Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 21

Thinking and teaching with the indigenous traditions of Melanesia

Mary N. MacDonald

In 1973, as an Australian Catholic missionary, I first went to Papua New Guinea. My encounters there with indigenous religious traditions and with Melanesian styles of Christianity have influenced my subsequent thinking about religion and, indeed, my thinking about thinking. 1 Today, as a historian of religions, I spend most of my time teaching undergraduates at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Traditional Melanesia and an American college classroom provide the frameworks within which I think about indigenous traditions and modernity. I shall begin by explaining my current job, which, no doubt, bears similarities to the work of many who are concerned with the interaction of indigenous wisdom and modern knowledge. Then, I shall describe traditional ways of knowing among the Kewa and Huli of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, focusing in particular on Kewa sky people and ancestors, and on Huli sacred geography. From there I shall reflect on the colonial incursion, the coming of Christianity to Papua New Guinea, and the changes in consciousness that it has occasioned. Finally, I shall return to the American classroom where, I suggest, indigenous and modern approaches to knowledge can complement each other and where there is need to develop appropriate pedagogies for teaching about indigenous traditions.

In 1988, having recently completed a Ph. D. at the University of Chicago, I found a job at Le Moyne, a small college of liberal arts and sciences in the Jesuit tradition. I was hired as a generalist in the study of religion. In the interview process, I was told that the college desired to hire someone who could teach about “submerged cultures. ” I discovered that in the then recent revision of the core curriculum, there had been considerable debate about the teaching of non-Western philosophy, literature, history, and religion. A sense had developed of the need to acquaint students, most of them from the eastern United States, with cultures that had been disregarded or even disparaged, cultures that did not think in the modes of modernity.

The term “submerged cultures” suggests ways of understanding the world, ways of living, that we (“we” being the academy or, more specifically, the Le Moyne faculty), intent on inculcating modern ways of thinking, have buried or drowned, have suppressed or hidden from ourselves. There is a nostalgic tone to the term, a regret for what we have lost. Another way of stating the situation would be to speak of “oppressed cultures, ” those that modern cultures have tried to destroy. My colleagues-to-be engaged with the core curriculum revision. I recognized that there are ways of thinking that have not been part of modern literature, modern philosophy, modern history, modern religion, and that might confront and complement the Enlightenment theories on which the curriculum, not only at Le Moyne, but also in hundreds of similar colleges, is built.

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