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It’s complicated: A name is not just a name in Yap




Inside the Reef By Joyce McClure

Outsiders are hard-pressed to figure out who’s related to whom on Yap’s main island. Yapese children traditionally have only one name.

But when passports were first issued in 1959 by the U.S. to citizens of the Trust Territory, it became necessary for citizens to have last names. Some added their Christian name to their Yapese name, or doubled their Yapese name, or added “Lukan”, which is similar to “son” being added to Western names to indicate “son of …” However, the latter is only appropriate for the family to use. If someone outside the family calls the person “Lukan”, it can be interpreted as an offensive curse.

In Yap, a child’s name is deeply linked to the family’s most valuable asset – its land – so there is significant information about the individual’s status and family in a name.


Land represents survival in island culture. In the past, no one could live without it. In Yap, ownership includes not just the land, but offshore rights out to the reef. As Francis Hezel states in his book, “Making Sense of Micronesia,” in its broadest sense, land “included all that was once necessary for food cultivation, housing, canoe making, medicine, and production of tools.”


Social identity is paramount to the Yapese and one’s name is everything. It is unimaginable for a man not to own land because he then has no name, no place in society, in the family or clan, and no place to live. He has no foundation to speak from.


Society is patriarchal with men recognized as the head of the family and serving in the traditional leadership positions. The father’s lineage or genung is where each person is from for the sake of politics. It traces lineage from the father to the children.


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But the strongest, most important bloodline is matrilineal or the nik, and also traces lineage from the mother to the children. But children inherit their mother’s nik and their father’s land.


The mother is the leader of the family’s women and has the power to make final, critical decisions on important matters for the clan, the village and even the municipality.


The father’s oldest sister is also a key figure in the family with special authority over the children. It is this paternal aunt who names the children, or, if the father does not have a sister, his paternal aunt carries this power and names the child.


The newborn often leaves the hospital being called simply “Soqaw,” which means “boy,” or “Ligaw” for “girl.” These informal names are placeholders. The child has no standing until the aunt “calls” the child for the first time, bestowing the child’s final, traditional name from a pool of ancestral names related to the paternal land. However, women have the power to create names and can demote or promote names, titles and lands.


Since the given name is connected to ownership of land, the women control the inheritance of land. A Yapese friend of mine bears his grandfather’s name, as do two of his cousins. Therefore, their shared name links them to their grandfather’s land.


While land is commonly passed down from father to son or from older brother to younger brother, if a family does not have any sons, the oldest daughter can inherit the land. This is called binau ni thuth or “land in lieu of the mother’s breast.” Her son will be named after her father, giving the son title to the land.


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The group takes precedence over individual identity among the Yapese, and the family or lineage is a person’s core identity. It is similar to the European concept of extended family. The family works the land together, shares a house, raises the children together, and, in general, shares responsibility for the family’s shelter, land, food and other needs.


A Yapese estate includes several households living on land owned by a single household. 


For males, membership in the estate is identified through their names. Certain names belong to each estate, and, by possessing an estate name, the man possesses legal title to estate land. However, plots of land may be in another village and the owner will have control through his relation to the estate.


Females are also named after ancestors from the estate, but a female name does not belong to the land, nor does it confer title to it. Female membership in an estate is determined by residence. When she resides in her estate of birth, she is a member there. When she marries, she moves to her husband’s estate and becomes a member there.


Female names, like the women who hold them, pass from one estate to another. When she marries, the woman’s name becomes incorporated into the ancestral estate names when she bears children. When she dies, her name is passed on within her husband’s estate. If she does not have children, her name is not added to her husband’s estate.


Above the estate is the clan that also influences one’s name.


According to tradition, a woman founded each of the clans and today members still trace their family lines to these women. Passed down through the mother’s line, everyone in the nuclear family is a member of the same clan, except the father. He is a member of his mother’s clan.


Clan membership never changes even after marriage. Cousins are called brothers and sisters or “walag.” The father’s brother is also considered a person’s father and is called by either his formal name or “Chitamag” (tamag means “male”) or “Chitinag” (tinag means female.)


Affiliation with a particular clan is highly personal and is not openly discussed, nor is it permitted to ask about one’s clan affiliation. A mother is expected to tell her child of his or her clan affiliation, to point out other children who are members of the same clan, and to warn the child against sexual relations with members of his or her own clan. But beyond this, the individual’s membership in a particular clan is a secret.


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Clan members can be scattered throughout the island in various villages and districts. They are not affiliated with one village.


Each clan has a mythical totem that is a plant or animal (such as dolphin, shark, banana, hermit crab and coconut crab among others) with importance to the history of the clan. Its living embodiment must never be killed, hurt or eaten by clan members.


In Yap, names carry deep personal, cultural, familial, and historical connections. They give the individual a sense of who they are, the community in which they belong, and their place in the world.


Those who can recite the entire family tree gain the respect of others who will then listen to the individual when he speaks.


When you answer the phone in Yap, the caller may ask, “Who is this?” even before they introduce themselves. Generally, this is considered rude, but the Yapese caller, according to Hezel, is simply establishing the “social map” of the person who answered the call. “Everything is personalized in island society,” Hezel notes. The caller is merely determining the social identity of the person who answered the phone and whether they are younger or older kin, socially superior or inferior, “to make sure they have the social identity of the one responding plotted correctly so they can respond appropriately.”


According to my Yapese friend, having this information allows you to talk knowing the Yapese process was followed and respected. “In turn, we say, I made him human or Kug gethi nag Kug gethii’ nag, meaning I treated you with respect befitting of another being.”


After a long career as a senior marketing executive, Joyce McClure traded the island of Manhattan for the island Yap as a Peace Corps response volunteer in 2016. Transitioning to freelance writing, she moved to Guam in 2021 and recently relocated back to the mainland. Send feedback to joycemcc62@yahoo.com




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