Lakalai Revisited

By: Ann Chowning

Originally Published in 1966

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Except for the few who have managed to work in areas virtually unaffected by Western civilization, ethnographers are all too familiar with a feeling of regret at not having been able to study a particular group even ten years earlier, before so much was abandoned or forgotten. Over and over, we are told, “It’s too bad; So-and-so knew all about that, but he just died,” or, “Yes, we used to do that when I was younger, but we know better now.” Such experiences not only sharpen our awareness of the urgency of doing field work before it is too late, but may also make us think that once a culture has begun to discard part of its heritage under outside influence, it will continue to do so at a fairly steady rate. The process of change is, of course, of major interest in its own right. In recent years, a number of anthropologists have revisited people investigated earlier by themselves or others, and usually the major purpose of such a trip is to find out what has happened in the interim. Often the culture is hardly recognizable. Though many believe that relatively isolated cultures may remain static over long periods, such does not normally seem to be the case when one group is forcibly subjected to another, especially when the dominant people are determined to impose their own ideas on those they govern. Generally speaking, the indigenous peoples of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea are in such a subordinate position. So, when I planned to return to Lakalai after an absence of eight years, I fully expected to find changes that might seriously impede my task of completing a description of traditional social organization.

In 1954, I was one of several graduate students on a University of Pennsylvania expedition, led by Ward Goodenough, to the Lakalai or West Nakanai of Cape Hoskins on the north coast of New Britain. That was my first period of extensive ethnographic field work, and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. After my previous brief experience on an Indian reservation where most people were not only anti-White but retained no more than tattered remnants of their own culture, the Lakalai were a delight. Thanks to their contacts with soldiers during World War II, they were embarrassingly fond of Americans. Despite over thirty years of intensive European influence, much of their social organization was intact, especially in Galilo, the relatively conservative Methodist village which Goodenough and I investigated. They continued to grow or collect all of their own food, relying principally upon taro, bush-fowl eggs, and shellfish. Although the need for money to buy cloth and steel tools and to pay taxes sent most of the young men away to work for a period, when they came home they turned their wealth over to their elders to administer according to traditional patterns, and bride-price continued to be paid primarily in decorated spears and shells. Elaborate mortuary ceremonies were still carried out, as was a yearly ritual cycle in which masked figures paraded through the villages, sometimes chasing women and children. There were a variety of initiation rites, especially for first-born children. Although the Australian Government had forbidden such associated activities as the exhumation of human bones and rape, the Lakalai had retained the essential parts of many modified or truncated ceremonies. What remained of the traditional culture was notable rich and impressive.

Nevertheless, we were always aware of how much had gone. Indeed, considering the outside influences to which they were subjected, the losses were hardly surprising. They had been governed by the Germans, the Australians, and, for a particularly memorable period, the Japanese. Rival Methodist and Roman Catholic missionaries had contested so bitterly for their souls that own brothers did not speak if they belonged to different churches. In going away to work, usually on coconut plantations but sometimes in Rabaul, the young men came into contact with people from all over New Guinea and had, as well, a chance to see, deal with, and try to understand a few Europeans other than patrol officers and missionaries. At home, they were variously instructed to cover their nakedness, bury their dead in cemeteries rather than houses, and bathe regularly; to live in consolidated villages, produce copra, and attend church; and to abstain from fighting, eating snakes, and extramarital affairs. Only the last of these campaigns was a total failure. Lakalai culture in 1954 was a mixture of old and new, fairly typical of New Guinea societies with similar histories. Along with warfare, much of the aboriginal political system had disappeared; not only did it depend on a man’s earning prestige as a warrior, but it was incompatible with the European systems of administration. Ceremonies centering around events such as puberty and marriage were becoming more attenuated or dying out altogether, and the great canoe races had been abandoned. The principal god had retired to live quietly in his volcano , and mythology and ideas about life after death were a confusion of pagan and Christian elements. The missions tried to break the power of the old men as repositories of essential knowledge ranging from sorcery to the manufacture of ceremonial paraphernalia, and had considerable success in persuading them to divulge their secrets to younger men or to the community at large. In contrast to some other Melanesian societies, this was not one in which the young men despised their elders and went their own way, but rather, the young men frequently stated, with regret, that they no longer knew or understood many of the things that the old men talked about, including the actual words they used.

To the outsider, of course, the additions to the native culture were as conspicuous as the losses. Stone tools had long been replaced by steel, and though technology still remained exceedingly simple, each village at least contained a few flashlights, kerosene lamps, and bicycles. All the Lakalai were at least nominally Christians, and the children all attended mission schools. These were usually run by native teacher-missionaries, and education was rudimentary, consisting primarily of religious doctrine, instruction in reading and writing the official mission language (neither Lakalai nor English), and simple arithmetic. The two missions varied greatly in their attitudes toward native culture. the Methodists being generally much more tolerant of traditional social patterns than the Catholics. Both, however, introduced a number of changes. Innovations harder to spot than those of European origin included traits either acquired from foreign natives met at work or brought in by early missionaries from Polynesia and Fiji. These included sailing canoes, plaited mats, tattooing, songs and dances, and new techniques of love and magic. Finally, new crops such as sweet potatoes had reduced the threat of famine from drought; some medical care was offered by both the missions and the government; and men were no longer in danger of being speared if they ventured outside their villages.

By Melanesian standards, then, the Lakalai were now healthy, well-fed, and physically secure. But peace and safety meant little to Lakalai men, who still adhered to a traditional system of values. Once they had taken enormous pride in their prowess as warriors and workers; suddenly, and inexplicably, they found themselves in a position of hopeless inferiority. This shift was not, on the whole, accompanied by a feeling that they were personally inferior or deserved their fate. On the contrary, they considered it unjust that Europeans should control admittedly highly desired goods while the Lakalai lived in poverty and subjection. For years, the majority of them had subscribed to a series of “cargo cults,” the leaders of which promised them, in return for adherence to various new rules for conduct, supernatural access to European goods and the restoration of a supposed Golden Age in which they would be dominant. Although Galilo had resisted involvement in the cults, its residents shared feelings of grievance and the desire for a better life with the cult members. Nor were the government and the missions happy with the current state of affairs; they were intensifying their efforts to produce their own, and varying, versions of progress for the Lakalai. All factors considered, it seemed unlikely that the situation we found in 1954 would remain static.

Nevertheless, I hoped another visit would still be profitable. An attempt to return in 1958, following field work in Papua, was frustrated when the Cape Hoskins airstrip was suddenly closed down, and not until 1962 was I able to get back to New Britain, financed by the Columbia University Council for Research in the Social Sciences. I had a number of reasons for making the trip. The four ethnographers on the original expedition–Goodenough, Charles and Edith Valentine, and myself–had pooled our information, with each one writing up different aspects of the culture. My primary responsibility was the social organization, and in the course of writing, I inevitably found areas in which our data was inadequate, contradictory, or even lacking altogether when we had failed to ask questions that seemed obvious in retrospect but had not at the time. We were particularly ill-informed about some aspects of pre-contact political organization, as became apparent when Goodenough and I were asked to write a paper on the subject and undertook to do so. In addition, I had developed a hypothesis and discovered apparent patterns in our material which seemed to make sense, but which I was still eager to check with informants before claiming validity for them. I had also, in the interim, worked extensively in another Melanesian society, the Molima of the D’Entrecasteaux, and was now in a position to re-evaluate certain impressions, as of the relative status of Lakalai women or the specific influences of particular Christian missions, against a more concrete background. Finally, on a purely personal level, I not only wanted to renew and freshen my acquaintance with the people and the culture, but to find out whether the Lakalai still seemed as congenial and attractive as they had originally. Undoubtedly different anthropologists find different cultures appealing–the reactions of members of the original expedition made that clear–and I had enjoyed the Lakalai more than the Molima, amiable and cooperative though the latter were. It was possible, however, that I had been influenced more by the pleasures of first doing field work in a functioning and interesting culture than by the personalities of the Lakalai themselves. At times, I was afraid that I might have ended up describing people who were at least partly of my own manufacture, and I hoped that contact with the real thing if it still existed, would either confirm my ideas about Lakalai society or show me where to modify them.

At first glance, the Lakalai area did look conspicuously different in 1962. Following the opening of the airstrip, an extensive European settlement had arisen at the west end of Cape Hoskins. A sawmill had been set up, and heavy vehicles moved over a new coastal road to collect timber from the east end, beyond Galilo. Government schools with European teachers had been established to supplement and replace the mission schools, and I was told that one had recently been opened in Galilo itself. Cacao had been introduced as a new cash crop to supplement the production of copra, formerly the only local source of income for the villagers. The ten miles to Galilo seemed infinitely shorter in the patrol officer’s Land Rover than it had by bicycle, and I hardly had time to be struck by the neat plank houses which had replaced sago thatch in the western villages before we had arrived at a large clearing which held the new government school just outside Galilo. Everything looked strange except the man standing on the doorstep of the teacher’s house, holding the hand of a child whose hurt knee was being bandaged by the teacher. He was Kalua, one of our main informants and the assistant to Daris Swindler, the physical anthropologist on the expedition. I greeted him happily, only to meet with total non-recognition. (He told me later that he failed to recognize me because I had aged so; Lakalai frankness in these matters tends to be a shock to those accustomed to the polite lie.) When I explained who I was, he went off to the village, and soon the teacher’s house was surrounded by a crowd of Lakalai eager to shake hands and to enquire about myself and other members of the 1954 group. Fortunately, the language came back to me as I listened: although I had to grope for words, I could communicate without undue humiliation. I had been afraid that I might have forgotten it almost completely, and the Lakalai would have been disappointed in me as I would have been too ashamed of myself if I had to carry out my investigations through the roundabout medium of Pidgin English.

As soon as the other Europeans left, I was taken to the village, seated on a mat, and brought dinner of vegetables and bush-fowl eggs. My best friend, they told me, was off collecting shellfish, but at dusk she came hurrying up and embraced me warmly, saying, “They told me on the beach, ‘Your friend is in the village.’ Why didn’t you write?” Since my departure from Lakalai, although accompanied by plentiful weeping, had also been notable for the many requests for my camping gear and complaints that now they would no longer have access to a supply of tobacco, I had been wary of believing that the Lakalai felt much personal affection for me. The enthusiasm of my reception, even after they realized that I was no longer a source of free tobacco or other goods, convinced me that I had been unnecessarily suspicious. Immediately the villagers began to tell me the news of deaths, births, and marriages. The most important event was the recent death of Loua, a leading man of the village. As I showed them a photograph of him in an article written by Goodenough, the women present, including his widow, burst into the wails for the dead, sobbing over the picture and exclaiming, “Alas, my husband; alas, my brother.” Aghast at the furor I had touched off, I finally managed to create a diversion with other pictures, and the rest of the evening passed more calmly in reminiscence.

The next morning, I made my first real tour of the village. Cacao trees now shaded the main path through the coconut grove, cutting off the view from the sea with dense undergrowth. But the most immediate impression was of familiarity; the village itself had hardly changed. New houses had been built as the younger people married, but the division into six hamlets, each with its men’s house, remained. There were, however, many more ground-based long houses, often shared by two or more families. In 1954 the government was trying to persuade everyone to live in separate houses raised on piles, but the old people found them too draughty and often slept surreptitiously in their cook-houses. Now many of them were living openly in traditional style, and planks had not yet replaced thatch in this area. More surprising, however, was the discovery that polygyny had increased, with most of the polygynous marriages involving relatively young men. The Lakalai had always considered a second wife preferable to divorce, and in several of these recent cases, a man had ended a long-standing extramarital affair by marrying the woman. Whatever the overall significance of the shift (a colleague has suggested that it may result from increased wealth in the hands of the younger men), it at least shows that traditional attitudes toward marriage are retained by the non-Catholics.

Making a quick census, I struggled to identify everyone who appeared. My greatest difficulties were with those who had been children in 1954; frequently I could recognize a child born after my departure as a member of a particular family, while failing to recognize his older brother who had now grown up. To my relief, many of the old people were not only still alive but healthy and active, though the leading traditional artist, from whom I had hoped to obtain paintings, was now almost blind and had passed on his duties to his stepson. People frequently spoke sorrowfully of how they had aged, pointing to their white hairs or missing teeth, but simultaneously introduced with great pride their youngest children or grandchildren. Even in 1954, despite a noticeable gap in the age group that would have been born during the Japanese occupation, Galilo had been swarming with children, but now the numbers were fantastic. The population had grown from 265 to 333, and only half a dozen of these represented foreign women married in, the rest of the increase being composed of children under eight. Not a single woman had married outside the village in that period. There were, however, numerous absences. More children were attending outside schools, including, for the first time, girls. A number of men, one or two with their families, were away working for Europeans, and several young couples were missionaries in nearby areas. Balancing the absences, however, was the presence of several men I had heard about but never met, including the husband of my best friend, who had been away at work in 1954. Although these strangers were a little stiff and wary at first, the fact that I was on free and easy terms with their kinsmen loosened their reserves, and soon they were behaving like old friends themselves.

It was a shock to see girls I had known as carefree teenagers now settled matrons, each the mother of several children. Equally startling was the sobriety of those who had been young married men, then still indulging their privileges of wandering and philandering  but now the heads of large families and taking on new stature as potential Big Men. Our houseboy in 1954 was Sege, a gay young blade with a large number of “friends,” as lovers are euphemistically called in Pidgin. He was working away from home when I arrived (his conservative father had refused to let him go in 1954), but I suspected from the presence of his wife and three children that he might have settled down. Sege’s family, especially his father and older sister, had always been the one with which I was most closely associated, and now his father began to treat me as an adoptive daughter, referring to Sege as “your brother.” Immediately Sege’s wife instructed her children to call me isa, the term for “father’s sister.” I had been in Galilo about three weeks when Sege returned, to find his children clambering over me and addressing me as “Auntie.” Horrified, he exclaimed, “Don’t do that! She’s a very important woman.” Goodness knows what contact with Europeans had given him that idea; in 1954 I never had any reason to believe that Sege regarded any of us as important. Now I found that, although he retained his old gaiety, he was becoming a power in the community, gradually assuming the leader’s role which his father was relinquishing and his older brother, a cripple, was unable to take on.

Leadership, and its relation to political organization, was one of the subjects I was most interested in, and the most important results of the return trip emerged from further questioning on these matters. We had thought that the “Big Men,” hamlet leaders who attained their position primarily by accumulating wealth and giving feasts, and whose activities were relatively unaffected by the Australian system of government, were the highest officials in the traditional society, though we knew that their roles had altered somewhat with the abolition of warfare. But we had been troubled by references to they peculiarly exalted statuses of the heads of certain descent groups or sibs and of men ceremonially invested with certain ornamental wristbands, and it was clear that we did not know enough about relations between different villages, including warfare. After several frustrating days in which I tried to untangle apparently contradictory statements, informants suddenly realized what I was after and began to describe an aboriginal system of wholly unexpected complexity. In the past, prominent hamlet leaders had been invested with a particular type of wristband, the wearing of which empowered them to break up fights within the village. Certain men of this grade who were both outstanding warriors and members of sibs which held land in the village area were elevated to still higher status, with responsibilities that cut across hamlet lines and a particular duty to act as warriors. Finally, the most notable member of this last group was elected village chief, forbidden ever to handle weapons again but given extraordinary powers to settle internal quarrels and to represent the village in its dealings with outsiders. Elected village chiefs are a real rarity in Melanesia, and we had not even suspected that such an office existed in Lakalai. We had, however, been puzzled as to why the first official appointed by European administrators in Galilo seemed to have been so respected, since such officials are often mere figureheads, and the problem was solved when it developed that he was the elected chief before the Europeans came. The shock of discovering that we had missed so much was alleviated by the pleasure of seeing that the baffling descriptions finally fitted together and made sense.

In other respects, our initial work proved to have been much more satisfactory. Some hypotheses required modification; for example, in working out the basic dichotomy between the human world and the domain of spirits, I had assumed that domestic animals fell within the human sphere. But when, in 1962, I met a dog on a path and idly asked it where it was going, my shocked companion exclaimed, “The evil spirit!” and told me that dogs and pigs are under the control of spirits who punish anyone who jokes with or about the,. For example, if a dog comes into the men’s house in the morning covered with dew, the men must not ask it facetiously where it has been or if it has caught a pig in the bush, lest a spirit rush out in the form of a wild pig and attack them. Explanations of this sort, along with those revealing that taro, the staple crop, was personified and must be treated with respect, forced me to revise my neat scheme and put domestic animals and cultivated plants into an intermediate category of things which could not turn into dangerous spirits, as could wild animals and plants, but which were not wholly under human control either.

In retrospect, too, I felt that I had tended to exaggerate the more bizarre aspects of relations between the sexes. Most notably, Lakalai men use considerable physical violence toward women, who counter with verbal insults, the deadliest of which refer to a man’s defecating. Curses of this sort can drive a man to suicide, and the whole system has wide-ranging effects on daily behavior. Nevertheless, attitudes were not always so clear-cut or extreme as I had been assuming. Furthermore, I found, as might have been expected, that the usual male comments about the inferiority of women were tempered by recognition of their supreme importance as preservers of the matrilineal descent groups. But I did conclude that though the status of Lakalai women might be high judged against the usual stereotype of Melanesian society, in which women are depicted as beasts of burden, doing all the hard work and excluded from the rich ceremonial life which men enjoy, Lakalai women are decidedly inferior in status to those of Molima, and probably at about the same level as women in several other Melanesian societies which have been carefully described. My initial reaction, when I was over-impressed by female participation in ostensibly masculine affairs, really reflected the fact that in 1954 I myself was still accepting inaccurate generalizations about Melanesia.

These, however, were comparatively minor points. After again seeing the culture in operation, I finally felt sure that I had not made up the LAkalai. There is, of course, always a danger that an anthropologist will find what he expects to, but the quality of their response to my attempts to cross-check, complete with enthusiastic cries of “You understand us so well!” was at least enough to settle my own doubts. Not only did the people behave as I expected them to, but I found them as congenial as ever, so that my stay was thoroughly enjoyable on all counts.

For the whole time, however, I continued to be amazed at the apparent timelessness of the place. The lapse of time gave me an opportunity to get considerably more reliable data on such matters as residence patterns, birth rate, and the stability of marriage, than could have been obtained in an initial fairly short stay in the field. There were also matters that I could pursue more deeply after having analyzed and thought about the material. But I really felt that, with the exceptions of the advantages conferred by any break between field trips, we would have been able to do the same work and get the same data in 1962 as in 1954. Subsistence patterns were completely unchanged; cacao production had only slightly increased the flow of European goods into the community. Within five weeks, a I attended three traditional feasts honoring children, including a girl’s puberty rite, and traditional hamlet organization under the direction of Big Men was fully displayed at each. At their scheduled time, masked figures began to appear in the villages, parading around and chasing the children. Galilo was observing a series of tabus in mourning for Loua’s death, and his widow showed me the mourning costume that she had just discarded. I checked on details of myths and tales recorded in 1911 by a missionary who had met some Lakalai and the people not only confirmed or corrected them but deluged me with additional traditional stories, which they acted out with fervor. The government school had not yet had time to take effect, especially since the teacher refused to learn Pidgin and none of the children spoke English. The sound of tractors on the road, the frequent presence of other Europeans in the vicinity, and the large new Catholic mission located nearby, all seemed incongruous in the otherwise completely familiar scene. It seemed as though the forcible encounter between the Lakalai and European culture had, prior to 1954, produced a viable amalgamation which could continue with little alteration until and unless new and powerful factors entered the picture. Whatever the ambitions of the mission and the patrol officers for the Lakalai, they had, to date, been presented in too familiar a guise. Suspicion of the motives of all officials may have contributed to Lakalai conservatism, a feeling that they should cling to what they had because nothing that others offered them looked any better. Because of the liberalization of government policy during this period, a matter of which they were hardly aware, they were no longer so likely to be forced to accept innovation from the outside world, and so far they had developed no radical practical schemes of their own. The accumulation of work experience had not produced any notable advance in sophistication and knowledge of the outside world, except among a scattering of young men who were not yet influential in the community. Those few children who went on to government schools returned to Lakalai, if at all, only for brief vacations; in fact, fear of losing contact with their children inhibited some parents from allowing them to go off to school. My observations, of course, apply only to Galilo. Not having the confidence of the Catholics with whom the Valentines worked, I can only report that, according to my informants, the latest cargo gult was continuing as before. Although by no means content with their log, the Lakalai seemed reluctant to try alternatives. They simply maintained a hope that someone would appear who would show them how to gain European goods and prestige quickly. To most, other goals did not seem worth striving for.

Nevertheless, the end of the period of apparent stagnation was already in sight. Cape Hoskins contains some of the richest land in the islands, and it is also, despite the present birthrate, very much underpopulated. The Administration is intent on acquiring some of the native land, partly to cut timber on, partly to resettle Tolai people from the crowded area around Rabaul. Government schools will eventually provide education far superior to that long supplied by the local missions. Specialists of various kinds are being sent to the area, so that the patrol officer no longer has to handle all matters single-handedly, and plentiful advice is available for cooperatives and cash cropping. However dubious they may be about government-sponsored schemes, most Lakalai are eager for education and a higher income, and there is little doubt that the next few years will bring more changes than perhaps the whole period since World War II. In 1964, while flying across New Britain, I met at the Cape Hoskins airstrip a young man from Galilo whom I remembered as a child of ten, fully painted and adorned for participation in a traditional mortuary ceremony. Given a chance at outside education because his father was a native medical assistant, he now was one of the first two natives from Papua and New Guinea to graduate from an Australian military academy, and he had just received a commission in the Pacific Islands Regiment. The publicity given his achievement ensured that the Lakalai would no longer think it impossible for them to reach European living standards by education alone.

On a brief trip back to Galilo in 1964, just two years after the visit described above, I found the school children, under a new teacher, now greeted me in English. The first national elections had just taken place for the new governing body for Papua and New Guinea, the House of Assembly, and three of the seven candidates for the West New Britain seat were from Lakalai. Tolais were beginning to settle at the east end of the area, and the Lakalai there had received large cash payments for the land they had sold. The old ways still persisted–in Galilo I found a young widow incarcerated for mourning in a dark cubicle, a custom I had thought long dead–but many of them seemed unlikely to last much longer. I feel unable to predict the exact direction of future changes, which will depend as much on the constant shifts in official policy and on the specific individuals administering it as on the Lakalai themselves, but I am sure that if I return to Galilo after another eight years, I will really find the transformations that were so conspicuously absent in 1962.


Cite This Article

Chowning, Ann. "Lakalai Revisited." Expedition Magazine 9, no. 1 (September, 1966): -. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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