Village Inventions: Historical Variations upon a Regional Theme in Uiaku, Papua New Guinea

By Barker, John | Oceania, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Village Inventions: Historical Variations upon a Regional Theme in Uiaku, Papua New Guinea


Barker, John, Oceania


Before brother We never thought But now beware We must think

You used to live in a village Now you live in the town The village is good for you The town is not good for you

Leave the Town, Kali Vatoko and Albert Leomala (Wendt 1975:41).

Ethnographers have long worked from within Melanesian village societies, often viewing them as microcosms of larger socio-cultural groups. Recent research into local histories and regional systems, however, suggests that villages may be studied as historical creations in their own right. Over the past twenty years, a number of researchers have worked from the premise that local Melanesian 'cultures' should be understood as ongoing creations or 'inventions' formed within historically constituted regional fields rather than as autonomous, self-reproducing systems (see Carrier 1992). This insight has been projected into the pre-colonial past in several important studies of regional trading networks. It has also encouraged many anthropologists to seriously consider the effects of colonial and post-colonial systems upon local communities. We now have excellent studies, for instance, about the ways local peoples adapt received kinship and exchange practices in response to encompassing market systems (e.g., Carrier and Carrier 1989, Gewertz 1983, Gregory 1982); about the growing self-conscious use of 'culture' by Melanesians in political actions and the formulation of identity (e.g., Keesing and Tonkinson 1982, Thomas 1992, White 1991); and about the hegemonic subversion of some indigenous institutions in the course of colonial expansion (e.g., Keesing 1992, Lindstrom 1990, Schwimmer 1991).

Scholars have paid less attention to Western institutions and ideas that have become part of village life, but their findings are extremely interesting. We now have a better grasp of how Melanesians adapt and subvert institutions like churches, schools and tradestores to the local 'moral economy' (e.g., Barker 1990a, Jolly and Macintyre 1989); how they develop new forms of awareness as consumers of mass-produced commodities (e.g., Foster 1995, Lindstrom 1990); and how they negotiate their place within the 'imaged community' of the new Melanesian nations (e.g., Gewertz and Errington 1991, Hirsch 1990). In a series of provocative articles, Lattas and his associates have suggested that such local readings should be understood as 'mimicry' - as symbolic appropriations of key colonial symbols which contest or even reverse hegemonic presumptions (e.g., Lattas 1992; but see Errington and Gewertz 1994). While drawing from a wide variety of theoretical positions, these scholars share a broad interest in the regional history of Melanesia, albeit usually from a local perspective.

Many insights into the changing nature of Melanesian villages can be gleaned from these studies. Two recent ethnographies, however, are especially suggestive. In Hard Times on Kairiru Island, Michael French Smith (1994) provides a sophisticated analysis of the moral conundrums Kragur villagers face as they struggle to reconcile the values of capitalism (as they perceive it) with local values as imagined in the 'Good Way' ideology. Karen Brison (1992), in Just Talk, documents the same sort of struggle in an informed analysis of the heated discussions and gossip occurring in Kwanga communities. Both Kragur and Kwanga peoples expend considerable energy criticizing and attempting to reform their villages; both groups perceive this as the best way to achieve the benefits of 'development'. The village in both cases is thus a self-conscious object of moral concern and political negotiation. Although Smith and Brison work in the East Sepik Province, their studies may illustrate a common phenomenon in the long-contacted lowland societies of Papua New Guinea. The Maisin people of Oro Province, for instance - culturally distant and having experienced different colonial administrations and missions from the Kragur and Kwanga - engage in debates virtually identical to those examined by Smith and Brison (e.

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