Pocket Change for Giants

Times Staff Writer

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.

“If they don’t want to be topless, they can live in Guam,” he said. “Everyone has to participate in the community. If a woman has to be topless, she has to be topless. That goes for everybody. That’s the sense of being part of a community.”

In this community, the caste system has been frozen for more than a century. In earlier times, continual tribal warfare and shifting alliances meant that the pecking order changed frequently. But when Germany took control of Yap in 1899, it ended the fighting and the castes became fixed.

Today, the higher-ranking villagers own the land and the low-caste villagers, in exchange for the opportunity to grow food, must provide services to them, such as burying their dead and repairing their roofs.

“It’s like paying rent,” Gov. Ruecho said. “I have people who come and take care of my family. They are mindful of the fact they are living off my land.”

A low-caste Yapese can escape the role to which he or she was born only by moving away.

“You don’t have to be a slave,” said Bill Acker, who came to Yap as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1976 and now operates the Manta Ray Bay Hotel in Colonia. “Unfortunately, the only alternative is to leave the country.”

The islanders support themselves mainly through farming and fishing. The minimum wage has been kept at 80 cents an hour since independence, giving low-caste workers little incentive to put aside their hand tools and fishing nets. Yap’s biggest export is betel nut, the widely chewed palm seed that stains the teeth red. Its biggest import is alcohol.

Yap’s slogan, “The Land of Stone Money,” is on the state seal, which itself is shaped like a piece of money.

The first rai ranged from a few inches to a few feet in diameter. But that changed after American sailor David O’Keefe was shipwrecked on Yap in 1871. Nursed back to health by the islanders, he married a local woman and began hauling stone money from Palau to Yap in a modern schooner in exchange for copra, or dried coconut, to trade in Hong Kong.

His enterprise forever altered Yap’s economy by expanding the monetary supply. Many families were able to own stone money for the first time. The stones O’Keefe transported were much bigger than the earlier rai, but because procuring them took less effort, they had less value. These are the stones that are the most dramatic to visitors today, but among the Yapese, they are the lesser danyor, meaning “no one cried.”

O’Keefe became wealthy and built a large house on an islet near Colonia, the present capital, but he disappeared at sea in 1901. The 1954 movie “His Majesty O’Keefe,” starring Burt Lancaster, highlighted his exploits.

The last piece of rai was quarried in 1931 by a Yapese who had been kicked off the islands. He used it to buy his way back into his clan. But this stone, along with thousands of others, was destroyed by the Japanese, who ran Yap from 1914 to 1945.

The Japanese, ignoring the value of the stones among the population, crushed many to build roads and runways and made others into bunkers as protection from American attack. Some rai were destroyed by U.S. bombing during World War II.

In 1929, a Japanese survey counted 13,281 pieces of rai. By 1965, the number had fallen to 6,600. Today, far fewer are left, though no one knows exactly how many. Some were carted off by American soldiers after the war, others were sold to museums and collectors before the practice was outlawed. Road accidents, theft, typhoons and floods also have taken their toll.

Even now, many of the stones are vulnerable. One of Chief Ruepong’s most valuable stones was recently broken by a bulldozer.

In Yap’s warring past, a stone could buy a clan’s neutrality, pay for the killing of a rival or secure the pardon of a captured warrior. Today, rai are used for more mundane purposes. Gov. Ruecho said he recently spent one of his older stones on farmland.

“For the piece of land I bought, I would easily have paid $20,000,” he said.

In another case, a man who got drunk and started a fight was ordered by his chief to pay a family stone to the village in compensation.

Custom requires that stones, shells or necklaces be used in certain circumstances, but owners of rai can choose to hold them indefinitely or use them for big purchases. The transactions are similar to the sale of stock: The owner doesn’t hand over anything physically, but the exchange is openly recorded, in this case by spreading the news through word of mouth.

Unlike cash purchases, the receipt of a stone can impart obligation and bind the parties closer. Sometimes a stone is given simply to seal an agreement.

The Bank of Hawaii used to lend dollars to islanders who put up their stones for collateral, but it has since closed its Yap branch. The island’s remaining bank, the Bank of the Federated States of Micronesia, doesn’t lend money for rai.

Branch manager Cyril Pong Chugrad notes that calculating an international exchange rate for stone money would be problematic.

“Stone money can be used for a lot of things,” said Pong, whose family owns several rai. “But to value it in U.S. dollars is very difficult.”