Saturday, April 26, 2014

Folktales and Nationalism

During the period leading up to Papua New Guinea’s Independence in 1975 students used folktales to enforce the agenda of nationalism. Institutions such as the University of Papua New Guinean, the Administrative College, the PNG University of Technology, and the Goroka campus of University of Papua New Guinea were hubs of cultural and political consciousness. Students at the University of Technology in Lae contributed their folktales to the student yearbook called Nexus between 1970 and 1971. Seven years later in 1978, Donald Stokes published a representative of these stories as retold by Barbara Ker Wilson in The Turtle and the Island. Oxford University Press published a later edition as Legends from Papua New Guinea: Book Two (1996).

These young writers heard their Indigenous folktales as they grew up in their villages. To negotiate with others they used stories from their own societies to explain their cultural background and explanations of the world. They also learned from each other the importance of cultural diversity, cross-cultural fertilization, and multiple explanations of the world. The students wrote their stories from memory. These stories give explanations, moral lessons, and descriptions of the natural beauty of landscapes, cultural values, explanations of the mysteries of nature of things, and about the intricate relationships humans have with the natural, physical, and spiritual environment.

As role models and future leaders these students realized the importance of cultural maintenance, self-explanations, and collective consciousness made up of different cultural and language backgrounds. If they are to live together as a society they need to teach each other their own cultures. Cultural nationalism begins when those who comprise it consider it important enough to privilege it against the dominant culture. In Papua New Guinea these students recognize the need to provide their own cultural explanations of the world, their social relationships with each other, and to the natural and spiritual environment inherited from their ancestors.

One of the stories in Legends from Papua New Guinea is of interest to this discussion. “The Great Flood” written by Adam Amod, from Ali Island near Aitape, in the Sandaun Province explains how the Ali Islanders settled on the island and their relationships to Tumeleo and the mainlanders of Aitape (1996: 95-99). The flood story had survived the test of time and has spread across the Sepik region, though the flood myth is also a universal one. The Ali Island version begins with the villagers killing a talking eel who had warned the villagers to remove the fish poison (Walamil) used to kill fish for a mortuary feast in the village. The eel was carved up and distributed among the villagers. The head part of the eel was given to a young boy. The head of the eel warned the boy not to eat it and instructed him to tell his parents what to do. The father planted the eel’s head near a tall coconut tree, dug a hole near the tree so that the boy and his mother can take shelter from the flood commanded by the eel. The flood destroyed the entire village, except for a neighboring village tribe known as Yini Parey, on the way to the feast, who were swept away by the flood on a breadfruit tree, ending up on a reef that became known as Ali Island.

The boy’s father had climbed the coconut tree as instructed by the eel. The boy and his mother remained sheltered in the pit near the tall coconut tree. The father, Kairap, ate coconuts to remain alive in the tree. To see if the flood had receded he threw three coconuts down from the tree. The first two coconuts sank into the water. The third coconut touched the hard surface of the earth. The smoke rising from the pit where the boy and his mother took shelter confirmed that the flood has subsided.

The flood myth is about the arrogance and foolishness of villagers in observing the link between humans, the natural world, the animal kingdom, and the spiritual worlds. Knowing and respecting this link is the key to a balance in nature and the world. Human carelessness and lack of respect of nature lead to ecological catastrophy in the world. Another key element in this story is about the genealogies of a people and the migration of people across vast land, sea, and rivers. In the Ali Island version, we come to see how the Ali Islanders had moved from the mainland to settle on the Island. It also tells the story of how the survivors of the flood had come to form the basis on which generations of people from this ancestral place had come about.

The myth is told with the intent to instill in younger generations about cultural taboos, their cultural heritage, and the foundational principles and rules younger generations have to follow. The eel symbolically represents the ancestral wisdom and spiritual forces that guide and direct people’s lives. Finally, the flood myth is the exploration of the metaphor on human’s relationship with nature and through which the complex relationship of man against nature and nature against man occurs. 

Using folktales to define their identities Papua New Guinean students successfully carved out a sense of nationalism. Regis Stella discusses the proliferation of literary productions based on folklore during the early years of Papua New Guinean writing: “The importance of indigenous tradition, culture, and identity for Papua New Guineans, and particularly shared custom (kastom), is highlighted through the incorporation of orature into textual discourse. Oral literature has always been an integral part of traditional Papua New Guinean cultures in rendering myths, chants, poetry, song, and dance, and drama” (Stella 2007, 176)…Cultural narratives and use of indigenous folktales serve as the backbone of national narratives in a postcolonial society.

I have shared a snapshot of the larger research paper given as a paper in a symposium at the University of Hawaii some years ago. Now the full paper entitled “Reconstituting Oceanic Folktales” is published online, and accessed through Google Search engine.

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