Takuya Nagaoka

Pohnpeian Ceremonial Yam Feast


Yam (kehp) is the pride of men on Pohnpei Island, Micronesia. Men put more labor to prestigious goods for feasts, especially yams, pigs, and sakau (kava), among which yams have the highest value to attain social status than other daily food crops. In addition to hereditary quality, achievements, especially contributions during the feasts, are an important factor for a man to gain prestige and higher hierarchical chiefly titles in Pohnpeian society. 

Displayed "kehi" (uncooked yam tuber clusters) (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Yam in Pohnpei

Service to the high chiefs through food presentation at different activities, especially ceremonial feasts, are performed by men competitively, striving to show their industriousness, skillfulness in growing large yams, and generosity in making offerings to the high chiefs. The ceremonial feast, an occasion where people show their pride of being successful Pohnpeians, is about expressing respect, appreciation, and support to the chiefs. It is also the time that social hierarchy is expressed and reproduced by spatial arrangements, verbal expressions, and ceremonial practices.

Yam planted on the ground (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Yam is the most important agricultural plant in Pohnpei where life is conditioned by two seasons. During the rainy season (April-August) or the season of plenty (rahk), people enjoy abundant breadfruits, which require less labor input. In contrast, yam is the staple food during the dry season (September-March), which is considered to be the season of scarcity (isol) when people need to rely on various crops such as banana, taro, and fermented breadfruit.

Boy planting his first yam (2018) by Bejay ObispoICHCAP

The yam is a material symbol of men's diligence. For several months of the year, the bulk of agricultural labor is devoted to the cultivation of yams. The yam is perceived as selin mwahnakapw (‘young man’s vines’) and menginpehn ohl (‘result of man’s work’), indicating the intensive manual labor required to grow it as opposed to breadfruit, which is known as menginpehn eni (‘result of spirit’s work’). Highly regarded in Pohnpei, knowledge of yam cultivation is maintained esoteric. Men don't reveal the number of yams they plant. In the olden days, competitive feasts of yams were held between rivaling individuals or communities to contest their resourcefulness.

This photo shows Sadokawai Obispo (born in 2006) planting his first yam.

Boy posing near his first yam (2018) by Bejay ObispoICHCAP

In the old days, community members offered the first fruits of various crops to high chiefs through the year to ritually honor them and, through them, to indigenous gods to ensure divine blessing for the well-being of the community.
The yam is associated with a series of "first fruits" ceremonies (nohpwei), in which different forms of yams are offered to high chiefs. After this, ordinary people are able to consume them and use them as tributes.

This photo shows Sadokawai Obispo's first yam harvested.

Displayed "kehi" (uncooked yam tuber clusters) (2015) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Among those yam tributes, important ceremonial feasts known as kamadipw en wahu ('feast of honor') and kamwadipw en kousapw ('feast of section') are annually held to pay respect to the Nahnmwarki (paramount chief) and section chief respectively at the height of the yam season around September to November, in which kehi (uncooked clusters of yam tubers) are used as tribute. The German colonial regime authorized the Nahnmwarki to have these feasts in 1912, when the Germans privatized land previously owned by the Nahnmwarki and curtailed the feasts for economic development.

Men carrying a "kehi" (a large yam tied to a pole) (2015) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Ceremonial Yam Feast

To offer the "first fruits" of yam tuber cluster (kehi) to a section chief, men carry a kehi to the community assembly house (nahs), where the ceremonial feast will be held. A kehi is a large yam tied to a pole, to which bird's nest fern (tehnlik) is attached for decoration. This ceremonial feast is significant in Pohnpeian ceremonial life because people can use the whole raw yams in any feast after this, comparing with partial yams permitted to be used prior to it.

"Kehi" hanging from the rafters (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Kehi are displayed beside and inside the community house during the feast. Men often talk about individual tributes, especially who contribute the largest yam, sakau (kava) and pig to the feast.

Head garlands prepared for important persons (2014) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

High ranking chiefs and distinguished guests are adorned with head garlands (mwaramwar) woven with fragrant flowers and leaves.

Men preparing for sakau (2014) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

In the morning, men prepare sakau (kava) beverage to serve only to the high chiefs prior to a formal meal around noon. This sakau drink called ahmwadang is the royal prerogatives. They pound sakau roots with stones on a large stone slab. Sakau is a traditional drink with sedating effects consumed at ceremonial occasions in Pohnpei. Kava is also served in different forms on many islands in the Pacific. 

Sqeezing sakau beverage into coconut cup (2017) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Sakau beverage is sqeezed into coconut cup with hibiscus bast strainer. During the feast, sakau is mainly consumed by high chiefs following rigorous procedure. The first cups of sakau (the number of cups depend on chiefdoms) are served to only the high-ranking chiefs.

Women dancing (2016) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

At certain times during the feast, especially when people bring in their tributes in a procession to the community assembly house, mainly women dance in the ground-level area (nanpahpei) to express their joy and pride in their contributions to the chiefs.

Women dancing to Pohnpeian popular music during the ceremonial yam feast (2016) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

These days women dance to Pohnpeian popular music played loudly inside the community assembly house.

Stone oven for cooking yams and pigs (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Stone-Oven Cooking

The main part of the feast program is roughly divided into two parts: stone-oven cooking and sakau (kava) drinking. To cook pigs and yams, men build a large stone oven in a cook house often located near the community assembly house. In comparison to women's daily cooking, stone-oven cooking is men's honorable work.

Women bringing food baskets (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Around noon, women bring their contribution of food baskets to the main platform in the community assembly house. After having the contributions blessed in a Christian manner, they are redistributed among participants with respect to social ranking; chiefly titles are called out loudly. This way of redistribution called pwekipwek, which is also done to other foods of prestige such as yams and pigs, actualizes and visualizes the honor of the recipients.

Displaying roasted pigs (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Slaughtered pigs are brought to display in front of the community assembly house, where pigs are prepared for cooking by shaving their hairs and removing their internal organs.

Bringing agricultural products (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Banana, coconut, taro, and other agricultural products are brought to display on the main platform in the community assembly house before they are redistributed while men prepare pigs for cooking.

Young people performing dances (2016) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Young people performing dances for entertainment in front of the community assembly house.

Youth group's dance (2014) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

A youth group dances to celebrate the ceremonial yam feast.

Pigs based in a stone oven (2016) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Pigs are baked in a stone oven. Pigs roasted and placed in coconut leaf baskets are brought to the community assembly house.

Men bringing roasted pigs (2016) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Roasted pigs are gathered in front of the high chiefs on the main platform of the community assembly house and are cut into various pieces. Different sizes of portions are redistributed among participants according to social rank. The pwekipwek redistribution of baked pigs and yams is the most bustling and cheerful part of the feast.

Redistributing "kehi" (2016) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Large yams displayed near and inside the community house are redistributed. High chiefs decide whether they redistribute or retain them. Those yam tubers will be replanted for next year.

Sakau drinking (2014) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Sakau (Kava) Drinking

The final part of the feast is public sakau (kava) drinking called as pilen uhmw ('drink of stone oven'). Sakau bushes are brought into the community assembly house to be displayed in front of the high chiefs. Carriers produce a joyful atmosphere by shouting (kadekedek) and dancing. 

Men bringing sakau bushes (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

To emphasize the quality and size of the sakau tribute, small sakau bushes are carried first; the next to follow are ascend in terms of the size of the bushes. The bushes are accumulated as high as possible to stress the quantity. A lively and dynamic atmosphere is created by workers' vivacious actions and shouts of instructions and encouragement.

Man delivering a speech beside accumulated sakau (2014) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

The largest sakau bush is designated as sakau en enihlap ('kava of the supreme god'). After cutting its branches, a part of it is tied to the rear-most central post called salidi en enihlap ('the supreme god's post to sit facing downward') of the community assembly house. This act is to honor the supreme god as the post is the representation of the supreme god. After a man delivers a speech in front of accumulated sakau bushes, the bushes are redistributed among high ranking chiefs in a pwekipwek procedure.

Women dancing to a rhythmical sakau pounding (2014)ICHCAP

A part of the sakau en enihlap bush is used for public sakau drinking. Women dance to a rhythmical sakau pounding (called sokamah), which signals that sakau is ready to be served in the community assembly house.

Sakau drinking continuing until midnight (2015) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

All participants are allowed to join sakau drinking, which often continues until midnight in the community assembly house.

Kids watching women's dance (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Future of the Ceremonial Yam Feast

Today, the ceremonial yam feast is one of the most important occasions where the people passionately express and enjoy their cultural identity in a rapidly changing Pohnpeian society.

Dr Rufino Mauricio's interview on ceremonial yam feast (2018) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

Dr. Rufino Mauricio (Director, FSM Office of National Archives, Culture and Historic Preservation) talks about a significant change that the ceremonial yam feast underwent in the past fifty years.

Boys carrying a "kehi" (2015) by Takuya NagaokaICHCAP

In spite of the decline of traditional culture in post-war Pohnpei society, the ceremonial yam feast has been steadily succeeded by the young generation. This tradition will continue to change in the future, but its spirit will be maintained, constituting their pride as Pohnpeians in many generations to come.

Credits: Story

Curator: Takuya Nagaoka (Executive Director, NGO Pasifika Renaissance)


I would like to thank all the Pohnpeians who assisted in creating this exhibition. I especially appreciate the assistance of the following persons: Lepenmoar Kitti, His Excellency Keropin David; Dr. Rufino Mauricio, Madau en Kutoareiloang (Director, FSM Office of National Archives, Culture and Historic Preservation); Mr. Mordain David, Nahnkirou en Kitti (Chief, Pohnpei State Historic Preservation Office); Mr. Bejay Obispo, Oaron Maka Uh. Kalahngan en kupwuromwail koaros!


Raynor, Bill, Adelino Lorens, and Jackson Phillip, 2009. Yams and their traditional cultivation on Pohnpei.” In Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People, and Island Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 40-62.

Riesenberg, Saul, 1968. The Native Polity of Ponape. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Shimizu, Akitoshi, 1987. Feasting as socio-political process of chieftainship on Ponape, Eastern Carolines. In Iwao Ushijima and Ken'ichi Sudo (eds), Cultural Uniformity and Diversity in Micronesia. Senri Ethnological Studies 21. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, pp. 129-176.

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