Yap – Land of Big Money

What Do You Know about Yap Islanders?

The People of Yap are very traditional. We still maintain our Micronesian customs.

The women are very modest and must cover themselves from waist to knee. We consider the bikini wearing tourist immodest because they show too much leg. But when we wear traditional dress, some are surprised that we don’t cover much from the waist up.


In the Village

We do some weaving and farming and, of course, fishing, mostly for tuna.

Another way we can make some money is giving “cultural tours”. You can get an idea of our traditional life style on Yap. In some cases, an entire village will come out to show you. One problem for tourists is that you will see a lot but we don’t explain much. You will se us weaving or wearing our traditional costumes and maybe dancing. A young maiden might even put one of woven headdress on you.



Of course, you have to see our money, it’s very famous and very big! A Yapese bank shows a lot of our stone money. We show off our wealth, but it’s rather hard to carry it around and buy things. We use other money for that. More like you’re used to. Sometimes a “bank” makes a great stage to performance our ritual dances.

What makes our money valuable is that it comes from a different island, Palau. That’s about 250 miles south of here. We would go by canoe across the Pacific to Palau, dig the money out of a quarry with simple tools and row it back. Many times, people died in the process.

The value has to do with how hard it was to get it. You can still find un-transported “Yap” money in the jungles of Palau!


What to Wear

If you come to the ‘outer’ islands, you might see us wearing a ‘lava lava’. We weave it out of thread or sometimes banana fiber. It provides modesty and comfort in our tropical climate. Outside the home, we wear ‘zorries’. You might call them “thongs” or rubber sandals. Obviously, these came later. We don’t have any ‘rubber’ trees. We usually take them of when we go into someone’s home or even place of business.

Sometimes tourists buy and wear a ‘lava lava’. It’s a comfortable garment in the heat of the day. But they wear something on top, like a Tee shirt. You might get a floral headband to complete your outfit.

If you can’t tell how old one of the women are, check their neckwear. A “girl” might wear a lei, but mature woman would be wearing a black necklace.



It might be new to you but it is old to us. We used to decorate our bodies with some intricate tattoo patterns. It could show your status or how good you were at fighting, or simply how much pain you could take. You could get just your legs done or your whole body. The process was painful because they burned soot into your skin. Not for me but a friend has a dolphin one on her shoulder.


Singing and Dancing

You might not like it but you won’t forget it if you get to hear the rasping wail of one of our singers. The rhythm and chanting is pretty hypnotic and mystical. If you could understand it, you might learn something of our history.

Some dancing is usually done by younger people like the Bamboo Dance. Older people sit on the sidelines and criticize. Everybody agrees that the costumes are beautiful. The colors, the flowers, the coconut oil and the bright yellow powder make it fun for everybody.



Stone money is not the only thing we value. You can have a “Gaw”, a necklace of shells and whale teeth. This is what a chief might wear. The first of these was brought here by a guy named Angumang who said they were gifts from the people of Chuuk from another island. More likely they were stolen from the Chuukese, who didn’t hand out these valuables to strangers!

We also have “Yar”, or shell money. There were used for important events like marriage proposals and even traditional apologies. It could also be used to pay for local medicine.

Like the stone money, some of these shells don’t come from around here. They come from places like Palau or even farther like the Philippines and Indonesia. The ones that do come from around here come from a sunken coral island thirty-five miles away. We can tell them apart but you probably can’t. Yapese pay close attention to what kind of shell money that is being offered during an exchange since too little or too much can be really embarrassing to the person doing the offering.



When you live on an island canoes are really important. There were different kinds for carrying stuff or just getting around the other islands. The most common was the two-pronged bow “Popow”, used for the long voyages like going to Palau to get money. First, you need the right tree like a large mahogany or breadfruit tree. This canoe meant life or death to the sailors so it was carefully made with homemade adzes. When finished, men chanted as they hauled it to the ocean. Women wove the sails. Then you had to paint it. Launching it involved a lot of dancing and ceremonies. It was something to see when the sail unfurled into the wind on the towering bamboo mast.



No compass, just stars. Master navigators were held in high regard and the skills were kept secret and bolstered by lives governed by strict taboos and magic rituals. Outer Islanders have kept these skills of canoe building and navigation and teach them to younger generations. Motorboats are not practical and expensive. But these skills of craftsmenship and navigation are in danger of being lost to the Yapese people.



The Yap Islands are far from everywhere. But tourists somehow get there and it means exciting business opportunities for the people of Yap. How do you preserve the traditions in the new millennium? The island entrepreneurs are working hard to figure that out. The traditional lifestyle is still there but modern amenities and great dining can also be found. The ecology and culture are unique. Water and adventure sports are available. The Yap Islands are interesting on the islands and underwater, as well, with activities like scuba diving.


Early History

No one knows where the Yapese came from since it was thousands of years ago. In 1525, a Portuguese explorer named Dioga Da Rocha arrives in the islands of Yap and stayed for four months.

In 1731, Father Jan Cantova and Father Visitor Walter came to bring the Christian Faith to the Yapese. It didn’t go well. After several months, Father Walter went back to Guam. Soon after, Cantova and a dozen others were massacred. In 1869, Germans establish the first permanent trading station.

The Yapese knew nothing of the outside world. They had their own way of life. They had huge thatched meeting houses and stone paved paths around the island. They had an elaborate caste system in the Yapese Empire. The German trading station brought no change to Yap. The Yapese were not interested in producing the large quantities of dried copra that the world wanted. Enter a shipwrecked American sailor, David Dean O’Keefe.

Rescued by the Yapese in 1871, David Dean O’Keefe later was taken to Hong Kong on a German trading ship. He came back on a Chinese junk named Catherine, after his new American wife. He understood that the Yapese valued the stone money of Palau and used it to pay for copra and sea cucumbers.

In 1885, Spain booted out the Germans and installed a governor. Priests, soldiers, convict laborers, horses, water buffalo, cattle and stones for a governor’s house and a mission followed. It took Pope Leo XII to settle the feud between Germany and Spain. The Pope gave to Spain, but granted Germany commercial rights. Spain set up a small garrison and began building Catholic churches. But in 1899, Spain turns around and sells Yap to Germany for $4.5 million. Soon after that, O’Keefe disappeared at sea.


Twentieth Century

1914 World War I begins and the Japanese Expeditionary Squadron took over the island. Soon there are over 2,000 Japanese on the Yap Islands.

In the 20s, a typhoon destroys nearly all the homes on Yap.

During World War II, Yap was in the middle and in 1945 Americans occupied the island after Japan’s surrender.

In the 50s, King W Chapman is named Yap’s first civilian administrator. Later, Yap votes to allow sale of alcoholic beverages for the first time to Yapese.

The 60s brought the first airport, the first General Election, the first High School graduates and the first U.S. Peace Corps volunteers.

The 70s saw John Mangefel elected the first Governor of Yap.

In the mid 90s, the Yap Visitor’s Bureau is established to serve the tourism needs of Yap State and its entrepreneurs.