Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Cassowary Woman



A folklore narrative that has intriqued me and other scholars is the cassowary women narrative. It is a folktale with lessons for the tellers, listeners, and researchers.
The forest is home to cassowaries. On a sunny day the cassowaries took off their cassowary skin to bathe in a river. They become human women after they took off their cassowary skins. They swam in the river the whole day.
A male hunter stumbled on to the site. He hid nearby and watched in amazement. He decided to steal the smallest of the cassowary skin. He hid the cassowary skin and himself.

When it was time to go, the women put their cassowary skin back on and became cassowaries again. They all left except for the youngest cassowary; she did not find her cassowary skin.

She began to cry until the man came out of hiding. He asked the young woman, naked and alone in the forest, how she got there, and why she was naked. The woman told him in her grief that she was looking for her skin and whether he had seen it.

He said he had not seen whatever she meant by her skin. He felt sorry for her. He made a grass skirt with cordyline leaves for her to wear. He said, since she was lost she could go with him to his village and live with him as his wife. He promised to look after her. She resisted the proposal by arguing that she was a cassowary woman and would not marry a human. The man convinced her that even if it was true he didn’t care, as she was the most beautiful woman he ever saw.

The woman and the man went home as husband and wife. In that union they had a son. The human husband was always out hunting. He never brings any of his game home. He lied to his wife and son. One day the child stumbled on to the mother’s cassowary skin hidden in a secret corner of the house. He showed his mother the curious thing. The mother on seeing it cried all day. She did not tell her son what it was.When her son rested she wore the cassowary skin and became a cassowary again. She left the human society to her world again. Her human son stayed in his father’s village.

The cassowary woman story is not entirely unique in Papua New Guinea, as it occurs elsewhere in the world. Donald Tuzin’s study of the cassowary woman Nambweapa’w’s story in Ilahita village of the East Sepik Province makes interesting connections of this story to a universal folklore motif of the “swan maiden”, which is said to be the oldest and earliest known love story on earth. Tuzin writes that the earliest version is known as “Urvasi and Pururavas, in the Rig-Veda (ca. 3000 B.C.), the “swan maiden” appears to have spread to numerous European folk traditions. The motif is prominent in northern Europe and the British Isles, appearing in Celtic texts from ancient Ireland, in the Icelandic and other Norse sagas, and in various old Germanic and Slavic versions”.

The motif has been the structure in which Tchaikovsky based his ballet Swan Lake and this also appears in “the courtly love imagery of medieval France, Les belles dames sans merci and the fairy mistresses sung in the lays of Lanval and Graelent, all of which “are transplant adaptations of old Celtic swan maiden tales” (Tuzin 1997: 72; Cross 1915).

This motif appears also in the “Lady of the Lake” from Arthurian legend, “Orpheus and Eurydice of Greek and the saucy mermaid from “The Eddystone Light”—they too, draw their magic from the same ancient well of imagination” (Tuzin 1997: 72). The idea appears in “La Llorana, the tormented, ghostly mother figure who haunts the pools and fountains of Mexico, maybe a darker adaptation of the same tradition. And in recent study of the swan maidens, demon lovers, and related motifs, Barbara Fass Leavy (1994) identifies Nora, the main character in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, as yet another avatar of this age-old idea” 

This motif also appears in Asia Pacific folklore: The swan maiden tales are extremely common in the island societies of present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. Scholars  such as Dixon (1916) Lessa (1961) identified India as the source of this tradition, as well as that of Europe. Thematic similarities and known historical contacts suggest that from the Malay Archipelago the motif fanned out in a broad easterly direction. Swan maidens are found in cultures of Philippines and Micronesia; along the north coast of New Guinea; in Vanuatu, New Caledonia, southern and Eastern Australia; and in New Zealand, Samoa, and elsewhere in central Polynesia (Tuzin 1997: 73).

The swan maiden served also as a measure of diffusion of cultures and peoples.  It is found in many parts of the world, where it has been long established. We know it to be present in Europe, Iceland, Turkey, Arabia, Iran, India, Ceylon, Assam, Burma, Siam, Annam, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan, Siberia, native North America, Greenland, Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, Zanzibar, and West Africa. There are written evidence of the motif in Indian literature dating back to a time before the settlement of much of Oceania.

This theory, of course, is questionable, as the swan maiden theme could have been indigenous to Oceania.  According to Tuzin, “the known antiquity of the Indian version has nothing to do with the possibility that swan maiden stories arose independently in the Pacific and elsewhere. And yet, spontaneous generation on such a vast scale seems highly improbable. At least as far as the southwest Pacific is concerned, the pattern of geographical distribution and thematic fidelity across diverse societies strongly favors a history of diffusion, and with local modification, from immediate Malay sources,” (1997: 73).

There are valuable lessons in our traditional folklore we must preserve for future generations. I have used the cassowary women story as a structure of reading the indigenous writings of Oceania.

Biolinguistic Diversity


Trobriand Islanders are known for mouthing away in their language with ease as with their knowledge and skills of yam planting. There is an intricate connection between their language and the knowledge of yam planting and harvesting. Anyone outside of this Milne Bay society would never understand the deep attachment to land and culture their language plays in their lives.

The languages of the indigenous communities have a direct link to the cultural explanations and understanding of the natural and social world. In the Waria River area of Morobe Province in Papua New Guinea the older generation of villagers complained that the younger generation was unwilling to learn the names and knowledge of medicinal plants used in the area. The younger generation complained that fewer older generations were left, but were unwilling to teach the younger generation of the knowledge of medicinal plants.

This dilemma emerged as a result of voluntary shift of younger generation to urban centres or away from home as students in educational institutions or as employed workers in urban centres. The older generation left in the village pass away without imparting their knowledge to the younger generation.

The link between language and culture is an intricate network of knowledge woven together. It is hardly surprising to learn that the world of the traditional healers and medicine men and women is linked neatly to their languages. The naming of plants has an important part in the delivery of the powers of plants used in traditional medicine.

Ethnobotanist Wade Davies (1992) describes language as the “filter through which the soul of a people reaches into the material world”, especially in his consideration of the Penan of Sarawak rainforest: “In Penan there are forty words for sago, and no words for goodbye or thank you… For the Penan, land is a living entity, imbued with spiritual meaning and power, and the notion of ownership of land, of fragile documents granting a human the right to violate the earth, is an impossible idea.”

Biolinguistic diversity is linked to the biodiversity and the indigenous knowledge systems of Papua New Guinea. The link between indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge systems is so important. Development discourses and planning must consider the dynamic biolinguistic diversity in Papua New Guinea.

The old people in the villages are unable to carry out their responsibilities to educate the younger members of their communities about their cultural knowledge systems. Linguists Daniel Nettle and Suzane Romain (2000) make the point that “development practices have tended to suppress indigenous ways of life and the languages that they sustained, by displacing people, liquidating their resources, and changing their patterns of production and exchange, rather than sustainably improving their standard of living.”

Traditional knowledge is sacrificed for the sake of modern change. Traditional medicinal plants and cultures are inseparable from each other in many cultures. This inseparable relationship is a dynamic part of the economic, political and cultural way of life.

In 1982 J. M. Powell writing on traditional management and conservation in Papua New Guinea observed that conservation and management practices include tending and maintenance of plant populations, growing of plants, and fallowing in garden areas.

Researchers have long warned that we need to understand how we use and manage our biological resources. Access to land is limited to certain individuals and small groups of people: “Only they are permitted to harvest particular plants or products—for example, those needed for ritual or magical purposes, medicinal plants, tree old for trading, building materials for religious structures etc” (Powell 1982).
Medicinal Plant on Budibudi Is, Woodlark.

In traditional societies harvesting of plants is restricted in some areas: “Although some species may flower and fruit over a relatively long period of time, harvesting is carried out at a certain time only…In some areas certain plants may only be used at a particular stage of their life-cycles. Villagers’ knowledge of plant life-cycles is important here. For example, only sago plants about to flower are cut for food; the starch is at its greatest concentration at this stage and hence more economic to extract. Selection of trees for canoe-building is based on size, girth, length and straightness of bole, and only mature trees will be cut. Sometimes only plants growing in particular habitats can be used. With some fibre plants (Debregeasia), only those growing in most shady conditions are suitable for fibre extraction, and only mature plants will be used” (Powell 1982).

Ethnobotanist Randolph Thaman, of the University of the South Pacific, observes that “the use of plants, particularly wild plants, is so clouded in antiquity and so intimately associated with cultural origins, ethnobotanical research can shed considerable light on the origin and virtue of pre-European contact among Pacific Island societies and their scientific heritages.”

Extensive research on the use of, impact on, and plants that sophisticated horticultural and maritime societies must have brought with them or used upon their arrival in the islands, is required. The need to investigate traditional medicine for its economic potential, medicinal value, and functional relationship to human society and the natural world is called for: “Because of the ecological and cultural importance of coastal plants their impoverishment and the loss of ethnobotanical knowledge constitute an ecological, economical, and cultural disaster,” says Thaman (1994).  

Thaman suggested that practical immediate activities such as coastal reforestation and protection of coastal vegetation, coupled with rejuvenation of traditional ethnobotanical knowledge, could be among the most direct, cost effective, self-help orientated, and culturally sensitive strategies for addressing both the short and long term obstacles to sustainable development.

The tragedy in Papua New Guinea is that many communities want developmental projects such a rubber plantations, logging operations, mining, oil, and gass extraction, but have not sat down and considered the harm to their cultures and biolinguistic diversity these developmental activities will bring about. Even the government and international companies ignore the unreversable damages these projects will bring about in future.

Current developmental perspectives in PNG need to take into account the effect various kinds of development have on our people and communities.

Lessons from Kalam



Interests in traditional pharmacopoeia and medicinal practices of peoples in Latin America, Asia, Indian communities in North Americas and the Pacific were generated, largely due to the interests by pharmaceutical companies in discovering new drugs, spread of life threatening diseases, and the environmental concerns over large scale forest exploitation. Another approach is taken by linguists, anthropologists, and ethnobotanists in their research on biolinguistic diversity and cultural knowledge systems.

One of the most interesting research work carried out to transfer cultural knowledge from a Papua New Guinea language to a permanent form was the work done by late Ian Dr. Saem Majnep with the linguists Andrew Pawley. Their work was carried out among the Kalam people of Papua New Guinea. Dr. Majnep, from the Kalam society, had earlier worked with the anthropologist and ethnobiologist Ralph Bulmer. After Bulmer’s death Majnep collaborated later with others to document the cultural knowledge of the Kalam language group in Papua New Guinea.

Saem Majnep was fully aware of the changes around him. He realized the increasing pressure on the land, the conflicts that arise out of the social change in his society, and was quick to point out the difficult times the Kalam are going through in their history. The Kalam developed a deep knowledge of the forest and creatures that live there.

Majnep grew up on the edge of the forest, learning hunting and food gathering skills at an early age. This knowledge remained the basis of survival for the Kalam in the forest of Schrader Range since time memorial: “Much of their expertise was accumulated by the ancestors and handed on, but of course much of it was also gained by personal experience” (Majnep and Pawley 2001).

The case of Kalam is similar to many small Papua New Guinea language groups. Most of these communities are so isolated. They still live in their traditional lands where they cultivate their crops. They live off the land as their ancestors have done in the past. Many of these small communities are faced with the challenge to go with the younger generation who are attracted more to the modern ways than retaining the traditional knowledge and practices of the people.

The younger population move more freely in and out of their communities and the modern urban centres. Population increase, urban development, and increased social mobility are affecting the way of life for many people in our rural areas. Many of the older generations are finding it difficult to maintain their language and cultural knowledge.

With increased external influence and introduced developmental activities such as cattle ranging and modern road systems, the land is wasted and people are in constant conflict with each other. This according to Majnep is wrong. It has the potential of completely disabling the society. In his own words Majnep talked about ecological zones in Kalam:

“Now I would like to say something about how people in my area regard the landscape and wildlife of the Schrader Range. Our language has various terms of particular parts of the land and the forest, in which you will find certain kinds of plants but not others, and certain kinds of animals but not others. I suppose some of these terms refer to what ecologist would call “vegetation communities,” “ecological zones,” and “microenvironments.” I don’t fully understand some of these technical terms of English, but I want to stress that in thinking about the natural world Kalam pay close attention to all sorts of details about relationships between particular plants and animals and particular conditions of climate and soil and topography.”

Ian Saem Majnep
 “The reason we are interested in such details is because the gardens we plant, the wild plants we collect and the animals we hunt provide the essentials for our existence. It is vital for us to know where our crops will thrive, where wild plants that are important to us grow, which plants are found together, which plants are the food or sleeping places of which animals, how certain birds and other animals spread seeds, and so on,” Majnep said.

The knowledge of plants, animals, and land held by the Kalam is gradually disappearing as more and more of them move out from the villages to participate in the modern political, social, and economic activities in Papua New Guinea.

There is no guarantee that the Kalam will return to their old ways or to a past that is isolated from the rest of Papua New Guinea. At this present time more and more young people are flooding into towns and cities seeking education, employment and opportunities to improve their lives. It is difficult to persuade the younger generation to return to their villages and the traditional ways of life.

Many things have changed over the years, but many of the “traditional knowledge of the natural environment is still intact in my community because there are many people around who grew up in the old days and who continue to follow most of the old customs.” The pull factor of the modern world and life in Papua New Guinea has dramatically changed Seam Majnep’s people.

Most people no longer hunt or collect wood in the forest. People have moved closer to the modern road linking their village to the urban world. Schools and employment in the cash economy has forced their people out of the village society.

 “In order to pay for school fees for their children and high bride-prices for wives men must work hard at their gardens and also plant coffee and sell some of their livestock and quite a lot of young men go to work in the towns and on the coast. Some people buy radios and play cards instead of going hunting. This story is being repeated all over Papua New Guinea” (Majnep and Pawley 2001).

Majnep is right in saying that the same is happening all over Papua New Guinea. Dramatic change in many Papua New Guinean societies has displaced many people in various places outside of their traditional communities.

More Than Folktales


Samoan Turtles
Our folktales are important cultural features of our societies. Folktales explain so much about ourselves and who we are. This week I share a portion of my research on the importance of folktales in Oceania.

In Folk Tales and Fables of the Americas and the Pacific, Robert Ingpen and Barbra Hayes retell the Fijian story of the Giant Turtle. The story is told by Fijians to explain how people from Tonga came to live among them. A fisherman from Samoa named Lekabai saved from drowning in the rough sea had managed to climb a rock into the realm of the Sky King. The Sky King helped Lekabai return to earth on a turtle.

Lekabai left with the mighty turtle back to Samoa with the instruction that he is not to open his eyes at anytime. Through the journey to Samoa Lekabai was teased by dolphins and sea birds for being foolish in closing his eyes. This was the instruction from the Sky King. A feast was staged to celebrate Lekabai’s return from the dead. Hungry fishermen speared the turtle when it returned to the reef to feed after it got tired of waiting for Lekabai. On learning this Lekabai told the villagers that they would be punished. The villagers got scared and buried the turtle in a deep hole with a coconut and a mat of woven coconut leaves. In the process the Sky King sent a bird to find out what was happening. The bird touched a young boy called Lavai-pani, who would live in perpetual youth for generations to tell the story to a group of young men from Tonga sent by their king to find the shell of the turtle.  The Samoans laughed at the Tongan men and said, ‘We all know that old legend,’ smiled the Samoans, ‘but it is only a legend. No one knows where the turtle was buried, or if there was a turtle at all!’

The Tongan men returned home, only to be sent back by the King.  It was Lavai-pani who helped them dig up the turtle shell.  They found thirteen turtle shells, but gave only twelve turtle shells to the King. The King sent them back to Samoa to get the thirteenth shell. The young men set sail again, but decided against returning to Samoa, so they set sail until they arrived in Kadavu, one of the Fiji Islands, which was then ruled by King Rewa. He was kind to the weary young men and gave them land on which to live. They built houses and took wives and were happy. These were the first people from Tonga to settle in Fiji.

This folktale reflects the relationships between Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians, as well as those between humans and their supernatural worlds. The volatile relations, the differences between various groups, and their historical indifference or friendship to one another are highlighted. Inter-island travels and cultural items of value like coconut and mats woven with coconut leaves are items featured in this folktale. This is a remarkable folktale that resembles those told from elsewhere in Polynesia, but features turtles, coconuts, coconut strewn mats, whales, dolphins, and sea birds.  In documented evidence, the oral literature of western Polynesia supports the Fiji-Tonga-Samoa-Futuna-Uvea interconnection: “Interaction continued even when people had acquired a sense of Island-centred identity, as oral literature shows occurred” (Scarr 1990, 66).

In the Melanesian region Imanuel Nigira writes a folktale about a turtle and eagle in the Zia language group of Waria River in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. The story involves a young girl tricked and abandoned to die out in the sea. She swam to an island. To survive she ate fruits and nuts on the island. One day she hit her hand with a stone when attempting to crack beach almonds. Blood came out from her. She collected the blood in a shell and covered it with another shell. From the blood two eggs were formed until they hatched, giving birth to an eagle and a turtle. She looked after the eagle and the turtle until they matured. The turtle and the eagle helped her catch fish, bring fire, clay pot, and a house to the island. The eagle brought the first and second items. The third item was carried on the turtle’s back to the island where the woman lived. The shared relationship between the first man or woman and animals in the folktales are the bond that ties them together in a symbiotic relationship. Usually in this type of relationship the animals serve as the link between the human world and the spirit world.

Blood from a cut from the woman in the Waria story gives birth to the eagle and the turtle, legitimating her as the original birthing human spirit. Sakarepe Kamene writes that to the Zia of Waria River “living means being aware of, and having knowledge of, and the ability to manipulate the relationship between other living persons, the dead (the spirit world) and the eco-and aqua-systems of the surroundings thus reassuring the renewal or continuation of life. The significance of the interdependence of part and whole of the cosmos is clearly manifested in the social structure of the Zia community”.

Kamane explains the four totem names used in Zia: “The bego is associated with the hornbill, the yewa the bird of paradise, the sakia with the white cockatoo, the wapo with the eagle. These clans form the recognizable social badges that cement the extended kin affiliations of each village, which in turn gives its distinct communal sense. This thus gives rise to mutual and reciprocal respect between villages and within individual members which enhance and furthermore, maintain internal social cohesion and harmony in the Zia community” (1996, 88). The Zia are also centered on the community (dubu) and work at strengthening the interdependent relationship through various social activities such as fishing, gardening, feasting, dancing, and storytelling.

We must do more to document and capture our folktales in writing and film.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Visual Memory


About this time last year I returned from teaching and research assignments at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA. In the course I taught over there I included a component on native features films. The first film I showed was Tukana: Husait I Asua?

Soon after my return I took a trip to Bougainville to run a workshop for teachers of Buin Secondary, Bana Secondary, and Tonu Secondary. It was also an opportunity for me to travel through the no-go zone area right into the Panguna mine site. What remains now is only a memory like a bad scar, yet the film has kept alive much of the glory days of Bougainville in my visual memory.

The film was produced in early 1980s and released in 1983. Tukana’s release came seven years after Papua New Guinea gained its Independence in 1975. Three years before the 10th Anniversary celebration, the timely production of the film helped asked deep questions about the direction to which the country was heading to. The film also helped in reawakening national consciousness by asking the important question of who is to be blamed?

 In Tukana, Albert Toro wants Papua New Guineans to view themselves in order to understand themselves and others in their societies. Using film, Toro encapsulates the many issues and challenges in addressing the issue of imagining a community made up of cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. Papua New Guinea is reimagined through the eyes of the filmmaker. Tukana is a mirror of Papua New Guineans about themselves. At the time of filming Tukana, Bougainville was also basking in the limelight of major mineral boom, quality lifestyle, and the fast pace in which changes were occurring in the rural villages of Bougainvilleans. Bougainville like other Papua New Guinean societies had to deal with its share of social and cultural conflicts. Young people alienated from their village communities and people moved further and further away from their people, turning to modern lifestyles, western culture, and corrupted by the allure of modernity.

In 1984 Toro observed: “With the absence of Papua New Guinea films, a reliance on imported movies has been a great influence on the socio-cultural structure of the new generation. The cowboy heroes, kung-fu heroes, violence and detectives are all imported and in that Papua New Guineans, especially the new generation are identifying with the models and characters; celluloid heroes, that hail from different cultural backgrounds; thus, the population through this false imitation derived from these films. Nothing has been done to remedy this, except to increase the number of police and cry out about the increasing lawlessness. In fact, as many of the audience may be aware, teenage violence, rape, stealing and robbery, and other types of urban behaviour stem directly from the undermining of the old ways, where justice was swift and clean and a real deterrent for the sake of village cohesiveness.”


 “Tukana is based on a story by Papua New Guinean Albert Toro and on a screenplay co-written by Albert Toro with producer and director Chris Owen. Owen is well known for his many documentaries about Papua New Guinea, including Man Without Pigs (1990), Bridewealth for a Goddess (2000), and Betelnut Bisnis (2004). Entirely in Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea pidgin) with English subtitles, Tukana explores challenges faced by villagers on Bougainville and Buka islands in the early 1980s, as western-style schools and a growing economy increasingly interfered with long-established customs. “Traditionally education was the responsibility of our ancestors,” a voice-over explains early in the film. “Today western influences have changed all that. After years away at school, students become strangers.” Tukana traces how one group of school-made strangers, Tukana (played by Toro) and his friends adapt—and fail to adapt—to the many changes,” according to Houston Wood in his book on Native Features: Indigenous Films from Around the World (2008)

One of the dominating issues that run through Tukana is about the land, development of land, and the land tenure in Bougainville societies, even in the greater Papua New Guinea, for that matter Melanesia. In all of Bougainville, except for Buin, women own land, following the matrilineal customs. This is not specifically alluded to in the film. The very issue of land escalated into a major political and social crisis in the 1990s, which affected the Bougainvilleans.

 “In May 1989, six years after Tukana was released, Bougainville Island was rolled with a civil war that lasted over a decade and caused as many as 20,000 deaths. Tukana provided a prescient examination of the conditions that lead to this conflict. Current agreements to create an autonomous Bougainville region headquartered in Buka have ended most of the chaos but not the continuing tensions between generations in these and other Pacific Islands. This topic is likely to appear in the Indigenous films of Oceania for many years to come” (Wood 2008:156).

If indeed the issue of land has a central role in the civil war conflict in Bougainville, the various efforts of the women of Bougainville to restore peace and normalcy on the Island meant the traditional values attached to land remain stronger than the introduced laws of land development and promises to uplift the lives of people in their participation of modern development initiatives. Land holds the strength of a people. So too are the connections Bougainvilleans have to one another in their various relationships as they move around, cultivate, and expand in their land. People are rooted to their land. With peace restored on the Island people returned to their land for support and sustenance, for rebuilding and relocation. Bougainvilleans reclaimed their rights to the land out of which most of the land now remains with the people.

Albert Toro is mindful of his role as the first Indigenous filmmaker in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s. Tukana’s insertion into the national psychology of Papua New Guinea meant Papua New Guineans have to pause for a moment to reflect on the path that they have taken since Independence.