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Ifaluk: Nonagression and Cooperation - Anthropology & the Human Condition

Brief ethnographic background of Ifaluk

Ifaluk: Nonagression and Cooperation - Anthropology & the Human Condition
Ifaluk is part of the Yap State in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. The population has tripled from the initial estimation of 250 residents by Burrows and Spiro in 1957, and currently has an estimated 600 people (Sosis, 2005). They depend on fishing and horticulture for subsistence. Woleaian is their native language, though many Ifaluk men (and none of the women) are able to speak English.

The origin of the beliefs in Ifaluk

The belief systems in Ifaluk are widely understood to stem from the fear of aggression, and this fear is played out in the suppression of aggression in their Ifaluk: Nonagression and Cooperation - Anthropology & the Human Conditionsociety. Among the Ifaluk, helpfulness, sharing and cooperation are highly valued as part of the ethic of non-aggression they abide by in their interpersonal relations. They promote harmony through suppressing
individual aspirations, restraining competition and discouraging the act of flaunting one's achievements and wealth. A members of the group-centric Ifaluk society "exists not so much as an autonomous self ..., but rather as part of a larger community of selves” (Marshall, 1994, para 2). Furthermore, environmental constraints (small in size and scant resources) and physical isolation of the atoll lead to the necessary reliance on one another, and thus call for a need for cooperation, obedience to authority, sharing of resources and non-aggression.

The Ifaluk adopt three major belief systems: the belief in spiritual beings, values of fago and song, and the practice of sorcery.

Beliefs in Spiritual Beings (1950s)Ifaluk: Nonagression and Cooperation - Anthropology & the Human Condition

Malevolent and benevolent ghosts

The Ifaluk recognizes that there are two classes of supernatural beings (alus): ghosts of the dead and high gods. While high gods are important, it is not nearly as prevalent in their daily life as ghosts. The Ifaluk believe in two kinds of ghosts which are the ghosts of the malevolent dead and benevolent dead respectively (Spiro, 1952). Benevolent ghosts are good and are thought to help the people. On the other hand, the Ifaluk believe in the powers of the malevolent ghosts to cause illness in the community. The ghosts are also held responsible for any immoral behavior committed by an Ifaluk. They believe that malevolent ghosts are bad and will do them harm, hence they hate and are afraid of these ghosts. Their everyday lives are affected by this belief, through overt means such as dreams and fantasies as well as covert actions in the forms of public exorcisms, rituals and ceremonies in the attempt to eradicate them (Spiro, 1952). Furthermore, they try to avoid places where they believe the ghosts are abundant and even refuse to go out at night as they believe that the ghosts are likely to be out and about (Spiro and Lutz, 1996). Children dare not venture outside alone and if they do so, come back screaming in fear (Spiro and Lutz, 1996). As such, children in Ifaluk are well taken care of and are never left on their own until they reach the age when they can walk (Spiro and Lutz, 1996).

Ifaluk: Nonagression and Cooperation - Anthropology & the Human ConditionMalevolent ghosts: fostering solidarity through a common enemy

More importantly, for the Ifaluk, the belief in malevolent ghosts (alusengau) serves as an outlet to channel their aggression, anger and even fear. The diversion of hostile feelings onto the
alus allows them to maintain peaceful relationships with one another. Being a small society in which everyone’s lives are intersected within a small parameter, to fall out with any member of the society or to bear any feelings of hostility toward one another is communally discouraged (Spiro, 1952). The projection of personal hostilities onto the spirits acts as an external outlet for personal anxieties and maintains the emotional and mental stability of oneself. Fighting against these alusengau fosters a sense of unity and solidarity since they are against a common ‘enemy’. Their conviction in the existence of mean spirits enable them to preserve the wholesome and positive beliefs they hold concerning human nature, thus facilitating peace in the society.

Malevolent ghosts: an outlet for the attribution of natural forces

Moreover, the belief in ghosts helps them to overcome feelings of uncertainty and helplessness in areas in which they have no control over, such as typhoons and illnesses which are prevalent in their society (Spiro, 1952). By attributing the incidence of disease and typhoons to the doings of alus, their feelings of incompetency arising from the inability to stop these bad things from happening are assuaged. Hence, through the belief that malevolent ghosts are the cause of all unfortunate things that happen in society, it helps them to overcome challenges in life and better cope with issues in which they have no power to change.
Ifaluk: Nonagression and Cooperation - Anthropology & the Human Condition
Wolphat (higher god): diverting aggression through folktales

The Ifaluk also have faith in the higher gods, one of which is Wolphat, an Ifaluk deity who is the grandson of Aluelap (the Ifaluk supreme deity and creator god). The myths surrounding Wolphat are known as titinap known only to the chiefs (and not to the ordinary people) and often portray Wolphat as a “trickster” (Spiro, 1951). In the myths, there is a strong contrast between the antagonistic behaviour of Wolphat and the Ifaluk values of amiability and geniality. The irony is that the chiefs, who are the symbols of peace in Ifaluk, endorse and enjoy accounting these stories which are about the very hostile behaviour that is prohibited in Ifaluk. As such, it implies that stories and folklore allow for the diffusion of frustrations that arises in society when emotions are suppressed and kept in check (Spiro, 1951).

Below is a diagram which shows the relationship between the motives for the performance of Ifaluk rituals which attack malevolent ghosts, the personal and social functions:
Ifaluk: Nonagression and Cooperation - Anthropology & the Human Condition
(Spiro, Kilborne and Lewis, 1987, p. 131)

Language of Values: Fago and Song

Values are defined as “principles or standards of behaviour” (“Oxford Dictionaries,” 2011). Important values of the Ifaluk people are exhibited in two concepts of emotion - fago and song, which Nuckolls call the ‘language of values’ (1998, p. 42).These values provide a form of guidance on how to behave in everyday life.

The concept of fago has the combination of the meanings compassion, love and sadness, and is used in the context in which one person confronts another who is in need. In other words, a needy person evokes nurturing feelings in others, called fago.

Song is conceptualized as justified anger or righteous indignation. It is usually expressed against someone who is seen to have transgressed the value system of sharing. The Ifaluk regard food and other consumables to be of utmost importance, which should be distributed equally among societal members. In their view, food sharing is the act most indicative of compassion-love-sadness.

A woman smokes a cigarette but does not pass it around; a householder fails to invite all passers-by to a meal; a successful turtle catcher does not distribute the meat equally among all the households; some people eat alone. All these provoke song in others. (Nuckolls,1998, p. 66).

Food is a symbol of nurturance for the Ifaluk people. As food is a token of the affection children first experience in relationship to their parents, to give or receive food is to recall the nurturing dependency of infancy and thus to experience feelings of great satisfaction. In addition, sharing ensures that these feelings are more or less equally distributed.

The values faro and song act as regulators of interpersonal relationships and create a sense of communality.

Sorcery and Black magic on Ifaluk (1940s - )

An introduction to sorcery and witchdoctors in tribal societies

There exists a presumption in modern general knowledge with regards to supernatural beliefs, that “sorcery is almost universal throughout the primitive world”. (Lessa, 1961, p. 817) In the Ifaluk atoll, the matter was openly discussed and there were no attempt to protest against this accusation/assumption. Incidences of Sorcery, known as hososou in Ifaluk, are recounted through stories told by villagers and they mostly involve relatives or friends. Witches and Sorcerers are usually members of the society, and given the size of the community, their identity is usually obscure and spread through word-by-mouth.

However, this practice opposes the general perception (and Spiro’s) that the Ifaluk make up a peaceful society, resulting from the effort in avoiding open social aggression and maintain intimate cooperation. This is essential in their community given the size of their community and hence “shunning sorcery to turn to the alus/spirits” as a channel to express their hostilities. Although witchcraft and sorcery serve to deflect certain aggressive impulses from certain people onto the practitioners of black magic, they also instigate other forms of animosity and malevolence. On the other hand, belief in ghosts however, “serves the functions of decreasing in-group aggression and thereby increasing group solidarity.” (Spiro,1952, p. 503) Nonetheless, as Melchethal (Lessa’s interviewee) suggests, this concept of eradicating people through black magic may be formulated on the basis of expediency in correcting a bad situation (Lessa, 1961, p. 820) given the reputable skills of magicians and sorcerers in Ifaluk.

Influence of sorcery on the society and the daily activities

From the narration of one story told by Ilchemal, a relative of Melchethal; black magic and sorcery could also influence residential (re)location decisions of the people. The storyteller told of a family which had “several times moved from one place to another in Ifaluk after one of its members became ill or died.” They had suspected that this case of misfortune was caused by sorcery. However, since they are not able to pinpoint the sorcerer behind the act, they undertook this mitigating method for protection. Other magic practices of protection include “performing divination through the complicated system of palm leaf knots, known in the Carolines as bwe.”

Taking into account the largely communal and communitarian life in Micronesian societies and thus Ifaluk, these practices of malevolent black magic represent individual interests and drives rather than a communal practice. Consultation of black magic is performed and acts are practiced in private, and hence sorcery and magic are very personal alternatives of outlets for aggression that is otherwise habitually suppressed. Understanding this, we can then understand why sorcery can still exist despite its contradiction to the belief in spiritual beings.

The issue of change: External influences on the Sorcery belief system in Ifaluk

Witchcraft, according to Pospíšil, is a set of cross-cultural beliefs that, interestingly enough has never been promoted to a type of religion (Fikentscher, 2004). It is however, susceptible to Christian conversion. In Lessa’s works, an interviewee made a disclaimer that since “the present missionary began his activities on Ifaluk” (at that point in time), there was ‘no more sorcery’, but prior to that, the interviewee was one of only eight Christians on the atoll.

The same interviewee, Melchethal, who had provided information on sorcery for Lessa’s work had mentioned his conversion to Christianity, a religion which had fascinated and fixated him so much so that “he had accepted an invitation by the new missionary for the islands of the area (Micronesian islands) to convert the people of Ifaluk.” (Lessa, 1961, p. 818) The argument that he forwarded had scientific undertones, based on his conviction that sorcery should be given up as it brought upon more “Yaws* and other diseases” on Ifaluk in comparison with other islands of the Micronesian Atolls.

Personally, we find this argument problematic in itself given that it is grounded in some other belief that is likewise still unsupported by science. However, this shows the inclination towards scientific reasoning with the advent of Christian missionaries, though the substitution of religious belief systems are not necessarily replaced by empirical scientific knowledge.

In general, prior to the Missionization of Ifaluk, beliefs focused on the activity of ancestral souls, a pantheon of deities, and the numerous spirits, both kind and malevolent, that inhabited the earth, sea, and sky. Today, roughly half of the population is Catholic and half belong to various Protestant sects. Although Christianity has largely replaced the traditional animistic systems of belief, elements of pre-Christian belief systems are interwoven with ecclesiastical practice. Many Micronesians still believe in the power of deceased ancestors to influence events and the existence of spirits and spirit possession. Magic and sorcery are still considered important with regards to “native beliefs about the environment” (Spiro, 1952). Should fishing events fail, it is due to the lack of or inappropriate use of magic (Sosis, 2005).

This also accounts for the difference in the findings of the works of earlier anthropologists such as Burrows and Spiro. Since they had conducted research and field work prior to the Christian conversion (1947-1948) and left before it took place, the validity of their works (Spiro’s and Lessa’s) should not be discounted simply due to the differences present in their findings.

Thus, it is clear that sorcery is mostly ‘extinct’, although we should not discount the possibility of its existing in the underground market. Legally, there is still the employment of specialists with supernatural skills in certain aspects of Ifaluk life, and magic still plays an important role in native beliefs about the environment (Spiro, 1952). Unsuccessful fishing events are regularly attributed to the lack of or improper use of traditional magic. However, the knowledge of traditional magic practices is hovering on the brink of extinction, if not extinct. Sosis recorded in 1997, the last remaining magician, who was approaching 70 years of age, had not taken on an apprentice. (Sosis, 2005) The diverse indigenous beliefs concerning the afterlife are also largely replaced by the Christian explanation on heaven and hell.

Yaws is a common chronic infectious disease that occurs mainly in warm humid regions such as the tropical areas of Africa, Asia, South and Central Americas, plus the Pacific Islands. It is caused by a particular bacterium called a spirochete, considered by some investigators to be a subspecies of T. pallidum, the organism that causes syphilis.

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