Notes on a ceremony involving Piper methysticum (sakau) on Pohnpei...

The information on this sheet is provided as is and may not be either wholly or partially correct. All errors belong to the author and his misinterpretations.

Reasons for the ceremony and cultural importance

  1. The sakau ceremony is used:
    1. to celebrate the Christening of a baby
    2. to celebrate a baby's first birthday
    3. by a young man to ask a father for daughter in marriage
    4. in all of the traditional festivals (komadipw)
    5. during presentation of first fruits such as yams (kehp) to the king (nohpwei)
    6. to welcome a special guest
    7. to bring home a king or high title who has visited somewhere else (aluhmwur). This ceremony is done to release the high title from the care of those who have cared for the high title.
    8. at funerals
    9. by a family to apologize to another family
    The sakau ceremony is truly central to every important activity from birth to death, cradle to grave. Every important point in one's life is celebrated with sakau. Sakau is central to Pohnpeian culture. In some sense one could not be born, one could not marry, and one could not pass away with dignity without sakau in traditional Pohnpeian society.
  2. The method of squeezing the sakau is essentially the same in all ceremonies except the apology ceremony. The apology ceremony squeeze is a special technique, not all squeezers can perform this, maybe only a few.
  3. The apology ceremony may also vary in the sequence of events and in the service.
  4. Preliminary information

  5. Ahmwadang: Can refer to food served prior to a formal sakau ceremony, also to sakau served before a formal meal.
  6. Two varieties of P. methysticum are on Pohnpei, the rahmedel and rahmwanger varieties.
  7. Rahmedel: smooth stems, light color, long internodes
  8. Rahmwanger: darker stems, spots on stem (not smooth), short internodes.
  9. Order of kavalactones in Rahmwanger: DHK, Kavain, DHM, Methysticin, Demethoxy-yangonin, Yangonin
  10. The first cups contain more of the Kavain compound that is psychoactive and numbs the lips.
  11. Later cups have a greater proportion of DHK and DHM. These induce sleepiness but can cause nausea as a side-effect.
  12. Entering the nahs and who sits where

  13. The uniquely designed local hut with a "U" shaped platform that hosts the ceremony is called a nahs.
  14. One enters the nahs at what is considered the back of a nahs.
  15. "Hanging" one's legs of over the edge of the nahs during a formal sakau ceremony is culturally inappropriate.
  16. The front platform is reserved for men with high titles.
  17. In a formal ceremony, titled men sit down in the central bay by the peitehl (sakau stone).
  18. Women with high titles sit along the "sides" of the nahs.
  19. When not in use, no object can be placed on the peitehl, nor can people sit on the peitehl, nor can the peitehl be used as a table.
  20. The left front peitehl, as one enters the nahs, is reserved for use only in the presence of the Nahnmwarki. This stone is referred to as poalen koadu and soumoahl. The right front stone would serve Nahnken if he were present as is referred to as poalen mwahu and pelien soumwoahl. The next stone back on the right from pelien soumwoahl is uhpeiuh. The name refers to the situation in which the uhpeiuh stone's ngarangar is full (pei), the one who holds the ngarangar can stand, but then must wait for the front two stones to stand prior to approaching the menindei. Two of the other stones (in a six stone nahs) are referred to as uhpeileng and uhpeimwahu.
  21. The arrangement on the platform is important. The front left is reserved for the highest chief in the first line, the king of the traditional nation, the Nahnmwarki. The front right is reserved for the highest chief in the second line, the Nahnken. Posts usually mark their positions.
  22. On the front platform no one may stand up except a single title, the menindei who is permitted to stand and relay to the people what the king has said. This person stands at a single central post (keidu) located between the two front stones. Not all nahs have this post, it is "retrofitted" as necessary. The menindei must hold the center post. Any command given without holding the post need not be obeyed. The menindei relays the commands of the Nahnmwarki to the people. At the back of the nahs menindei ras relays to those gathered outside the nahs what the menindei has said.
  23. The Nahnmwarki and Nahnken are from two different clans. The titles are in a particular clan in each Pohnpeian nation-state, of which there are five: Madolehnihmw, Kitti, U, Nett, Sokehs. On Pohnpei, clans are matriarchal, that is, one's clan derives from one's mother's blood. Traditionally clan exogamy was practiced: men married women from other clans, not their own clan. This rule was not apparently hard and fast as some men married into their own clan (clan endogamy). This flexibility may differ by Pohnpeian nation-state. Land issues may also play a role. The first Nahnmwarki was Isokelekel in Madolehnihmw. His son was the first Nahnken. Because Isokelekel's wife would not have been in his clan, the son is in another clan - the clan of the wife. Isokelekel's son is said to be the first Nahnmwarki.
  24. Traditionally, men who sit in the central bay of the nahs must remove their shirts. Today one might see higher titled men retain their shirts, but those who are sitting at the peitehl will still remove their shirts in a formal ceremony.
  25. Sakau in the nahs: the building has meaning

  26. When sakau is brought into the nahs the whole plant is brought in, complete with one, three, five, or any odd number of branches. The roots alone cannot enter the nahs in a formal ceremony. In an earlier term a student reported that an even number of branches - typically two to four - must be used, there may be municipal differences.
  27. There is a right way to cut off the branches.
  28. Suk i suk

  29. The root is pounded with basalt rock pounders (moahl) prior to squeezing.
  30. Four taro leaves are placed around the stone to catch pieces of sakau that fall. These are called pwoaikoar. Pounders should place their feet under the pwoaikoar.
  31. At the proper time, the lead pounder will call keidihd, a call to stop and flip the sakau. A special hand motion is used to flip the sakau.
  32. Women are allowed to pound sakau here on Pohnpei
  33. Wengiweng

  34. Once the sakau is pounded (mut), the preparers play a "tune" on the sakau stone called sokama or tehmpehl to call the hibiscus bark wrap (kohlo). The word for the tune may derive from the sound made when rust was pounded off of the hulls of steel ships in days gone by. Thus the tune might be translated "pound the rust off." The specific rhythm and tune can vary from kosapw to kosapw (traditional land unit). The final chords are repeated in one kosapw because a Nahnmwarki once gave that kosapw permission to do so in honor of winning a great battle.
  35. The squeezing (wengiweng) is done using the inner bark of the hibiscus tree (hibiscus tiliaceus). This layer is the phloem and contains polysaccharides (long chain sugar molecules) that are good for the "gut" yet can also cause "gasiness" the next day.
  36. Women are allowed to squeeze sakau, if they are strong enough to be productive. This applies to men too, not all men are necessarily "good" squeezers.
  37. Nohpwei

  38. Nohpwei is the first four cups in Sokehs. Nohpwei may stem from the German times. Prior to then the Nahnmwarki "owned" all land in the nation-state. At that time each Nahnmwarki gave their land to the people for "no pay." In gratitude, the people now present first fruits and the first cups of sakau to their leadership. Thus the word might be English in origin.
  39. During nohpwei no one can speak. If someone comes to your nahs with sakau, you might not know why they have come until after nohpwei.
  40. Sakau is served in a cup called a ngarangar or kohwa. The ngarangar can be very old, passed down through a family, sometimes from a father to a son and on to a grandson and beyond. In some sense you are sharing a cup with not only the living members of the family, but with their ancestors as well.
  41. In Sokehs the first cup (pwehl) goes to the Nahnmwarki, or if not present, the highest titled man in the nahs. After each cup, the cup (ngarangar) returns to the stone.
  42. The cup returns to the stone and then the second cup (arehn sakau) goes to the Nahnken.
  43. In ancient traditional times the third cup (esil) may have gone to the Wasahi (second title in the Nahnmwarki line). In modern times the cup goes to the wife of the Nahnmwarki. In Sokehs, U, and Kitti her title is Nahnalik. In Madolehnihmw, Likun. If she is not present, then to the highest titled female present.
  44. In Sokehs, the fourth cup (sapw) returns to the Nahnmwarki (or the highest titled man present). He may drink the cup or redirect the cup to honor a special guest.
  45. The cup is usually passed by holding the cup in the right hand and crossing the right forearm over the left forearm for support. The recipient also forms this arrangement with their arms. Acknowledgment of cup receipt is signaled when the recipient lifts their left forearm to touch the server's left forearm.
  46. When one drinks, one must close their eyes. This is a matter of tradition. Looking into the sakau in the ngarangar is simply not done.
  47. One term the class had no Pohnpeian women to take the third cup, so the third cup went to a Kosraen woman in honor of one of the legends of the origin of sakau, that it came from Kosrae where it is called seka.
  48. In a hypothetical sakau ceremony including the king of Kosrae (Togusrai) and the kings of Pohnpei, the instructor was once told that the Togusrai would get the first cup. Bear in mind this will never happen: Kosrae no longer has a Togusrai.
  49. The Nahnmwarki is the king and the Nahnken is the second highest title in a kingdom. A Nahnken cannot rise to the rank of Nahnmwarki. As noted above, titles are restricted to a particular clan.
  50. The server in front of the Nahnmwarki usually comes from the clan of the Nahnken, and the server in front of the Nahnken comes from the clan of the Nahnmwarki. Their task is to ensure that the sakau is free of harmful magic or sorcery (kau). If such is present, the server drinks the cup, sacrificing themselves for the Nahnmwarki or Nahnken. The number, arrangement, and names of the servers varies with nation-state.
  51. Announcement, speeches, and post sakau

  52. After nohpwei, and only after nohpwei, can the reason for the gathering be announced.
  53. At this point younger women will often enter the nahs and apply marekeiso (coconut oil) on the skins of the men in the central bay.
  54. After this, people can get up, move around, talk, and generally relax.
  55. Even after the first four cups, you are called to the cup by your title. You could never call the cup, you are not higher than the sakau.
  56. If your title is called, you must run, not walk, to the cup. If you are slow, maybe something could happen to your sakau that could cause you misfortune or illness. This is why some traditionalists say that sakau markets are culturally inappropriate: the cup is "passed" to people instead of people being called to the cup.
  57. Final processing of the sakau for the last squeezes is termed wengpoar. High titles cannot be served these final cups. The last squeeze to extract the final juices is termed wengkid. The drained and depleted sakau is called wensakau.
  58. Lider: the food or drink used as a "chaser" with sakau, removes the taste from one's mouth.
  59. Kenei sakau: the food eaten after sakau. Light snack before, bigger meal after was the tradition. The modern tradition of kapopo has no precedent in culture and tradition and my cause liver damage.
  60. Other information

  61. If a Nahnmwarki were to leave a nahs because he felt disrespected in some way, he can only be stopped by throwing a sakau plant in front of him. If he turns another way, another plant can block his progress. The Nahnmwarki cannot cross a sakau plant. Even his title would not allow such a disrespectful thing. While on the ground, sakau is to be treated as if it were a living human being laying there. In some sense, sakau has the highest title at a gathering and must be shown respect by all. In showing respect for sakau, Pohnpeians show respect for their culture and for each other.
  62. The municipalities do not all use the same number of special cups during nohpwei, and the sequencing can vary.

    In Nett two first cups are simultaneously delivered to the Nahnmwarki and the Nahnken, symbolic of the respect given to the Nahnken. In Nett, the Nahnken is a very powerful title. The second cup goes to the wife of the Nahnmwarki, the third to the squeezer (dipen keleu), the fourth is redirected by Nahnmarki, and the fifth is a double cup simultaneously served to Nahnmwarki and Nahnken.

    In Kitti there are five special cups. The first to Nahnmwarki, second to Nahnken, third to Wasahi, fourth (kapahrak) to the wife of the Nahnmwarki, and fifth returns to the Nahnmwarki who can redirect the cup. In Kitti two servers (oarir) sit in front of Nahnmwarki. On the left is one skilled in magic to shield and defend the Nahnmwarki. He handles the ngarangar. On the right, the oarir woadoai (he who talks) informs the Nahnmwarki who has entered the nahs.
  63. The apology ceremony should start with a traditional nohpwei. An additional cup, either fifth or sixth depending on the municipality, was originally the cup offered in apology. Modern usage oftens sees the first cup offered as an apology.
  64. Tentative explanation at best: Titles in a nation-state exist at two levels: high title (mwahr en wehi) at the nation-state level and "titles in kosapw" (mwahr en kosapw) at the kosapw level. The high titles are given only by the Nahnmwarki. Each kosapw (land units) has a paramount chief for that kosapw from a particular clan line, and a second highest chief from another clan line. The kosapw structure mirrors the wehi structure in some ways. Pohnpeian high language must be used when speaking to high titles.


  1. What was your reaction to the sakau ceremony?
  2. Should ethnobotany classes in future terms attend a sakau ceremony?
  3. Why?