Daily Archives: 23 October 2008

Siassi: A Culture of Maritime Trade in PNG

From Alice Pomponio’s “Seagulls Don’t Fly into the Bush: Cultural Identity and the Negotiations of Development on Mandok Island, Papua New Guinea” in Cultural Identity and Ethnicity in the Pacific, edited by Jocelyn Linnekin and Lin Poyer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1990), pp. 51-52:

For the Siassi Islanders, trade implies sailing. Knowledge of the sea, winds, and stars is crucial to overseas sailing in the precarious Vitiaz and Dampier straits. In pre-European times men who were renowned sailors and good navigators were therefore highly regarded. Along with maritime knowledge, such a man would also possess the magical incantations to control the weather, wind, and seas, and in some cases, the sorcery by which to control or destroy his rivals. A traditional leader would combine as many elements as possible to expand his wisdom and enhance his renown. However, merely having the talent or the personality to lead is not enough: one must demonstrate that power continually. Before pacification and missionization, demonstrating prowess entailed aggressive overseas trade, navigation and sailing skills, competitive feasting, sorcery, multilingualism, and social networking to establish and maintain trade alliances. Definitions of manhood stressed creative abilities, mental shrewdness, knowledge concerning economic investment/return ratios, and manipulation of social relationships. Finally, all of these displays and trading exploits must be carried out with the aplomb of a “man of wisdom.”

Out of this constant travel and trade emerged a big-man status system oriented not toward the accumulation of land and wealth in a sedentary environment, but toward manipulation and management of others’ products through mobility and trade—that is, the control and redistribution of wealth. I call this kind of system “middleman culture.” Though recognizably Melanesian, it is distinct from the more familiar patterns of entrepreneurship studied to date in Melanesia in three crucial respects: (1) the relative lack of land or utilization of land resources (horticulture and pig husbandry) as a basis for the local economy; (2) the emphasis on trade as a primary, rather than secondary, feature of the subsistence economy, and as a standard for evaluating entrepreneurial talents and achievements; and (3) a social and distributive system that militates against the accumulation of significant amounts of wealth and favors instead the control and manipulation of goods, food, and people.

Siassi big-men are not “men of anger” or warriors. They are craftsmen, clever investors, and men of knowledge. They succeed not by overpowering their adversaries physically, but by outsmarting them—not by production, but by clever manipulation. Through generations of trading they have transformed a landless society of maverick immigrants into a patterned system of seagoing salesmen, trading their own and others’ products for a profit. This profit is then recycled into their own system of exchanges, politics, and prestige.

This sounds rather more benign than the cultures of maritime raiding that have also plagued the coasts and islands of so many parts of the globe, including PNG before the imposition of a pax Germanica in New Guinea and a pax Britannica in Papua.

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Filed under economics, Papua New Guinea, piracy, travel

Lamarckian Identities in PNG

From James B. Watson’s 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), pp. 17, 26:

The aboriginal peoples of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands are organized in autonomous polities, some with as few as one or two hundred members. Many if not most of these local peoples experience episodes of radical revision in their membership. Most groups are formed in a highly fluid sociopolitical field, intermittently marked by relocations, realignments, and the patriation of alien immigrants who have been expelled by hostile neighbors from their own lands elsewhere. Restless or disgruntled insiders split off to form new groups; refugee outsiders are recruited from time to time to reinforce the ranks of those remaining. To the literal-minded genealogist, the long-term kinship and continuity of each such group seem confused, even compromised.

A truncated local sense of history nevertheless contains the frequent events of fission and fusion. In spite of ongoing exchanges of personnel, a common and ostensibly continuous local identity immerses not only long-established elements of the community but, in time, the descendants of recent immigrants….

Over half a dozen languages are spoken in the immediate vicinity of Kainantu, and all the communities I resided in have close social ties to at least one community of alien speech. Often two or three other languages are represented in these linkages. Many communities of the vicinity have incorporated refugees who arrived speaking a language other than that of their hosts. With time, if the refugees remain, their original language may be lost, but probably not without a distinct residue of the sounds, words, attitudes, and cultural practices they brought with them. In some communities in the 1960s there were refugees or their descendants still speaking their original language, … resulting in their designation by the community (from Pidgin) as “hapkas” [half-caste].

What does this mean for language documentation and conservation efforts in the area? To whom does any particular language belong, and for how long?

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Filed under language, migration, Papua New Guinea