Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Imagining a Nation in Kwanga Village Courts, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Imagining a Nation in Kwanga Village Courts, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

This article contributes to a growing literature on nation-making in the Pacific by examining the ways that village court magistrates among the Kwanga of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea appropriated, and in the process altered, state-sponsored visions of the nation. Kwanga village magistrates combined a rhetoric contrasting "new law" and tradition with a practice that included many features of local conflict resolution procedures. The ultimate intent of the magistrates' rhetoric was to suggest that they were intermediaries between the village and outside powers in much the same way that the big men of the past stood between the villagers and powerful ancestral spirits. [Papua New Guinea, nation-making, village courts, leadership, East Sepik Province]

This article contributes to a growing literature on nation-making in the Pacific by examining the ways that village court magistrates among the Kwanga of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea' appropriated, and in the process altered, statesponsored visions of the nation. I follow Foster (1995a), Jacobsen (1995), LiPuma (1995), Wanek (1996), and Hirsch (1995) in arguing that understanding the process of nation-building in the Pacific involves looking beyond government ideologies to the ways that rural groups receive state institutions and ideas. This is important because scholars (Errington and Gewertz 1995; Jacobsen 1995; Philips 1994; Wanek 1996) have shown that local groups may reject some components of state ideologies and use other ideas in ways that go against the intentions of those who framed them. Jacobsen (1995) and Wanek (1996) say that rural villagers in Papua New Guinea have rejected key aspects of the state vision of the nation. I will argue, however, that Kwanga village magistrates made use of state institutions in ways that ultimately contributed to their sense of being a meaningful part of a national polity. They did this by combining a rhetoric contrasting "new law" and tradition with a practice that included many features of local conflict resolution procedures. I suggest that the ultimate intent of the magistrates' rhetoric was to suggest that they were intermediaries between the village and outside powers much in the same way that the big men of the past stood between the villagers and powerful ancestral spirits.

Nation-Building in Papua New Guinea

There is a small but growing literature about the efforts of Pacific governments to legitimate central states by creating ideologies of nationhood. Such ideologies prompt people to think of themselves as part of a community, drawn together by a common culture and history (Foster 1995a: 7). I will attend here, however, to a second aim of nationalist ideologies, which is to create a narrative of nationhood that defines the individual players and how they are related to each other. Important here is the process of constituting individual persons as legitimate subjects of state authority by giving them a place in the "weft" of the collective narrative (Foster 1995a: 17). Foster, for instance, suggests that the "paradigmatic" narrative vision of the relationship between persons and state in the West,

constitutes "citizens" as autonomous, free agents. These citizens are "individuals" with inherent and equal rights who, by exercising their freedom, enter into social relations independent of the state (that is, into civil society). The state, somewhat paradoxically, protects the autonomy of this realm of social relations and forfeits its legitimacy to the extent that it violates this autonomy (p. 18).

Thus, Western national visions constitute individuals as persons with inalienable individual rights independent of their position in a network of relationships. The narrative also legitimates the relationship between state and individuals by suggesting that the state protects these inalienable rights. This Western vision, however, is only one amongst numerous possibilities. …

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