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Pocket Change for Giants

Stones bigger than tractor tires are still used as money on a cluster of Pacific islands whose customs are at odds with the modern world.

June 30, 2006|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

COLONIA, Federated States of Micronesia — This is the Land of Stone Money, where the village streets are lined with cold, hard cash.

Hundreds of giant stone coins, some as big as 12 feet in diameter, stand by the side of the road, lean against houses or lie half hidden among trees and shrubs. Many of the mottled gray stones are centuries old and are worth thousands of dollars.

Though doughnut-shaped coins that weigh a ton might seem impractical elsewhere, stone money is an essential part of the economy and cultural life of Yap, a small group of islands 4,300 miles west of Hawaii.

The larger pieces are seldom moved and instead change hands in something akin to an electronic bank transfer. They are used to buy land, pay for services or provide compensation in cases of wrongdoing or negligence. Even stones that sank offshore long ago still hold their monetary value.

But these coins are more than just money. The rai, as the stone wheels are known, embody Yapese lore and help keep the islands' traditions alive.

"They symbolize the totality of our lives, our identity," said Andrew Ruepong, the islands' paramount chief.

Yap is the most traditional of the four states that make up the Federated States of Micronesia, a former U.S. territory. The isolated, rule-bound society of 11,000 people has kept globalization at bay, maintaining customs such as one that requires women to go topless on holidays. It has a rigid caste system that means the most unfortunate residents are born into virtual slavery.

"We are trying to hold on to things the way they used to be," said FSM Supreme Court Justice Martin Yinug, who attended college and law school in the United States. "This is the only way we know how to survive. If we change too quickly, we will be lost."

In about 200 A.D., seafaring people from Southeast Asia settled on Yap. They became renowned for their navigational skill and powerful black magic.

Hundreds of years ago, the Yapese began sailing to Palau, 250 miles to the west, and quarrying large wheels of aragonite for use as money. It is unclear what inspired the choice of the stone except that it was absent on Yap. The early craftsmen used simple shell tools to cut the rock, carving a hole in the center of the disks to make them easier to move.

The Palau journey was difficult and dangerous, especially the trip home, as the stones were being towed by canoe. If a man died bringing back a rai, its value greatly increased. Some stones were named in honor of the dead, the names passed down from one generation to the next.

Today, although rai, shells and necklaces are used as money in Yap, the main currency is the U.S. dollar.

Though the Federated States of Micronesia gained independence from the United States in 1986, it still receives $93 million a year in aid from Washington. Some question whether the U.S. should continue to finance the country without pushing for greater social equality in Yap.

"Why should the U.S. government continue to subsidize a place that has a caste system?" asked Guam lawyer Ron Moroni, who used to work in Yap as a legal aid attorney.

The Federated States of Micronesia has a democratic system modeled on the United States, but Yap gives great deference in state affairs to an informal fourth branch of government composed of a council of chiefs.

In Yap, men are dominant in society and domestic violence against women is high. The state doesn't keep statistics, but one survey showed that 60% of people admitted to the hospital were victims of such abuse, said Josephine G. Giltug, the governor's representative for women.

"Bruises and scars on a married woman's face hardly ever raise questions in her work environment or in public," Giltug wrote recently in an appeal for funds to establish what would be Yap's first shelter for battered women.

Women cannot own stone money or inherit their parents' property. In a divorce, the husband gets everything, including custody of the children. Each village has a traditional men's house where women are not allowed. Women are not supposed to fish. A woman can never be a chief, only a caretaker chief until a male heir comes of age.

Women have the right to vote, but none have ever been elected to a government post. Few even think of running in state elections.

On the outer islands of Yap, Western clothing is banned and men and women are required to go shirtless at all times. On the main island, also called Yap, the entire population is required to go topless on certain days of the year to celebrate traditions.

But some leaders worry that Yap's customs are breaking down as islanders have more contact with the outside world, especially women who return after working on neighboring islands.

"When they come back they are more outsider than Yapese," Gov. Robert A. Ruecho said. "They don't want to remove their tops."

Chief Ruepong says any Yapese who want to abandon traditional ways should leave.

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