Micronesia’s traditional leaders and governance

MANY Micronesians believe that their traditional leadership help preserve their cultural heritage. Traditional chiefs also provide checks and balances to contemporary politics and governance in Micronesian society.

Before implementing policy, government leaders usually consult traditional chiefs. All of them work to ensure a balanced community in which traditional ways and government laws collaborate for the good of the people.

According to former FSM President John Haglegam, “The customary power of the traditional chiefs in Micronesia varied from culture to culture.”

According to former FSM President John Haglegam, “The customary power of the traditional chiefs in Micronesia varied from culture to culture.”

He said on Kosrae “the power was centralized in a very powerful ruler, while on Yap, the power of the chiefs was decentralized and subjected to elaborate checks and balances built into the customary political relationship.”

In Palau, “the power was vested in the heads of two alliances of villages. These alliances were involved in constant fighting for domination.”

In Chuuk, “the most powerful traditional leaders were the village chiefs.”

In the Marshall Islands, “the most powerful leaders were the two paramount chiefs, one heading each of the two island chains — the Ratak and Ralik. Surprisingly, for low island chiefs, these two paramount chiefs had absolute power.”

In Pohnpei, “the power of the traditional leaders was exercised by a paramount chief in each of the five kingdoms. However, the exercise of their customary power is checked by the head of a chiefly parallel line whose relationship to the paramount chief is like a father-son relationship, the paramount chief being the father.”

In the outer islands of Chuuk and Yap, “each island had its paramount chief. In spite of the varied power of the traditional chiefs in Micronesia, almost all of them inherit their position through their mother.”

In Palau, “the senior women in the chiefly clan select the paramount chief. Yap is the exception to this general rule. Both the age of the mother and her son were important determining factors for the leadership position in all Micronesian societies. Quite often a young man who had customary claim to a leadership position would be bypassed in favor of an older man. When this happened, usually the older man served in that position until death, then the rightful holder of the title could assert his right. The exercise of customary chiefly power was the domain of men. In a few cases, women would become chiefs, but the effective power would be exercised by men.”

Saipan resident Ben Sablan attended the recent sakau ceremony held by the Pohnpeian community in honor of their visiting paramount chief or king and queen.

Sablan, a former House member and cabinet secretary, said he appreciates witnessing island cultural and traditional events. For six years, he was a chief biologist in Pohnpei where he learned a lot about Micronesian culture.


  • Heglegam is right the its inherited from the women but wrong on two paramount chiefs in the Marshalls. In Ratak there are 2 paramount chieftains. In Ralik there are 4 not 1.
  • Reaper,

    Do all those paramount chiefs have equal authority?
  • @Reaper/What's the purpose of the irooj Bwio? doesn't he take control of all Lollelaplap Kingdom?
  • @TruthIsThat, yes and no. In their own realm or mojen they have ultimate authority. But when visiting a different realm they offer gifts to the paramount chief which realm they are in.

    A paramount chief or chief from the ralik can't go the ratak and do as he please and vise versa. Foe example the paramount chief from the lelang kabua line rule supreme in ebon but has no authority over ujae which its younger branch the Jeimata Kabua branch control. Both have small authority in ailonlaplap which the Loeak branch control. The 4 chiefs control overlap each other in many of the atolls in the ralik but whoever controls more land amongst them in that atoll is the reigning chief of that atoll.

    @MrNobody905, there are no more pwio chiefs. They all died out in the 1800s. Pwio only control what land or atoll his-her clan rule. Their authority on their matrilineal lands is unquestioned but on the lands of their fathers they have less authority.
  • @Reaper

    That was interesting and informative. The Marshallese system sounds fascinating. Thank you for that.
  • @Reaper/Kommol waj brother.A well representation of ancient politics. I'm glad to see it's been preserved through the centuries.
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