to make sense because, without the appearance of some novel antecedent factor, we feel, the status quo could not change sufficiently to provoke the historical event in question.

But even if all the ordinary antecedent events are taken into ac­count in a historical analysis (as they always are in the better sort of history), one usually tries (again, as a matter of convention) to explain historical events mainly in terms of their immediate ante­cedents. History operates from moment to moment, it is thought, and the long arm of history does not reach out of one point in time and grab at something much later on.

Thus the conventions of historical analysis foreshorten the con­text of an event. Factors that endure over long periods of time tend, inevitably, to be given less weight in historical analysis than events that are closer at hand and more dramatic.

My contention here is that historical analysis (of the sort usual in anthropology, at least) is insufficiently sensitive to the stable features of culture and character that lie within the province of anthropological study. At best, “history” seems to relegate those enduring propositions about the nature of the world to the status of background information. At worst, they are ignored altogether.

For as long as history is concerned mainly with what does hap­pen, there is no obvious problem with the ordinary sort of histori­cal analysis: A (a historical event) is caused by B (an anterior historical event) or by B, C, and D—or by all these acting in con­cert, along with a few cultural regularities perhaps. But when, as in the present case, we try to explain what does not happen, there is an unexpected difficulty. If historical events are caused by (ante­cedent) historical events, then what causes a nonevent? Is it other events—or other nonevents—or is it the nonoccurrence of other events?

The most adequate description of a complex system is in terms 77of what will not happen (Bateson 1967). What actually happens in history is only a minuscule fraction of the equally plausible out­comes of anterior events. By focusing only on what has happened, we miss what might have happened—and what could not have happened. In a phrase, the ordinary sort of historical analysis is suffused with the error of thinking that post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Cultural analysis—dealing as it does with the central precepts in peoples’ belief systems—attempts to avoid this sort of error by seeking to explain history, to the degree possible, as the ordinary functioning of a relatively stable premise system.

In the case at hand I have shown that contemporary Nukuoro emigration conveys the same meanings and is founded on the same premises as the earliest cases of emigration recorded in Nukuoro traditional history. Only in this way, I think, can we understand why the Nukuoro on Ponape have created something that, if it has any structure at all, is of the order of an “anticommunity”—or at the very least a “noncommunity.”7


Nukuoro is an atoll located in Ponape District, Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. As of 15 March 1965 there were 278 persons living on the atoll, 26 of them non-Nukuoro. Further information on the population is contained in Car­roll (1975b).
    This chapter was first drafted while I held a National Institute of Mental Health Special Postdoctoral Fellowship during 1970–1971 at the University of Hawaii. Fieldwork (1963–1966) was supported by a National Institute of Mental Health Predoctoral Fellowship and Research Grant and (during the summer of 1967) by the Graduate School Research Fund of the University of Washington. I am indebted to the many students and colleagues who have provided valuable comments at various oral presentations of this material, and especially to the following colleagues who have provided written comments on earlier versions: Michael H. Agar, Gregory Bateson, Ivan A. Brady, Raymonde Carroll, Stephen W. Foster, Eric A. Hill, Sharif K. Kakana, Michael D. Lieber, Robert K. McKnight, Susan B. Peterson, John Rutherford, Albert J. Schütz, David M. Schneider, Bradd Shore, and Martin G. Silverman.

1. The alternatives are either to marry into a Ponapean family or to make government-owned land productive for agriculture—a homesteading ar­rangement (offered only occasionally) that may lead to acquisition of perma­nent land rights after five years of continuous cultivation.

2. Descriptions of Nukuoro and Kapingamarangi are available in Carroll (1966) and Lieber (1968a). 78

3. This matter may be put another way: The Kapinga, whether at home or on Ponape, seem to feel that they are all members of the same community, while the Nukuoro seem to feel that the community is coterminous with the atoll and those away from the home atoll are no longer part of the community.

4. Table 1 presents the relevant data for all Nukuoro living abroad in 1965 (see note 5 for additional information). It will be noted that 56 percent of all Nukuoro living abroad were last married to non-Nukuoro.

Table 1 Ethnic Status of Last Spouse, Ever-Married Members of Nukuoro Living Ethnic Population, by Location, 15 March 1965

Status On Nukuoro       Abroad  
of     Both       Both  
Spouse Men Women Sexes   Men Women Sexes Total

Married to ethnic Nukuoro

28 37 65     9   8 17   82

Married to non-Nukuoro

  4   4   8   14   8 22   30


32 41 73   23 16 39 112

Source: Carroll (1975b:table 8.28).

Note: See Carroll (1975a) for population definitions.

5. According to a census I conducted in June 1966, there were twenty-five mar­ried Nukuoro on Ponape who were residing there permanently and an addi­tional nine married or formerly married persons were considered to be there ‘temporarily’. Of these twenty-five permanent residents, fourteen were Nukuoro married to other Nukuoro (a total of seven couples); the remainder (eight men and three women) were married to non-Nukuoro. Of the three women married to non-Nukuoro, none had jobs and only one had direct rights in land (through year-to-year lease of government land). Of the eight men married to non-Nukuoro, only three had direct access to land (one through homestead, one through year-to-year lease, and one through owning the tract mentioned elsewhere in this chapter). Two of these men did not have steady wage-earning jobs; the rest did.
    Of the seven Nukuoro men married to Nukuoro women, only three had a steady wage-earning job and one (an employed person) had direct rights in land (through lease); another (unemployed) man lived on land belonging to relatives. Of the Nukuoro wives of these men, only one had a steady job (another was employed part-time as a maid); two (including the one em­ployed full-time) had rights in land (through year-to-year lease of govern­ment land), three were living on land belonging to relatives, and two had no land rights of their own.
    Thus only four of twenty-five married Nukuoro on Ponape had both a steady job and rights to land: three men and one woman (and two of these men were married to non-Nukuoro). The men who did not have steady jobs worked occasionally as stevedores or as fishermen. 79

6. The Nukuoro, the Kapinga, and the ethnographers who have worked among them all concur in these comparisons.

7. While the present discussion may throw some light on the question of why the history of the Nukuoro on Ponape does not much resemble the history of the Kapinga, we have provided no general solution to the age-old problem of why some ethnics abroad form communities resembling those left behind and others do not. In a curious way it does seem, however, that the Nukuoro on Ponape live much as they do on the home atoll—with the single difference that atoll life constrains the community to resemble a community in a way that life on Ponape does not.


Map 6. Relocation from Bikini and Eniwetok.

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