Return to Culture: Oral Tradition and Society in the Southern Cook Islands

Article excerpt

Return to Culture: Oral Tradition and Society in the Southern Cook Islands. By Anna-Leena Siikala and Jukka Siikala. FF Communications Vol. 136, No. 287. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2005. 327pp.

What is the significance of oral tradition in Pacific Islands culture? How integrated is oral tradition into life in the Cook Islands? To what extent does a theoretical understanding of oral tradition practices enable an analytic understanding of social action, political structure, narrative practices, and the cultural milieu of the southern Cook Islanders? In this book the collaborative approach between a folklorist (Anna-Leena Siikala) and an anthropologist (Jukka Siikala) situates these questions in an empirical analysis of the processes of identity formation of the people of Ma'uke and Atiu through customary discursive practices.

Not satisfied to regard the past as past, but implicitly recognizing that "folklore" is a non-omnibus discipline suffering an epistemologi cal crisis, the Siikalas adopt something equivalent to a European philological approach combining it with a multilo cai, multi vocal anthropological methodology. Both authors recognize that the process of cultural representation is now inescapably contingent, historical, and contestable and that social actors are in constantly changing social situations. Building on the Siikalas' deep-rooted field experience in the Cook Islands, their extensive archival research at the National Archives in Rarotonga and in Australia, and their knowledge of the academic debates in New Zealand and Hawai 'i, this book is the compendium of a number of articles and papers earlier published by the authors since the 1990s (13).

At first glance, the soft cover and title page lead one to believe that this is a communication edited for the folklore fellows. Similarly, somehow misleading is the photo on the dust jacket taken by the author (Jukka Siikala), whose caption reads: "Local produce for sale in Rarotonga." Nevertheless, this compendium translates into a properly structured scholarly work, whose objective is forthrightly stated by the authors in the introduction: "[We] both aim at analyzing the underlying cultural patterns that generate oral traditions and inform the dynamics of the society" (19). This interdisciplinary effort allows AnnaLeena Siikala to attend the nature of oral traditions and the related problems of performance and interpretation, while Jukka Siikala analyzes the issues of the Cook Islands' social organization and their dynamics.

Believing that the binary and ubiquitous opposition of "We" and "the Other" shows internal inconsistency, Jukka Siikala argues that the ethnographic discussion presented in the book "attempts to highlight the two-sidedness of the project of defining culture and how images of the self are produced on the basis of a multiplicity of imageries derived through encounters with others" (23). His argument proceeds to note that the dialogic process of folklore documentation "was not based on distantiation and exoticism" (25), as he could evince from the islanders' early interest in an epistemologi cal understanding of their own genealogical traditions and practices. Echoing Franz Boas's methodology and the examples conserved in the Finnish folklore archives, the genealogical materials collected are presented as avulse of any ethnographic distortions. The result, Jukka Siikala explains, "is not a textualisation of a single speech event, but 'are vananga, 'the house of talk,' which contains the summa totius cosmologiae of the culture, in other words, literature, whatever physical form it takes" (36).

Anna-Leena Siikala's engaging writing reformulates Jukka Siikala's introductory argument that in one sense all culture is tradition and all cultural activities are creative and inventive (18), specifying that this "creating" or "inventing" tradition concerns both the outsiders' intellectual and political work and the insiders' efforts toward a renewal of the traditional elements of their own culture and identity (41). …