Volume 95 1986 > Volume 95, No. 2 > Matriliny without conflict: the case of Pulap, by J. Flinn, p 221-238
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Despite the so-called “matrilineal puzzle” and the strains supposedly inherent in matrilineal descent systems, they continue to flourish, even in contemporary contexts of modernisation and social change. The orthodox arguments about strains in the system have focused on the issue of male authority. Richards (1950:246) described the “matrilineal puzzle” as a function of brothers and husbands having to share authority, and Schneider (1961:8) elaborated on the problem, contending that since authority tends to rest in the hands of men, matrilineal descent groups cannot release their male members to the groups they marry into in the same way that patrilineal descent groups can release their female members at marriage. According to this argument, the women of patrilineal descent groups do not contribute new members to their own groups, nor do they retain authority regarding descent group affairs; their descent group has little stake in them and they have no say in their descent group. The situation of men in matrilineal descent systems parallels that of women in patrilineal systems to the extent that they, too, fail to provide new members for the group, but differs in that men remain actively involved in decision-making within their own descent groups. In matrilineal descent systems, a man becomes associated with his wife's descent group without abandoning his position of authority within his own, thus generating the problem of organising relations between brothers-in-law, i.e., between the male members of the descent group and the in-marrying husbands (Schneider 1961:20). At stake is the solidarity and continuity of the matrilineal descent group. Brothers must be concerned with the welfare of their sisters in order to maintain the descent group, and therefore have an interest in controlling the women's husbands. Yet husbands simultaneously retain obligations to their own descent groups.

Several of these notions have been challenged, however, in ways that highlight positive features of matriliny. Douglas (1971) contests the assumption that having men attached to two descent groups - 222 automatically creates strain, pointing out that the dual ties of men in matrilineal descent systems can be advantageous precisely because men's ties are not confined to a single group. Rather than promoting potential conflicts of authority between brothers-in-law, matriliny can encourage a system of cross-cutting ties. Petersen (1982) provides a clear example with a case from Ponape, where matriliny thrives despite a lack of association with matrilocal residence, matrilineal inheritance, or female subsistence production because the cross-cutting ties of the matrilineal system promote both exchange and social interaction. Strathern (1972) has demonstrated that, even in patrilineal systems, women are not necessarily released from one group to become attached to another, but can maintain ties with both, enabling them to serve as links between the two. By encouraging dual loyalties, matriliny is seen to promote intergroup ties and exchange, thus organising relations even when residential, property and subsistence relations are organised according to other principles. Moreover, matriliny can persist as an effective aspect of social organisation even in the face of change and modernisation (Nash 1974).

Sacks (1974, 1979) and Thomas (1980) have contested assumptions about male authority in general, arguing that the degree of authority held by men over women varies considerably, and their domains of authority are far from constant or universal. Schneider's assertion that the lines of authority and descent in matrilineal systems are inherently disparate is contested by the case described by Thomas (1980) of Namonuito Atoll, where the “matrilineal puzzle” is solved by vesting certain types of authority in women, not men, thus enhancing descent group solidarity. Considerable variation also exists from one society to another in the allocation of authority between a woman's brother and her husband, and in the relative degree of authority they hold over women of the descent group. The level of domination of one brother-in-law over the other differs from one society to another, and the position of women is far from universally subservient. In fact, it appears as though female autonomy is greatest when neither brother nor husband is dominant over the other (Schlegel 1972).

Considering all the evidence contrary to the earlier assumptions regarding matrilineal descent systems, a number of questions need to be asked. In particular, under what circumstances will dual loyalties of men in matrilineal systems favour co-operation and exchange? Under what circumstances will they promote strain and conflict? What is the impact—if any—of subsistence roles? The Ponapean case (Petersen 1982) certainly indicates that subsistence roles can be irrelevant. On Ponape, matriliny does not organise relations among food producers, nor does it - 223 govern land tenure or residence. Thus, dual loyalties do not present men with conflicting demands surrounding subsistence and the well-being, survival or perpetuation of the descent group; dual ties link rather than separate and divide. The situation is more problematic in the contrasting cases in which control of essential resources and subsistence production are associated with matriliny.

In seeking answers to these questions, I shall examine literature on Truk Lagoon, where matriliny conforms to the orthodox view, and then present my own material on Pulap Atoll, west of Truk Lagoon, where, unlike Ponape, matrilineal organisation is closely tied to land, residence and subsistence production, yet men do not experience conflicting demands from two descent groups. This article describes how control over descent group welfare on Pulap is largely in the hands of women through their responsibility for children, land and subsistence production, and the lines of authority between brothers-in-law revolve around maintaining the solidarity of the women of the descent group. Gender ideology reflects the subsistence roles of men and women as well as their structural position. Women are seen as stable and sedentary, providing permanence and continuity for the descent group, while male mobility complements, enhances and supports female solidarity, thus ensuring the well-being of descent groups. In the culturally related area of Truk Lagoon, however, men are responsible for land and for production of the staple foods, and a man retains control over his descent group's welfare by controlling his sister's husband, promoting strains between brothers-in-law not present on Pulap.


First, I shall briefly review the Truk literature as it pertains to the issue at hand. The islands of Truk Lagoon are high and of volcanic origin; they are surrounded by a barrier reef. The staple food is breadfruit, supplemented by taro, sweet potatoes, manioc, arrowroot and bananas. Fish and other marine animals provide the bulk of the protein.

Residence is typically uxorilocal, and matrilineages, as corporations, hold title to land, with use of the trees and soil allocated to individuals of the descent group. A man's children are his heirs, but they can inherit only what a man holds full title to, and he usually holds only use rights in most of his landholdings (Goodenough 1951). Gardening and food preparation are considered male tasks; women provide some fish, working in groups close to shore with nets. Men, not women, are responsible for land and for the staple foods, and a Trukese man is responsible both to - 224 his own matrilineal descent group and to his wife's. A married man in Truk is obligated to work for his wife and her descent group, yet he must take care not to neglect his own. He must satisfy each group, balancing their demands to avoid causing members of one to accuse him of favouring the other. Members of his wife's descent group may insist on divorce if he fails to contribute sufficiently, and members of his own descent group may choose to do the same if they feel he is too partial to his wife's kin (Swartz 1950:469-71).

A Trukese man must provide for his wife and children, yet he must simultaneously ensure that the women of his own descent group are provided for. To achieve this end, a woman's brother exerts authority over her husband, thus creating the predicted strains. In particular, a husband in Truk must care for his wife's property and for any land or trees he brings to the marriage (Caughey 1977:117) under the authority of her brothers.

A Trukese husband must render obedience and respect to his wife's brothers. This is a strictly one-sided relationship. Any land or trees held by a woman are worked by her husband, and in this activity he is responsible to her brothers, who are her guardians and the protectors of her interests (Goodenough 1951:49).

A brother can demand that his sister's husband work for her descent group, and, at the insistence of the brother, a husband is obligated to contribute goods and labour for projects taken on by his wife's descent group. He has no rights, however, in any property which results, since he is not a member of that descent group. Nor is his wife's descent group indebted to him in any way or bound to repay him for his contribution (Goodenough 1951:50). Any request or command a woman's brother makes of her husband, the husband must comply with, although there is no obligation on the part of the brother to return goods or services in kind. In fact, the husband must make a gift of his labour or goods. Kiis, the Trukese term for this gift from a woman's husband to her brother, differs from the ordinary word for gift (niffang), which implies an obligation to make some sort of return. The gift to a wife's brother, however, implies no such obligation: “Kiis may be defined as that form of gift in which the giver retains no rights to the property given and in which the recipient assumes no obligation” (Goodenough 1951:49). Thus, in Truk, the male is the crucial subsistence figure, and to retain control over the welfare of his descent group, he must control his sister's husband.

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Moreover, in Truk a good deal of frustration, resentment and latent hostility can develop as men are forced to balance carefully the demands of two descent groups. Since aggressive behaviour ordinarily is strongly prohibited, however, hostility must be contained and handled through indirect ways. Themes of aggression appear under a number of guises: competitive feasts, drinking, suicide and sexual practices (Caughey 1977:114, Gladwin and Sarason 1953:53, Marshall 1979, Swartz 1950). Even extramarital affairs are construed as aggressive acts directed against a woman's husband and her brothers (Swartz 1950:480).

Symbolic uses of food illustrate this theme. As is the case throughout Truk State, the sharing of food is an expression of solidarity, and food is prepared and distributed among those who are kin. Sharing of food symbolises the “love between kin” (Caughey 1970:63), so that matrilineally related people who do not share food on a day-to-day basis are considered members of separate groups (Caughey 1970:92-3). Failure to greet a relative with an offer of food breeds resentment and implies the relative is no longer considered kin. The Trukese also compete with food, manoeuvring to humiliate another group. Gladwin and Sarason describe competitive feasts on Romonum:

While in the old days lineage often fought lineage in very real fights, nowadays they fight with food. One lineage will challenge another to a food fight, and the members of each lineage will work desparately for days and weeks to produce more food than the other. This culminates in a great feast in which each lineage tries to consume the output of the other, although only after each item has been carefully counted and a victor determined (Gladwin and Sarason 1953:53).

Caughey describes a competitive situation on Uman involving an exchange of food when a woman is first pregnant. At that time the husband's lineage sends the wife's lineage a gift of food, and the participants can take the opportunity to turn the exchange into a competition. Each lineage alternatively either returns an approximately equal gift to terminate the fight or sends a substantially larger amount in an attempt to humiliate the other lineage (Caughey 1977:122).

Without arguing that the stress men are under in the Trukese matrilineal descent system provides the sole source of hostility, it is none the less a potent one. Men have conflicting responsibilities and duties since they live under the authority of both their own and their wife's brothers, with each descent group pursuing its own interests, at times at the expense of another.

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The roles that men and women play in Pulap differ, however, from those in Truk Lagoon, and men do not experience the predicted strains or conflicts. Culturally related to Truk Lagoon and located about 200 kilometres to the west, Pulap is the larger and more populous of two inhabited islets of Pulap Atoll. The topography is typical of atoll islets: gently sloping sand on the lagoon side, rocky and slightly elevated on the ocean side. The interior of the islet is relatively level, with a swampy depression ideal for the cultivation of taro. Along the sheltered southern end of the islet lies the settlement area, with most of the houses built close to the beach. Interspersed along the shore are descent group canoe houses, most of which also double as residences.

The most important cooked vegetable staples are true taro (Colocasia esculenta), swamp taro (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) and breadfruit. Although true taro is the prestige food on Pulap, it is not as plentiful as either swamp taro or breadfruit. Coconuts are used for drinking, and coconut cream extracted from the mature meat is used in virtually every cooked vegetable dish either as part of the cooking liquid or as a sauce. Coconut toddy is drunk by men during periods allowed by the chief. The primary source of protein is fish and other marine resources; chickens, pigs, dogs and turtles are secondary sources.

Economic activity is directed primarily towards subsistence, but, unlike the situation in Truk Lagoon, gardening, cooking and reef gathering are carried out by women, whereas fishing and climbing for breadfruit and coconuts are male responsibilities.

The matrilineal clans found on Pulap are also found in Truk Lagoon as well as other islands in the state and the culturally related atolls to the west in Yap State. The most inclusive and widespread category of kin throughout the area is the yáynang ‘clan’, a named, exogamous, non-localised, matrilineal descent group, which Goodenough has defined as “a group of people who share a common name” (Goodenough 1951:65). Although clan segments are dispersed among a number of islands and members cannot trace their descent, they believe the shared name indicates that a common female ancestress originally established the clan. Even in the absence of any demonstrated tie, hospitality and companionship are incumbent upon fellow clan members. Thus, a visitor to an island where his clan is represented can be assured of receiving food and shelter during his stay.

The section of a clan represented on an island is also called yáynang, and five such matrilineal descent groups are represented on Pulap. Each has a special role in island activities. Aspects of the roles of four Pulap - 227 clans relate either to the production of subsistence foods or to their distribution beyond the residential unit; the fifth no longer has a distinctive role.

The chiefly clan is Howupwollap ‘proprietor or person of Pulap’, and its senior man serves as island chief. He regulates traditional community affairs and mediates unresolved interclan disputes. His decisions are based on consensus opinions reached by the traditional council, composed of all the clan heads. As island chief, he is entitled to receive first-fruits presentations. He is also entitled to a portion of any turtles caught near the atoll and an extra allotment of fish from a large catch.

The other four clans are all essentially equal in status, although only three of them have special responsibilities. Members of Pwéél, known as wurupwów ‘tailfeathers’ of the chiefly clan, are considered the “children” and heirs of Howupwollap, said to adorn the chiefly clan as children adorn their parents. Consequently, first-fruits given the chief are redistributed among members of Pwéél because of their position as heirs. The timing and announcement of the presentations, however, are up to Mongunufaŕ clan, whose responsibility it is to “speak for” Howupwollap; this clan is designated yawen hamwool ‘mouth of the chief’. For example, when the chief wants a community meeting, Mongunufaŕ must announce the event and summon the rest of the island. When Howupwollap directs people to remain out of the taro gardens to encourage more growth, Mongunufaŕ monitors compliance. In addition, Mongunufaŕ divides and allocates shares of fish from community expeditions and vegetable foods at feasts involving the entire island. When such food is being distributed, Mwóóŕ clan has the privilege of calling kuul ‘take freely’, which allows bystanders to grab freely from any remaining food. This custom is said to penalise men too lazy or reluctant to join in the fishing, since they will not be present to collect the extra food, and to compensate the young helpers who fetch the shares of delinquent fisherman and thus benefit in their stead. The fifth clan on Pulap is Katamang, formerly the “Army of Howupwollap”. With the cessation of interisland warfare, however, Katamang no longer has this role, and no other role has taken its place.

The genealogically senior male within each clan serves as its head, and his role within the clan is comparable to that of the island chief within the community. He deals with affairs that pertain to members of his own clan, especially intraclan disputes, and he calls meetings to discuss issues of concern to the entire descent group. His job is not so much to issue orders as it is to articulate the consensus opinions reached at meetings. A clan head must therefore be a skilled orator; this quality is so vital that in - 228 the case of a quiet, reserved clan head, another less senior man who can speak eloquently may take over his duties and responsibilities.

The authority of a clan head extends beyond the clan members to the husbands of the female members when the welfare of the women is concerned. For example, when Howupwollap permitted men to drink yiis ‘yeast’ (home-brew made from yeast, sugar, and water) as part of an island celebration in 1980, one of the clan heads directed not only the men of his descent group but also the husbands of its women to abstain. The clan head's influence over husbands is restricted, however, to issues concerning the well-being of the clan women.

The senior women of a clan have responsibilities similar to those of the clan head with respect to activities and affairs, such as dancing and gardening, which concern female descent group members. Younger women may take on the role if they are so inclined, especially if they also have the ability to speak well. In fact, their job is said to be yafalafal ‘to deliver orations’.

Members of some clans contend that they share a common Pulap ancestress, while others trace their descent from several women. According to Pulap belief, clans with one ancestress were either founded on the island by one woman, or, if originally founded by several, only one branch of the clan remains extant, others having died out. Members of other clans have either forgotten the distant genealogical connections or believe the clan was brought to Pulap by more than one woman.

Each clan on Pulap is composed of several descent lines, tettel, whose members are associated with and identified by a particular homesite. Within a descent line, genealogical ties are clearly traced back only a few generations to a single woman. Residence is primarily uxorilocal, but a married man none the less continues to be identified with his own descent line and homesite. He becomes attached to his wife's group as mwáánepwiito ‘a man who comes into’ her homesite. Each married woman is potentially the founder of a new tettel if she, together with her husband, children and perhaps other kin, such as younger sisters, move to land her husband received at marriage and then establish their own homesite. Two separate tettel emerge, however, only when the members consistently prepare food separately and cease sharing resources. Although a couple may establish a separate residence, at least for a time they may continue to share food with the original homesite members. Tettel which have recently split tend to retain a common identity for a time and occasionally refer to themselves as “people” of the former named homesite. They visit one another frequently and on certain occasions, especially feasts, prepare food together.

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Siblingship provides the model for relations among members of a matrilineal descent group, and this is reflected in a Crow-type terminology. Although women of higher generations are referred to as “mothers” and women refer to descent group members of lower generations as “children”, descent group “mothers” are treated in many matters as older sisters, and all other descent group relationships entail sibling terminology regardless of generation. The sibling bond is basic to the social structure of Greater Trukese Society (Marshall 1981b), and relations with close descent group members are considered the most stable and solidary. Siblings should feel tong ‘love’ for one another so that they tumunuw ‘take care of’ one another through mutual nurturing behaviour, sharing resources such as land, companionship, food, shelter, money and labour (Elbert 1972:183; Marshall 1977, 1981a:13, 1981b). Moreover, descent group “siblings” jointly have a stake in the protection, use, distribution and perpetuation of the group's assets and resources.

Relations among descent group siblings are marked by patterns of respect and obedience shown by “sisters” towards “brothers”, younger siblings towards older ones, and—among classificatory siblings—children of a younger sister towards children of an older sister. In general, junior siblings should behave in a deferential and obedient manner towards their senior siblings. They should ensure that they keep head and shoulders low in the presence of senior siblings, and sit, for instance, if a senior sibling is standing. In both tone and vocabulary, junior siblings must speak deferentially, using a soft voice and specific respectful words in place of the ordinary ones, especially wiih instead of mwéngé for ‘food’ or ‘eat’. “Sisters” must be particularly deferential towards “brothers” and stoop in their presence, even crawl on their knees if a “brother” is seated. Respectful behaviour towards siblings is expected to begin at puberty, and brothers commonly move out of their natal homesites at that time and sleep elsewhere. In the past, young men went to reside with men at a canoe house, but since most also serve as residences today, boys simply seek out other relatives.

Relations among descent group siblings are basic to Pulap kinship, but the children of descent group men constitute another important category of siblings. The children of descent group women comprise one category, and they and their mothers share descent group membership. The children of descent group men comprise another; their fathers all belong to the same descent group, but they themselves belong to a number of different ones. According to Pulap's terminology, these children of descent group men are “siblings” to one another, and the - 230 relationship between members of a matrilineal descent group and the offspring of its men is construed as a parent-child tie. Descent group members refer to the offspring of the men as “children”, and these “children” in turn refer to the members of their fathers' descent group as “parents”. Thus, those who are fellow “children” of their fathers' descent group view one another as siblings, and junior siblings owe respect and deference towards senior siblings, as among descent group siblings, so that the children of an elder brother are senior to the children of a younger brother.

Both types of sibling relationships are ideally strong and supportive, but the more inalienable bond is among siblings who share descent group membership. Theoretically no “siblings” can marry, but in practice “siblings” whose fathers share clan but not descent line membership have been allowed to do so. Such marriages are not considered particularly sensible, however, because the erstwhile “sibling” relations convert to tenuous in-law ones instead.

Sibling relations affect marriage on Pulap in a number of other ways as well. A form of preferential marriage is a case in point because the ideal replacement for a deceased spouse is his or her sibling. Neither the sororate nor levirate are known to have been mandatory, but in the past, if someone wished to remarry within a few years of a spouse's death anyone other than the spouse's sibling, it was necessary first to make a payment to the family of the deceased. This type of payment was abandoned with conversion to Christianity in the early 1950s, although the preferential type of remarriage persists.

When two people marry, both bride and groom receive land from their parents, an inheritance which customarily includes taro gardens, dry land and breadfruit trees. Breadfruit trees may be owned separately from the land, but otherwise ownership of land usually entails ownership of trees on it as well. The most important are coconut palms. The land and trees a husband brings to the marriage are given to his wife in order to provide for their children, who should in turn inherit them when they marry. In the past, however, a man often kept a portion of land within his own descent group, which was maintained by women of his descent line so that he could ‘eat from it’ if he separated from his wife. In recent years men no longer have retained such parcels, but a woman's family still asserts the right to allot a portion to her brothers, as in the past.

Land obviously does not remain in the hands of any one descent group. Pulapese speak of a plot of land as a ball passed around from one group to another, pointing out that land moves out of descent groups - 231 through men and in through women. Women not only retain land for their descent groups, but they bring in new parcels when they marry, whereas men take land away from the group. In the event of a separation, a wife keeps any land she received from her husband since it was intended for their children. If a woman marries more than once, land given by the first husband belongs only to his children; a second husband must provide separately for his own offspring.

Although all the adult married women at a given homesite have their own taro patches and breadfruit trees, they share the produce and prepare it together. Those who share homesite residence are said to ‘eat from’ each other's land. It is impossible to underestimate the symbolic value of food on Pulap and in Truk in general. The sharing of resources is typified by the sharing of food as an expression of solidarity. Food is prepared, distributed and shared among kin, thus defining who is a kinsperson. A relative is commonly offered food as a greeting, and the primary way to sustain and validate kinship is through gifts of food. Although other resources are shared among kin, food is first and foremost. Such sharing takes place daily within the homesite not only because women share their produce but also because a man shares his catch with his wife, children, and other homesite members. Moreover, he should gather coconuts and breadfruit from trees belonging to members of the homesite where he resides, as it would be shameful and a sign of dependence to harvest large numbers from the trees belonging to women of his own descent line. Although the primary responsibility with respect to food lies within the homesite, food is regularly distributed and shared beyond it, since other relationships must be sustained. Men have fish and coconuts sent to women of their descent line, and women prepare food for men of the descent line (“brothers”) who reside at other homesites.

The importance of sibling relations is also reflected in affinal terminology. The term for spouse is ŕóónimwey, literally ‘my person-of-the house’. Until recently, two other categories of kin were also called “spouse”: a spouse's same-sex sibling and the spouse of one's own same-sex sibling. As for brothers-in-law, a wife's brother is called “child”, and a man's sister's husband is, in turn, referred to as “father”, a practice which is consistent with a man considering his sister's children siblings, since they are fellow descent group members.


In addition to structuring relationships, conceptions of sibling bonds - 232 also shape Pulap beliefs about maleness and femaleness. Full male and female sexuality begins with puberty, and thus Pulapese believe the respect and avoidance behaviour expected among siblings must also begin at this time. Until Pulapese became Christian, puberty rites for both boys and girls marked this change in status. The celebration for a girl occurred at menarche; the male ceremony paralleled the female one but often involved several boys at a time, all of whom had begun to show facial and pubic hair. They received instructions outlining proper adult behaviour, with particular attention paid to understanding the appropriate respect and obedience due senior siblings. Decorated with jewellery and turmeric, a young person was admired by the community and honoured with a feast (Krämer 1935:268). Following the feast, girls were escorted to a menstrual house and boys to a canoe house, where they remained for four days and nights. At each subsequent menses and at the birth of a child, women returned to the menstrual house for another four days. Men, however, did not regularly return to their canoe houses, except for navigators during the four days preceding a voyage (Krämer 1935:272).

With puberty, young men and women become fully male and female, fully “brothers” and “sisters”. They also become more involved in the subsistence activities expected of adults, which relate to Pulap notions of maleness and femaleness: women are associated with land and stability, men with the sea and mobility. In general, women are responsible for producing and preparing the staples, especially the various types of taro. They are also responsible for preparing breadfruit, coconuts and fish gathered by men, and caring for the taro gardens and homesite land. Women gather small fish, octopus and other marine animals just off-shore or along the reef, with the reef considered more or less a mere extension of the land. Other female tasks such as caring for children, washing clothes, cleaning house, and weaving skirts, mats, baskets and thatch for homes or canoe houses, can all be pursued at or near the homesite and keep women more sedentary than men. Both while working and while talking or otherwise socialising, women remain seated as much as possible, sending children to run errands or fetch for them (cf. Thomas 1978:99-104). Although women may visit close kin living at other homesites, they spend most of their time with fellow descent line women and children. They leave their homesites only for specific errands, and they rarely venture in a canoe to visit another island unless drawn by a serious concern, such as a sick relative. Women experience severe homesickness when they leave the island, and those who have married non-Pulap men with jobs elsewhere return frequently to Pulap, - 233 often without their husbands, and spend considerable time with their matrilineal kin. In short, women need a reason to move, either from their homesite or from the island, and moving is considered so unnatural that they have to return as soon and as often as possible.

In contrast with women, men are believed to be inherently mobile. Their primary subsistence contribution is the provision of fish, which they catch in a variety of ways, many involving the use of either small paddling canoes or large sailing canoes also designed for interisland travel. Pulapese are extremely proud of their sailing ability, and navigation is considered a male prerogative. Men are also responsible for climbing trees and for heavy construction work such as building houses, canoe houses and canoes. In general, male tasks allow for more flexibility of choice than in Truk. Men tend to fish together in groups, and the catch is pooled and distributed by household without reference to individual contributions. Moreover, since fishing crews are based on membership in canoe houses and a man can choose from among several, he can avoid the company of anyone he is in conflict with.

Not only do male subsistence activities and postmarital residence involve movement, but men can wander the island freely without accounting for their actions. Even during the course of a day, they tend to move frequently, dropping a task in one place to begin another elsewhere. Men routinely visit other places and need no reason other than a yen for fun to join the crew of a canoe planning a visit to another island. Although women may learn aspects of navigation, the esoteric knowledge surrounding it remains a male domain. Men reputedly learn easily the dialects of other islands, whereas women are supposedly embarrassed to speak anything but their own dialect. The songs and dances men and women have traditionally composed follow a similar pattern: women compose songs on homesite-related subjects, recounting the hardships and triumphs of lovers, children, and relatives, whereas men sing of historical events.

Linked with the land, women act as caretakers of descent group property. They, not their husbands or brothers, cultivate the taro gardens, bring new land to the descent group when they marry, produce and care for new members, and form the core of the residential unit, and in so doing maintain continuity of the site, of the descent group and of its resources. In other words, they provide stability and permanence. Through their responsibility for homesites, land, children and staple foods, they ensure both the well-being and the perpetuation of the descent group. Men, however, move out of the household at puberty or marriage, travel away from the island for voyages and fishing expedi- - 234 tions, and turn land over to their wives. Descent group resources and property are often spoken of as being in the hands of its women. Although canoes and canoe houses, for example, are viewed as part of the male domain, the women of the descent group are symbolically the true owners. Men tend them on behalf of women, primarily because of their responsibility to bring in fish.

Women, as “sisters”, provide the stability and security which make male activities and mobility possible, and the male role both maintains and supports the well-being and solidarity of the women. With descent group welfare in the hands of women, men are free to pursue relations with more than one descent group. They remain members of their own descent groups when they marry, while becoming attached to their wives' groups. The affinal ties of others form the basis of the important patrilateral bonds—those with members of one's father's descent group (“parents”) and those with the offspring of descent group men (“children”). Any of these entitle men to rights in canoes and canoe houses, a situation which provides considerable flexibility for social and economic interaction. Men can be both “husbands” and “brothers” because they can count on their “sisters” to maintain the descent group.

In fact, men's roles are supportive of solidarity among “sisters”, and particularly revealing in this regard is the structure of authority between brothers-in-law. Their duties, obligations, and rights with respect to each other can best be understood only through the brother-sister sibling relationship. On the one hand, a husband must emulate his wife's deference to her brother and must acquiesce to his requests, but the brother can request assistance or labour only when it involves the woman's home or descent group affairs. Since all the men of a woman's own and higher generations within the descent group are “brothers”, a husband is expected to obey her clan head, the most senior “brother”, in instances where her welfare is at stake. On the other hand, a husband can ask his wife's brother for assistance in virtually any matter because the help a woman's brother gives to her husband is considered assistance to the woman, his sister. It should not even be necessary for a woman's husband to request help when the need is obvious, such as when he is building the woman a house. In either case assistance given to a brother-in-law is construed as assistance to a sister and part of the obligation of siblings to tumunuw ‘take care of’ each other. This two-faceted relationship thus differs considerably from the situation in Truk Lagoon.

The lines of authority revolve around the women of the descent line; husbands are obedient to the brothers of the women with respect to her descent group affairs and brothers are subservient to the husbands for - 235 the welfare of the women, who are their sisters. In sum, maintaining the solidarity of the women of the descent group maintains the descent group itself, as women impart permanence and stability through their responsibilities for children, land and the staple foods. Fish, the male contribution, may be important to the diet, but taro is fundamental. The general term for food, mwéngé, refers to the cooked starches, and taro or another vegetable staple alone may constitute a meal, but fish alone is merely a snack. A man does not even retain responsibility for the land he is given when he marries. Since the welfare and well-being of the descent group rest primarily with women, dual loyalties on the part of men do not pose a threat. Their cross-cutting ties—their structural mobility—can both promote intergroup interaction and support the role of females.

Matriliny persists as a vital aspect of social organisation in a variety of contexts, but the relations it organises are far from uniform. Matrilineal systems differ considerably from one society to another, similar perhaps only to the extent that descent is traced through women. Beyond that, the impact of matriliny on other aspects of the social system is not necessarily predetermined or inherent in matriliny itself. Not only will the type of relations organised by matrilineal principles vary, but so, too, will the importance and the effect of dual male loyalties.

As Petersen (1982) has indicated, matriliny can thrive without being associated with residence and subsistence. In fact, perhaps the less there is such an association, the less problematic are dual male loyalties. If matrilineal relations do not regulate access to limited resources, then men are far less likely to be in the position of choosing between competing demands of two descent groups.

The Pulap and Truk cases shed light on the matter, because they both represent situations in which, contrary to the Ponapean case, matriliny does organise relations concerning land, residence and subsistence production, but in significantly different ways. In the Trukese case, matriliny governs land tenure and subsistence production through relations among “brothers”, the men of the descent group, such that attachments to other groups as “husbands” must be carefully controlled to safeguard descent group property and well-being. Ties with two descent groups present men with conflicting demands rather than promoting flexibility and intergroup harmony, and relations between brothers-in-law are strained. This case thus fits neatly with the orthodox arguments - 236 regarding the “matrilineal puzzle”. Managing in-marrying men is a problem, and the Trukese solution is to accord a woman's brother authority over her husband.

Conflict is not inevitable, however, as evidenced by the Pulap case, where relations surrounding land, residence and horticulture are focused on “sisters”, the women of the descent group. Unlike the Trukese man with a comparable subsistence role, who is accountable to two descent groups, a Pulap woman is responsible only to her own descent group. Consequently, relations among men can be structured with little conflict between roles as “brothers”, who are supportive of “sisters”, and roles as “husbands”, who have ties, alliances, and rights with other groups. When much of the welfare of a descent group rests in the hands of its women, men can play supportive roles, with little need to control and direct in-marrying husbands. Even the themes of aggression found in Truk Lagoon are absent. Suicide is virtually unknown, and men rarely fight when drunk. Food exchanges are not designed as competitions to humiliate other descent groups. And although similar sexual practices and extramarital affairs occur, they are not construed as aggressive acts.

For any given society, it is necessary to examine in detail the significance and the role of matrilineal descent. Matriliny is not a predictable, uniform organising principle, but regulates different types of relations in a variety of ways, and these may have different implications not only for relations among brothers-in-law but also for intergroup relations in general. Certainly conflict is not inevitable; matriliny can as readily link men and groups as it can create conflict. Schneider (1984) argues about the dangers of describing and analysing native cultural constructs and relationships according to standard anthropological assumptions about kinship, and asserts that when some aspect of kinship appears to be present, its value and significance must be investigated rather than assumed. Applying this notion to assumptions about matriliny, this means avoiding presuppositions about conflict and strain, and focusing instead on concepts regarding the organisation of relations and the consequent opportunities and constraints available to individuals in various structural positions.


Field work was conducted from January 1980 to March 1981 on Pulap Atoll in the Caroline Islands and among Pulap migrants in Moen, Guam, Saipan, and the United States. The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BNS-7906640), a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, and a Standard University research assistantship.

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