Academic journal article Oceania

Cards on Kiriwina: Magic, Cosmology, and the 'Divine Dividual' in Trobriand Gambling

Academic journal article Oceania

Cards on Kiriwina: Magic, Cosmology, and the 'Divine Dividual' in Trobriand Gambling

Article excerpt

While gambling with playing cards has been adopted widely across Papua New Guinea since early colonial times, there have been relatively few published ethnographic analyses devoted to it (see Brandewie 1967; Hayano 1989; Laycock 1966, 1967; Maclean 1984; Mitchell 1989; Mimica 2006; Rubinstein 1987; Sexton 1987; Zimmer 1986, 1987a, 1987b). With the exception of Mimica (2006)--exceptional inasmuch as he concentrates upon psychoanalytical rather than collective aspects--previous investigators have tended to focus on the more or less secular aspects of gambling (i.e., societal, recreational, economic and/or political), implicitly treating associated notions of laki, the Tok Pisin borrowing for English 'lucky', in the impersonal mathematical sense of random 'probabilistic chance'. In this article, I describe card gambling or pele'i (literally 'play') as practised by Northern Kiriwinans of the Trobriand Islands--people regionally renowned as doyens of indigenous 'magic' (megwa) and other esoteric arts, concentrating on its sacred or ritualistic aspects. This analysis parallels my accounts of personal agency in gambling (Mosko 2012; see also Pickles 2012) and other contexts of social transformation (commoditization, changing fashions and courting, Christian conversion; see Mosko 1999, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2010, 2013, In press, Forthcoming) among the North Mekeo people of Central Province which similarly focus on the magico-religious dimensions of change as well as continuity. Without denying the presence of the secular aspects of gambling that others have emphasized, I argue that with Trobriand pele'i, the laki of winning and losing is less a matter of pure 'chance' than an ingredient of players' personal esoteric capacities vis-a-vis one another through the recruitment of the powers of bilu baloma 'spirits' thought to reside in Tuma, the invisible world of the dead, and foreign Europeans.

These materials were gathered over 20 months in the neighbourhood of my Omarakana village research base during 2006-2013. Omarakana is the site of Bronislaw Malinowski's path-breaking studies and the home of the Tabalu 'Paramount Chief' whose authority consists mainly in mastery of the most powerful megwa 'spells' of the archipelago controlling agricultural abundance and famine. Although Omarakana retains numerous features of 'sacred tradition' (gulagula), many adult male residents are avid gamblers.

Theoretically, this study synthesizes selected elements of Marshall Sahlins's (1985) celebrated structural history programme with the dynamics of 'personal partibility' drawn from the New Melanesian Ethnography (hereafter 'NME') inspired by the work of Marilyn Strathern (1988) and Roy Wagner (1974), among others.

This may seem to some an awkward combination. On the one hand, Sahlins's programme is designed to overcome the antinomies of structure and event, change and continuity, and so on, whereas most applications of the NME have been strongly criticized for their synchronic inattention to historical change (Carrier 1992; Keesing and Jolly 1992; Thomas 1991). Here I seek to adapt the dynamics of 'personal partibility' (i.e., detachment, attachment, elicitation, reciprocation) to the kinds of processes outlined by Sahlins following from people's reliance upon their 'culture-as-constituted' to interpret, respond to and enact events. On the other, the key agent for change in Sahlins's model is the expansive 'divine king' of Polynesia who, in acting, encompasses or incorporates others into his person, whereas agency in NME view is enacted through the opposite trajectory, in the decomposition of 'partible' or 'dividual' persons through elicitive, reciprocal gift-giving. Here as in other treatments of North Mekeo change cited above, I seek to employ Sahlins's general approach through a partial substitution of the historical agent who, in NME perspective, is better suited to Melanesian forms of sociality and personhood than divine kings. …

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