Regional History and Ethnic Identity in the Hub of New Guinea: The Emergence of the Min

By Jorgensen, Dan | Oceania, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Regional History and Ethnic Identity in the Hub of New Guinea: The Emergence of the Min


Jorgensen, Dan, Oceania


Beyond the Ethnographic Present in Papua New Guinea

Over the last decade Pacific anthropology has undergone a series of shifts marked by departures from the classic ethnographic forms of the 1970s. These departures have little to do with the experiments in writing recommended by many of our colleagues (e.g., Clifford and Marcus 1986), but are instead concerned to broaden the scope of ethnography beyond the synchronic accounts of the small rural communities that provided the setting for much of our best work. Keesing and Tonkinson's collection on reinvented traditions (1982) launched a cottage industry (see Jolly and Thomas 1992, Lindstrom and White 1993) and is probably the single most influential contribution to our current reorientation, but there are many others as well. Sahlins's structural history of the Hawaiian encounter with Cook (1981, 1985), Gewertz's analysis of intercultural relations in the Sepik (1983), and Young's treatment of the dialectics of myth, biography, and history (1983) all pointed to an anthropology reaching beyond the self-enclosed world of the ethnographic present (see also Burridge 1960, Lawrence 1964, Biersack 1991, Thomas 1989).

For that part of the Pacific which concerns me most - Papua New Guinea - the reawakened interest in history also signals an attempt to engage the transformations occasioned by the articulation of local worlds with colonial and post-colonial networks of relations (see Gregory 1982, Carrier 1992). This broadening of anthropological horizons owes something to contemporary debates elsewhere in the discipline, but also has respectable local roots. For anthropologists, PNG's historical quarantine was lifted with independence, which saw the emergence of a Third World state complete with development plans, bureaucrats, and more politicians per capita than any comparably sized country in the world.(2) If it was once 'the land that time forgot,' today only tourists imagine this world untouched. PNG now boasts world-class mining projects, student strikes, home-grown pop musicians, bishops, businessmen, its own crime problem and the joys of EMTV, and anthropology in PNG faces the task of coming to terms with the enlarged world in which indigenous peoples live.

Local people have gone from being 'natives' to 'nationals,' and one promising response to this is to look into the ways in which a new national culture is being put together, a topic recently explored by Robert Foster and his colleagues (see Foster (ed.) 1995). Here, following Anderson (1983), one strategy is to seek out the ways in which a collective imagination is constituted, 'naturalizing' the nation in the process. But while this approach opens up questions about a generic or Pidgin culture (Filer 1985, Hirsch 1990, Philibert 1986, Siegel 1984, Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1993), other issues remain in the less thoroughly explored space between the nation and the small communities that constitute it.(3)

We already have some excellent studies of the articulation of the local community with the larger world in the work of the Carriers (1989), Gewertz and Errington (1991), Foster (1992), Otto (1992) and Neumann (1992). My concern here, however, is specifically with the regional aspects of the problem, which have been far less searchingly studied. In this paper I focus attention on emergent identities that are neither unmediated artifacts of nation-building nor simple outgrowths of precolonial forms. These new identities have a distinctly regional character, reflecting a dialectic between a genealogy of local forms and wider historical processes. My paper thus addresses Hannerz's call (1986) for work bridging the gap between microanthropologies of cultural meaning and macroanthropologies of global processes.

History and Regional Systems in Papua New Guinea

Despite the apparent fragmentation of indigenous polities, numerous regional systems of relations between autonomous communities existed in precolonial times (Schwartz 1963). …

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