Island Archetypes: Coastal Slickers vs. Orang Utan

Where is your archetypal cultural dividing line? Is it rural vs. urban, north vs. south, east vs. west, the West vs. the Rest? For traditional cultures tied to large islands, the archetypal division is often sea vs. mountain, coast vs. inland, which often equates to civilized vs. barbarian, cosmopolitan vs. isolated, believers vs. heathen, or–from the opposite point of view–corrupt vs. pure, deceitful vs. honest.

Traces of these oppositions show up in English borrowings: Boondocks from bundok ‘mountain’ in Tagalog and other Philippine languages. Orangutan from the Malay words orang ‘person’ + hutan ‘forest’, a derogatory term for ‘forest dweller’ or ‘aboriginal peoples of E. Sumatra’. Hutan is related to Hawaiian uka ‘inland, upland’, as in the cardinal directions every newcomer to Hawai‘i has to master: mauka ‘toward the land’ and makai ‘toward the sea’. However, as far as I know, uka doesn’t have any derogatory connotations in Hawai‘i, where traditional land divisions (ahupua‘a) ran from coast to mountaintop.

The following excerpt from a book review in Oceanic Linguistics provides more detail about how these archetypes play out in Northeast New Guinea. The book under review (not online) is Children of Kilibob: Creation, cosmos, and culture in Northeast New Guinea, edited by Alice Pomponio, David R. Counts, and Thomas G. Harding Pacific Studies Special Issue, vol. 17, no. 4 (Institute for Polynesian Studies, Brigham Young University–Hawai‘i, 1994).

One of my most memorable, and intellectually challenging, conversations during my fieldwork in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), in 1976 was a discussion of how the huge disparity between the relative political and economic status of Europeans and Papua New Guineans came about. My interlocutor, a good-hearted, elderly Numbami church leader who shared my penchant for moral philosophizing, suggested an explanation along Biblical lines: Europeans descended from Jacob, while Papua New Guineans descended from Jacob’s elder twin brother Esau, who lost his birthright to his deceitful younger brother. (My own attempts at an explanation along the lines of specialization and increasing technological complexity were not entirely satisfactory either.) Children of Kilibob (CK) puts that conversation in a much broader perspective.

Kilibob and Manup are the names (as rendered in Peter Lawrence’s seminal work Road Belong Cargo) of two hostile brothers who feature prominently in the mythology of Northeast New Guinea. Kilibob is the trickster, the traveler, and the creator (like Jacob) who always seems to come out on top, while the more stolid and sedentary Manup (like Esau) regularly loses out. The trickster/creator hero goes by many different names depending on the peoples involved in the events described (variations of Mala, or Aragas, Ava, Titikolo–perhaps even Jesus), with some storytellers consciously changing the names of the protagonists as locales change within a single story (115). (This recalls the shared mythology of Latins and Greeks, wherein Zeus = Jupiter, Aphrodite = Venus, Ares = Mars, and so on, not to mention rougher Germanic equivalents in Woden, Freya, Tiw, etc.)

Among the non-Austronesian (NAn) Waskia and Austronesian (An) Takia who share residence on Karkar Island in Madang Province, Kulbob is said to be “a fine hunter and carver” and “tall and fair in contrast to Manub, an industrious fisherman of stocky build and dark complexion” (15). This opposition harks back not just to the most recent one between innovative, intrusive Europeans and traditional, indigenous Papua New Guineans, but also to the earlier one between An and NAn forebears, for “the [NAn] Waskia claim their descent and language from Manub, while the [An] Takia claim theirs, with their culture (ultimately widely adopted in Waskia), from Kulbob” (14). Similarly, the equivalent of Kilibob in the islands of the Vitiaz Strait (where he is called variously Mala, Male, Namor, or Molo) is considered a progenitor and culture-hero among the An Siassi (53–91) and a visiting benefactor by the An Sio (29–51), but an interfering outsider (a “city slicker”?) by the NAn Kowai of Umboi Island (93–107). The swift incorporation of newly intrusive elements of Judeo-Christian ritual (like churchgoing) and of European material culture (like rifles) into this mythological narrative is one of many indications that the traditional cultures of Papua New Guinea were far from static. In fact, Dorothy Counts stresses the role of mythology in exploring tensions with the outside world: “The myths explore the difference between Us and Them and ask what kind of relationship is possible between Us and the Others with whom we must interact, trade, and marry if we are to survive” (115).

For me, the most intriguing aspect of this collection is what Alice Pomponio calls the use of “mythical metaphors to chronicle historical realities” (in contrast to Marshall Sahlins’s characterization of Hawaiian accounts of Captain Cook’s reception and demise as “historical metaphors of mythical realities”) (61–62). She finds that many of the “legendary events mirror real episodes in Siassi genealogical and migration histories” (74). For instance, in the Mandok Siassi account, “the villages Mala visits [on Umboi Island] are [NAn] Kowai communities known to the Mandok to be safe havens among otherwise hostile [Kowai] ‘bushmen’ [farther inland]” (74). This hints that the biggest cultural divide is between coastal peoples and inland peoples rather than between An and NAn peoples.

There is apparently a similar distinction between “forest” and “grassland” peoples at higher elevations (in Eastern Highlands Province), where the lowland grasslanders are characterized as politically and culturally dominant and more sophisticated, while the highlanders are characterized as more knowledgeable about their natural surroundings (according to James B. Watson, in his chapter “Other people do other things: Lamarckian identities in Kainantu Subdistrict, Papua New Guinea” in Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific, edited by Jocelyn Linnekin and Lin Poyer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1990).

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