Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, November 28, 2016

Trobriand Culture Installment 1 (H1)

I was stumped for several days when deciding on a subject to write about for these installment posts. First, I thought I would write a “This I Believe” essay since exploring a philosopher didn’t particularly interest me and I loved the diversity of This I Believe II when I read it a year ago, but I struggled to formulate an opinion and articulate it. Then, when Dr. Oliver instructed our class to “teach us something,” it hit me. Because I am majoring in anthropology at MTSU, I’ve decided to discuss a cultural group that my cultural anthropology class is currently reading about as well as bring attention to the critical importance that anthropologists have in the world today. There is a monumental amount of varying cultures around the globe other than just our own “American” culture; I feel we forget this crucial fact, especially on a day to day basis. As I discuss life on the Trobriand Islands, I hope it becomes clear that maybe we, Americans, don’t have it “all figured out.”

Geography and a Little History
Just off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea exists an archipelago considered to be one of anthropologists’ most sacred places, the Trobriand Islands. Twenty- five miles long, two to eight miles wide, and with a population of approximately twelve thousand people who live in sixty villages, Kiriwina is both the largest island as well as the most prominent socially and politically. Kiriwana is surrounded by the smaller islands of Kitava, Vakuta, and Kaileuna, which each inhabit only a few hundred people, living in less than eight villages.

Trobriand Islands Map

When Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, conducted his fieldwork in this region in 1914, he established the importance of being more than an “armchair” anthropologist, arguing against conceptions of “primitive” societies made by those with an ethnocentric point of view. Sixty years later, anthropologist, Annette Weiner, also administered her fieldwork in the same area. Comparison of Malinowski’s research against Weiner’s findings illustrates not Malinowski’s mistaken interpretations, but developments in anthropological knowledge and inquiry from the two time periods.

When an individual dies, the question of “whose magic is killing him or her?” is the fraught concern lingering in the mind of every villager. Almost every death is believed to be the result of sorcery (bwagau) effected by a specialist who chants magic spells into a victim’s betel nut- (buwa) “betel chewing” is a social activity that acts as a narcotic stimulant, which is mixed with pepper plant and slaked lime, turning it into a palatable, red concoction. Suspicions run high in the village, but they are never to be discussed openly. If the deceased individual is politically important, the intent was to reduce his power; if the individual was a child, it is an attack against the continued power of his or her matrilineage; if the individual was a female of child-bearing age, the desire was to destroy her entire matrilineage; if the individual was a male, it was a deliberate attempt to weaken the autonomy of his matrilineage’s chief or leader by taking away a supporter and potential heir. 

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                                                        Betel chewing                  Betel nut (buwa)               Betel nut (buwa)

Kinship is a key factor in defining the ensuing events that follow a death. Members of the individual’s matrilineage and villagers who belong to his or her clan- “owners” (toliuli)- organize the burial and exchange. Villagers from other clans related to the individual through marriage or patrilineage- “workers” (toliyouwa) are the public mourners who sit with the body and prepare the grave as well as shave their hair, paint their bodies black with charred coconut disks, and wear mourning clothes.
About twenty sea miles from Kiriwana lies the island of Tuma. Trobrianders believe this island is where their spirits (baloma) join each other when they pass away. Once relocated on Tuma, the spirit is revitalized by returning to the state of youth and continues to live on the island, explaining why a body is adorned with cultural symbols of youth, such as washing the body, rubbing it with coconut oil, tucking aromatic grasses in armbands, painting the face with paint, inserting shells into tiny holes in the nose, and etc. 
Due to the threat of sorcery, the widow or widower must follow strict mourning stipulations to ensure he or she will not be accused. The importance of the dead individual and the age of the surviving spouse determines the length of time he or she must remain in stringent seclusion of exceptional heartache. The widow or widower will sit up on a high bed- the same kind of bed used during childbirth, however, there is no fire or “good” food. For several days, he or she is forbidden to talk to anyone, smoke or chew betel nuts, perform work, or touch food (he or she will be hand-fed common food). As months pass by, taboos are gradually suspended each time a  member of the spouse’s matrilineage deliver items, such as valuables or yams. Yet, these prohibitions are not as long and onerous before the Australian government enforced a few altercations. 

Each village (valu) is divided into sections called hamlets (katuposula); each hamlet represents a matrilineage, although a small number of members of the matrilineage may reside there. Marriage is exogamous within a hamlet, but not within a village. The woman moves to the husband’s house when they marry, however the support and companionship of her kin is rarely absent. When a woman gives birth to her child, the event includes only the closest matrilineal female kin. New mothers and their infant will remain secluded for two months as there are also firm taboos on bearing and nursing a baby. While the woman’s husband and his kin are required to bring the new mother food, only her kin is permitted to cook and attend to her needs. Similarities between the isolation after the birth of a child and again at the time of a death display the paramount importance of the linkage between life and death. 

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                                                                          Village                       Illustration of birth 

As I mentioned previously, when an individual dies, his or her spirit (baloma) transforms back into a youthful form to live its life on Tuma. Life on Tuma, however, ages; by bathing in sea water, the spirit’s wrinkled skin is sloughed off, creating a spirit child (waiwaia). Returning to Kiriwina, the spirit child will enter a woman’s body and she will become pregnant. Because the fetus is a formation of the woman’s blood and ancestral spirit (sibububula), it is believed to be of the same matrilineage and will thus receive a name belonging to a past ancestor of the mother. Villagers do not all agree completely on how baloma creates the spirit child or the method in which waiwai impregnates a woman; this is not a contradiction or an inability to recall “true” traditions. 
Once a baby is weaned from his or her mother’s milk after approximately a year and a half, the baby will sleep with his or her father. Fathers play a long-lasting role of import in nurturing (kopi) the baby in a way that compliments rather than replicates what the mother bestows. By enhancing the child’s potential power, men hold the responsibility for the economic care of their children They are liable for providing the child with food and enhancing his or her beauty with beauty magic. Such magic may include an enrichment of facial features or beautification through shell decorations. A child’s ears can indicate a great deal about his or her social advantage or disadvantage; if the ears are not pierced, he or she is fatherless (gudukubukwabuya) and if the ears are pierced, but hold no earrings, he or she is poor (namakara).
To exemplify the significance a baby possesses, here is an example of a young, unmarried woman, Sara, who became pregnant. Because of the belief in Tuma and the stipulations against discussing such affairs in public, no claims of her lover were made and nor was a stigma attached to Sara- although people did gossip about the potential father. The role of Sara’s lover was not publicly acknowledged and therefore the pregnancy was essentially ignored as she continued to live with her parents and no one spoke publicly about her fatherless child. At six months, however, Sara’s brother dressed his niece’s ears with more shells than any other child possessed in the village in order to prevent the child from being publicly shamed. Though Sara’s daughter’s earrings did not fool anyone about the truth of the matter, such circumstances were not appropriate for discussion. 

At seven to eight years of age, children begin to play erotic games, imitating seductive adult attitudes. About four to five years later, they start to pursue sexual partners. Both young boys and girls devote a considerable amount of time to adorning themselves in preparation for walking about on a daily basis as it is essential to look attractive as well as to act independent and fearless- although, it is important to not appear pompous. Conversations between a young boys and girls overflow with sexual metaphors and intentions for both are equally as assertive. By their mid-teens, the meetings that conspire between two lovers take up most of the night and a single affair may last several months or longer, indicating a degree of seriousness. 
Older villagers will watch and evaluate the potential of adolescents as productive adults; an individual is not considered to be an adult until he or she is married with children, entirely committed to economic and political endeavors, but until then, he or she is referred to as a “small boy or girl.” A young individual can give an older kin member food, tobacco, or money, to obtain a magic spell to seduce another. He or she may also resort to the most powerful kind of magic spells known and practiced by few adults- villagers will warn their youth to “be careful” because “it will destroy your mind”- in order to control someone else’s feelings. Attracting a lover is ultimately the first step toward the adult world of strategies where the line between influencing others while preventing them from gaining control of oneself must be carefully learned. 

                                                                        Trobriand Youth

When a young woman begins to visit the same lover again and again, rejecting the advances of others, the affair takes on a great measure of seriousness. (Everyone believes this is the result of strong love magic). Though, she must enter after her lover’s house after dark and leave before the villagers wake up and begin to congregate on their verandas. It is of the utmost import that no one see her entering or leaving her lover’s house, because when the two individuals are alas seen together, it signifies marriage. If the woman’s mother and her mother’s brother approve of the partnership, they will cook yams for the couple; eating yams together officially recognizes the marriage; if the mother and her brother do not approve, they will demand the daughter to leave instantly with them.

Clans and lineages have different functions- a clan is not simply a larger representation of a lineage. Four Trobriand clans exist: Malasi, Lukuba, Lukwasisiga, and Lukulabuta. Each of these have their own set of symbolic identifications, nut hold little economic importance as they do not possess the “same blood.” Nonetheless, the clan an individual belongs to distinguishes whom they can and cannot marry. Marriage within the same clan is incestuous. The incest taboo not only prohibits sexual intercourse between a father and his daughter- such a relationship is seen as laughable-  as well as between a brother and his sister- a major act of disgrace,- but the discussion about such affairs.  The freedom to have a desired individual is curtailed by public reprimands and peer retaliation for the reason that a marriage concerns adult productiveness in the community; a marriage is rarely perceived as just a love match, but a political step that involves other villagers. 

Word count: 1,997

1 comment:

  1. You've definitely taught me something. I'll be interested to see you develop, in your next installment, what you see as the most important philosophical implications of the Trobrianders' way of life. Their "magical thinking" offers a pre-scientific worldview at odds with western rationalism, raising questions about cultural and ethical relativism. I think I understand why anthropologists resist "judging" such cultures, insofar as their primary role is to study and learn about them. But for those of us who aren't anthropologists, why shouldn't we reject the magic as unenlightened? Why shouldn't we question the early sexual initiation of children? Why shouldn't we encourage Trobrianders (etc.) to reconsider their views, in the light of scientific rationalism? And, what do you think we should learn from them?