Leaving the Melanesian region of Oceania, our first stop on our Kava-centric geographical tour of Micronesia will be the Federated States of Micronesia. Although Kava use varies by region in this archipelago, the island chain has an interesting culture and history, regardless of its Kava consumption.
Federated States of Micronesia
The Federated States of Micronesia is an island nation consisting of 607 islands across the Caroline Islands. These 607 islands are divided into four states (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae) which make of the federation. Located north of Papua New Guinea and east of the Philippines, this archipelago spans 1800 miles of the Pacific (although the land mass itself is only approximately 270 square miles). The federation has a population of approximately 160,000 people (latest population estimates were done in 2007). Although this is a self governing country, it is held in free association with the United States. What this essentially means is that the federation has a constitution of its own and is a sovereign state; however, the United States provides its defense and access to US social services. This agreement is much like that of the United States and Puerto Rico.
The State of Yap
The state of Yap, also known as Wa’ab by locals, has the strongest links to its indigenous roots still intact today. It consists of four main islands surrounding a massive coral reef. These islands themselves are then surrounded by a barrier reef-making it a very attractive scuba destination. Beyond these four islands, there are 14 other atolls which are considered part of the Yapanese state.
Originally settled nearly 4,000 years ago by settlers from the Malay Peninsula, Yap quickly became an empire. This was brought about by the Yapanese legendary maritime merits. The seamen of Yap were known to navigate enormous expanses of the Pacific in outrigger canoes. Not having the aid of the compass, the Yapanese used the stars and patterns of ocean waves to navigate the seas.
Probably the most interesting point of Yapanese cultural trait, which is still seen and used today, is the Yapanese currency the Rai. The Rai (which is still used today for many indigenous transactions, both ceremonial and practical) is a donut shaped stone which varies in size from 1.5 inches to 12 feet in diameter. The value of the stone is based on its size and its history. Many of these stones were quarried on far off islands and transported to Yap via rafts behind outrigger canoes. Often times, when the Rai is used in a transaction (in the case of larger stones), its ownership is transferred, but the Rai does not physically move. This is due to some of the larger ones requiring up to 20 men to carry them.
The State of Chuuk
Not much is known in the archeological record of the settlers of Chuuk. Not only that, there appear to be long stretches of time (the longest being over 1,000 years) when no one lived on these islands. Considering this, the state of Chuuk has gone by an inordinate number of names over its 2000 year history. Over that time it has been known as Truk, Ruk, Hogoleu, Torres, Ugulat, and Lugulus.
Much like Yap, Chuck is surrounded by barrier reefs and is considered a popular scuba destination. The people of Chuuk, also like those of Yap, were highly skilled navigators. Chuuk is the location of two of the last remaining schools of navigation in this region.
The State of Korsae
The state of Korsae (formerly known as Kusaie), unlike Yap and Chuuk is one small island (only 42 square miles). The island state is also extremely mountainous and covered with lush vegetation; making travel difficult. Because of this the island is mostly undeveloped. It is the smallest, least populated (less than 8,000 full time residents), and least visited of the federation’s states.
This is starting to change as the water and reefs surrounding Korsae are pristine-again making this a popular destination for scuba divers. One reason for the pristine state of the islands reefs-beyond its lack of visitors-is an extensive mooring buoy system which has been installed by concerned dive operators.
One visitor of note to the island was the Pirate Bully Hayes. Bully, who was said to be quite charming in person, was a native of Cleveland, Ohio and is known as “The Last of the Buccaneers”. He was mostly a gun and rum runner who operated in Oceania during the later half of the 1800’s. Bully was shipwrecked here for over a year, and narrowly escaped the British when they heard of his whereabouts. It is rumored that somewhere in the mountains of Korsae Bully left a great treasure buried. To date it has never been found.
The State of Pohnpei
The state of Pohnpei (formerly known as Ponape) is the largest island in the federation, as well as the most developed, most populous, and the location of the federation’s capital of Palikir. Pohnpei is receives 300 inches of rain a year making it the second wettest place on the planet (the first being another South Pacific island: Kauai).
Pohnpei is also the location of Nan Madol. This is a series of ancient artificial islands and canals, often referred to as “The Venice of the Pacific”. Nan Madol was the seat of power of the Saudeleur Dynasty which ruled the area until approximately 1500 AD. The name Nan Madol translated to “the spaces between” and is in reference to the canals and ruins which dot the artificial islands on the eastern shore of Pohnpei. Nan Modal is also believed to be the basis for H.P. Lovecraft’s ruined city of R’Lyeh.
The Federated States of Micronesia and Kava
Like many of their Melanesian neighbors, Kava use, cultivation, and consumption varies by region. Historically, it is thought that Kava was grown and used culturally in all the islands of the archipelago. However, with the introduction of European settlers and missionaries, much of the region is now Kava free. This is not the case in the state of Pohnpei.
Kava Kava (called sakau in Pohnpei) is a sacred plant central to Pohnpeian social and cultural life. Kava is used to seal agreements (both personal and legal such as weddings), honor visitors (or those departing-in regards to leaving the islands on trips abroad as well as funerals), and request forgiveness. But in recent decades it has also become an ordinary cash crop, sold as a recreational beverage in dozens of open-air sakau bars across the island. At one time, Kava was used only by higher authorities such as clan chieftains. Now it is the drink of choice for all Pohnpei, no matter what their socioeconomic status-just as we believe it should be!