Cultural ceremony in uniquely Micronesian ethnobotany

Up until four years ago the college mission statement included the phrase "uniquely Micronesian." Although for some the phrase was vague and open to misinterpretation, for those who have lived, worked, raised a family, and spent two decades on island, uniquely Micronesian was a set of shared sociocultural views and approaches that guided classroom interactions, student advising, counseling, and committee decisions in the participatory governance system.

Piper methysticum (sakau) enters the nahs with at least one branch intact, often pairs of intact branches

SC/SS 115 Ethnobotany was a course designed in part to serve the uniquely Micronesian mission of the college, and was a course offering that really could not be offered elsewhere, not in the manner in which the course is conducted. The capstone cultural ceremony is a splendid example of the uniquely Micronesian nature of the course. Where an ethnobotany course in the states can only lecture on kava ceremonies, or, at best, show a video, perhaps even have a professor mix powder and water in some classroom on some campus in Connecticut or elsewhere, here the course experiences the real ceremony.

The branch is cut in front of the high titles present

The students have studied the healing uses of plants, plants that provide food and sustenance, the use of plants in material cultural applications, the botanic organization and diversity of the plants. Piper methysticum was encountered on field hikes that also included Piper nigrum, Piper ponapense, and Piper betel.


The root is then pounded on a peitehl, a special pounding stone slab

The course wraps up by looking at the sacred use of plants by traditional cultures, which is capped off by witnessing a kava ceremony at a local home. The students encounter the use of a plant in a fully traditional context. This is not a demonstration, nothing is pretend in this activity. The full force of the cultural rules, contexts, and taboos are in place. This is not a simulation, this is real.

The students practice traditional skills, here Maxon and Sketski are removing the outer layers of Hibiscus tiliaceus

At present the course has been dropped from the schedule for spring term 2016. The term uniquely Micronesian was dropped from the mission four years ago, declining enrollment and budget considerations caused the administration to overrule the division chair and the course was a casualty. The course did not suffer from declining enrollment, the course runs full every term at 25 to 27 students, but broader budget balancing attempts were at work in the cancellation of the course. With each specialty course cut, there are fewer reasons for a student to remain in the islands for college, our core courses are similar to those offered by community colleges in Hawaii and the continental United States.

Maxon works the "kohlo" There is real pressure to get this right.

Sketski separates the phloem from the outer bark, layers which the class had studied earlier in the term


The students observe two local assistants proceeding with the sakau preparation. This is no lecture situation with students potentially not paying attention, the process has their full attention. 

Supervising the ceremony is Lempwei in the white shirt, a high title in the third line of title in Sokehs. The third line was once that of the priests of the traditional systems of worship.

Lempwei looks up, one student has arrived a tad late with two friends. They are obliged to enter and greet those in the nahs.

Casan-Jenae Joab and Erika Emily Billen


The sakau is now pounded and the squeezing process has begun


Squeezing into the ngarangar, the sacred coconut cup. Lempwei explains the proper way to pass and receive the cup in a formal setting. Lempwei also explains "nopwei" and the first four ceremonial cups, who receives those cups and why.

Into the evening Lempwei talks of family history, tradition, stories from the past, for those who could remain into the evening

Later in the evening guests stop by to visit, coming to the nahs to greet those who are there. 

While I remain hopeful that the course might be restored to the schedule, like the loss of culture occurring in Micronesia as westernization processes impinge on these small islands, the uniquely Micronesian aspect of the college is also eroding.

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