Cultural ceremony centered on Piper methysticum

The SC/SS 115 Ethnobotany class wrapped up spring term 2015 with a visit to a village chief, Soumas en kousapw Dien, Oaulik en Dien, to engage in participatory learning about the Pohnpeian sakau ceremony and the origins of the nohpwei in sakauen enilapw.

Welianter Samuel, village chief Dien, hosted the class this term in his nahs.

The ceremony was planned and designed by Sabodan. Sabodan asked about the class composition and then implemented his vision for the ceremony. Nahnmwarki would be a Yapese man, Nahnken a Chuukese man, Nahnalek a Kosraean woman, and Nahnkeniei a Chuukese woman. All oarir would be Pohnpeians.

Esmirelda was first off of the bus at about 3:47 P.M.

Once Piper methysticum, sakau (Polynesian kava, Hawaiian 'awa), enters the nahs, a hush is to fall over the gathering. As Sabodan noted, sakauen enilapw was the ceremony in which nohpwei was originated. This ritual was a pre-contact ritual and honored the great spirit. The ceremony was religious in nature and just as one shows respect by quietly entering a church, so too does the presence of sakau invoke the sacred, sanctifying the nahs.

The plant enters with, ideally, and even number of branches.

The branches are cut.

In the nahs the women sit up on the sides, the high titles sit at the front, the menindei holds the center post, relaying the commands of the Nahnmwarki to the gathering. He must hold the post for the force of the words of the Nahnmwarki could dislodge from the altar. Indeed, the platform upon which he stands, the area beyond the internal corner posts, is sacred, the high altar.

Note that the men are seated in the central pit of the nahs. Were the class larger, there would also be women on the platform behind the men. This is unique and unusual in Micronesia. Elsewhere in Micronesia a sister or female cousin cannot seat higher than a brother or male cousin. A husband cannot sit such that his head is below his wife's waist. Yet this is exactly what can and does happen in the nahs. Women sit up on the side platform, and the highest titled women present sit on the front platform, the altar of the nahs. There is a symbolism in this arrangement, a subtle suggestion of social power for women, a reverence for the women who carry the clan lines in their blood.

Note too that men and women are in a common house. In Yap men and women each have separate houses, and the opposite sex cannot enter the other sex's house in the normal course of events. I gather that there may be exceptions in certain special circumstances, but the general rule holds that the houses are separate.

Key to consider is that Pohnpeian women are present in the community space in which decisions are voiced, made, and agreed too.

At one point Bryan sat up on the nahs with his legs dangling over the edge. I had to explain to him that his legs can be cut off if he sits that way with sakau present in the nahs. In the nahs, it is all about respect.

The sakau was cleaned in the traditional Pohnpeian manner using only coconut husks. Water is not used, not traditionally, to clean the sakau. Dien was putting the full, traditional, ancient art on display for the students.

Outside of the nahs one can relax, have a laugh, enjoy oneself.

Family is always present around the nahs, and there is a happiness in being together.

He noted that the word "Nahnmwarki" is not a Pohnpeian word. He explained that the word is a corruption of the word "monarchy" which was then fused with the honorific prefix Nahn- as in "Nahn-monarchy" but pronounced and spelled in an adapted way by Pohnpeians. He noted that the actual titles of the five highest chiefs, the "Nahnmwarkis" are Madolehnihmw: Isipahu, Kitti: Soaukisoa, U: Sahngoro, Sokehs: Soumakahn Pikehn Iap, Nett: Pwoud Lepen Nett, None are actually called Nahnmwarki, that is a generic reference.

The men have removed their shirts to show respect. On Pohnpei respect is shown by returning to an older manner of attire, a return to the time before there were shirts on the island and men wore only the hibiscus koahl.

Elizabeth Augustine and Lina Lawrence sit with their legs folded to the side. This is required of oarir. Elizabeth is oaurir to Nahnkeniei Miki Fritz, Lina is oaurir to Nahnalek Lerina Nena. The oarir serve to protect those they serve. The oarir are often chosen to be from a different clan that the one they serve, especially in the male serving line. Oarir must be experienced in judging whether the sakau is free from spells and curses. Were they to judge the cup to be poisoned, the oarir will drink of the cup and risk sacrificing themselves to protect those they serve. Neither Miki nor Lerina are aware of this, but Elizabeth and Lina may have some knowledge of the role and duties of an oarir.

In Kitti the Nahnwarki has two oarir who face each other. Note that the men are not sitting correctly. Whether the men knew they were seated wrong was unclear to me, but from what I could ascertain from Sabodan they did not know how to sit. I also suspect they may not be able to sit properly as they have no experience in sitting side legged. John Yilbuw is Nahnmwarki, Bryan Wichep is Nahnken.

There was a term when a student was in the clan line of the Nahnken. The host knew this and had the student sit in as Nahnken. I recollect that the presence of the blood line in their traditional location brought an intensity to the ceremony. The students are on one level role playing. Yet this is role playing in a very real and living culture. This is serious. Something akin to going into a Catholic church and role playing being the priest consecrating the communion - something that one could not do. Indeed, there is a real cultural flexibility in permitting the students to sit in the locations of honor. In the normal course of family parties in the nahs, no one sits in these locations, not even the village chief. He has an assigned spot against the interior corner post on the Nahnwarkis side of the nahs, The back wall is always kept free of anyone sitting there at all times. These are sacred locations.

The presence of sakau, the ritual of the nohpwei, and having students in the locations of honor, invokes an ancient faith. This is not play, no more than one can play in a cathedral with the holy host service. I teach the students that one does not have to believe as others believe, but you must respect their belief. You do not have to agree with those from other faiths, but it is proper and right to respect those from other faiths. True, the sakau ceremony has evolved. Those who engage in the ritual are steadfast and upright church going Christians, often church leaders. I am unaware of anyone who actively propounds that the ritual calls forth the great spirit. That said, one has to respect the faith of those who have gone before. The stones that are pounded can be many hundreds of years old. The stones are a link to an ancient world and to those who held pre-Christian beliefs. 

From left to right sit the Nahnkeniei, Nahnalek, Nahnmwarki, and Nahnken. This is the order at the front of every nahs for events at which the two highest titles and their wives are present.

On the right Nahnken Bryan Wichep is served by oarir Gordon Loyola. This is a learning experience for all of the students.

Those who work to serve the Nahnmwarki, the monarch, are shirtless to show respect. They are referred to as "wie koanoat" when Nahnmwarki is present.

Note the four leaves around the base of the stone slab (peitehl). These leaves are from the plant called tehn wehd (toahn wed in Kitti) and are from the  Alocasia macrorrhiza plant. Tehn wehd are placed around the stone to catch pieces of sakau that fall. These are called pwei koar or pwoaikoar. Pounders should place their feet under the pwoaikoar if possible. There is an order to the placement, and a name called out when the leaf is place: koaloal adak, koaloal epwel, koaloal leng, pwei koar di. The -di signifies completion.

Four pounders must pound, never three nor five. Four is the number of completeness. Each pounder holds a small stone called a moahl. In a full sakau service there are four to six stones being pounded in the nahs. The front stones are for Nahnmwarki and Nahnken. The pounding stones for each have names. The moahl for Nahnmwarki are moahleina, moahlasang katau, moahleileng (moahleiloang), and moahleini. The moahl for Nahnken are moahleiso, moahlmwahu (moahlamwahu), souriahtek, (soauriahtik), and souriahlap (soauriahlap).

These details and more are covered in the course textbook under the sakau ceremony section.

Darleen, Herpelyn, Petery, Esmirelda, and Stephanie on the high platform, Nahnmwarki's side.

Patty, Beverly, and Darleen.

 A typical Pohnpei cook house.

Children of Dien.

Wengweng, the squeezing of the sakau.

Pwehl, the first cup, goes to Nahnwarki. Marvin Bartolome is the oarir receiving the cup.

Upon advice, Nahnmwarki decides to redirect pwehl, the first cup, to Souwel en Lempwel, a title in Dien.

Sabodan calls out Souwel en Lempwel. Souwel must crawl across the altar, he must not raise his head above that of Nahnmwarki, take the cup, drink, and then pass the cup to Sabodan (not back to Nahnmwarki), and crawl back off the altar. Sabodan gives Souwel extra credit for having known how to take a cup offered by a Nahnmwarki. Souwel still commits an error - he was supposed to mount the altar to the left of the center post and dismount to right.

Second cup, arehn sakau, goes to Nahnken.


Sabodan calls another redirected cup, esil, the third cup. Esil in Kitti is usually for Daug, the third title down from Nahnmwarki. In some municipalities esil may have gone to the Wasahi, second to Nahnmwarki, but in the other municipalities esil now goes to the wife of Nahnmwarki, Nahnalek or Likend.

Felix is shown respect and honor by Dien.

Squeezing the sakau requires strength and stamina. The wrap is Hibiscus tiliaceus.

With two men at wengweng there were two cups available, thus oapoang, fourth cup, went to Nahnalek. Sabodan opted to use the modern five cup nohpwei that Kitti uses. Dien sometimes uses the older four cup tradition, but much of Kitti uses a five cup nohpwei. The fifth cup was an insertion to include women in the service. In the other municipalities the third cup was shifted from Wasahi or Daug to Nahnalek or Likend.

The other fourth cup, oapoang, went to Nahnkeniei. Elizabeth demonstrates close to correct formal service. Her hand positions are correct, but her upper body is too upright.

The amount sakau in the nohpwei cups is but a small amount. There is little to drink per se in a nohpwei cup. To sit in these positions of honor is not something these students are likely to ever experience again. This is a unique life experience and remains a form of cap stone event in the ethnobotany course.

Esmirelda reats to being asked to annoint the monarchy

Sabodan caught the instructor off guard when he called for marekeiso. Marekeiso is the term used when putting/applying coconut oil on the Nahnmwariki’s body only. For everyone else, Pohnpeians use the word kei. Leh is oil, the generic phrase for coconut oil. Kei refers to oil applied to a human body. Lehn kalangi is the name of the first leh or oil and/or the initial oiling of the Nahnmwariki’s body right after the 4th serving (cup/ngarangar) of the first sakau (ahmwadang) is presented. The second time oil is called for and applied the oil is referred to as marekeiso. Lehn kalangi and marekeiso are employed only with the presence of the Nahnmwariki. When the menindei calls "ansouhn lehn kalangi" or "ansouhn marekeiso" he is calling for oiling of the monarch. Put another way, if one calls coconut oil "marekeiso" and then applies that oil to a person, one is effectively acknowledging that person as Nahnmwarki. Felicy Spencer produces a bottle of leh, and Esmirelda was asked to do the honors.

When the monarch is annointed with oil, the others in the nahs are also annointed.

Esmirelda annoints the monarch.

Esmirelda demonstrates knowledge of the social situation by not standing erect on the altar.

Esmirelda annoints Nahnken.

Esmirelda annoints the Nahnalek, Franson on the right is oarir to Nahnmwarki.

Esmirelda annoints the Nahnkeniei last - annointing each in rank order as should be done.

Esmirelda, Miki, Lina, and Lerina. 

Only now, with the close of the formal ceremonial part of the nohpwei, are those in the nahs free to speak. Now the purpose of the nohpwei can be announced, whether a kamadipw, asking for a daughter in marriage, celebrating the birth of a first child to a woman, or the sad passing of a loved one at a funeral. Up until this point the nahs has been quiet but for the few words spoken by the menindei. As Sabodan explained, this goes back to the era of sakauen enilapw, sakau for the great spirit.

With the nohpwei ceremony complete, the students headed back to campus. Above is seen the first of the two squeezings that are done with each cup.

He then rearranges his grip to prepare for the second squeeze, essentially a reversed grip or doubled squeeze.

Demonstrating the second, what I call reverse, squeeze.


Popular posts from this blog

Box and whisker plots in Google Sheets

Areca catechu leaf sheaf petiole plates

Setting up a boxplot chart in Google Sheets with multiple boxplots on a single chart