Kosrae - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. In traditional times, gender, kinship, and rank served as the main organizing principles of society. One was born into a noble or commoner kin group, and there seems to have been little possibility of social movement Between these classes. Interaction between classes was governed by a rigid etiquette, including special forms of speech used by commoners towards nobles. Commoner labor and tribute provided the nobility with most of their necessities as well as luxury items. Only those of noble rank were allowed to hold titles and to control the resources and labor that titles carried with them. Hereditary rank distinctions now belong to the past, victims of nineteenth-century Christianization. Modern Kosraens with nobility in their ancestry, however, seem proud of their heritage.

Political Organization. In aboriginal days, political authority rested largely in the hands of the chiefs. One privilege enjoyed by the nobility was that of competing for one of eighteen ranked titles, whose holders were appointed by the principal chief, "Tokosra." The Tokosra was so powerful that early Western visitors referred to him as a king, noting that the people treated him like a god. The office of Tokosra was hereditary within a certain lineage of the freshwater-eel clan. Once he succeeded, the Tokosra appointed other male Members of the nobility to the titles; their wives acquired the assodated female titles. Because the titles were ranked and carried control over the resources and commoner labor of particular districts on the island, considerable competition and conflict arose among the nobility for appointment and promotion. Ordinarily, this took the form of feasting and rendering extra service and gifts to the Tokosra, in order to win a title or to be promoted to a higher title carrying control over more resources and people. Armed conflicts also are known to have occurred over succession. The fifty to sixty named Districts were the lowest level of the political structure, where the commoner population lived and worked. Each district was headed by a commoner overseer, who acted as a mediator Between the residents and the chief assigned to administer the district. With the loss of population and Christianization in the last decades of the nineteenth century, this political System declined. Today the island has its own state legislature and sends elected representatives to the Congress of Micronesia.

Social Control. As in other complex chiefdoms, the titled nobility of old Kosrae had many rights over the persons and properties of commoners, which they used to reward diligence and support as well as to punish laziness and recalcitrance. Since the island became Christian 100 years ago, the main source of social control has been the church membership and church-sponsored activities. Those who smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, have illicit sexual relations, or are in a state of anger or conflict with their relatives or neighbors face exCommunication and the possibility of eternal damnation. The threat of excommunication remains a deterrent against antisocial or culturally prohibited behaviors. Reinstatement occurs by means of public confession and repentance at a monthly service.

Conflict. Little is known of interpersonal conflicts in precontact days. Recurrent, patterned, large-scale conflicts were associated with political and prestige rivalries, primarily among the titled nobility. Although usually rivalries took the form of competitive feasting and gift giving, in 1837 one chief, together with his six brothers and commoner supporters, deposed an unpopular Tokosra by force. Also, prior to contact, quarrels over just which lines in one clan were truly noble led commoners in several districts to rebel (unsuccessfully) . Unfortunately, little is known of the frequency and intensity of such rebellions. In modern times, the church's Influence has spared the island from some of the fighting associated with young male drunkenness in much of Micronesia—although such violent encounters are far from uncommon on weekends. Intrafamily conflicts occur, as everywhere, but are usually settled quickly. Perhaps the main source of serious, enduring disputes today is land. Close relatives (e.g., siblings) quarrel over inheritance and use rights. The failure of previous generations in settling land issues means that distant relatives often find themselves at odds over ownership of particular parcels. Nevertheless, Kosrae is a remarkably peaceful island overall. Almost all fighting is alcohol-related, and as late as the 1970s no one could recall a violent death except for those associated with World War II battles.

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