Tag Archives: Pacific

Reading Circle: Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery

Thanks to everyone to read and contributed to last week’s reinauguration of our ‘reading circle’ feature. This week I’d like to showcase some more great open access work by asking people to read an article from the open access serial Pacific Asia InquiryVoyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery: Austronesian Seafaring, Archipelagic Rethinking and the Re-Mapping of Indigeneity by Vincente Diaz. Diaz is the author of Repositioning the Missionary published by the Pacific Island Monograph Series at the University of Hawaii Press. It’s a short piece but it does a good job of conveying where Diaz is coming from.

I think people will see interesting parallels with the ‘ethnographic theory’ I discussed last time, but the piece is coming from a very different subject position and intellectual heritage position. And best of all, it’s only seven pages long. Seven pages — surely you can manage to read seven pages and then drop by the site to talk about it. So download Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery: Austronesian Seafaring, Archipelagic Rethinking and the Re-Mapping of Indigeneity

As usual, I’m posting this on Wednesday. I’ll write up my thoughts on Friday and open it up for comments after that. We can run through the weekend and then by next Wednesday we’ll be ready to move on to the next piece to discuss.

Open Access in the Pacific

We complain a lot on this blog about how slow various scholarly publishers are in making their work available open access, so I thought I’d write a piece about open access done right: increasingly today, some of the most focused journals on anthropology and the Pacific are available open access.

These journals are small and specialized — despite the size of the Pacific, the scholarly community is pretty small — but despite this they are all being made more and more available online. Or maybe I should say because of this. I also think that we, like the physicists, are a group of people with a strong sense of community and a commitment to the values of our discipline — and the Pacific is a place where people value share and community.

I was absolutely thrilled to learn the other day, for instance that Pacific Studies has posted over thirty years of back issues available for free on its website. This contains a lot of great articles, including both ‘classics’ and work that is still relevant today.

Here at the University of Hawaii the Center for Pacific Island Studies has done a superb job of making its work available open access. This material deserves far more attention than it gets. It includes a occasional papers series that began with relatively staid titles like Pacific-Related Audiovisual Materials for Secondary Schools to truly new and exciting scholarship by Pacific Islanders such as Indigenous Encounters: Reflections on Relations Between People in the Pacific edited by Katerina Teaiwa and The Space Between: Negotiating Culture, Place, and Identity in the Pacific by Marata Tamaira.

Moreover, CPIS (yes, they call it ‘sea-piss’. Get over it) has put over twenty years of The Contemporary Pacific online as well for people to read and download. TCP (as its known) is more than an anthropology serial — it’s a deeply engaged journal committed to life in the Pacific and has led the way in Pacific cultural studies and in creating opportunities for Pacific Islanders to publish. It’s an incredible resource for anyone interested in our neck of the woods.

The University of the South Pacific is also moving forward to open up some of its journal the Journal of Pacific Studies (which is different from Pacific Studies, which is published by Brigham Young University-Hawaii). Pacific Studies currently has 8 volumes of its back issues available open access and has abstracts and tables of contents for the remaining issues online.

We have a long way to go — most of the Australian journals are in the hands of Wiley, for instance, but I think sometimes we wring our hands about the fate of our journals without reminding ourselves of the resources out there already. In the case of the Pacific, it seems more and more that the challenge is building software and tools that will help non-experts discover and use the content that is already available… and that is a great problem to have!

(Update: Pei-yi Guo points out that Pacific Asia Inquiry is also available open access. It’s young yet, but the second issue is chock full of great people. Back issues of the intriguing ISLA: Journal of Micronesian Studies are also available and I use them in teaching sometimes.

Also, although I totally forgot to mention it, the Journal de le Société des Océanistes is also available online for more or less all of its back catalog. Don’t be fooled by the accents aigus — a good chunk of the articles are in English and there are some classic and important pieces in there. Alternately if Dutch colonialism is more your thing, the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde features more adatsrecht than you can shake a stick at, all open access.

And last but certainly not least, the mac-daddy of them all (is there a hyphen in mac-daddy?) the Journal of the Polynesian Society has an absolutely sick amount of material up on their website. ) 

Fishes versus Haoles Smackdown

Two books came our recently which both deal with the topic of Haoles (white people) in Hawai’i. Both are short, designed to be accessible, and appeal to a broad audience. Both summarize a great deal of recent research done on and in Hawaii, where I live and work, and both adopt an autobiographical tone. Unfamiliar Fishes by humorist Sarah Vowell, is a history of white people in Hawaii from the arrival of the first missionaries in the 1820s (the ‘unfamiliar fishes’ of the title) to the islands’ annexation by the United States seventy years later. Haoles in Hawaii is by Judy Rorher, a graduate of the University of Hawaii who studies the political economics of Haole presence in contemporary Hawaii. I adore Rorher’s earlier, autobiographical writings about growing up Haole in Hawaii, and detest the NPR Ira Glass/David Sedaris Culture Industry out of which Sarah Vowell emerged. As a result I expected to love Rohrer’s book and dislike Vowell’s, but in fact just the opposite happened: I was disappointed by Haoles in Hawaii and now recommend Unfamiliar Fishes to anyone visiting the islands to understand its history. Why my position switched says a lot about how to write for a popular audience, how to communicate expert opinion to nonexperts, and how to make moral judgments in your writing.

Unfamiliar Fishes is a popular history of American colonialism in Hawaii dressed up as a light travel narrative. Vowell builds her historical narrative up out of anecdotes of her own visits to Hawaii to research the book: tourist locations she goes to with her family, interviews she did with local scholars, interesting but not quite topical documents she found in the archives. Although the book is supposedly about New Englanders who traveled to Hawaii to preach the gospel, much of it is actually about Hawaii and Hawaiians itself, with long diversions about different aspects of the culture: hula, kapa, ahupua’a, and so forth. Along the way you also learn a lot of about 19th century American protestantism, of course, but it’s clear that Vowell’s goal is to provide a relatively detailed sketch of Hawaiian culture and history in its own terms, and she succeeds at this goal.

One of the reasons that Vowell is successful is the circles she moved through. Throughout the book she recounts meetings with some of the premier scholars of Hawaiian history and politics, as well as sovereignty activists (who want to secede from the United States, basically) and of course missionary descendants themselves. She quotes from some of the most recent influential books on Hawaiian history (Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe Silva, for example) as well, which indicates that she’s done her homework. In sum,the book’s success is due in large part to the way Vowell has tapped into and reported on a pre-existing community of scholars and the body of work they’ve produced, some of whom are played by Keanu Reeves in the audiobook.

Haoles in Hawaii is even more a summary of local research in our islands. Rohrer worked closely with many of the people that Vowell cites, and her work presents a much more distilled and careful reading of their arguments — indeed, if you are an academic wanted a run-down (complete with citations) of contemporary critical scholarship on Hawaii, this is is the place to come. The topics she deals with are also very topical: lawsuits attempting to demonstrate that a Hawaiian-only school is unconstitutional, and the ongoing debate, fueled largely by white immigrants to Hawaii, about whether the term ‘Haole’ is itself racist — because for many of these people being on the receiving end of a minority identity is a major shock, apparently.

At times, however, Rorher’s book is too closely related to the literature she cites. One of the main audience of Haoles in Hawaii is haoles in Hawaii, and the book clearly wants to help them get a clue about the history that informs the race relations that they encounter when they arrive here. I don’t think Rorher succeeds in doing this in her book. To a certain extent this is because the tone is ‘too academic’. It lacks the autobiographical, vulnerable voice of “Haole Girl”, a genre-bending article of Rohrer’s that I often assign my students and while it is clearly written, it is still identifiable as an academic text.

And this is, really, the biggest issue I have with the book: the critical tone it borrows from ethnic studies, indigenous studies, and critical race theory that she draws on. It is one thing to write for scholars who oppose hegemonic anglo-protestant narratives, but it is another thing to write for an audience of hegemonic anglo-protestants. The book is too full unveilings and critiques to appeal to a readership that is simultaneously audience and target. So while I agree with what Rohrer is saying, I am afraid that her book will turn off haoles who read it, even those who go out on a limb and try to meet her halfway. Issues of style, rather than substance, may keep the message from getting across.

In contrast, Vowell is readable — at time even cloying. As a refugee of the early-oughts blogosphere explosion I recognize Vowell’s post-David Foster Wallace style and, frankly, it drives me nuts (perhaps this is the narcissism of minor differences at work). Additionally, much of the prose seems formulaic. There is a strong tendency, for instance, for every paragraph to end with a droll and incongruous sentence to make sure the reader decides to read the next paragraph. Still, Vowell calls it like she sees it morally, giving the thumbs down both to the terrifyingly close-minded missionary Hiram Bingham even as she condemns King Kalakaua (venerated in Hawaii for his support of traditional cultural activities) as spendthirft who subsidized his sybaritic lifestyle through the opium trade. Vowell’s frankness, and her ability to pain herself as a sympathetic narrative voice, make the normative elements of the book go down pretty easy.

The historical element in both books are strong. In fact, both authors take books that are ostensibly about Haoles and turn it into a history of Hawaii. But again there are differences, notably in terms of evidence. At time Rorher’s book focuses so much on the wrongs done to Hawaiians that the haoles of her title disappear from sight altogether and the books becomes a history of Hawaii. What little evidence she does use take the form of (oldish) newspaper clippings, rehashing the histories of court cases, or some extremely brief analysis of economics indicators — as a result there is little in the way of data bout the lifeworlds of Hawaii and where concepts of haoles (and the actual white people themselves) fit in. It may be that as a short introductory volume the book isn’t suppose to have much in the way of data, but a more skeptical audience would want to see more proof in the pudding.

In contrast, Vowell has done a much better job of historical research than anyone could reasonably expect her to. It’s clear she loves quoting salacious bits from the archives — and in the case of the incredibly repressed Yankees who landed on Hawaii’s shores, it’s not hard to find salacious bits. In fact, Vowell accomplishes most of the work of denouncing the evils of colonialism simply by quoting the colonizers, who were frankly, shockingly brutal people. At times this tendency goes to far. The last third of the book pretty much gives up inserting bits of travelogue into her book and lapses into straight narrative history (think: book report). In fact, towards the end certain pages are mostly cut-and-pastes of legal texts.

In sum, I eventually came to like Vowell’s book because of its level of detail and its unique personal voice. Rohrer’s book will doubtless be taught more often here in Hawaii and probably works better in an academic setting, but it lacks ethnographic thickness and fails to meet skeptical audiences half way. The lesson I take from the two is that it is the how, not the what, of writing that makes it accessible to a broader audience. It is not that certain positions are unacceptable to the public, but rather that ways of conveying them and creating one’s self as an authoritative, trustworthy author are key to getting your message across.

The Trashing of Margaret Mead

I recently finished reading The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an anthropological controversy by Paul Shankman. I’m reviewing the book for Anthropological Forum and a full write-up will appear there, but I wanted to take a second to write up my impressions for Savage Minds since I think the book is definitely worth a nod.

Trashing of Margaret Mead is to date the most definitive and thorough analysis of the Mead-Freeman ‘debate’ that has been published so far. Most readers of the blog will be familiar with this debate: After Mead’s death Freemon wrote a scathing critique of her book Coming of Age in Samoa which claimed that she had totally misunderstood Samoa and (to make a long story short) this proved that a more sociobiological version of anthropology was needed. Things got extremely ugly, extremely personal, and extremely well-publicized as some people claimed Mead’s defenders relied on a knee-jerk political correctness, while others claimed the Freeman was an evil lunatic. And then…

Well as it happened the entire affair ground more or less to a halt under an increasingly heavy weight of arguments, counter-arguments, and evaluations. The take-away for most anthropologists was “Mead was right” and the take-away for everyone else was “Mead was wrong”. But it was difficult to see the forest from the trees as the literature surrounding the debate grew and grew.

Paul Shankman’s book is first book which steps back and covers the entire debate, rather than taking part in it. Or at least mostly. The book is half a history of the debate and half an analysis of the claims made in it — i.e. the book attempts to decide whether Freeman or Mead was ‘right’. Shankman, who works in Samoa, was involved in the debate and this work benefits from that involvement. As a result he demonstrates a thorough — really, comprehensive — knowledge of it from an insider’s perspective, and the piece reflects his own position within the debate. But his reflexive tone and mastery of the literature convinces me, at least, that he has written an impartial overview.

Impartial, but not noncommittal. Shankman describes the personal stakes and intimate social networks on both sides of the debate, and is frank in his assessment of how people’s personal commitments and backgrounds influenced their arguments. In addition, a major part of the book deals with the question of who is right about Samoa and this involves making judgments about the scholarly adequacy of Mead and Freeman’s work. As judicious as Shankman is, then, you still get a sense of where he stands.

And where he stands is overwhelmingly against Freeman. Freeman’s bizarre personal life — including his mental breakdown — is documented here in a scholarly monograph by a major press for (as far as I know) the first time. The stories that had been circulating about his atrocious behavior, such as contacting universities and demanding that they revoke the Ph.D.s of his opponents, finally get their full airing. Freeman’s arguments about Mead are shown not to hold very much water, and his own claims about Samoa don’t seem to stand close scholarly scrutiny either. At times one feels the book should be called The Trashing of Derek Freeman. But Shankman’s criticisms never seem vindictive and his discussion of Freeman’s psyche never degenerate into ad hominems — despite how easy it would be to do so. In reality, Freeman’s own worse enemy is himself — or at least himself and a scholar willing to rigorously document his actions.

Shankman is not uncritical of Mead and points out the ways in which Coming of Age reaches conclusions about American life that Mead quite liked but which were not really supported by the Samoan data. Still, it is clear from his book that Mead was basically a decent fieldworker and a careful scholar while Freeman was, frankly, a nutcake.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the middle section that deals with the reception of Coming of Age in Samoa in Samoa. Here Shankman documents how Mead’s book was received and understood both amongst people who read it (not very many) and those who heard of it secondhand (most). Although not exactly a Pacific Island voice (since Shankman is not himself a Pacific Islander) it is great to see the community where Mead worked get some coverage. Most Samoans, apparently, are pretty upset that Mead portrayed them as frisky and promiscuous since Samoa is really a pretty church-going kind of a place. What is nice about Shankman’s book is he demonstrates the difference between Mead’s presentation of the Samoan past, the Samoan past as Samoans imagine it, and as it looks through the lens of the broader scholarly literature. He does more than just report on the book’s reception: he explains the complex patterns that have shaped it.

At some point in the future some scholar may sit down and write an extensive archive-based analysis of the Mead-Freeman debate and all of the participants therein. But until that day comes, Shankman’s book is the closest thing we have to a definitive account of the controversy and, frankly, the more scholarly version might not read as well as The Trashing of Margaret Mead. If you’re interested in getting to the bottom of Mead-Freeman, this is the place to look.

Kapah (Young Men): Alternative Cultural Activism in Taiwan

This post is an occasional contribution by Futuru C.L. Tsai. Futuru recently got his Ph.D. in July 2010 from the Institute of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. His dissertation is entitled Playing Modernity: Play as a Path Shuttling across Space and Time of A’tolan Amis in Taiwan. He was a training manager in a semiconductor corporation originally but quit to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. Futuru is also an ethnographic filmmaker and writer, who has produced three ethnographic films including Amis Hip Hop (45 min, 2005), From New Guinea to Taipei (83 min, 2009), and The New Flood (51 min, 2010), and a book: The Anthropologist Germinating from the Rock Piles (Shiduei zhong faya de renleixuei jia) (Taipei: Yushanshe, 2009).

Kapah (Young Men) /Lyrics & Music: Suming

Are there any young men who can sing out there? Are there any men who can dance? Are there any men who are good in school? Are there any men who are good at making money? Are there any men who are good at planting crops? Are there any men who are good at gathering? Are there any men who are good at spearing fish? Are there any men who are good at cooking? Are there any fun men out there? Are there any strong men? Are there any hard workers? Are there any men that work together? Yes, there are the young men from A’tolan!

A brand new music album with complete Amis lyrics by the Amis artist, Suming, was released in May 2010. It is not the first Amis music album but is the first one attempting to crossover into popular music market in Taiwan, combining indigenous melodies such as Amis polyphony and flutes together with techno-trance, hip-hop, and Taiwanese folk music. Among these songs, “Kapah,” which means “young men” in the Amis language, is the theme song. Lungnan Isak Fangas, a documentary filmmaker, who is also an Amis, made two music videos for this album, one of them is Kapah. Both the song and the music video not only represent aspects of local A’tolan Amis culture but also attempt to make this culture appealing to Taiwanese society at large.

There are currently 14 indigenous ethnic groups (referred to as “Aborigines”) officially recognized by the Taiwan government. The Amis is the largest of these austronesian speaking ethnic groups in Taiwan. There are two conspicuous characters of Amis society and culture relevant to understanding this video: One is that it is widely considered a matriarchal society, although its status as such is still under debate. Nonetheless, the image of the mother holds a central place in Amis society. The other one is the age-grade system with its rigid regulations. Age sets are organized around males who have passed the coming of age rites in the village within a given time period. Each age set (kapot) will include men born within a few years of each other. It is the main political unit, handling the affairs of both outsiders and insiders.

The song Kapah differs from earlier indigenous music in its depiction of indigenous modernity. Continue reading

Indigenes or citizens in Papua New Guinea?

Despite the fact that it is my area of expertise, I do not normally comment on the mining and petroleum scene in Papua New Guinea. Despite having studied the industry for more than a decade, I will never know as much as my ‘informants’ — the people actually living with mines and oil projects. This is particularly true for current affairs, when the ‘real story’ of what happens on the ground is often much different from reports circulated by the press. Nevertheless, I do feel compelled to say something about the shameful events that have recently taken place in country — and the way they are being received by the anthropological community and others.

The government of Papua New Guinea recently amended the country’s Environment Act to make it illegal to appeal permitting decisions made by the minister. The immediate reason for this change is clear — the national government relies on large, internationally-financed resource developments to fund it budget. The Ramu NiCo mine in Madang province, majority-owned and operated by a Chinese firm, is planning to dispose of tailings by dumping them into the sea — a move that many, many people in Madang oppose. When anti-mining groups got an injunction against the mine, the government responded by making it illegal to oppose their decision to let the mine go ahead.

The issue is actually more general than this. Landowner groups and others who oppose mining and petroleum developments often challenge environmental permitting in order to pressure or halt operations. Mining leases are rarely reviewed and renewal is largely a matter of course, but water use permits (for toilets on site, for instance) more regularly come up for renewal — and miners need toilets. The Ramu case is just one instance of a much broader tactic used by people opposed to mining.

The big picture is that Papua New Guinea is torn — between politicians in Moresby who are want to use mining revenue to enrich and develop the nation, and grassroots Papua New Guineans who don’t see why they should suffer so others can gain the benefits of mining revenue. When Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, the country inherited the benevolent paternalism and technocratic confidence of its colonizers — the first generation of educated Papua New Guineans were going to lead the country forward and help develop the grassroots in the name of national progress. Now the worm has turned and Papua New Guinea’s leadership seems to see Papua New Guineans as ungrateful and stubborn — after a peaceful protest organized by Transparency International outside parliament, the prime minister called those who participated “satanic and mentally insane”.

In an article I am working on right now, I examine newspaper coverage of these issues in order to understand contemporary transformations of nationalism in Papua New Guinea. My conclusion – which at this rate will not be published until my kids head off to college! — is that Papua New Guinea is torn between two different idioms to express this conflict between grassroots and the political elite. Within the country, the language used is that of the nation: ironically, the nation-making project of the independence period was so successful that many Papua New Guineans now see themselves as uniting against the state in the name of national unity. Externally, however, the language used to describe these conflicts is that of indigeneity. Coverage of recent events by a UN-sponsored website, for instance, describe the problem as one in which “indigenous people lose out on land rights”.

What I do not say in the article — since it is all scholarly and everything — is how incredibly disappointed I am in the government of Papua New Guinea. Democracy is not fun or easy, and the paralysis induced by lawsuits can be a huge pain, but the solution to these problems is not and can never be removing people’s rights to participate in the processes that will affect their lives. This is particularly true in the case of Ramu, where environmental concerns are justified and deeply felt, not simply cynically used as tactics in a political process. Transparency, accountability, and participation are all incredibly stupid and ridiculously ineffective ways to run a government — but we chose them because democracies put people’s rights ahead of convenience or practicality.

Additionally, I am very uncomfortable with labelling this as a conflict featuring ‘indigenous’ people — despite the fact that I know appealing to international forces using the idiom of indigeneity is often yields useful leverage in political contests like the one at Ramu. But in fact Papua New Guineans are indigenous only in the (often oppressive) eco-authentic sense: they are brown, they have ‘exotic’ languages and cultures, and they live in a place full of endangered species of animals. They are not, however, ‘indigenous’ in the much more important political-emancipatory sense: there is (and was) no real settler colonialism in Papua New Guinea, no large scale expropriation of land, and not even an ethnic majority to oppress minority groups. Despite how easy it is for outsiders to shoe horn Papua New Guinea into popular and easy paradigms of indigenous struggle, such a construal of Papua New Guinea’s story does not do the country justice.

Eco-authentic definitions of indigeneity perpetuate stereotypes of Papua New Guinea as savage backward by giving them a positive moral valuation. They obscure from sight the large number of educated Papua New Guineans, and they stigmatize Papua New Guineans’ decisions to take part in urban, cash-based economies as an abandonment of precious indigenous heritage.

Most importantly, however, these idioms tempt Papua New Guineans to give up on their country and its  government. With corruption in the civil servant rampant and elections in Papua New Guinea too-often a mere shadow of genuine democracy (there is video footage of political henchmen unapologetically — and literally — stuffing ballot boxes), it is easy these days for Papua New Guineans to opt out, to declare the government an illegitimate opponent of the grassroots rather than to hold it to account as the voice of the people. Perhaps they do not need the ‘indigenous alternative’s’ help in abandoning any conception of state legitimacy. But I think Papua New Guinea loses something important when it gives up on its dreams of independence and self-government. Even though it may require people to dig deep, I would urge Papua New Guineans not to give up on the light at the end of the tunnel, and to insist that they are citizens, not indigenes, of Papua New Guinea.

Vengeance is Hers: Rhonda Shearer on Jared Diamond’s ‘Factual Collapse’

Rhonda Shearer, a cofounder of the Arts Science Research Lab and widow of Stephen Jay Gould recently released a long report on ASRL’s website “Stinky Journalism.org”:http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/aboutus.php entitled “Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: New Yorker Mag’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue… Tribal Members Angry, Want Justice”:http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/latest-journalism-news-updates-149.php. I have more than a passing interest in this case because I served as a fact-checker for the New Yorker on the piece, have written “my own response to the piece”:http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=%2F2008%2F05%2F04%2Fvengeance-is-his-jared-diamond-in-the-new-yorker%2F&ei=1EvvSemiGZb8swPs8LHhAQ&usg=AFQjCNEd0-gDpTtootHXezSPeCtHJ7EMUw, and have been in contact with Shearer as she has been working on her response. But this story is far more that just something I am personally interested in — it has already been reported on by the “Huffington Post”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/22/new-guinea-tribe-sues-the_n_189841.html and “Forbes”:http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/21/new-yorker-jared-diamond-business-media-new-yorker.html?feed=rss_business_media shows. Most news coverage will focus on the more spectacular aspects of the case: Diamond publishes a piece in the New Yorker depicting a tribal fight in Papua New Guinea, Shearer produces documentation that his accounts are untrue, and the Papua New Guineans involve sue Diamond for US$10 million.

What I think is truly important about this case – beyond the obvious fact that Wemp deserves justice – is that it represents the fundamental ethical issue that anthropologists will have to face for decades to come. Anthropological collaboration with the army may directly impact more human lives, but collaboration is an old problem that we have talked about for a long time. The great ethical debate prior to HTS was the ‘Yanomami Scandal’ stirred up by Patrick Tierney, a debate that centered on anthropologists (and others) behaving badly in the field, and not being held to account by the powers that be in the metropole. Some people like Rob Borofsky want to fetishize this debate as the issue in anthropological ethics, since it involves what they imagine must be the paradigmatic anthropological situation: powerful white outsiders, (relatively) supine brown people.

I admit that L’affaire Shearer does have a whiff of that dynamic. But overall it is about a relatively new issue which will I think will become increasingly central to anthropological ethics in the future: the radical answerability that researchers increasingly have to the people they depict. While this should always have been important to us, it is a topic we can no longer ignore in a world where their ‘informants’ are more connected than ever before to the flows of media and communication in which ‘we’ depict ‘them’. If the Yanomami controversy was about anthropologists suddenly being held responsible in the metropole for what they did in the field, the Jared Diamond case is about an author suddenly being held responsible in the field for what they did in the metropole.

Shearer’s report is long and detailed and I will not attempt to do more than summarize it here. Basically, Jared Diamond wrote an article in the New Yorker in which he told the story of Daniel Wemp, a man he met in Papua New Guinea who described a tribal fight he had been in which allegedly involved killing dozens of people and paralyzing his enemy in a quest to seek revenge for the death of his uncle. What did Diamond do wrong, according to Shearer? We can summarize as follows:

Poor research and inaccurate facts
Shearer conducted punishingly scrupulous research on Diamond’s story, which included contacting Wemp and having researchers in Papua New Guinea investigate Diamond’s story. It looks like the New Yorker article is a hodge-podge of Diamond’s recollections of the stories Wemp told Diamond when Wemp drove him around the Southern Highlands. The actual history of fighting in the area Wemp describes is quite different — for instance, the man that Diamond says was paralyzed in a wheelchair is photographed standing and walking in Shearer’s piece. Diamond presents what appear to be verbatim quotations from Wemp which are probably Diamond’s reconstruction of the conversation, and so forth. So both the facts and their presentation are problematic.

Poor ethical standards
Separate from the fact that Diamond appears to have gotten the story wrong is the fact that he followed few of the ethical standards which anthropologists (and journalists, apparently) follow in writing about their research subjects. Calling someone a murderer in a venue like the New Yorker is a serious claim indeed. Add to this the fact that Diamond used Wemp’s real name in the story, and that Wemp had no idea that his stories would ever be published, and you have serious ethical problems. There was, in other words, no informed consent and no attempt to provide anonymity for informants.

Shearer’s points here are largely factual and perhaps in the future there will be more delving into the minutiae of this case — as someone who lived in the province just north of Southern Highland and who has visited this area I am extremely impressed with the quality of her research, the experts she has contacted, and her collaboration with Papua New Guinean journalists. But for non specialists the issues of what did or did not happen in 1992 will probably be less important than some of the wider issues raised by this piece:

Let’s hope this doesn’t turn into The Great Counterattack
Many anthropologists dislike Jared Diamond because he has done what they fantasize of doing — writing readable nonfiction for a general audience. One possible outcome of this case is that it turns into The Great Counterattack in which every possible error in Diamond’s reporting is used to trash him by people who care less about Papua New Guinea, geography, steel, collapse, etc. and more about getting the taste of sour grapes out of their mouths. To the extent this becomes a witchhunt, it will get more and more boring and, of course, more and more cruel.

Questions about scholarly competency and institutional licensing
Diamond is like some sort of great Victorian polymath — geographer, ornithologist, anthropologist, historian… in his books it appears there is nothing he can’t do, and to experts in each of these fields it appears that he can’t do any of them. While popular audiences love Diamond’s work, the scholarly consensus on it has been pretty firmly established: much of what the public thinks is Diamond’s original ideas are cribbed from other authors, often with the bare minimum of acknowledgments performed in footnotes to stave off accusations of plagiarism. Overall, what Diamond gets right, he gets from others. What he gets wrong tends to be the stuff he has made up himself.

It is one thing to have Diamond’s book show up on the shelves of airport bookstores, but quite another for it to be described as ‘anthropology’ in the subheading of a story in the New Yorker. Now that Diamond has tried his hand at some ethnographic ‘research’ in a public forum, I think we are beginning to see the differences between avocational anthropology and the real thing. So what is an anthropologist? Is it someone who follows the best practices of our discipline, or do we really feel there must be some sort of institutional licensing in the form of a departmental appointment of degree in order for someone to take up this mantle? Its an interesting question that Diamond’s piece raises.

Could anyone sustain this level of scrutiny?
Shearer takes Diamond to task for not meeting anthropological (and journalistic) standards of evidence, methodology, and ethics. Yet I have to wonder if Diamond is the only person who would be snared in a net as tightly woven as Shearers. After all, anthropologists have a long history of failing to meet their own evidentiary standards. Those of us who work in PNG can think of several authors whose work is not widely taught because we ‘all know’ about the quality of their fieldwork. It is important to hold Diamond to professional standards if he is going to act like a professional. At the same time, we must recognize that he is taking his place in a field where those who have come before him have often failed to distinguish themselves.

Shearer is not reporting the story, Shearer is the story
Anthropologists understand that social life is a constant process of narration and renarration — and I’ve always felt this is particularly true of highlands PNG, somehow. I am not Melanesian (obviously) but looking at this case through a Melanesian lens it seems to me that there is something complex and fascinating about the way Shearer’s report has elicited a whole series of responses from people in PNG and is yet another step in the ongoing reentextualization of events that happened a decade ago in Southern Highlands as it twists and turns into various forms of compensation/litigation.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the central and most important point of this debate is that it is about what we write at ‘home’ circulating back to the ‘field’. But this is just another way of saying that the line between these two is increasingly porous (as Gupta and Ferguson noted some time ago). Diamond’s case is a cautionary tale for all anthropologists who write in the comfort of their homes imagining their fieldsite is far away. It is answerability that is at stake here — Diamond’s and our own. Answerability is something that journalists have been struggling with longer than anthropologists and I think what they have to teach Diamond offers lessons we ourselves will have to learn in the future (if we haven’t already): get your facts straight, report them fairly, and let people know that you are doing so. It is not only the right thing to do, but in a world where ‘they read what we right’, your audience is also your informants.

Pocket God

For some time now, an application named Pocket God has consistently been at the top of the iPhone application store list of bestselling apps. One review describes Pocket God as “an entertaining app that lets you explore multiple ways of tormenting your cute little islanders.” But see for yourself:

I just wonder how it is that Apple finds an application in which people can throw shoes at a virtual Bush unacceptable, but find the virtual torture of Pacific Islanders perfectly OK? And how is it that after weeks of being one of the bestselling iPhone games, hardly anyone has commented upon the game’s racism? Just imagine, for instance, a game in which one were presented with a virtual shtetle filled with Jews one could torture, or a plantation full of African slaves? How is it that such applications would certainly be rejected by the Apple Store, and yet Pocket God does not even provoke controversy?

I suppose that most people who play this game think of the island’s inhabitants as fictitious primitives, rather than representatives of a particular ethnic group. I doubt people playing the game bear any hatred towards Pacific Islanders. And yet, I can’t help but see our inability to view cartoonish depictions of indigenous peoples, such as sports mascots, as representations of living peoples as problematic. In particular, I feel it ties in with the myth of a vanishing race, of a people who, defined in terms or their primitivism must have already given way to the forces of modernity, their very existence denied.

UPDATE: I don’t personally think Apple should be in the business of censoring applications based on content, but here is another story that is relevant to the current discussion:

The release (and subsequent removal) of an iPhone app called Baby Shaker this week has Apple in hot water with angry parents and children’s groups, who are demanding answers from Apple.

UPDATE: Seems that Canterbury University Lecturer Malakai Koloamatangi is now raising a stink about the game. See here and here (via Indigeneity)

UPDATE: Looks like the developers are going to make some changes in response to criticisms. (They are also hiring a PR firm.)

Epeli Hau’ofa has passed away

“Epeli”:http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/CU0901/S00096.htm “Hau’ofa”:http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=112135 “passed”:http://fijidailypost.com/news.php?section=1&fijidailynews=21483 “away”:http://solomontimes.com/news.aspx?nwID=3381 on 11 January 2009, and with his death the Pacific looses one of its most important intellectuals and anthropologists. Ethnically Tongan, born in Papua New Guinea, educated in Australia, and a naturalized citizen of Fiji, Hau’ofa’s life exemplifies the vibrant, diverse, and connected image of Oceania he promoted throughout his life. Those of us who study Papua New Guinea will remember him as an ethnographer of the Mekeo, but his influence expanded far beyond his ethnographic work — indeed, he is most often remembered as a novelist and author of short stories, and his humorous, satirical writings about the fictional but too-close-to-home Tikongs are widely read both in and out of the Pacific.

Most central for, as someone who was not raised in the Pacific (or at least, grew up on its right coast) was his essay “Our Sea of Islands”:/wp-content/image-upload/our-sea-of-islands-epeli-hauofa.pdf. In Our Sea of Islands Hau’ofa argued against the then-common (and still-common) presumption that Pacific Islanders lived in small, isolated, remote communities separated by a massive ocean. Instead, he argued that Pacific Islanders were connected by an ocean which facilitated movement and connection. Like all great ideas, it was an inversion of popular understandings that was so true and so timely that in retrospect is seems impossible to imagine how we lived without it.

If anyone reading this blog teaches courses on the Pacific, or simply wants to learn more about the area, this seminal essay is a must read. As unfortunate as his passing is, I hope that it will refocus attention on his life and work — even though his pen is stilled, we still have much to learn from Epeli Hau’ofa.

Male infanticide in Papua New Guinea? Get real.

File this one under ‘public use of reason 101’.

On 28 November 2008 The Nation, one of Papua New Guinea’s two largest newspapers, ran a story entitled “Male Babies Killed To Stop Fights”:http://www.thenational.com.pg/281108/nation5.php which claimed that women in the Gimi area have decided to kill all their male children in an attempt to stop an ongoing tribal fight by, as it were, cutting off the supply of reinforcements. The story, sensational as it was, got picked up by “the Australian Broadcasting Corporation”:http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/12/01/2434537.htm and even made its way to “Fox News”:http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,460166,00.html.

Now, on the one hand this story is so outrageously exoticizing, so sensationalistically othering, so reliant on tropes of primitive, savage black people that it pushes all the buttons of Politically Correct Anthropologists. On the other hand, Melanesianists like myself often are wary of overly-eager professors who denounce myths of cannibalism and so forth because, well, Papua New Guinea is a place where cannibalism was practiced, a place where real cultural difference does occur, were there is fighting, and so forth: no one ever told anyone in PNG that we in the academy had developed an elaborate set of rules about how they were supposed to live their lives, if you see what I mean.

But even given these reservations, even given these reservations, this story still sounds absolutely ridiculous to me and stands, in my opinion, as a classic example of Papua New Guinea being trotted out again to serve Australian and American fantasies of primitive savagery.

For one thing, the Salvation Army has been in the Gimi area (so much for being ‘untouched’) and has worked to try to end the dispute, and they are quoted in the original news story. However, in a follow-up story the ABC has reported that “the Salvation Army denies that these killings took place”:http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/12/01/2434824.htm. According to this report “the Highlands women are making the point that there are so many murders they might as well kill their newborn boys themselves, rather than go through the pain of losing them in tribal fights.” Now this I believe, as this sounds very much the way that people talk about pain and suffering in PNG.

Moreover, experts on Gimi say that this area fits the pattern that we see in a lot of the world — that female infanticide, not male infanticide, is common. In an email to me Paige West, a professor at Barnard College, wrote

Historically Gimi in Lufa and Unavi practiced infanticide through subtle neglect and exposure if a baby was unwanted or if the mother was simply too overwhelmed by other young children (especially if there was one already breast feeding when the new one was born) to care for the newborn. This was more often than not done with female infants – so much so that in the census reports in the 60s and early 70s there was a marked gender imbalance among Gimi. Gillian Gillison’s work shows that in general in the 70s and 80s first born babies were more likely to die than to survive (See Between Culture and Fantasy: A New Guinea Highlands Mythology for Gillison’s in-depth discussion of Gimi ideas about conception, birth, and death).

Additionally, she writes:

No Gimi person I know would actually attribute the cause of fighting to their own immediate family (if between patrilines), to their own extended family group (if between ‘clans’), to their village (if between villages), or to their ethnic group (if between Gimi and others). They would attribute the cause of the fighting to whomever they were fighting so to kill male offspring in ones own line in order to stop fighting is nonsensical.


The thought process that is ascribed to the mothers in the story in some ways seems to be a Foucauldian management of population which is hard to imagine that any Gimi would apply to their own children and kin. The idea that eliminating one’s own child to create some future social benefit to all seems like a kind of governmentality that does not exist in Gimi society. Essentially the extent to which kinship controls social relationships means that that arguement would be a radical departure from Gimi social world views.

In sum, we have a typical story: inaccurate reporting which is picked up on on global media because readers find it exciting to read about Papua New Guineans behaving badly. Is anyone willing to defend the original National article in public? And, more importantly, when are we going to have some positive news coverage of everything that is going right in Papua New Guinea?

UPDATE: Its fascinating to watch this story mutate — now “Women on the Web”:http://www.wowowow.com/ is linking to the original story with the headline “Male Infanticide on Rise as Papua New Guinea’s Women Attempt to End War”:http://www.wowowow.com/post/male-infanticide-rise-papua-new-guineas-women-attempt-end-war-150858#comments. This headline makes it sound like the whole country is getting into the act (although to be fair the body of the article just repeats what is in the original National article).

UPDATE UPDATE: Here’s a link to “the Times version of this story”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article5265057.ece

Free Webisodes of Pacific History and Archaeology

If you want to learn more about the Pacific then you are in luck — the Hawai’i State department of education has recently put together two locally-produced programs available on the web for free. “Stories to Tell”:http://wetserver.net/teleschool/pages/programs/program_home.jsp?programid=16&programpageid=29&programpagetype=programpages is a documentary about the little-known Pacific campaign during the American Civil war and focuses on Yankee whaling ships sunk by the Confederate navy in Micronesia in the 1860s. Its a fascinating story that helps remind us just how globalized our world has been, and how long the Pacific has been entangled in geopolitics.

The second show, “Pacific Clues”:http://wetserver.net/teleschool/pages/programs/program_home.jsp?programid=16&programpageid=30&programpagetype=programpages discusses the archaeology of the Pacific, with a special focus on Polynesia. The “first episode”:http://www.teleschool.k12.hi.us/tlc/IR_CR_PC_1.html features Terry Hunt discussing the destruction of Rapa Nui’s (Easter Island) environment, and his own interpretation of what led to its downfall. Terry’s objections to authors such as Jared Diamond’s interpretation of Rapa Nui’s history is well known, and now you can watch the man explain it in person.

All of these shows are available for free, as a series of 20 minute web episodes — so far only a few episodes are up, but as the season progresses more will be available. They’re meant for kids, so they are a great opportunity for you and your little ones to curl up together in front of a glowing LCD screen. But of course they’re great for people of all ages — especially people who want to know more about what the experts really think about the Pacific, but don’t want to read a bunch of scholarly articles.

Margaret Mead and the Arapesh

Despite the decades that have passed, Margaret Mead remains the Anthropologist You Are Most Likely To Be Asked About By The Person Sitting Next To You On The Plane. Her legacy is, to put it mildly, mixed. Many view her as the last really good ‘public anthropologist’ and an exemplar for female scientists everywhere. Others are much more critical — Michaeala di Leonardo (whose name I can never spell right) works hard to debunk the image of Mead as a proto leftist-feminist in Exotics at Home, for instance, and many anthropologists have taken issue with her fieldwork. The most obvious here is Derek Freeman, who spent much of his career launching extremely critical work on the fieldwork that resulted in Mead’s classic Coming of Age in Samoa.

To keep a long story very, very short: it appears that although Mead’s work on Samoa was problematic to the point that she probably ‘got it wrong’, Freeman himself was so vitriolic and (probably) mentally ill, that it is difficult for anyone to write a measured, reflective criticism of Mead without sounding like they are allying themselves with Freeman.

All of which is to say that if you are looking for a measured, reflective criticism of Mead, look no further than Ira Bashkow and Lise Dobrin’s “The Historical Study of Ethnographic Fieldwork: Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune among the Mountain Arapesh” which is “available free and open access for anyone to read”:http://www.virginia.edu/anthropology/faculty/Bashkow-Dobrin-2007.pdf. It is a great piece and I recommend it to all and sundry. It is very clearly written, short, and elegantly relates their analysis of Mead’s Arapesh research (which she got wrong) to a more fruitful discussion of how the fieldsite is co-constructed by anthropologists and their hosts.

So… if you only read one 7 page PDF on the history of Melanesian anthropology before World War II today… make it this one!

Vengeance is his: Jared Diamond in the New Yorker

The April 21 number of the New Yorker features a long article by Jared Diamond entitled “Vengeance Is Ours: What Can Tribal Societies Tell Us About Our Need To Get Even”:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/21/080421fa_fact_diamond. Anthropologists have a tendency — increasingly shrill and kneejerk these days — to be very critical of Jared Diamond. Mostly I think this is because he does what they wish they did: write popular, widely read books. I’m not as affected by this sour grapes syndrome as some, and in the case of this article I’ve already had my druthers because I helped fact check it (this consisted in talking for ten minutes on the phone with a New Yorker employee). However there are still some kvetchable things in the article that deserve a going over.

The basic idea of the article is simple. In it, Diamond contrasts a tribal fight in Nembi distict, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and the death of his father in-law’s mother (wife’s father’s mother, or WFM as we say in the kinship biz) in the holocaust. In PNG, Diamond’s friend Daniel undertook a long vendetta to avenge his uncle and was eventually successful. In the holocaust, the killer of Diamond’s WFM was arrested, detained for a year and then freed. Daniel was well-adjusted and emotionally reconciled to his uncle’s death — vengeance satisfied him. Diamond’s father in-law was haunted the rest of his life by the fact that justice was never delivered. The moral of the story, Diamond says, is that procedural justice under a state may not be as obviously superior to vengeance in tribal fighting as we might think. Its a typical anthropological technique: compare The West to The Rest, and open people’s minds by pointing out that They might know something We don’t, and that Our Ways may not be as hot as we imagined.

In its factual reporting, Diamond’s account of tribal fighting in PNG more or less rings true to me, and the things that don’t ring true are most likely simply variants between what is done in Nipa and what is done in west Enga, where I lived. I also appreciate Diamond’s spin on the topic — that tribal fighting is comprehensible and not mere barbarism, and that the people who do it are humans who live normal, albeit culturally distinct, lives.

That said, I do have some issued with what Diamond actually does with his data.
Continue reading

Rudd cribs off of Povinelli, meets unanimous acclaim

I was lucky enough to be in Australia for the Australian Government’s historic “apology to aboriginal peoples”:http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/view_document.aspx?ID=2770337&TABLE=HANSARDR&TARGET and just got done teaching it in my political anthropology class after having read Beth Povinelli’s “The State of Shame” a few weeks earlier. The similarity between Povinelli’s epigrammatic voicing of white settler guilt and Rudd’s apology is striking. I thought I’d throw it out here just by way of a fun contrast.

I know I have hurt you. But I want to make (it) up to you, repair the rupture, bridge the rift between us, heal the pain that I have caused. I want us to imagine a place where the possibility of our hurting each other does not exist. Where we can each be our different selves without shame, without fear, without alienation. True partners in peace. A world of brothers and sisters. A world of recognition and enhancement. This is the right thing to do: to heal, to move on, to found and never a New Society

versus (edited)

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future. We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry. For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written. We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again. A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility. A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

I am not sure what to make of this overlap, except to say that Povinelli got it right?

Archival Possibilities

There has been some discussion on SM concerning the possibilities and implications of digital technologies in relation to indigenous communities, most notably when Michael Brown was a guest blogger. I mentioned in my first post that the reason I was in Tennant Creek over the last two months was to install a digital archive in the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in town. I’ll just give a brief overview of the project and then discuss the possibilities I see growing from these types of projects.

The Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari archive was developed collaboratively over the last two years by myself, Warumungu community members, Craig Dietrich, Tim Dietrich (software developers) and Chris Cooney (designer). Mukurtu means ‘dilly bag’ in Warumungu. Dilly bags were used as safe keeping places for sacred materials. The archive is thus a “safe keeping place.”

The gist of the project is this: Warumungu community members wanted a way to manage the digital materials they received from a number of sources—mainly researchers, teachers and missionaries who had once worked in the community. How could they store, organize, distribute, and allow access to these images based on the Warumungu cultural protocols that surround viewing and distribution of images and the associated knowledge that goes with them?

Over two years of consultation, we developed a browser-based digital archive (using a MySQL database and PHP scripting language, the archive runs locally on an iMac in a MAMP web environment—Mac OSX, Apache, MySQL, PHP—for those techies out there) using the cultural protocols to drive the technology. That is, the information architecture of the system was driven by the specific Warumungu cultural protocols for the viewing, distribution, and reproduction of images. There is a detailed summary concerning the functionality of the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive on my blog.

Over the last few years of development I have met several people involved in similar projects—mainly in Australia (I’d love to know about others). Finally having Mukurtu installed in Tennant Creek though gave us the opportunity to 1) think of ways to develop it further in the context of Nyinkka Nyunyu as an art and culture centre and 2) reach out to others to find ways to improve and share what we have. We have begun to develop a framework for a flexible system that would allow other communities to customize the system to fit their own cultural protocols–what we need now are more developers! Although at present most of the content in Mukurtu is from personal collections, the goal is to now reach out to museums and begin a process of virtual repatriation of Warumungu cultural materials. The South Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria have already loaned physical objects to Nyinkka Nyunyu for their museum space. These objects are displayed at Nyinkka Nyunyu and are accompanied by Warumungu narration.

The local archive allows for thousands more objects to be virtually repatriated at a fraction of the cost. Mukurtu allows for the content to be curated by individuals in the community. People can tag the content with restrictions, add multiple stories and recollections, and sort it by culturally relevant categories. People can also print images or burn CDs and thus allow the images to circulate more widely to others who live on outstations or in other areas. In fact, one of the top priorities in Mukurtu’s development was that it needed to allow people to take things with them, printing and burning were necessary to ensure circulation of the materials.

Digital archives—powered by Indigenous protocols and intellectual property systems—have the potential to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the institutions that hold Indigenous materials and the communities to whom they belong. Even if one thought that all objects should be repatriated, most Indigenous communities don’t have the money or facilities to store the objects properly. Many communities want museums to keep their objects safe—they want a voice in the way they are displayed and curated. Digital projects can provide one avenue for Indigenous curation. One great example of this is the Virtual Museum Canada project. The Canadian government has funded many First Nations web based museum projects (see the Dane Wajich project by the Doig River First Nations community).

There is potential, then, for digital archives and other web-based projects (that take seriously and integrate Indigenous protocols) to reanimate the terrain of museum display, curation, and information management and to establish collaborative development projects between technologists, anthropologists and communities. Local archives, “safe keeping places,” that use Indigenous cultural protocols to define access and distribution parameters should not be read as closing down the commons or sealing off information. Instead, these projects give us a way to interrogate the limits of commons-like narratives about information or information freedom. They give us a way to redefine access and control apart from big business models. They allow us to examine different modes of information distribution and reproduction and the ways in which these systems maintain and create knowledge through their specific protocols. These archives are as much about production as they are preservation—in these cases the two are intertwined. Can these systems also inform the larger debate about access to information in relation to digital technologies? They seem poised to do so.