Academic journal article Humanities Research

Laments and Relational Personhood: Case Studies from Duna and Awiakay Societies of Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Laments and Relational Personhood: Case Studies from Duna and Awiakay Societies of Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

Lamenting is a very important aspect of musical culture across Papua New Guinea, a country of more than 800 indigenous language groups and a vast variety of cultural practices.1 Many anthropological texts address the lament across the country.2 In Papua New Guinea, laments-which we define for our purposes as verbal expressions that are performed at the death of a person or other living being (as opposed to verbal expressions about loss more generally)- are established genres that usually have a name or category attached to them. Although lamenting is typically the domain of women, and older women in particular, who bring to the genre a great body of knowledge and considerable skill accumulated over years of mourning, both adult men and women can be composers and performers of laments, particularly in Awiakay society. Laments in Papua New Guinea can be microcosms of a culture; they contain within them much detail about the life of the deceased, and the lamenter, listing the places of their heritage, the activities they once performed and their role within the community, as well as pointing to any existing tensions in relationships between the lamenter and other members of the community, and thus aiming at socially appropriate actions that need to be taken in order to re-establish distorted relationships. Laments are thus as much a part of the present (and consequently the future) as they are of the past. Therefore, to examine a lament closely is to learn much about Papua New Guinean cultures.

In this chapter, we consider laments from two unrelated language groups in Papua New Guinea with which we have worked closely: the Duna of the Southern Highlands Province/Hela region who live around Lake Kopiago (Gillespie), and the Awiakay, a small community of about 300 people living in Kanjimei village in the lowland rainforest of the Sepik southern flood plain in East Sepik Province (Hoenigman). We show examples of people lamenting both for deceased people and for deceased dogs, who are in some Papua New Guinean cultures such as the Awiakay seen as their owners' extensions.

We would like to frame these laments within a discourse of relational personhood as it relates to both cultures. In recent times there has been considerable debate in the field of Melanesian anthropology over the idea of 'personhood' and the 'individual'. There is a strong view held by some scholars against applying a Western notion of the 'individual' to Melanesian societies; these scholars argue that a Melanesian person should instead be considered a 'dividual'-that is, someone who is relationally constituted, someone who is defined largely by their relationships with others.3 The laments we present today, whilst illustrating the personal or 'individual' loss experienced by the lamenter, show clearly these social relationships and the loss that is experienced by the wider community of which the deceased was a part. As it will be seen in the second case study, these laments can also be used as an expression of existing imbalances in the community and thus be part of the process of righting such perceived wrongs.

Duna Laments

For the Duna, lamenting so dominates the musical landscape of women's performance that it was thought for a time that there was no other style sung by them worth describing: 'Except for mourning laments and tuneless ditties sung while gardening or walking home in the rain, Duna women do not really sing at all.'4 While women are the primary performers of laments in Duna culture, some men also sing laments, though usually only when experiencing strong emotions at the death of someone closely related to them, and not in the ritual way that women do. Here we will consider examples of both a Duna woman and a Duna man lamenting, and show how this illustrates the idea of the Melanesian relational person. The two laments, belonging to the general category of khene ipakana ('death songs'), as they are known in the Duna language, represent the spontaneous musical outpourings on the sudden death of the twenty-year-old Duna woman Wakili Akuri, in February 2005, by those close to her. …

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