Saturday, January 22, 2011


Yap's Cultural Heritage

Stone Money

Exchange is an important part of life in Yap as it is in all cultures. Yapese have used intriguing stone money for centuries. It is found nowhere else in the world. The first stone money quarrying in the Palau Islands may have begun as far back as 125 A.D. The sparkling rock is a form of crystalline calcite that is found primarily in the colorful glistening walls of limestone caverns.
Hundreds of voyages followed the initial trip to Palau. Many men attempted the hazardous passage and more that a few perished in the process. The 250 mile canoe journey took about five days one way if the weather was good and required skillful sailing. The larger pieces of stone money that are now a familiar fixture in most Yapese villages was an arduous task to make and return to Yap, increasing its value greatly.

People and Language

There are four distinct languages indigenous to Yap State - Yapese, Ulithian, Woleian, and Satawalese - and some theorists point to the distinct languages as evidence that the people of Yap and the Outer Islands are descendants of different ancient migrating societies. According to this theory, the Yapese people may be descendants of an ancient Indonesian or Philippine culture, and the Outer Island people descendants of a Melanesian or Polynesian culture.


Until the twentieth century, many Yapese and Outer Islanders decorated their bodies with intricate tattoo patterns. Three distinctive types ("Yol," "Gachow." and "Salbachag") were used to designate high status, expertise in fighting, or simply personal preferences. The process of tattooing the legs or full body involved a great deal of pain as soot was burned into the body to make the exquisite designs.There are still tattoo masters the Outer Islands, and, while full body tattoos are increasingly rare, more than a few Yapese and Outer Islanders have local tattoos of popular images like dolphins or birds on their torso.

The Arts in Yapese Society

It begins with a thunderous clap, repeated over and over by a line of solemn dancers until a simple rhythm is firmly established. From the center of the line a solitary voice emits a powerful rasping wail introducing a story told in a forgotten tongue. The hypnotic sound of the wailer's voice floats out across the earthen dance amphitheater with its ancient, ceremonial stone seats and backrests and over the moonlit sea. All within hearing range are captivated, transported through time to a mystical bygone era. Suddenly the single voice is joined by a mighty, reverberating chorus of voices bellowing and ancient chant - the dance is joined.Yap's most highly developed art form, dance, or "Churu" is a central part of the State's culture. Ultimately, Yapese dancing is a form of storytelling and oral history. There are four main types: Sitting, Standing, Marching and Bamboo. Traditionally, dances are segregated by sex, although in recent years bamboo dances have been performed jointly by men and women. Bamboo and Standing dances are particularly taxing physically and are usually reserved for the young. Yapese and Outer Islanders begin dancing at a young age and may dance until well into their fifties when the fluid movement necessary for dancing begins to be more difficult to maintain.Dances often tell the stories of canoes, or conquest, and more recently, religious events. Many dances are laced with double meanings and some, such as the "Gaslew", a dance for men that women are forbidden to watch, are quite bawdy. (Of course, if women didn't manage to watch the "Gaslew", chances are the young men would have given this type of dance up long ago!) One intriguing kind of dance that is not as frequently performed anymore is the "Tayor", which is performed by women at multi-village celebrations called "Guywol." During the dance the women may ask for anything in the host village that they want - food, stone money or even a canoe - and the host must generously furnish it!Dancing is an interactive sport in Yap, with the observers playing the role of coaches and critics. Old men or women usually occupy the choicest seats and are merciless in their criticism - exhorting the dancer to get down lower in the painful crouch that is their primary stance or to make sure their eyes follow the rhythm of the dance. Given the intense scrutiny, dancers often practice, by the light of the moon, for up to a year before a major performance.Dancers wear beautiful costumes, like multicolored hibiscus skirts, and ornamental head-dress, and cover their bodies with flowers, coconut oil and yellow turmeric powder prior to performing.

Shell Money and Necklaces Stone

money is by no means the only Yapese valuable. The most highly valued money on island is called "Gaw" a necklace formed of shells and whale teeth. This valuable is reserved for chiefs."Gaw" was first brought to Yap by the ancient navigator Angumang of Teb village in Tomil. According to legend Angumang discovered the shell necklaces while on a voyage to Udot Island in Chuuk lagoon. While there he saw some beautiful strings of shell worn around the waists of a group of Chuukese women who were performing a dance. Captivated by the beauty of the shells Andgumang decided to obtain them and, late at night, stole nine from the area where the women put them for safekeeping. In the morning, the Chuukese discovered the theft and suspicion immediately fell on the outsider Angumang who was down at the beach preparing to depart for Yap. An expedition of Chuukese men was quickly rounded up and sent to the beach to search Angumang's canoe and retrieve the stolen valuable. After an exhaustive but fruitless search, though, the Chuukese were forced to release Angumang and his crew who piously proclaimed their innocence.Sometime later, Angumang and his crew arrived in Yap. They had many stories to tell and were loaded down with gifts obtained during their long voyage among them nine ropes of shells that made beautiful necklaces - gifts from the people of Chuuk. Unbeknownst to the Chuukese, Angumang had hidden the stolen goods in hollowed pieces of bamboo on his boat!Another important Yapese valuable is "Yar", or shell money. There are four kinds of Yapese shell money that are used for important events like marriage proposals and celebrations, as well as to tender traditional apologies. Shell money is also used as payment for local medicine.One kind of shell money comes from Palau, another from the Philippines and Indonesia. The third kind of shell money comes from a sunken coral island thirty-five miles north of Yap called Seepin and the fourth is indigenous to Yap. The types of shell money are easily distinguished by Yapese based on the coloring on the insides of the shells. Some of the shell are whole while others are cut and attached to decorated wooden handles, coupled like an oyster shell, or put in groups of five on lengths of coconut rope.There are important norms governing the exchange of shell money that are passed down from generation to generation, and the Yapese pay close attention to the type and number of shell money that is offered during exchanges. An inappropriate offering may result in under or overpayment for a particular service and can be refused, much to the embarrassment of the offering party.


  1. Grace,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. You did an excellent job talking about the culture of Yap, it's languages and the shell money called yar. I would love to know what shells they used for money? We can also incorporate the tumaraic powder into the costumes....GREAT job keep it up!