Ethnobotany cultural ceremony spring 2008

In ethnobotany the students study plants the heal us, plants that feed us, plants that house and clothe us, and in the last portion of the course, plants that are sacred to us. Among the cultures of Micronesia, Pohnpeians are unique in centering their ceremonial life around a plant, Piper methysticum. Piper methysticum, or sakau, contains six different pschoactive compounds, termed kavalactones. At the start and heart of every traditional Pohnpeian ceremony is the sakau ceremony.

Further information on the ceremony is available in Pohnpeian. There is also a non-traditional commercial side to sakau, and sakau is now a cash crop sold in evening markets.

The uniquely designed local hut with a "U" shaped platform that hosts the ceremony is called a nahs. One enters the nahs at what is considered the back of a nahs. "Hanging" one's legs of over the edge of the nahs during a formal sakau ceremony is culturally inappropriate. The front platform is reserved for men and women with high titles. Those who serve the high titles (oarir) also sit on the front platform beside the high titles. In a formal ceremony, titled men sit down in the central bay by the sakau stone, the peitehl (poaitehl). Women with high titles sit along the "sides" of the nahs. When not in use, no object can be placed on the peitehl (poaitehl), nor can people sit on the peitehl, nor can the peitehl be used as a table.

Prior to sakau entering the building, there is a relaxed informal atmosphere among the gathered guests. With the entrance of the sakau talking falls to a murmur. With the entrance of the sakau tradition invokes.


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. There is a right way to cut off the branches.

justin cuts the sakau
Justin cuts the sakau

branches removed
Branches removed

Tehn wehd (toahn wed) refers to the four taro leaves (Latin: Alocasia macrorrhiza) are placed around the stone to catch pieces of sakau that fall. These are called pwoaikoar. Pounders should place their feet under the pwoaikoar.

Pwoaikoar are placed under the peitehl

The sakau is traditionally cleaned using the outer husk of a coconut to scrub the sakau.

Cleaning the sakau

Aquila and Achimy serve as oarir for Melainy, our Nahnalek for the day

Styling in the wings: Terina, Charityn, Kyoko


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.


For the ceremony, the Nahnalek is on the far left with her two servers (oarir) and the Nahnwarki is on the right with his two servers (oarir). There was no Nahnken, he would have been to the right of the Nahnmwarki. AJ sat in the place of the Nahnmwarki with Ojones and Dondy as oarir.

Augusta, Angelina Kimberley in the position of high titled women.

Wengweng: the inner bark of the hibiscus plant is carried inside of a wild taro leaf


The first cup goes to the Nahnwarki.

The first cup is called pwehl

On the front platform no one may stand up except a single title, the menindei (moanindei) who is permitted to stand and relay to the people what the king has said. This person stands at a single central post, keidu (koaidu) located between the two front stones. 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.


Angelina demonstrated dedication to her class and classmates by coming to the ceremony directly off of a twelve hour flight from Hawaii less than hour before class.

Lerihna, Augusta, Kimberley, Angelina.