Peter W. Black
Photographs all by Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992.
These fourteen brief passages were meant to illustrate sociological concepts. Published in an introductory sociology text book in 1992, these sketches described life as it was in the early 1970s and were in no way complete and do not convey a comprehensive view of Tobian life at that time.
Sketch One: Tobi
Sketch Two: Social Structure on Tobi Sketch Three: Social Control and Deviance on Tobi
Sketch Four: Stratification and Inequality on Tobi Sketch Five: Gender-Roles on Tobi Sketch Six: Majority/Minority Relations on Tobi
Sketch Seven: Kitchens and Politics on Tobi Sketch Twelve: The Past and Present on Tobi
Sketch Thirteen: The Rural-Urban Continuum on Tobi
Sketch Fourteen: Being Old on Tobi
Peter W. Black
Most chapters in this introductory sociology text
book contained a short boxed insert about an aspect of life on Tobi Island, as it was in
the 1970s. The reason for these vignettes was to show cultural contrast with the
United States, home to most of the book's intended readers. to quote the passage
introducing readers to this feature of the book:
"Tobi is one of the world's smallest societies. Why bother studying such a small place whose population numbered approximately one hundred people when everyone was on the island? The answer to that question is found in the fact that sociology takes as its subject matter human society in general. Tobian society, which in scale and culture contrasts markedly with our own, serves to remind us that human beings have created a wide variety of meaningful social relations. Our society represents one extreme of that diversity and Tobian society the other--a post-industrial democracy on the one hand, a small traditional kinship-based system on the other.
"Furthermore, an intellectual trap that lies in wait for anyone who wishes to think seriously about human social life is the temptation to confuse the "known" with the "natural." In other words, it is easy to think that one's own society is organized along the only correct or natural lines. this in turn profoundly limits the perception of freedom to change. In order to avoid this trap, one needs to have some understanding of the range of human possibilities. How much of American society, for example, is a result of the unique history and circumstances of North America and how much is an inevitable expression of underlying human regularities? in our opinion the best way to avoid the trap is by getting outside American society and looking back in. Therefore, Tobi's smallness and differentness are its strong points for our purposes. Although it is true that Tobi will most likely never be a major actor on the world stage, this small island does provide a good vantage point from which to view American society. And it is a very interesting place."
Sketch One: Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, pp. 86-87.
Far in the western Pacific, 380 miles south
and east of the town of Koror in the new Republic of Belau (also spelled Palau),
is the tiny Micronesian Island of Tobi. On this island, one of the
most remote inhabited places on earth, the Tobian community of less than one
hundred people has created a unique way of life. Who the first Tobians were,
where they came from, and when, are questions that still await answers. All
that is known for certain is that the people presently living on Tobi speak
a language and possess a culture that was derived from populations on islands
that lie to the north and east.
The earliest Tobians made their new home on one of the simplest and smallest of inhabited land forms: a raised coral island. Roughly triangular in shape, its area is a mere .224 square miles, which is only about 150 acressmaller than many mid-sized American farms. Like most islands of this type, Tobi consists of the following elements: reef, beach, raised perimeter, and central depression. It can be visualized as a central core (the depression) surrounded by three concentric rings of land, beach, and reef. The well-watered land appears lushly green, but this is somewhat deceptive, since the sandy soil is poor. The number of plant species represented on Tobi is quite small as is true of most low coral islands. Coconut trees cover most of the raised area behind the strand growth of pandanus and other hardy plants. Two species of breadfruit and a small number of other hardwoods grow on the island. Although they do not thrive, bananas and papayas grow on Tobi. The central depression has been largely dug out and it is here that people have gardens where they grow their staples of taro and sweet potatoes. Chickens, pigs, and cats are kept (there are no dogs on the island). Rats, mice, lizards, birds, and various types of crabs make up the rest of the land fauna.
The island is quite remote. It is about forty miles to the nearest island, uninhabited Helen Reef, which is even smaller than Tobi. The nearest inhabited island is Merir, which is about the same size as Tobi and about 120 miles northeast. The nearest place of any size is Belau, a group of high islands 400 miles north.
A small government ship from Koror, the capital of Belau, makes a field trip to Tobi, Merir, and the other two Southwest Islands, Sonsorol and Pula Ana, three or four times a year. On each visit, the field trip ship spends four to six hours on Tobi. During this time agents of the governmental, religious, and commercial establishments in Koror (called the field trip party) carry out their various tasks and the Tobians visit with friends and relatives who are making the round trip from Eang, the hamlet where Tobians and other Southwest Islanders live in Koror. The only other breaks in the islands isolation come three or four times a year when Japanese or Taiwanese tuna boats put in to trade for coconuts and fresh water, or when patrolling U.S. Navy ships call. Since 1967, Tobi has had a shortwave radio and, when it is working, the island is in daily contact with Koror.
Even this small amount of outside contact is a recent development in Tobian history. The present inhabitants are the descendants of settlers who probably arrived from the east more than three hundred years ago. Linguistically and culturally, the Tobians and the other Southwest Islanders seem much closer to the inhabitants of low islands far to the north and east than they do to the people of Belau, and it is relatively certain that their ancestors sailed from those islands and not from Belau. Once they reached Tobi, the new settlers apparently did not maintain close ties with their ancestral islands and except for infrequent and mostly accidental voyages, the pre-contact Tobian social universe was contained within the high-tide line on their island home.
During the years before the European and Japanese penetration of their region and the beginning of the modem era (roughly one hundred years ago), the Tobians elaborated the basic Micronesian way of life (which their ancestors brought with them) so that it came to fit the conditions under which they were living. Social relations were organized primarily by kinship. Membership in clans, the most important social group, was traced through women, so that an individual acquired membership in the clan of his or her mother. A mans children did not belong to his clan but to the clan of his wife. His sisters children were, therefore, his closest heirs in his own clan and would inherit any clan property he controlled. A rule forbidding marriage between clan mates (no matter how remote the common ancestor) ensured that the children of a brother and sister would belong to different clans. The resulting tensions between a mans children and his sisters children was one of the stress points of pre-modem Tobi. Lineages were groups of clan members closely related by descent from the same grandmother or great grandmother. Most land ownership tended to remain within lineages.
Today the most important groups on Tobi are the small and loosely knit groups of people who take their meals together. Most, but not all, members of these groups are related to one another by descent or marriage. Lineages are no longer active, land is held individually, and clans persist only in an attenuated, weakened state. Clans still regulate marriage but they are no longer socially active. Groupings based on residential districts are no longer important. Along with the decline in the importance of residential districts, clans, and lineages, and a rise in the importance of groups of people who eat together, there have been changes in the political organization of Tobi. Clan and lineage heads no longer play a role in the political life of the island. The inherited chieftaincy, the most important political office in the past, while still important, is now complemented by the elected office of magistrate. There are two other important positions on the islandthe schoolteacher and the health aide. All these changes are, in one way or another, the result of the increasing contact the island has had with the rest of the world.
The most dramatic change has been demographic. In the early years of this century there were nearly one thousand people living on Tobi, while now there are fewer than one hundred. This collapse in population is the result of several epidemics and of a gradual movement of people to the new Southwest Island community of Eang in Koror. The decline of clans and lineages and the rise in importance of commensal groups (groups that eat together on a social basis) resulted in turn from those changes. Demographic changes also led to the conversion to Roman Catholicism, which occurred in the 1930s. Before this, Tobian religion was specific to the island and was organized around shamans and spirit mediums who served as intermediaries between the island and the spirit world. The beginning of a cash economy, involving the export of copra (dried coconut meat) and the import of rice, kerosene, and other supplies, and the changes in land tenure were caused by the population collapse, directly or indirectly.
Almost as crucial as demographic change in the evolution of modem Tobian society has been the loss of political autonomy. A series of colonial masters (first Spanish, then German, Japanese, and American) have progressively imposed their will upon Micronesian cultures. Although Tobi has always been somewhat buffered by its small size and isolation from the massive changes that occurred elsewhere in Micronesia, the fact remains that decisions made in remote capitals have had an ever-increasing impact on tine Tobian way of life. Mention must be made here of the field trip, the provision of health and educational services, the imposition of the elected office of magistrate, and finally of the creation under foreign auspices of the community of Eang in Koror, the capital of Belau. Tobi is now a bipolar society made up of two communities separated by four hundred miles of sea.
Despite all these changes, in many respects Tobians lives today are not very different from those lived by their ancestors. Their economy is still primarily a subsistence one. Houses are still made from thatch and there is neither running water nor electricity. Men still fish from canoes and women still grow foodstuffs in their gardens, and this sexual division of labor is still the fundamental organizing principle of Tobian society.
Sketch Two: Social Structure on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 102.
An important aspect of Tobian social structure is the practice of tracing descent through the male line for some purposes and through the female line for others. Clan membership is transmitted from mother to child, the chieftaincy from father to son. The consequences of these two rules are interesting and important. For example, it is impossible for the chieftaincy to remain in the same clan for more than one generation. To understand why this is so we must examine both clanship and chieftaincy more closely.
Clanship is a fundamental aspect of identity on Tobi (that is, a basic component of who a person is). Everyone has clan status and belongs to one of the five clans currently in existence. These clans play a crucial role in organizing the population into discrete but interconnected units, because people who share the same clan identity are forbidden to marry. Indeed, any direct expression of sexuality between men and women who are clan mates is regarded as shocking and incestuous. Even though the two people may be very remote cousins in our terms, whose common ancestors lived so long ago that no one can actually trace out the genealogical connections between them, such people are thought by Tobians to be very closely related. Sharing the same clan identity means that the two people are linked together in ways that make other connections (especially sexual ones) completely inappropriate. What, then, connects people in the same clan? The answer has already been given: common descent through a line of women (technically known as matrilineal ties).
the clan identity of their mother. This is a common feature of the social
structure of the islands in this area. The Tobians attribute this feature
of their social system to the founder of their community, a woman named Ramoparuhe, who discovered the island
in the long ago past. Ramoparuhe decreed that each of her daughters establish
a separate clan. (This contrasts completely with the situation in all succeeding
generations, in which all of a women's children belong to the same clan.) She
also instituted clan exogamy, the previously mentioned rule that people
within the same clan may not marry. The combination of these two rules
means that children always belong to a different clan than their father.
Three generations of a Tobian clan
The office of chief, an important political position on Tobi today and, in the past, the most important spiritual office as well, is (like clanship) hereditary. But, unlike clanship, the chieftaincy travels down the generations in the male line (patrilineally). Just as clan membership theoretically goes back in a chain of mothers and daughters of the foundress of the community, so the office of chief goes back in a male line to her eldest son, Yonghoiru, the first chief. The reasons for such a lack of structural consistency are obscure, but the consequences are not. Because women, the transmitters of clanship, must marry outside their clans, the result is that every time the chieftaincy passes from father to son, it leaves one clan and enters another.
This man was chief of Tobi from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Sketch Three: Social Control and Deviance
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 152.
How does a society without policemen,
judges, prisons, lawyers, legislators, social workers, bureaucrats, soldiers,
or any of the other specialists in social control and deviance familiar to our
society cope with deviance and achieve order? Tobi is such a society, and it
is quite successful in controlling deviance.
Women are not supposed to climb trees. But sometimes the rule gets broken.
Late one evening, the calm of the village was shattered by the raucous singing of most of the island's women. From house to house they danced along the dark path, singing as loudly as they could. They repeated the same angry song again and again, holding their torches with one hand and using the other for emphatic, threatening gestures. The song was a highly personal attack on two of the young people, comparing them to animals and ghosts, indicting them for "unnatural" (or at least "unTobian") acts. When they reached the girl's house, the other people living there bullied her out of the hiding place to which she had fled, and, trembling and near hysteria, she was publicly humiliated by her fellow women. She had been carrying on an affair with a fellow clansmen, had become pregnant, and had agreed to marry him. This incident, which effectively terminated the couple's wedding plans, illustrates several of the salient features of the organization of deviance and control on Tobi.
The affair had been known to most people for some time. The general attitude seemed to be that the two young people were quite wrong to be doing what they were doing, but if their parents did not put a stop to it, nothing could be done. The parents simply never acknowledged that their children were sleeping together. The girl's parents were not on the island at the time and the people who were in charge of her were old and incapable of watching her as closely as the situation required. The young man was living on his own and the old man responsible for him was equally ineffectual in controlling him. Everyone else gossiped but did not intervene. The islanders respected the very important principle that prohibits direct interference in other people's behavior. This is a fundamental aspect of Tobian society and it accounts in large part for the wide latitude given to people as they bend and sometimes break the rules that govern social life. It also accounts for the tolerance of personal eccentricity that characterizes life on the island. Yet eventually people did intervene and acted to put a stop to the affair. This occurred after the girl's pregnancy was discovered by her guardian; her lover, seeking to save a disastrous situation, brought gifts to her house and announced their plan to marry.
At this point, the affair and the pregnancy that had been the business of the couple and their immediate families became the business of the community. The firestorm of gossip and rumor that erupted as news of the pregnancy spread had failed to correct the couple's behavior. This was serious, because gossip is Tobi's main mechanism for bringing violators back into line. It is not difficult to understand how, in such a tightly knit community, the destruction of one's good name through gossip is something to be avoided if at all possible. But in this case, apparently, the young couple were setting themselves above the rest of the people, free from gossip-imposed social control. A marriage is by its nature a public concern. It links families and, on Tobi, clans and it produces the next generation. To violate the rule preventing intra-clan marriages was to directly challenge the community and especially its women, transmitters of clanship. And so the women publicly and dramatically shamed the couple. Their lack of support and social isolation were driven home to them.
The three features of the Tobian organization of deviance and order are tolerance, the use of gossip,and shame as the ultimate sanction. It only remains to be said that once the couple gave up their marriage plans, they were incorporated back into ordinary social life. No permanent reminder of this episode exists and the couple was not stigmatized. Even had the baby not been stillborn (as sadly it was), this would have been the case. For there is a fourth, and more fundamental, principle at work, one from which the other three are derived: a violation of the rules disrupts relationships. Therefore the response to a violation must rectify the threatened relationships. This is because (and this is the fundamental principle at work) the preservation of relationships far outweighs any concern with abstract notions of justice, retribution, punishment, or even mercy.
Stratification and Inequality on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 176.
Ancient Tobian society was marked by a moderate degree of hierarchy. Differential access to resources, prestige, and power was associated with both the political-religious structure and a high population density. The number of Tobians has dramatically declined during the twentieth century, however, and the ancient poetical-religious system is now defunctleaving contemporary Tobian society remarkably egalitarian. Indeed, resources, power, and prestige are distributed about as equally on Tobi as in any known human society. Nevertheless, there are still some systematic differences in their distributiondifferences that help to map out the elementary social structure of Tobi.
The two main axis along which Tobian society is organized are gender and age. Maleness tends to be marked by greater power, prestige, and wealth than femaleness and age more than youth. There are, however, interesting differences between these two components of social identity. One is either male or female from birth to death. Age, on the other hand, is a continuum stretching from the newly born to the very old. Different points along the age continuum are associated with different levels of power, prestige, and wealth for the two genders. In general, for men the high point occurs in middle age; for women it comes much later.
A man in his fifties or sixties, still physically fit and capable of long hours of skillful work, with twenty or thirty years of patient political and economic activity behind him and a network of dependents (some kin, some not), has more of Tobian society's rewards than anyone else. An older woman, especially a widow who has outlived her brothers, has more of those rewards than any other woman and more than most men. She owes her status to the same factors as the middle-aged man, with two key differences.
A woman's work requires less physical
strength than a man's, so she remains productive longer than her male age-mates.
Furthermore, in this matrilineal society, descent through women is regarded
as more important than descent through men. The dependents of a powerful,
middle-aged man are people who eat at his kitchen, people for whom he does favors.
If he loses the ability to do those favors, he loses his dependents. An
old woman numbers among her dependents or political clients those people linked
to her by matrilineal relationsunbreakable and fundamental. It must be
repeated that there is one major similarity between a high-status middle-aged
man and a high-status old woman: neither one has very much more power, prestige,
or wealth than any other adult on the island. The basic character of
Tobian society is highly egalitarian; the inequities that do exist are rather
minimal and it is only in Tobians' interactions with people from larger, more
hierarchically organized populations that they encounter significant inequalities
and real stratification.
A mother and her baby.
Sketch Five: Gender-Roles on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 205.
The relations between men and women on Tobi
are complementary and opposed. In some respects, an adult is seen as a partial being who
only achieves wholeness through cooperation and harmonious relations with another adult of
the opposite sex. In other respects, and on other occasions, adult men and women are
understood to be separate, antagonistic individuals whose interests frequently clash. Out
of this tension between mutual harmony and antipathy arises the interplay of men and women
as they relate to one another. This can all perhaps be seen best in a dance that occurs
once a year on Christmas day. It is called the gift dance and it is the only one that men
and women ever dance together.
These women and men are creating a ground oven together.
The gift dance always comes after the final dance of the women and before the first dance of the men. It occupies the transition point between the dances women put on for men and those men put on for women. The women, who have danced for an hour or more (watched by the men, who have gathered in the meeting house) leave the dance ground and slip away to their houses. There, they tie cords around their waists from which they hang valuables. Fishhooks, bars of soap, parcels of food, sometimes even a live rooster tied by his feet, are hung from the women's waists. When all is ready, they return to the dance ground.
The men now all come to the windows and doors of the meeting house. If there is any alcohol on the island, the men drink it at this time. The women face inward in circle and begin to dance. As they sway and stomp in unison, they chant a special song, heard only in this one dance. Like all Tobian songs, it is highly elliptical and indirect, but everyone knows the actual meaningit is an anti-male insult song. The song contrasts lazy, immoral men with hardworking, upright women and accuses the men of only wanting to take advantage of women's good nature. The men, meanwhile, have begun hurling insults at the women. It is now that the courage given by alcohol is needed. The men yell out highly personal and extremely uncomplimentary comments on the attributes and characters of the dancers. Their general message has to do with the unattractiveness of the island's women.
Suddenly one of the men dashes out of the meeting house to the cheers of his fellow males. Staying outside the circle of dancers, he begins to mock their dancing, exaggerating their movements. Slowly he focuses on one of the dancers. He moves closer and closer to her back while she continues to dance and chant, studiously ignoring him just as she and her sisters in the dance have ignored all the taunts and insults so far. After a few moments, the man is close enough to begin to untie one of the gifts from her waist. Now he is no longer mocking her dancing, but instead fitting his movements to hers. For her part, even though she continues to sing about the lazy men of Tobi who would rather steal than work and who take advantage of the island's women, the woman patiently waits while he unties the gift, and if, in the excitement, he cannot undo the knot, she will secretly help him. One by one, all the men come out of the meeting house and join in the dance until all the gifts are gone. Once again the islanders have symbolically expressed the essential ambivalence that lies between women and men.
Majority/Minority Relations on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 236.
Small and homogeneous as it is, Tobian society contains no minority groups as the term is commonly understood. Indeed, the society does not even contain any strangers. Everyone is intimately familiar with everyone else's biography. But Tobians themselves form part of a minority group when they live in Belau.
Tobi is one of four small remote islands that for administrative and political purposes have been included within the Republic of Belau (previously known as Palau District). Up until recently, Belau was included for the same purposes within a colonial entity known as the United States Trust Territory of the Pacific. Belau proper consists of an archipelago of complex islands inhabited by twelve thousand or so people who, in language, culture, and history have little connection with the peoples of the Southwest Islands, of which Tobi is one.
The distance from Tobi to Belau proper is four hundred miles. Beginning in the early years of this century, that distance has been crossed at irregular intervals (anywhere from one to five times a year) by government ships from Koror, the capitol of Belau. Tobians have used these ships to create a daughter settlement near Koror. There, they live in proximity to people from the other Southwest Islands, with whom they share linguistic and cultural features. Although there are substantial differences between the peoples of the Southwest Islands, they tend to submerge under the common pressure of life as a minority in Belau.
In contrast to the societies of
the Southwest Islands, Belauan society is quite hierarchical. Both kinship groups
such as clans and lineages, and residential units such as villages and districts
are ranked in terms of prestige and power. As outsiders in this system, Tobians
and the other Southwest Islanders are ranked below everyone else by the Belauans.
They suffer all the usual disadvantages of low-status minorities. Educational
and employment opportunities are often closed to them just because they are
Southwest Islanders, negative stereotypes about them are perpetuated, and ethnic
jokes are told at their expense. This is not the whole story, however.
A Tobian hits a home run at Asahi Field in Koror.
The hostility directed at them has helped the Southwest Islanders overcome their differences and to create a true community in their settlement in Koror. Economic and political cooperation increasingly occurs, and intermarriage has become accepted practice. Furthermore, as a village of outsiders, their community is poised to take advantage of new situations in ways that Belauan communities, enmeshed in an existing structure, cannot. And, of course, secure in their possession of their home islands, Tobian and their fellow Southwest Islanders can always leave if things become too unpleasant in Belau. All this gives the Tobians an increasing self-confidence in their dealings with Belauans and, over time will require Belauans to modify their image of Tobians.
Sketch Seven: Kitchens and
Politics on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 253.
Politics on Tobi is extremely subtle and indirect. Much use is made of gossip in the manipulation of reputation, the use of influence, the recruitment of allies, the negotiation of issues, and the setting of public policy. Gossip and rumor flow along an ever-changing network of relationships that link all the statuses, both formal and informal, that make up the Tobian political system. Formal statuses include chief, magistrate, "mother of the island," and clan elder. An informal status is that of co-proprietor of a kitchen. And of all political statuses, co-proprietor of a kitchen is the most important in the day-to-day politics of this tiny community.
Tobian kitchens consist of a ground oven
for roasting, a small thatch hut for storing cooking equipment, a rack for drying fish,
some kind of flat surface for cutting up fish and other food, and a fire pit for boiling
and frying. Thus, a kitchen is not a room in the American sense, but rather a location at
a house site that contains the essential physical equipment for preparing meals.
This group of people is loading a ground oven.
Every house site contains the physical elements of a kitchen, but at any one time only a few kitchens are in operation. This is so because only a few house sites have the necessary social ingredients for a kitchenat least one adult man and adult woman whose primary loyalties are to each other. These people are the co-proprietors of the kitchen at their house site. Both bring the food that they produce to the kitchen, where they (mostly the woman) prepare a daily meal, consisting of products of the land (grown by women) and products of the sea (captured by men). To the meal also come people living at house sites where a kitchen is not in operation, that is people living in houses without the necessary male-female unit. They also bring the food they have produced. Thus, groups of people come together at these kitchens once a day to eat and talk. In addition to providing a ready-made work crew for any cooperative projects which the co-proprietors wish to engage in, these groups form very important elements in the gossip network, and therefore in the political life of the island. Thus, operating kitchens are prime political resources on Tobi, and those who control them are major political actors.
Tobian EconomySexual Division of Labor
Peter W. Black
The Tobian economy is still largely a subsistence economy. Very little cash is used in transactions between Tobians, and most goods and services are locally produced. Only the most basic specialization of labor, between the sexes, exists on Tobi. Men do one kind of work and women another.
Heavy physical work is generally the province of the men, while household and child-care duties usually rest on women's shoulders. There are, however, no hard and fast rules about this allocation of responsibilities. With regard to food production (by far the major consumer of time and energy), the division between men's worlds and women's worlds is much more definitewomen garden and men fish. This specialization by gender determines how people spend the majority of their productive lives, the skills they master and transmit to their children, in the knowledge and equipment they accumulate over the years, and in the conversations and encounters of daily life, both within and between the genders. This basic feature of the Tobian economy structures all social relationships and is reflected in an element of cultural wisdom that in turn has extremely important ramifications for Tobian social life.
It will be recalled that kitchens form an important political institution on Tobi because they are the setting for daily gatherings of people who can then be used for political purposes by the proprietors. One of the proprietors is always a man and the other a woman. Each brings to the kitchen the product of his or her labor, as do all the other people who eat there. In other words, kitchens are where the foods of the land and the foods of the sea, the products of the woman and the products of the man, are brought together. That this takes place is an absolute necessity, according to Tobians, for they firmly believe that if people do not eat a meal of both vegetables and seafood at least once a day, they will sicken and die. Specializing as each gender does in producing only one of these food classes, everyone is dependent on people of the opposite sex for survival.
Sketch Nine: Religion on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 343.
The people of Tobi became Roman Catholic in
the 1930s. This conversion occurred en masse during the visit of a missionary referred to
in Tobian oral history as Father Marino.
Having finished the funeral service for their old friend,
these men are carrying his coffin out of the Church.
The Tobians are a religious people and faithfully adhere to the beliefs and practices of Catholicism as they understand them. However, a close inspection of Tobian religious behavior reveals what sociologists and anthropologists have long heldthat the religion of a given people is seldom, if ever, an isolated phenomenon. It is, instead a part of their culture, and as such, is a response to their particular situation.
Tobian Catholicism differs from traditional Catholicism in the following ways. First, Tobians believe that Father Marino had power over ghosts. In pre-Christian Tobi, ghosts were seen as malevolent spirits who could cause great harm. Thus, through Catholicism, which gave Father Marino his powers, Tobians, too, could have power over ghosts. Second, Father Marino is thought to have had power to judge the dead and decide whether they will go to heaven or hell. As we saw in the sketch on Social Control and Deviance, Tobians believe that everyone always has someone in charge of them; the only exceptions are adult males. By attributing the power of judging salvation after death to Father Marino, the Tobians are relieved of this burden. The third point of departure from traditional Catholic teachings is the prohibition against marrying someone from the same clan. Finally, Tobians believe that priests who come to the island after Father Marino cannot alter their beliefs. This enables the Tobians to keep their religious structure intact.
Religion on Tobi is thus a combination of native beliefs and orthodox Catholicism. Although Tobians formally follow the teachings of Catholicism, privately they interpret this major world religion in terms of their own unique cultural experience. In this, they are similar to larger industrialized societies, such as Spain and Italy, that have also combined Catholicism with their unique history and culture, and to the United States where numerous Protestant sects have also developed. Here, again, Tobi shows us that no matter how small a culture may be, or how remote from the rest of the world, it has many things in common with us.
Sketch Ten: Education on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 363.
The Tobian school consists of one classroom
and a teacher's office in a low, concrete building standing alone in the island's
interior. Under its tin roof, school-age children pass their days. For the first eight
grades, they study a modified American curriculum. The teacher is a fellow Tobian, trained
and employed by the United States government. Students who continue their education go to
high school in Koror on Palau.
These girls are taking part in graduation ceremonies at the school.
Perhaps the most interesting contrast
between the Tobian school and the American schools on which it is modeled lies in the way
grades are viewed by students, the teacher, and the society at large. High grades on Tobi
do not translate into prestige and respect from one's peers, greater expectations and
demands from one's teacher, or praise from one's parents. Grades are based on performance
in class, on homework, and on examinations, and there is general agreement that the
grading is fair. There is also general agreement that differences in grades reflect
differences in scholastic ability as well as differences in school performance. The
particular mental ability Tobians think is important in school performance is the ability
to learn by direct instruction. However, this kind of intelligence is not very highly
regarded. Other kinds of learning abilities, especially the ability to learn by indirect
observation, are more respected by Tobians. Therefore, even on its own, getting high
grades in school would not generate prestige, respect, or praise because the ability
behind those grades is not strongly valued. But there is more to it than this: getting
high grades reveals that one is deficient in social intelligence, which is an extremely
This young girl is learning to make baskets.
Social intelligence, which is the most highly regarded form of intelligence recognized by Tobians, is the ability to achieve one's own ends without disrupting social relations. A very important component of behaviors which are said to reflect this trait is the avoidance of public shame. One of the ways in which shame is generated is through appearing to stand out in a way that makes others look badfor example, by getting better grades than everyone else. Therefore, people who get good grades may be demonstrating that they have what the Tobians call a "good head for school," but they are also demonstrating that they lack a much more important trait: the ability to avoid public shame. In the Tobian system of education, then, the "smartest" student in the American sense is the "dumbest" student in the Tobian sense.
Sketch Eleven: Gossip as Mass
Media on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 396.
Few contemporary human communities are as small and as isolated as Tobi. Nevertheless, the island does have a form of mass media. As with so many other areas of social life, a consideration of the mass media from the perspective of Tobi sheds new light on a familiar phenomenon.
Within the society of people actually living on the island, the mass media, as conventionally understood, play only a small role. People own shortwave radios on which they occasionally listen to music. Reception is poor, however, batteries wear out, and the kind of music on the radio is not the kind of music most people like. Occasionally someone will bring a magazine or two to the island with them or paperback books that are read by the literate, and then used as a source of cigarette paper. However, if one thinks about the functions of the mass media in a society like the United States and attempts to identify how those functions are fulfilled in Tobian society, then the radios, books, and magazines will be seen as irrelevant.
The mass media are involved in
the transmission of information from one segment of society to another. In a
world of strangers, it is radio, television, books, films, and newspapers, that
convey information. And much of that information is about people. This is what
it means to be famous. Famous people are those about whom many people have some
information. In this sense, rumor and gossip are mass media on Tobi and everybody
is famous. Everyone possesses some (in fact quite a bit) of information about
everyone else. And it is through gossip and rumor that this information is transmitted,
amplified, distorted, and used by powerful people in precisely the same way
that the mass media are used by powerful interests in American society.
These two friends are gossiping.
For example, if word spreads that a certain couple wants to marry, politically astute opponents of the match can use gossip to disrupt it. It only takes a carefully dropped hint or two, along the lines of "guess who I saw so and so with last night," to generate trouble between the couple. And the people who are in the best position to create such trouble, by innuendo and indirection, are those who are at the center of the gossip networksthe proprietors of kitchens who can count on an attentive audience at least once a day.
Sketch Twelve: The Past and
Present on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 417.
What was Tobi like before the outsiders got
there? To answer this question, we need to pause and think about how we understand change
in non-Western cultures. When looking at a society such as Tobi, it is easy to imagine
that prior to "first contact," there existed a pure, untouched, or pristine
native way of life, unchanged and unchanging, whose remote beginnings are now lost in the
past. In this perspective, ancient Tobian culture is what was changed, distorted, or
dislocated by the coming of the outsidersin this part of the world, a succession of
traders, soldiers, voyagers, missionaries, and administrators from Europe, North America,
Australia, and Japan. In this way of thinking (which is characteristic of the way other
cultures are viewed by Westerners) an ancient, crystallized, indigenous way of life is
contrasted to a rapidly changing Westernized mode of existence.
These women are harvesting taro together from fertile gardens created by their ancestors from non-productive swamps.
The problem with such a perspective is that it distorts social reality and assigns a false timeless quality to indigenous, pre-contact cultures and an exaggerated strength and power to our own. Of course, Tobian society has been profoundly affected by the "West" (which in this case includes Japan), but the power of the West lay not in its ability to create or impose change, but rather in the way it shaped the direction and the rate of already existing change. We know Tobi was already changing, not just because its legends and myths so indicate, but also, and more important, because we know that every human society is always changing.
The question then becomes one of trying to understand, in the absence of written records or any significant archaeological data, in what direction and at what rate was ancient (pre-contact) Tobian society changing. But even this, with its stress on contact as some kind of absolute watershed, is not adequate. If one looks at a map, one sees that Tobi, for all its remoteness, is located at the intersection of Micronesia, Indonesia, and Melanesia, and is only about six hundred miles from the Philippines. Humans have been voyaging in this region for thousands of years. The present population of Tobi appears to be descended from a founding group that probably arrived twenty-two generations ago, or about the middle of the sixteenth century, most likely from somewhere farther east, deeper in Micronesia. During the two hundred or so years of Tobian history before the arrival of the first European ship, many outsiders from what are now the Philippines, Melanesia, Indonesia, and the rest of Micronesia must have arrived on Tobi's shores. Such arrivals (most likely sporadic and unplanned), with outsiders bringing new ideas and new diseases with them, were only one change ancient Tobi had to cope with. Weather and climatic changes, changing fish populations, change in the island itself as a result of human action (especially in the construction of fertile gardens out of nonproductive swamp lands), and changing ratios of humans to resources also posed a never-ending series of challenges. Each was met in the same way that the challenges posed by the West have been (and are being) met, with symbolically organized collective action significantly different from what had been done beforein other words, with social change.
Sketch Thirteen: The
Rural-Urban Continuum on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 444.
Tobian society is an example of a bipolar society. At one pole is the island of Tobi and at the other the Southwest Island settlement near Koror in Belau. If one is willing to accept Koror, a town of five thousand, as "urban" (which it is, in the perspective of the Tobians), it is much further on the rural-urban continuum than Tobi.
At any one time, about half the Tobians are living on Koror and the rest on Tobi. At either pole of the society there is a core of people who are more or less permanent residents and who make only occasional visits to the other pole. There are also a number of people who split their time between the two poles.
Life is remarkably different in these two places. On Tobi, a subsistence existence is still the rule. This means that traditional skills and reward patterns and the daily round of activity still exist. The year is structured by the periodic arrival of the ship from Koror, which brings supplies and passengers and exchanges them for island produce and other passengers. For the week or so following the visit of the ship, daily life on the island is disrupted. Gossip is exchanged, rumors developed and passed along, any alcohol delivered by the ship is drunk, school is out, no one gets much sleep, and only the most pressing of subsistence activities are carried out.
After the ship leaves, life generally returns to normal. The men fish, the women garden, children return to school, three or four kitchens serve full meals once a day, and everyone attends church early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Then, as the time nears for the next visit of the ship, the pace again picks up. People spend more and more time making copra (dried coconut meat, the island's main export), putting together gifts of food for relatives in Koror, and preparing for the excitement of ship day. Those planning to leave prepare their belongings and make arrangements for caretakers to watch over their possessions and take care of their dependents while they are gone. Eventually the ship arrives. When it departs, it takes people north to Koror and a very different mode of existence.
People travel to Koror for a variety of reasons. The hospital, the high school, the courthouse, the Catholic mission, movie theaters, bowling alleys, bars, restaurants, electricity and running water, and jobs are all in Koror. All of these are attractions. They are also part of an urban lifestyle.
Daily life in Koror means rising early, not to go fishing as on Tobi, but to walk to work or to school. Time is structured not by the demands of subsistence but by the dictates of institutions. One must have access to cash in order to live, electricity extends the day far beyond sunset, a priest says mass every Sunday. There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of alcohol and other items considered luxuries on Tobi. Tobians in Koror are a subgroup of a minority (the Southwest Islanders) living in a community surrounded by strangers. On Tobi, there are neither strangers nor minorities.
Sketch Fourteen: Being Old on Tobi
Peter W. Black
In Sociology: Analysis and Application, Joseph A. Scimecca and Arnold K. Sherman, Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992, p. 480.
The Tobian expression for "old
person" could also be translated as "far" person, in the sense of being on
the other side of something. And on Tobi the old are on the far side of adulthood. And on
Tobi, as elsewhere, they experience increasing physical deterioration (although they seem
remarkably healthy and vigorous compared to their peers in American society); a loss of
age-mates, friends, and loved ones; and an increasing awareness of their approaching
death. What they do not suffer from is the social isolation and social dis-esteem
characteristic of our own society. Once again Tobian lives shed contrasting light on our
These old men are working on a project together.
To become old on Tobi means to move slowly out of active production of basic foodstuffs. Women do less gardening and men do less fishing. But this is a very gradual processthere is nothing approaching "retirement day," no definite point at which people take leave of their former strenuous activities. The entry into the status of old or "far" person tends to be marked in the Tobian stereotype by the first use of a stick as a cane. Indeed, one way to describe an old person is to say that he or she has "taken up the stick" or "walks on three legs."
But stereotypes, even self-created ones, are not reality. And the reality of the situation is that demographic and technological necessity encourages elderly Tobians to stay on their feet much longer than they might otherwise. For example, when a roof needs to be re-done, walking sticks are laid aside and very old women help harvest their own or their daughter's gardens to provide food for the re-thatching party, while their elderly husbands and brothers climb up into the rafters. The coconut frond thatch shingles used to replace the old roof are woven mostly by old women, freed from their gardening and cooking duties by younger dependents. The twine (made from coconut husks) used to latch the thatch shingles to the rafters is made mostly by old men freed from all but light fishing duties by their younger dependents.
Physical enfeeblement does not mean social enfeeblement on Tobi: old people are not only highly productive, they are also socially active and centrally located within the networks of influence and control. Their mastery of the techniques of gossip, the respect and esteem in which they are held, their control over resources, their continued production of valued goods (twine and thatch), and their role of babysitter in which they help to socialize the young into the customs of Tobi, all make the old people a group to be reckoned with.