Yap - Religion and Expressive Culture

Catholic Christianity is the central and unifying belief system in Yapese society today. People attend Catholic churches in every major district on the islands, and the first Yapese Catholic priest was ordained in the mid-1980s. Deacons in each area organize local church activities and support. Protestant and other Christian sects have small congregations scattered through the islands.

Religious Beliefe. Animistic beliefs in spirits and magic persist in Yapese culture in spite of nearly a century of Christianity. Most Yapese fear ghosts and many use magic for health or protection from spirits who may threaten their enterprises. The Yapese divided their traditional world into domains of spirits and humans. Female spirits inhabited the sea and threatened the lives and work of fishermen. Male spirits inhabited the land, threatening the livelihood and produce of the women gardening. Some Yapese still follow customs of abstention and rituals of protection in fishing and gardening activities.

Religious Practitioners. In traditional Yapese villages, specialist magicians addressed the uncertainties of house building, fishing, gardening, and warfare. Today most of these specialties have been forgotten and people turn to the local deacons or the priest of the Catholic church for assistance in these uncertainties of life. Whereas once priests and magicians mediated between humans and the spirit world, now these tensions are addressed by the leaders of the church and by psychiatric doctors in the local hospital. Folk Medicine has a limited following, and Yapese rely almost exclusively on the hospital for health care.

Ceremonies. Prior to their conversion to Christianity, Yapese prayed to ancestors, breaking segments of mother-of-pearl shells as offerings. The welfare of all Yapese was thought to reside in several sacred places for which particular families had responsibility and from which they derived power. The traditional priest cared for the sacred place and organized the sacred calendar, which included rebuilding the sacred house, making annual offerings to the spirits of these places, and divining the future of warfare and politics in Yap. The eating-class initiation, still observed by a few contemporary Yapese, involved periods of isolation, preparation of new loincloths and personal items, fasting, and ceremonial feasting at the end of the isolation period. Individuals who observed this Ritual moved into a higher-ranking eating class and gained Political and social influence in their villages. Traditional Yapese ceremonies have been all but forgotten by Yapese people. The only persisting forms of traditional ceremonies are the sitting dances, which provide a public drama of storytelling and recounting of myth. People have also borrowed standing and stick dances from other Micronesians. The religious calendar today includes Christmas, Easter, strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest and worship, and large public funerals.

Arts. Items of great value to the Yapese included the white coral disks known as Yap stone money, mother-of-pearl shells that were collected and exchanged in village ceremonies, and long necklaces of red shells and bracelets of white shells made famous by Bronislaw Malinowski in his description of the kula in the Trobriand Islands. Yapese also make ceremonial betel pounders and decorate their houses with unique patterns of rope tying.

Medicine. In traditional times, the Yapese people did not have specialized medical practitioners. In every family the members who had knowledge of magic associated with Controlling weather, warfare, or fishing also had knowledge with regard to health and disease. These magicians gained prestige based upon the effectiveness of their knowledge in curing those who were ill or in aborting or controlling potential disasters in nature. Today, few Yapese use herbal medicines; most rely on the local hospital.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral is the most important life-cycle event in Yap. Even for an ordinary family member, it is a time to gather the most distant relations from various parts of the islands. Everyone who comes brings gifts of cigarettes, food, money, or liquor in support of the mourning Family. Members of the family prepare the body and wait for the guests for three days. The funeral concludes with a Christian service and the deceased is buried in either a church burial ground or an ancestral plot. About one month after the burial, the members of the family repay their guests by sponsoring a large party. The funeral and the following party reestablish kinship connections among dispersed relations.

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