Presentation on theme: "What do people do in traditional societies? Say, in this village, called Tambunum, where about 1000 Iatmul people live along the banks of the Sepik River."— Presentation transcript:
What do people do in traditional societies? Say, in this village, called Tambunum, where about 1000 Iatmul people live along the banks of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.
That is, what do people seek to create when they are not engaged in the practical activities of everyday life—what we call ‘work—such as carving a canoe?
Or going fishing?
Or cleaning the fish?
Or going to the market (in this case, a market that came to the village by canoe)?
Or dancing at a ceremony?
Or hanging out with the anthropologist?
People in traditional societies do all these things: build houses and canoes, grow food, hunt, fish, engage in rituals, visit kin, hang out, have fun, argue, more or less what we do—only they do these things somewhat differently. But people in traditional societies also do something else—something that is vital to their view of a proper, moral person. Before I tell you what that is, let me illustrate this activity—an activity central to the drama of human life in these societies—with some additional images.
These women are arranging betel nuts, chewed as a stimulant throughout the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. Iatmul generally carry a bunch of betel-nuts in their bags and baskets. People constantly give and take them as part of everyday conversation, visiting, meetings, social events, rituals, and more or less any form of activity.
Men from two feuding villages enact a ritual of conflict resolution through a mutual exchange. The man in the center, representing one village (he is a member of Parliament), walks to men from the other village to present them with a gift of betel nuts. The other village will then immediately reciprocate. There is also a ceremonial invocation of the spirits to sanctify the cessation of hostilities.
Preparations for a village-wide ceremony. The man on the right believed himself insulted—for some reason I no longer recall. In order to get him to re-join the community, and thus to help participate in the ceremony, men from the other clans of the village walked to his house and handed him a cluster of betel-nuts. A ritual specialist also made a brief chant to invoke the spirits (which you see here)—in a sense, to apologize for the insult, and to sanctify or express the fact that the village was now united. Major ceremonies that involve the entire village may not proceed unless all significant disputes are resolved. Any arguments, feuds, and disruptions during a major ceremony insult the spirits, resulting in sickness and perhaps death. The resolution of a dispute always involves an exchange or gift.
A senior woman bringing a plate of coconut as a gift of food to the spirits—a necessary gesture of nurture before the opening of a major ceremony. Humans feed the spirits and, in turn, the spirits will ‘appear’ during the ceremony and sustain village.
A father introduces his son to the spirits. Before doing so, the father gives a gift of food to the spirits (really, to elder men who oversee the spirit masks). In exchange, the elder men smear black paint onto the child’s face. For Iatmul, black is the color of ritual potency. This gesture thus transmits mystical, magical, or spiritual power to the child. You feed the spirits—and they, in a sense, feed you.
Even the anthropologist gets his face smeared—he needed all the magical assistance he could get!
In Iatmul marriage, to generalize, a woman moves from the clan of her birth to the clan of her husband. She remains a member of her original clan—but her labor and children are henceforth incorporated into her husband’s clan. Her group thus loses a woman and everything she will do and make for the rest of her life. By way of a symbolic compensation, the husband’s clan gives gifts of food and wealth to the wife’s clan (for example, a pig with a carton of beer and some money). This gift, too, is akin to a legal document stating that the women’s children all belong to the husband’s clan. The husband, too, will work for his wife’s parents: tend to their food gardens, carve them a canoe, and so forth.
Marriage among the Iatmul is rather complex. Traditionally, young men and women did not marry on the basis of romance and love--that is, self-interest. Rather, the kinship group (a lineage; each clan has many lineages) arranged marriages in the best interest of the group. Iatmul marry outside their lineage or clan (but still within the village). The group tries to spread out marriages to as many lineages and clans as possible—to create and renew, through marriage, relationships to those other groups. Iatmul also strive to avoid any marriage imbalances—say, when women from your group marry into another lineage, but that lineage fails to send its own women back to you as wives. Iatmul thus see marriage as a type of exchange between groups—an exchange that, in the long run, should achieve a sense of balance.
Iatmul clans never perform their own rituals. Such an insult to the spirits would surely result in illnesses and deaths. Instead, your clan feeds other groups, and they perform the ceremony on your group’s behalf. In this sense, ritual requires good social relations between groups—and ritual ensures good social relationships. You feed others, and they reciprocate by performing your ceremonies. In this photo, a group of men from one clan clean, repair, and primp spirit masks from another clan in preparation for an upcoming ceremony. The sponsors of the ritual gave them food, and now they assume the role of ritual performers.
Ritual sponsors (one clan) parading with plates of food, tobacco, and newspaper (for rolling cigarettes) to give to ritual performers from other clans.
The woman in the white shirt, after a few years of marriage, did not become pregnant. Her brothers reasoned that the spirits were angry—that one of the brothers inadvertently transgressed some taboo or rule. Only the brothers didn’t know which one violated what rule. Regardless, the brothers red their sister a small meal—a gift of nurture that redressed the wrongdoing and appeased the spirits so the sister would conceive a child.
Among Iatmul, a key social relationship is between the mother’s brother (maternal uncle) and his sister’s children (nieces, nephews). (To answer one question often asked: Iatmul and most traditional societies determine relatives in such a way that everybody has lots of mothers’ brothers and sisters’ children.) The uncle often feeds his sister’s children, and they reciprocate with valuables. Since the uncle and his sister’s children belong to different lineages or clans, these exchanges renew and express the relationship between two groups that might otherwise quarrel. These exchanges create, and express, a moral relationship between the two groups. Moreover, this relationship allows men (the uncles) to act tenderly, almost motherly, towards some relatives—a tenderness no man would ever display to his own children!
Here, mothers’ brothers have given a small meal to their sister’s children (and the children’s parents). They also tied magical charms to them (bracelets, necklaces, and ankle-bracelets). The food and charms magically promote the health of the sister’s children.
In this photo, my sister (named Tupwa) holds a woven basket with some money tied to the handle. She is giving me this gift on behalf of her children (one of whom is standing behind her). I am their mother’s brother. A few days earlier, I gave them a chicken. Now they are reciprocating with this present. I give them food or nurture, and they give me valuables. We renew and symbolize our relationship through exchange.
Male ritual specialists chant in honor of the spirit of the ancestral netbag (hanging on the pole at the center). Someone took ill in this house because a person in the lineage accidentally insulted the spirit of the netbag. To make amends to the spirit and heal the person, the owner of the house gave food to these men so they would perform this small ritual. The men eat the meal on behalf of the spirit: you give food, and the spirit reciprocates.
To ensure that this new canoe will glide swiftly, like an eagle, the owner’s sister’s children placed a gift in the prow to please the canoe spirit: a bunch of betel nuts, some money, and magically-bespelled leaves.
Not all exchanges or gifts of food are polite or kind. Here, a clan piles food (coconuts, bananas, a dog, sacks of rice) they will later give to the other clans of the village. They do likewise. The clan that gives away the most food wins—that is, demonstrates a greater ability to feed others than their rival clans. In short, a Iatmul person or group gains prestige through competitive generosity. You shame your rivals not by possessing more things and wealth (as in our country), but by giving them more than they can give you.
On one memorable occasion in the village, I mentioned in passing that I had no sweet potatoes. Little did I realize that one of my relatives (a type of cousin) overheard my comment—a relative who is supposed to look out for my well-being. From his perspective, I insulted his generosity, his abilities to nurture others, and his morality. As a result, he presented me the next day with a massive sack of sweet potatoes—in effect, showing that, contrary to what I said, he could nurture others with gifts of food. And he could do so massively! This gift of food, intended to insure my well-being, also served as a public way of humiliating me—by defeating me through generosity.
In some traditional societies in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, people compete for political prestige through competitive feasting. Your group invites your rivals to dinner; they are obligated to attend. Your goal is to feed them more food than they could possibly eat! This way, you win. You defeat or humiliate them through your generosity. Of course, your guests have a different strategy: they want to eat everything you have to offer, and then ask for more. This way, they express the sentiment “Is that all? Is that the best you can do?” In other words, they strive to humiliate you by implying that you are not generous, or that your ability to nurture others is simply insufficient.
Okay, what can we conclude. First, it appears that some sort of exchange occurs in almost all activities. Second, social interaction rests on continuous exchanges. Third, exchange or reciprocity creates and expresses the ideal of good, moral relationships. Fourth, Iatmul value balanced reciprocity. Fifth, reciprocity concerns sharing, and gestures of consideration. But reciprocity can also be aggressive and competitive. Last, people in traditional societies think of the person not a a bounded individual (egocentric) but as essentially connected to others (sociocentric). You do not create groups; rather, groups create you.
The be a person in traditional societies such as Iatmul is to give—to engage in continuous reciprocity or gift-exchange. It is the essence of social life. Reciprocity is the medium of relationships, ritual, politics, conflict resolution, anger, and aggression. In societies constituted by reciprocity, every person has three obligations: to give, to receive, and to give back. It is what you do. A moral person is a person who engages in reciprocity.
However, you will notice that, in the long run, people tend to give and receive more or less the same things. Often, you don’t get anything you didn’t already have. Indeed, many traditional societies have rules along the lines of “your own pigs you do not eat.” You raise pigs not so you can eat them, but so you can give them away. You never eat your own pigs; you only eat the pigs given to you by others. Why not just eat your own pigs?
The answer to this question is simple, yet profound: Because the goal of exchange is social, not material. You engage in exchange or reciprocity not to get things, but to create, manipulate, and maintain social relationships. The goal is social, not material.
None of this is to say that people in traditional societies are better, or kinder, or more caring, or nicer than we are in America or elsewhere. We are also generous. They can also be mean, petty, nasty, self-interested, stubborn, violent, careless, and aggressive. And so can we. Rather, I am saying the people in traditional societies such as Iatmul think about the essence of life and what it means to be a person in a fundamentally different way than we do: we privilege the individual and the ownership of material things. They privilege the group and reciprocity. And in this regard, I think it true that we have much to learn from them.
What do people do in traditional societies? They create society itself—the grand plot of life is not to maximize things, but to maximize relationships. People derive significance and meaning from exchange and manipulating relationships. The drama of life is played out in the realm of the social. In traditional societies, you engage in ongoing, continuous reciprocity because that is what it means to be human.