Cognatic Kinship in the Gilbert Islands

The Gilbert Islanders of the South Pacific have developed a complex social organization based upon a system of nested bilateral and ambilineal groupings. Ward Goodenough, has carried our a detailed study of their institutions (Goodenough 1955), which provides clear examples of several forms of cognatic kinship. The salient groups identified include:

  1. the ooi, a bilateral descent group, or stock, which includes all of the descendants of an common ancestor, and functions to assign inheritance rights in land,
  2. the bwoti, an ambilineal descent group, or ramage, to which political authority is assigned,
  3. the kainga, a localized ramage, based on parental residence choice.

The Ooi

The ooi is a bilateral descent group composed of all of the descendants of an recognized ancestor traced through successive generations of sons and daughters, as indicated in blue in the diagram below.

A ooi

All of the members of an ooi inherit rights to some of the group's land through mothers or fathers. The maternal share is usually small, since men are awarded larger allocations than women. However, a woman's holdings, and consequently her children's inheritance, can be substantial if she has no brothers. An ooi's membership is not exclusive, since an individual will belong to as many stocks as he/she has recognized ancestors. In the simplest case, a person will belong to and received rights to land through his/her father's and mother's group, shaded in blue and red, respectively, in the diagram below.

ooi twice

In actual practice, a person can belong to anywhere from 4 to 16 ooi traced to grandparents and more distance ancestors, depending upon the genealogical record and the incidence of endogamy.

The Bwoti

The bwoti is political council which meets over important community concerns. Membership is confined to males and is based on ownership of designated plots within an ooi. It thereby constitues a subgroup and, in fact, a segment of an ooi. Land rights involve only potential bwoti membership. An individual has an option to join many groups in which he inherits privileges from any of his ooi, but he can belong to only one necessitating a choice among descent lines that is typical of the formation of an ambilineal descent group, or ramage.

Potential Bwoti Memberships


An ooi is subdivided into two bwoti according to the division of A's land between B and C.
The people involved, shaded in green and yellow, have the right to join the bwoti, but may not actually assume membership.

Actual Bwoti Memberships
Eight individuals have sorted themselves out into 6 bwoti through the alternatives of belonging to their father's group (cases 2,3,5,6) or their mother's (cases 1,4,7,8).
The situation can be even more complicated since people can activitate claims based on more remote ancestors and may switch membership.

The Kainga

The kainga, as the bwoti, forms a ramage, but imposes a more restrictive membership rule. It functions as a localized group established at marriage. A couple decides whether to reside among the husband's or wife's group and this choice determines their descent group membership. Individuals living with their spouse family retain rights in their natal kainga, but can not transfer them to their children.

Both the kainga and the bwoti can be diagramed in the same way, except for the inclusion of female members within the kainga. Two people can potentially belong to the same bwoti and separate kainga, but groups memberships do tend to be identical, since both groups are tied to specific territories.

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© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: Sept. 1997
Last Updated: August 1998