Sharing and Compassion: Fosterage in a Polynesian Society [*]

Article excerpt

WILLIAM W. DONNER [**]

On Sikaiana, a small, isolated atoll in the Southwest Pacific with about 250 Polynesian inhabitants, there are very high rates of fosterage. It is expected that many children will live for long periods with foster parents. I conducted three censuses during the course of about three and half years of ethnographic research there. In all three censuses, about half of the children on the atoll were living with their foster parents rather than their biological parents. Many Europeans and Americans associate fosterage or adoption with something gone wrong: orphanage, unwanted pregnancy, barrenness or parental neglect. Sikaiana people, by contrast, prefer that children move between different households. Sikaiana parents have a deep and lasting commitment to their biological children, but parents also have interests in extended kin and others that are expressed through fosterage. Sikaiana adults without offspring take foster children; but so do most adults with offspring, as do many young women before they marry. Usually, a Sikaiana person tells an expecting mother of his or her intention to too, or literally 'take,' a child during the mother's pregnancy. Fosterage is viewed as a way to construct and maintain close personal relations, and parents do not refuse to let others take their children. These transfers of children between different caretakers and households are not exclusive and, although the fosterage may last for years, they do not permanently separate the children from their biological parents. For that reason, I refer to these transfers as fosterage, rather than adoption, because adoption implies a more permanent transfer of the child that is practiced in some societies, but not on Sikaiana (see J. Goody 1969). One day I asked one of my neighbors on Sikaiana about fosterage. Noting that fosterage was unusual in Western societies, she said to me "koutoutama maa e he iloai Le aloha". "You white people do not know anything about compassion." For the Sikaiana, fosterage reflects love and compassion rather than p athology and misfortune. From their perspective, Americans and Europeans, with their emphasis upon the nuclear family and exclusive rearing of children within one family, lack compassion.

This article is primarily an ethnographic description of fosterage on Sikaiana. But I also want to use this analysis of Sikaiana fosterage as a comparative lens for examining and reconsidering certain features of family life in contemporary Western, industrialized societies, especially in my own white Anglo, middle-class American background. Changes in family life in the United States have become a major issue among academics, politicians and the general public (see, for example, Popenoe 1993 and Stacey 1993; also Skolnick 1991; Stacey 1990; Popenoe 1988, 1996; Whitehead 1993). Whether evolving or disintegrating, American families are changing, and there is concern about the consequences of these changes. Many of the processes affecting American family life, including debates about redefinitions of the "family," have parallels in other industrialized nations, although many of the trends in the United States seem more extreme and the public debate about families seems more acrimonious (see Bahr, Dechaux and Stiehr 1994; Moors and Palomba 1995; Swain 1995). Unfortunately, many academic discussions about the condition of the nuclear family in the United States ignore issues concerning the condition of extended families, probably because the implicit cultural biases of researchers and policymakers emphasize the nuclear family and minimize extended family relations. As expressed in the statement of my Sikaiana. neighbor, from a Sikaiana perspective, many harmonious and intact American nuclear families are aberrational and compassionless in their isolation from extended family members.

In the past twenty years, anthropologists have lost much of their interest in issues concerning marriage, family and kinship. …