Saturday, April 26, 2014

Names Are Thicker Than Blood


It is a pleasure to review a book, written by one of Papua New Guinea’s finest intellectual, that will, no doubt, influence the way we think about names, kinships, ownership of land, and the social cultural productions of various relationships in our Melanesian communities.

Names Are Thicker Than Blood (2013) is Dr. Andrew Moutu’s major book. It is a revised version of his PhD research work (2003). The subtitle is Kinship Ownership amongst the Iatmul of the Sepik River. Dr. Moutu completed the book as a postdoctoral fellow under the British Academy fellowship.

The book is a testament to Dr. Moutu’s fine intellectual ability to capture the complex philosophical and cultural knowledge systems of Papua New Guinea.

Dr. Moutu is the Director of the National Museum and Arts Gallery of Papua New Guinea.

Few Papua New Guineans publish their MA degree or PhD researches as books.  Papua New Guinean scholars must publish books based on their researches in PNG societies.

For example the Iatmul of the Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea has been the subject of foreign anthropological researches for many years. Many foreign anthropologists have written and published essays and books on the Sepik river people. No one from the Iatmul of the Sepik has published any books about the area until, Dr. Moutu’s book on Kinship Ownership Amongst the Iatmul.

 The book is an ethnographic study of kinship and the nature and behavior of ownership amongst the much-studied Sepik River Iatmul people. Until very recently, anthropology has remained a Western analytical project for Western Societies, and was often geared towards the pragmatics of colonial and postcolonial interest. In the spirit of social science, anthropology has formulated a rigorous method of research and a specialized language of description and analysis. However, embedded within this approach are metaphysical assumptions about the nature of human society, culture, history, and so forth.

This book provides a vantage point from which to rethink anthropology’s central assumptions about social relations by focusing on the way in which social relations are assumed and prefigured in the methodological approach in data gathering and in subsequent theorization. It presents personhood, name and marriage systems, gender, understandings of kinship and concomitment issues of ownership amongst the Sepik River Iatmul people, a people well-known and of enduring importance to anthropology on either side of the Atlantic and Australasia.

For anyone with no background in anthropology the publication of a book that a Papua New Guinean anthropologist has written might come as a surprise. Dr. Moutu is from the Wewak coast village of Wautogik, but chose to do his research in the middle Sepik River village of Kanganamun.

Dr. Moutu says: “No anthropologist could easily state the influence their ethnographic subjects have upon their thinking, and this is undoubtedly my experience with the people of Kanganamun village who inhabit the middle Sepik area of Papua New Guinea. The nature of kinship and the behavior concerning ownership among this Iatmul people provide an ethnographic basis to embed the analytical posture articulated here.”

Various chapters highlights a sense of place and people, both told and described through cultural metaphors and inter-relationships of close kinships among the Iatmul villages. Dr. Moutu begins the book in the words of Makamoi, an elderly woman in Kanganamun village: “Canoes are our feet. We move around by and with the canoe to find food. Now that my canoe is gone, I am handicapped.”

In making sense of this cultural metaphor Dr. Moutu links canoes with the riverine economy: “These two vignettes provide some leads for the reader to develop a sense of the geography, economic livelihood as well as an example of the sorts of (clan) relationships that prevail in Iatmul villages. Because the area is a riverine environment with seasonal inundation, canoes are the major means of transportation within and between Iatmul villages” (p.13).  Canoes are close to many people living along the Sepik River.

In other chapters Dr. Moutu discusses distinct architectural forms: ngeko—the ceremonial men’s house—and ngeio—the dwelling or residential house.  In his own words, Dr. Moutu writes: “By providing a description of the kinds of relationships and activities that revolve around these two types of houses,” he presents “a picture of social life but also makes visible different spheres of ownership which are concomitantly associated with each of these types of houses” (p.28). More focused discussions various aspects on this dominate this chapter.

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