LOCATION: Federated States of Micronesia (also Guam, Republic of Belau, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Republic of Nauru, the Northern Mariana Islands, and thousands of smaller islands)
LANGUAGE: Indigenous languages of the islands; English
RELIGION: Catholicism; Protestantism
The name Micronesia comes from Greek, meaning "small islands." The Micronesian cultures are located in the northern Pacific Ocean. Most of the nearly 2,500 islands that make up Micronesia were administered by the United States until 1986 as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1986, the territory was dissolved into four constitutional governments: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Belau (Palau), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. All four have continuing political and economic relationships with the United States.
The Micronesian region is shaped like a parallelogram. Its corners are formed by the Republic of Belau in the southwest; Kiribati, formerly the Gilbert Islands, in the southeast; Guam in the northwest; and the Marshall Islands in the northeast.
Volcanic and coral islands make up Micronesia. Almost all of the islands within the region of Micronesia are located north of the equator. The largest island is Guam, with 225 square miles and about half of the total population. The Republic of Nauru (not previously administered by the U.S.) is one of the smallest countries in the world, with a total area of 9 square miles. It is also one of the least densely populated, with only about 9,000 people.
The languages of the Micronesian region belong to the large family of Austronesian languages. Austronesian is widely spread throughout the Pacific Basin. Micronesian languages are related to other Austronesian languages such as Javanese, Tagalog (Pilipino), Balinese, Hawaiian, and Malay. English is also spoken.
One Palauan myth recounts the story of a magical breadfruit tree that the child of the sun provided for his human mother. In order to provide fish for her to eat, the son cut a hole in the center of a breadfruit tree growing outside her house. Fish were thrown through the hole by the waves of the sea. The mother just had to walk out her door to collect fish. Her neighbors became jealous and cut down the breadfruit tree. This caused a catastrophic flood that engulfed the whole island. Only the mother was saved; her son flew her through the sky on a raft.
Christian missionaries in Micronesia have converted most of the people to either Catholicism or Protestant faiths. Traditional religion in Micronesian cultures involved belief in ghosts and ancestor worship. People also believed in spirits associated with specific places, objects, and activities. Chants and offerings were directed to these patron spirits.
Major religious holidays in Micronesia now are based on the Christian calendar. Many Micronesian states celebrate Ash Wednesday (in February), Easter (in March or April), All Saints' Day (in November), and Christmas (December 25). American secular holidays, including Thanksgiving, are observed in many parts of Micronesia. A major event for the display of traditional culture is the South Pacific Arts Festival. Performing groups from a number of different Pacific Island nations participate in it.
Many of the traditional celebrations that accompany events like birth, the start of adolescence, marriage, and death have been replaced by Christian rituals. On the island of Yap, however, male adolescence is still marked by a hair-cutting ceremony.
Traditionally, there were specific rules of etiquette for Micronesians to follow when they visited another island. Most societies had three distinct social classes. Social status still determines etiquette in Micronesian societies.
Greetings among many Micronesians are equivalent to the English "welcome." In the Chamorro language of the Northern Marianas, the greeting is hafa adai.
Western-style housing has become common in Micronesia. Some houses, however, are still constructed out of traditional materials, with the addition of a corrugated tin roof.
Electricity and running water are available on those islands where there has been an American or European presence. Some families own gasoline-powered generators to run their appliances.
Households in traditional Micronesian societies include a husband, a wife, and their unmarried children. Women's councils play an important role in village decision-making in Belau.
Micronesians wear Western-style clothing most of the time. However, for ceremonial occasions they often return to traditional styles of dress. Before European colonization, typical clothing was a loincloth for men and a skirt of natural fibers for women.
The Micronesian diet is pretty much the same across the region. There are some local differences due to climate patterns and geographic features. Foods including taro root, breadfruit, coconuts, and yams are staples in many households throughout the region. Europeans introduced corn, sweet potatoes, and manioc (cassava). Fish is the most important source of protein in all parts of Micronesia.
Western foods have become important, especially to younger people. Packaged American foods such as breakfast cereals are part of many Micronesian daily meals.
Western-style education has been introduced throughout Micronesia. There are a number of American-run schools where residents from the United States send their children. Opportunities for a college education must be found in the U.S. or in other developed countries.
Micronesian music is mainly vocal. Very few musical instruments are produced by Micronesian cultures. The shell trumpet and the nose flute are the most common instruments in the region.
Polynesian-style music from Hawaii has become popular in parts of Micronesia. American music and dance have been introduced by television and by Americans living on the islands.
Traditionally, men have engaged in fishing and harvesting. Women were responsible for gardening and household chores. Wage labor is now common for both men and women in Micronesia. Many states have set minimum-wage standards. In the Northern Marianas Islands, the minimum hourly wage for 1996 was $3.05.
Traditional forms of competitive sports have all but disappeared from most parts of Micronesia. Sports introduced from foreign nations (such as the United States and Japan), have become popular.
Television and video have become popular in many Micronesian societies. The programming is mostly foreign—usually from the U.S. or Japan—and often out of date. Movie theaters on many of the islands run current American and other foreign films.
Traditional forms of entertainment in Nauru consisted of singing and dancing contests and kite flying. The competing "teams" were organized along family lines.
Belau, in western Micronesia, is well known for the elaborately carved and painted wooden fronts of the houses known as bai . Every plank of the panels at either end of the house front was illustrated with scenes from a historical or mythological story. In the 1930s, the Palauans began to create copies of these planks, as well as new "story-boards," for sale to tourists. Carved bowls of various shapes and sizes and finely braided mats for sleeping and sitting on are also produced for the tourist industry.
Economic self-sufficiency (independence) and the survival of the many cultures are two of the major problems facing Micronesian countries. Tensions must be resolved between factions, both on each island and also between islands.
Ashby, Gene, ed. Some Things of Value: Micronesian Customs and Beliefs. Eugene, Ore.: Rainy Day Press, 1985.
Kluge, P. F. The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia. New York: Random House, 1991.
World Travel Guide. Micronesia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/fm/gen.html , 1998.