In Yap, traditional councils serve as advisors, mediators, cultural watchdogs and kingmakers
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
The small, remote island state of Yap that is renowned for its traditional culture has survived to some degree alongside the adoption of western systems of government, education, healthcare and business since the arrival of the Germans at the end of the 19th century when they bought the island from Spain.
One reason for the adherence to some of the ancient traditions and lifestyle is the two traditional councils, the Council of Pilung and the Council of Tamol, that are uniquely included in the state’s constitution as the fourth branch of government.
However, these two government-sanctioned bodies have not survived intact, but have instead changed over time based on ideas of the island’s occupying nations of Spain, Germany, Japan and the U.S. dating to the 16th century.
The powerful councils, while based on historic customs of “sawei” and governing, are a modern addition to the way the island and its people operate. Sawei is a system of tribute or obligation offerings, gift exchanges and disaster relief that began in pre-contact times and continued until the Germans put a halt to it when they bought the island from Spain at the end of the 19th century. It was then that the system of municipalities was formed.
The Japanese, who began their occupation of Yap in 1914 and were awarded the island under the Versailles Treaty in 1919, appointed a council of chiefs who were seldom recognized as legitimate leaders by the “recalcitrant” Yapese.
Next came the Americans after World War II when the Caroline Islands became part of the region’s U.S. trust territory. The islands of Yap (Wa’ab), Chuuk (Truk), Pohnpei (Ponape or Ascension) and Kosrae (Kusaie or Strong's Island) then banded together and established an independent country in 1979.
During the first FSM constitutional convention that began in 1975 in Saipan, there was much discussion and disagreement about the role of traditional leaders. The system of government was modeled on American structure consisting of three branches—legislative, executive and judicial. Yap was the only state to include traditional leadership in its constitution.
This distinctive fourth branch has the constitutional authority to advise and make recommendations to the governor, legislature, executive departments and attached offices.
Among their duties, the councils handle conflict resolution among villages and discipline of villagers.
The councils also have political influence. They endorse candidates for elective offices and the majority of voters cast their ballot accordingly. However, the 2018 election broke from this tradition when the incumbent governor, Tony Ganngiyan, the favored candidate of the Council of Pilung, lost to Henry Falan, his only opponent.
In a prior election between the same two candidates, the councils’ candidate won when a third candidate was quickly added to the ballot and took votes away from his opponent. The reason for Falan’s victory is said to be his anti-Chinese development platform. Ganngiyan had led the effort during his administration to sanction a large resort complex, a casino and other projects proposed by the Chengdu-based Entertainment & Travel Group and other developers.
One of the most important powers of the councils is the authority to veto any decisions made by the legislature that they deem to be violation of culture and tradition. The councils also have the power to define those customary areas.
The councils also participate in the legislative process. Yap State Legislature has 10 members. After passing two readings, a bill is then submitted to the councils. They have 30 days to approve or disapprove the bill based on their reading of custom and tradition.
The bill is then sent back to the legislature for amendment if the councils express objections, after which the bill must pass one more hearing before being re-submitted to the councils for their final approval.
Once approved by the legislature and the councils, the bill is sent to the governor who has the power to veto any item in an appropriations bill; however, he can only veto other bills in their entirety. He has 10 days to exercise his veto power when the legislature is in session, or 30 days when they are not in session.
The legislature can override the governor’s veto with a two-thirds vote. If the bill is amended in response to the governor’s objections, it is then returned to the governor. If, after his review the governor does not act in 10 days, the bill lapses into law.
However, the councils cannot write laws, are not allowed to serve in any executive or legislative bodies, and are not represented formally in the judicial system.
The councils determine their own members, all of which are male. The Council of Pilung has 10 members who represent the 10 municipalities that make up the four main contiguous islands of Yap. The Council of Tamol consists of 20 members who represent the Outer Islands and atolls that stretch eastward from Ulithi to Lamotrek and Satawal and southward to Ngulu.
Within 30 days after any change of membership, or “the traditional standing of a member,” the councils are required by law to file a document with the legislature, governor and state court certifying membership and the way in which each member was appointed, the date of each appointment, and the traditional standing of each member within his “municipality or village of residence.”
Although the method used to appoint members has changed over time based on a complex system of village rankings and a hierarchy of chiefs, today, members are chosen by the village chiefs of each municipality from among high-ranking chiefs.
However, the Yapese often say in private that they know who the “real chiefs” are and they are not always the members of the councils.
The councils determine compensation, allowances, per diem and travel expenses for the members and appropriations are made by the legislature “or funded by another source.”
According to the state’s 2019 audit, a total of $188,636 was budgeted.
Members who concurrently serve as an official or employee of the state government, attached agencies or political subdivisions may not receive compensation as a member of a council, according to the constitution.
The councils set their own rules. Members may serve for a lifetime, may step down voluntarily for personal reasons such as health, or may be removed by the council for committing violations.
In 2018, a member of the Council of Tamol was removed over illegal fishing activities in his home island that “created disputes, fiasco, and segregation between families and clans in the neighboring islands community.” It was determined that his “actions violate the COT standing policy and other existing COT agreements.”
To this day, the councils continue to have, and exert, constitutional power.