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‘You’ve been bad. You’ve been warned’

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Village justice: What Western society may perceive as anarchy, Yapese people see as order

Paul Thugunmar and John Gisog discuss Yap's customs and tradition during an interview at the Yap Community Center in Chalan Pago, Guam . Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan


Those who ignore the warning suffer the consequences. Brace for the physical force. To the outsider, it’s savage. To Yapese people who cling unapologetically to old customs and traditions, it is what it is.


It’s the Yapese way of correcting deviant behavior, according to Paul Thugunmar, a long-time resident of Guam. “It’s a tradition in every village. If somebody does something bad, we go to the elder people and the village chief,” he said.


Thugunmar is a relative of Kamnanged, an alleged village offender, who received lashings after being accused of stealing betelnut. “I don’t know him personally. He was very young when I left. I know his father and mother,” he said. “I don’t know the details but from what I heard, he has been warned many times for a very long time and he didn’t listen so they had to do something about it.”


Prairie justice may be frowned upon in the modern world, but what western society may perceive as anarchy, the Yapese community sees as order. Punishment is emphasized as a means of protecting other members of the village.


Applying village justice to resolve conflicts and punish offenders has been a practice in Yap since the old days, said John Gisog, 73.


Although a Western legal system exists in Yap, the islanders remain faithful to the old ways. “The victim can go to the police too, but the case will not go anywhere because in Yap customs and traditions take precedence,” said Gisog, a retired postal employee.


Originally from the village of Balabat, Gisog has been living on Guam with his wife, Martina, since the 1990s.


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In Yap’s village justice system, the elders are the jury and the village chief is the judge. To understand the nature of this institution, Gisog said one must appreciate the elders’ role in the community. Armed with wisdom and experiences obtained from living a long life, the elders are sought to mediate disputes and advise the villagers on what to do in difficult situations.


They serve as the bridge between the old-fashioned traditions and beliefs and the modern influences that shape the Yapese’s contemporary life. As in most island societies, the elders are accorded a prominent position in every village.


“We always teach our children to respect the elders, their mother, their father, the women, and be respectful of our customs and traditions,” Gisog said, noting that disrespecting the elders constitutes an unforgivable offense.


The last flogging he witnessed took place in the 1970s. “We had this guy who was being rowdy and was keeping his wife from participating in the village dance,” he recalled. “This was brought to the attention of elder women in the village. He retaliated, talked back to them and threatened to beat them up. So, this was brought to the attention of the town chief.”


The use of physical force to deliver justice may be distasteful in today’s society, but Gisog said it is the last resort taken by the village chief when the wrongdoer ignores fair warnings and reasonable sanctions.

In Yap’s traditional justice system, there are three degrees of punishment.


“First, a warning. If you did something in the village like stole fruits, taros or coconuts, you will be reported to the village chief and you will be warned,” Gisog said.


The repeat offender gets a second-degree punishment, which entails a land-use moratorium, atonement and reparation.


“They will forbid you from your own land. Your land, like the taro patches, will be blocked. They will put a mark on it. Usually, they tie coconut leaves around it,” Gisog said. “You’re not supposed to take anything there, even if you need food to eat, to make sure that you suffer.”


The system in Yap is designed to reconcile the wrongdoer with his or her own conscience and to preserve peace in the village. Any disruptive behavior is considered an offense against the entire village.



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“You will be given time. After a certain time, you will make the atonement for your wrongdoing,” Gisog said.


The offender and his or her family will be required to pay the village chief, the young men who keep order in the community, the victim and their family.


Reparation to preserve peace in the village comes in the form of shell money, a shark’s tooth necklace, stone money and food among other traditional items. “The victim will have to accept the atonement. It is not good not to accept it,” Gisog said. “After that, you can take your property back.”


The third-degree punishment is banishment or beating, depending on the severity of the crime and the strength of public opinion.


“If the people feel that you are no longer fit to live in the village and you continue to disrupt the daily lives of the community, they will get rid of you. You will be banished,” Gisog said.


In the case of Kamnanged, the alleged betelnut thief, “he was asked to stay away but he kept coming back, threatening the people in the village," Gisog said. "These actions only made his crime more heavy.”


While caning is still being practiced, capital punishment has long been abolished. “If you killed somebody, you’d get capital punishment. But this hasn’t happened for hundreds of years since Christianity was introduced and the Germans took over,” Gisog said.


Just the same, other forms of corporal punishment are still being practiced. Gisog recalled an old case involving an accused rapist who was tied to a coconut tree. “He was left there until coconuts fell on his head,” he said.


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But the Yapese community on Guam cannot apply the system in the territory. “If you practice that here, you’ll have a problem. It’s only practiced on Yap,” Gisog said.


While offenses that affect the entire community are resolved at the village level, conflicts between two individuals go to the court system. “If they had a fight, there are rules against battery and assault,” Gisog said. “For me personally, this has to be done one way or another.”


The most recent tragic crime that happened in Yap was the murder of American attorney, Rachelle Bergeron, which was prosecuted in Yap State Supreme Court. “This has caused shame to the community, and if the people choose to apply the tradition, they can do that too,” Gisog said.


Yap’s traditional justice is not that disparate from the court system, Gisog said. “The degree of punishment depends on the degree of the crime against the whole society. In some states, if you kill somebody, you get the lethal injection.”




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