Trobriand Islanders: Matrilineal Culture, Big Men, Sex and Yams

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The Trobriand Islanders are the residents of the Trobriand Islands, a small group of coral islands about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the eastern tip of New Guinea. These islanders were the subjects of Bronislaw Malinowski’s "The Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia", a famous anthropological work published in 1927. Old-timers that remembered Malinowski in the 1990s called him the “man who asked questions”. In his studies Malinowski reported that the Trobriand Islanders were "keen on fighting" and they often fought "systematic and relentless wars" as well as engaging in unusual sexual practices.

Trobriand Islander society is divided into a hierarchy of matrilineal clans and subclans that have different privileges. Garden plots have traditionally been inherited along matrilineal lines. During harvests matrilineal lines are acknowledged by the presentation of yams from brothers to sisters. The status of various clans and subclans can often be traced to wars that took place a long time ago.

Trobriand Islanders speak Kilivila, a language that belongs to the Milne Bay Family of Austronesian languages. Although Kilivila is spoken on some other Massim islands, the main speakers are Trobrianders. Mutually intelligible local dialects are used, in which different phonological rules are applied without affecting the syntax. Since the time of first contact, many English words have been added to the Kilivila lexicon. Tok Pisin is rarely heard, although, along with Motu, it is often learned by Trobrianders who have lived elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. English is taught in the local high schools and the Kiriwina High School, but less than half of the young people attend school.[Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

The Trobriand Islander traversed large expanse of open ocean in canoes to trade and fight. They often traveled great distances over open ocean to trade shells in something called the kula game. The shells which look worthless to westerners are given from one group of islanders to another, who in turn pass them on to other islanders. The islanders in this region have been doing this for hundreds of years and the their shells are as valuable to them as four foot yam, which are greatly treasured. Author Paul Theroux asked one islander how he navigated the open ocean,"We can smell the islands," he replied.

Many sea creatures which frighten most people are mere nuisances to the Trobrianders. Huge salt water crocodiles don't worry them, "Now and then they eat our dogs," Theroux quotes the islands as saying. Sea snakes, he reports, are played with by bored fisherman who like to tweak their tails. And if a shark heads in their direction they go "hoop, hoop, hoop!" to frighten it away.

Trobriand Islands

The Trobriand Islands are situated about 384 kilometers by sea from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, in the northern tip of the Massim. Their coordinates are approximately 8°30 S, 151° E. Kiriwina is the largest and most heavily populated island. It is 40 kilometers long but only 3.2 to 12.8 kilometers wide. The other islands are much smaller. Except for Kitava, where cliffs rise sheer for 90 meters, the islands are relatively flat, crosscut by swampy areas, tidal creeks, and rich garden lands that abut rough coral outcroppings. Reefs may extend up to 10 kilometers offshore; anchorage is often dependent upon high tides and careful navigation. Temperatures and humidity are uniformly high. Rain showers, heavy but usually of short duration, average from 25 to 38 centimeters each month. Yet unexpected droughts can occur, causing severe food shortages. [Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

The Trobriand Islands were named after Denis de Trobriand, the first lieutenant in one of D'Entrecasteaux's frigates when this group of populated atolls and hundreds of islets was sighted in 1793. Traditionally, Kiriwina and three other neighboring islands — Kaileuna, Kitava, and Vakuta — were each divided into discrete, named political Districts. Although these divisions still exist, the islands now form a more unified political unit as parts of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. |~|

At the beginning of the 20th century, the population in the Trobriands was about 8,000, but by 1990 it had increased to approximately 20,000. Although many young people leave the islands to find wage labor or to attend technical schools or the University of Papua New Guinea, a large percentage of them eventually return to resume village life.

History of the Trobriand Islands

The origin stories for each matrilineage describe how different groups arrived in the Trobriands from under the ground or by canoe and claimed garden and hamlet lands as their own. These claims were often contested by others who arrived later, so that subdivisions of matrilineages occurred. [Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

American whalers arrived in the northern Massim in the 1840s. In the 1860s, blackbirders from Queensland made frequent kidnapping excursions to other nearby islands. In the 1890s, Germans regularly sailed from New Britain to buy tons of Trobriand yams, while wood carvings, decorated shells, and canoe prows were already part of museum collections.

In the early 20 century, the Methodist Overseas Mission (now the United Church Mission) established itself on Kiriwina, followed in 1905 by the arrival of Dr. Rayner Bellamy, the first Australian resident government officer. Bellamy spent ten years in charge of the government station on Kiriwina and assisted C. G. Seligman with ethnographic information during Seligman's Massim research. Following his mentor, Bronislaw Malinowski stopped on Kiriwina and then stayed for two years between 1915 and 1918. The Sacred Heart Catholic Mission arrived in the 1930s

During World War II all Europeans living in the Trobriand Islands were evacuated. Australian and U.S. troops set up a hospital and two airstrips on Kiriwina. Although no battles were fought the area served as a staging ground for planes en route to Rabaul and the Coral Sea. In 1950, when Harry Powell arrived to conduct ethnographic research, surprisingly few cultural changes had occurred. Even in 1990, the kula interisland exchange of arm shells and necklaces, yam harvests and women's mortuary distributions were all very much alive.

Trobriand Islander Religion

Annette B. Weiner wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Trobrianders believe in spirits who reside in the bush who cause illness and death, but their greatest fear is sorcery. Only some people are believed to have the knowledge of spells that will "poison" a person and such experts can be petitioned to exercise their power for others. Counterspells are also known; chemical poisons obtained from elsewhere are thought to be prevalent. In addition, magic spells are chanted for many other desires, such as control over the weather, love, beauty, carving expertise, yam gardening, and sailing. Mission teachers have not disrupted the strong beliefs in and practice of magic. Recently, villagers from two hamlets have introduced a new fundamentalist religion whose tenets negate the practice of magic. [Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Most villagers own some magic spells, but only certain women and men are known to have the most sought after and powerful spells for gardening, weather, and sorcery. The most powerful spells are owned by the Omarakana chief. Some villages have resident mission catechists who conduct Sunday church services.|~|

Christians that live on the Trobriand Islands follow a few rituals that aren't exactly spelled out in the Bible. To make sure a boy grows straight and tall, for example, the small boy is revolved around burning grasshopper's eggs placed in a coconut shell.

Trobriand Islander Ceremonies, Funerals and Rituals

Trobriand Islanders perform a series of rituals for a pregnant woman. For several months after birth the mother and infant are secluded. Their emergence is celebrated with a feast. The biggest celebrations take place during the annual harvest season, after the yams are brought in from the garden and loaded into the yam houses. Under the leadership of a chief or hamlet leader, a village may also hold cricket matches, dances, or competitive yam exchanges, all of which culminate in a large feast for the participants. Kula activities are surrounded by many rituals and celebrations. |[Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996]

Trobriand Islanders believe that when a person dies, the spirit goes to live on the distant island of Tuma where the ancestors continue their existence. At the end of the harvest period, the ancestors of a matrilineage return to the Trobriands to examine the well-being of their kin. The mourning and exchanges following a death are the most lengthy and costly of all ritual events. When a person dies, an all-night vigil takes place in which men sing traditional songs and the spouse and children of the deceased cry over the body. After the burial, there is a series of distributions of food and women's wealth, and then the close relatives of the spouse and father of the dead person shave their hair and/or blacken their bodies, while the spouse remains in seclusion.

On Kiriwina, about six months later, the women of the deceased's matrilineal line hold a huge distribution of skirts and bundles of banana leaves to repay the hundreds of people who have mourned. (On Vakuta Island, only skirts are exchanged.) The woman who distributes more wealth than anyone else is a great woman. Today, trade cloth is sometimes used instead of bundles, and such cloth is central when a women's distribution is held in the capital by Trobrianders living there. Annual distributions of yams, pork, taro pudding, sugar cane, or betel nuts take place each year after the death of an important person. If a harvest is particularly large, a village-wide distribution is held to honor all the recently deceased from a clan. |~|

Trobriand Islander Marriage and Family

On the Trobriand Islands, nuclear families generally live together in one household. Older people usually take one of their grandchildren to live with them. A villager's personal possessions, including magic spells, are given to those who have helped him or her by planting yam gardens and helping with other food. This is how sons inherit from their fathers. Matrilineal (descent through the female line) property, such as land and ornaments, is given to the son of a man's sister, while a woman may inherit banana trees, coconut or areca palms, spells, and banana leaf wealth from her mother. Among Kula men, shells and mates are inherited by either a son or a sister's son. When a man dies, his house and yam house are destroyed, and his wife usually returns to the hamlet where she was born. [Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Most marriages occur between young people living in different hamlets within the same or neighboring villages. By marrying his father's sister's daughter — usually three generations removed — a man marries someone from a different matrilineal line within his father's clan. Endogamous marriages (within a village or clan) sometimes occur, but they are considered incestuous and are not openly discussed. Only when a young man is eligible to inherit the matrilineal leadership does he live in the hamlet of his mother's brother. Other couples usually live in the hamlet of the young man's father. The major obligation that follows each marriage is the annual yam harvest, which is produced by the woman's father and eventually by her brother in the woman's name. These yams obligate the husband to procure many bundles of banana leaves for her when she participates in a mortuary distribution. There are few obstacles to divorce, and although the couple's relatives may try to prevent the dissolution of the marriage, there is little they can do if one of the spouses is adamant about their separation. If a divorced man wants one of his children to remain with him, he must give his wife's relatives valuables. Remarriage is common for both spouses. There are a few permanent bachelors, but women do not go through life unmarried. |~|

Young children are cared for by both parents. Because marriages often take place among people living in the same village, grandparents also provide child care. A man's sister performs beauty magic for his children and acts as a confidant when they reach puberty and seek out sexual liaisons. Children who attend the Kiriwina high school board during the week, while others who go to high schools on the mainland only return for holidays.

Trobriand Island Society and Kin Relations

As we said before Trobriand Islander society is divided into a hierarchy of matrilineal clans and subclans that have different privileges. Matrilineal refers to descent through the female line. Garden plots have traditionally been inherited along matrilineal lines. Adolescent boys live in bachelor huts until they get married and then they move into their mother's brother's household and share responsibility over the garden. During harvests matrilineal lines are acknowledged by the presentation of yams from brothers to sisters. The status of various clans and subclans can often be traced to wars that took place a long time ago.

The strength of matrilineal identity is embodied in the belief that conception occurs when an ancestral spirit child enters a woman's body. All members of the matrilineal lineage are believed to have "the same blood" and rights to "the same land. Land, ancestral names, body and home decorations, spells, dances, and taboos are all owned by members of individual matrilines. Although men may lend the use of land and names to their children, they must later be reclaimed by the men's sisters. From birth, Trobrianders belong to one of four exogamous matriclans, which are not corporate groups. Clan membership determines marriage categories, bringing together in alternating generations members of different matrilines within the same clan, who consider themselves close relatives. These are the people who support each other in important exchange events.[Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Kin terms are a modified Crow type with a number of atypical features. For example, the same term is used for ego's mother and mother's brother's wife and the terms for parallel siblings-in-law are merged with parallel siblings. Crow kinship system is somewhat similar to the Iroquois system, which distinguishes 'same-sex' and 'cross-sex' parental siblings in addition to gender and generation, but further distinguishes between the mother's side and the father's side. In the crow kinship system relatives on the mother's side of the family have more descriptive terms, and relatives on the father's side have more classificatory terms. The Crow system is distinctive because unlike most other kinship systems, it chooses not to distinguish between certain generations.[Source: Wikipedia]

Trobriand Islander Villages, Arts and Medicine

Trobrianders live in named hamlets associated with specific garden, bush and beach areas. Typically, four to six hamlets are grouped together to form an independent village with a population of 200 to 500. If a chief is polygynous, each wife has her own separate house. In all other cases, husbands and wives live together with their young children, while adolescent boys, and sometimes girls, have their own small dormitories near their parents' living quarters. These are the houses to which widows and widowers retire when they are too old to remarry. [Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

The hamlets look much as they did in Bronislaw Malinowski's photographs. The roofs are still thatched (although some metal roofs are visible), and the walls are made of woven coconut palm fronds. The interior of the house is private, with a fireplace and sleeping areas, while most of the social life takes place on the verandas. The burial grounds are located at the edge of the hamlet. From there, footpaths provide quick communication between villages. On Kiriwina, only one road (with several side roads) bisects the island.

Dances said to have been first brought by the original ancestors are still held by members of individual matrilines. Drums are the only traditional musical instruments used in these dances. Jew's harps or flutes made of bush materials are played for personal enjoyment. String bands are now common. Traditional songs are still sung when someone dies. Traditionally, only certain special people had the magical knowledge necessary to become expert carvers of canoe prows, war shields, dance paddles, large bowls, and betel-chewing utensils. Today, many other villagers carve tourist items. |~|

Some women and men are renowned healers, relying on plants and herbs from the bush that they use in magic spells. A small hospital is located near the government station on Kiriwina, and medical posts (usually poorly equipped) are within walking distance of most villages. Adequate medical care is still a serious problem. |~|

Trobriand Islanders and Yams

Much of life on the Trobriand islands revolves around yams. The Yam house sits in the center of the village and it is where most big social gatherings take place. Prize yams, some of them measuring 1.2 meters (four feet) long, hang inside these houses.

The Trobrianders are generally very good natured but arguments break out who has the longest yam or the most beautiful yam house. The most dangerous conflict is the traditional yam competition where the members of one matrilineage line up their largest and longest yams to be measured against the yams brought together by the members of a rival matrilineage. In one incident a man was killed in an argument over yam quality. These days fights sometimes erupt over yams, but the presence of government officials usually keeps these incidents from getting out of hand.

Yams are exchanged among men during every important ceremonial occasions. They are then stored until they rot. Yams rot after three or four months which means they value doesn’t last very long. According to Sawa Kurotani at Redlands University: “A storehouse full of rotted yams is “the public display of a Trobriander man’s ability to develop an extensive social network and harness ever large amounts of critical resources (yams). Gift exchange is not so much about the objects that changes hands, but more about the person who participates in the ongoing exchange , sometimes as a giver and other times as a receiver...The gift is not a mere object; it takes on the ‘spirit’ of the giver, who is communicated to the receiver and the community who witness the gift exchange. In other words the gift is an embodiment of self in a social relationship.

Yam Customs in the Trobriand Islands

Trobrianders are superb yam farmers. Using slash-and-burn methods, the produce large yam harvests once a year. Women and men work together to clear land. Men tend to plant the yams, stake up the vines, build garden fences and do the harvesting. Women produce other garden foods, although occasionally they make their own yam gardens.

During harvest matrilineal lines were acknowledged by the representation of yams from brothers to sisters. The major commitment that follows each marriage is the annual yam harvest produced by the woman's father and eventually by her brother in the woman's name. These yams obligate her husband to obtain many bundles of banana leaves for her when she participates in a mortuary distribution. In regard to inheritance, a villager's personal property, including magic spells, are given to those who have helped him or her by making yam gardens and assisting with other food.

Yam houses stand prominently around a central clearing, dwarfing the individual dwellings built behind this plaza. Chiefs may decorate their houses and their yam houses with ancestral designs and hang cowrie shells indicating differences in ranking. It is bad news if a man accidently happens upon a group of women harvesting yams. Usually outnumbered, he is chased, and caught by the women who slap him around and ridicule his masculinity. His clothes are then forced off him and his sent back to the village naked and thoroughly humiliated.

Sex Among Young Trobriand Islanders

For the Trobrianders teenage sex is encouraged. 14 year old boys have their own huts where they can entertain their girlfriends. During their annual Yam festival marriage is suspended for many. Paul Theroux reports. During this festival teens run around with coconut oil and bee pollen smeared on their bodies When does a boy know when is time to become a man and get an apartment? Theroux asked 18-year-old Madulo Monubweri, who replied s, "When you go to the garden by yourself, when you can do all the gardening work, then it is time."

Malinowski provides a detailed account of premarital sexual behavior among the Trobriand Islanders. There are no initiations. Infants could be betrothed. On Trobriand copulatory “playing houses”, Malinowski writes: “At an early age children are initiated by each other, or sometimes by a slightly older companion, into the practices of sex. Naturally at this stage they are unable to carry out the act properly, but they content themselves with all sorts of games in which they are left quite at liberty by their elders, and thus they can satisfy their curiosity and their sensuality directly and without disguise. There can be no doubt that the dominating interest of such games is what Freud would call “genital”, that they are largely determined by the desire to imitate the acts and interests of elder children and elders, and that this period is one which is almost completely absent from the life of better-class children in Europe and which exists only to a small degree among peasants and proletarians. [Source: Archive of Sexuality, ]

When speaking of these amusements of the children, the natives will frequently allude to them as “copulation amusement” (mwaygini kwayta). Or else it is said that they are playing at marriage. It must not be imagined that all games are sexual. Many do not lend themselves at all to it. But there are some particular pastimes of small children in which sex plays the predominant part. Melanesian children are fond of “playing husband and wife”. A boy and girl build a little shelter and call it their home; there they pretend to assume the functions of husband and wife, and amongst those of course the most important one of sexual intercourse. At other times, a group of children will go for a picnic where the entertainment consists of eating, fighting, and making love. Or they will carry out a mimic ceremonial trade exchange, ending up with sexual activities. Crude sensual pleasure alone does not seem to satisfy them; in such more elaborate games it must be blended with some imaginative and romantic interest”.

Thus,“we cannot consider puberty as a condition of sexual interest or even of sexual activities, since non-nubile girls can copulate and immature boys are known to have erections and put their penises in vaginas. “The little ones sometimes play […] at house-building, and at family life. A small hut of sticks and boughs is constructed in a secluded part of the jungle, and a couple or more repair thither and play at husband and wife, prepare food and carry out or imitate as best they can the act of sex. Or else a band of them, in imitation of the amorous expeditions of their elders, carry food to some favourite spot on the sea-shore or in the coral ridge, cook and eat vegetables there, and “when they are full of food, the boys sometimes fight with each other, or sometimes kayta (copulate) with the girls”. When the fruit ripens on certain wild trees in the jungle they go in parties to pick it, to exchange presents, make kula (ceremonial exchange) of the fruit, and engage in erotic pastimes”.

The attitude of the grown-ups and even of the parents towards such infantile indulgence is “either that of complete indifference or that of complacency--they find it natural, and do not see why they should scold or interfere. Usually they show a kind of tolerant and amused interest, and discuss the love affairs of their children with easy jocularity. I often heard some such benevolent gossip as this: “So-and-so (a little girl) has already had intercourse with So-and-so (a little boy)”. And if such were the case, it would be added that it was her first experience. An exchange of lovers, or some small love drama in the little world would be half-seriously, halfjokingly discussed. The infantile sexual act, or its substitute, is regarded as an innocent amusement. “It is their play to kayta (to have intercourse). They give each other a coconut, a small piece of betel-nut, a few beads or some fruits from the bush, and then they go and hide, and kayta”. But it is not considered proper for the children to carry on their affairs in the house. It has always to be done in the bush”.

“As the boy or girl enters upon adolescence the nature of his or her sexual activity becomes more serious. It ceases to be mere child's play and assumes a prominent place among life's interests. What was before an unstable relation culminating in an exchange of erotic manipulation or an immature sexual act becomes now an absorbing passion, and a matter for serious endeavour”.

Trobriand Island Big Men, Politics and Social Organizations

Trobriand Island big men traditionally inherited their positions and could be deposed only through war. There was a "paramount chief" with power over dozens of villages and several thousands people. Big men and chiefs wore different kinds of shell ornaments that defined their rank. The paramount chief was like a super big man whose power rested in his ability as "great provider" rather his control of weapons and territory. He also firmed up his position by marrying the sisters of leaders of important clans and subclans. Some chiefs had a dozen wives and wealth was accumulated through gifts of yams from his brothers-in-laws to his wives. These yams were in turn were used in great feasts (conferring the super big man’s position as a “great provider") and pay the salaries of canoe builders, artisans, magicians and servants It was forbidden for common people to sit or stand at position higher than the chief. Malinowski described one group of people dropping down "as if mowed down by a hurricane" when the arrival of an important chiefs was announced.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Trobrianders are divided between those born into chiefly and commoner matrilineages. Chiefly matrilineages, ranked among themselves, own rights to special prerogatives surrounding food prohibitions and taboos that mark spatial and physical separation as well as rights to wear particular feather and shell decorations and to decorate houses with ancestral designs and cowrie shells. For all villagers including chiefs, the locus of social organization is the hamlet with networks of social relations through affinal and patrilateral (on the father’s side) ties to those living in other hamlets within the same village. Women and men also consider themselves kin to those whose ancestors came from the same place of origin. Traditionally, only members of chiefly lineages and their sons participated in kula, but now many more villagers (although by no means all) engage in kula. Chiefs remain the most important kula players. [Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Each ranking matrilineage is controlled by a chief but the highest-ranking chief is a member of the tabalu matrilineage and resides in Omarakana village. The most important chiefly prerogative is the entitlement to many wives. At least four of each wife's relatives make huge yam gardens for her and this is the way a chief achieves great power. But if a chief is weak, he will have difficulty finding women to marry. The villagers of all the islands elect councillors who are members of the Kiriwina Local Government Council. Chiefs sit at the Council of Chiefs, and the Omarakana chief presides over both councils. Chiefs' kula partners are the most important players in other kula communities, and chiefs have the potential to gain the highestranking shells. |~|

Disputes most often arise over land tenure, usually before the time of planting new yam gardens. Other causes of conflict concern cases of adultery, thefts, physical violence and, more rarely, sorcery accusations. The Council of Chiefs arbitrates most problems but some cases are referred to formal courts. |~|

Because of the many intermarriages that occur within a village, conflicts are quickly resolved by public debate. Warfare between village districts was a common occurrence prior to colonization. Such fighting, undertaken by chiefs, most often took place during the harvest season when political power or its absence was exposed. Today, fights sometimes erupt for the same reasons, but the presence of government officials usually holds these incidents in check. The most dangerous conflict is the traditional yam competition where the members of one matrilineage line up their largest and longest yams to be measured against the yams brought together by the members of a rival matrilineage. Lengthy speeches made by intervening kin or affines will Usually stop the competition from proceeding. Once a winner is declared, the losers become the most dangerous enemies of the winning matrilineage for generations.

Agriculture and Economic Activity Among Trobriand Islanders

Slash-and-burn agriculture produces large annual harvests of yams. Taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, sugar cane, leafy greens, beans, tapioca, pumpkins, coconuts, and areca palms are also grown. The pig population is small; pork is usually eaten only on special occasions. Few chickens are raised, and fish is the main source of protein. There is almost no game, except for birds, which are sometimes hunted; children catch and eat frogs, grubs, insect eggs, and mollusks collected from the reefs. Since colonization, government attempts to develop cash crops have failed (except for a period of copra production), and only in recent years has a local market been established on Kiriwina, run by women. Fishing provides a cash income for many coastal men, and a fishing cooperative has been successful on Vakuta Island. In the 1970s, weekend tourist charters resulted in increased carving sales, but over the past decade tourism has declined dramatically. Ebony wood, once prized for fine carvings, is depleted and must be imported from other islands. A few Kiriwinans own successful craft shops; a guest lodge and two other craft shops are owned and operated by expatriates. Today, remittances from children working elsewhere in the country are the villagers' main source of income. Women's bundles of dried banana leaves serve as a limited form of currency when villagers buy food, tobacco, kerosene, or cloth from the trading store and sell these items to other villagers for payment in bundles. This allows those without cash to purchase Western goods. [Source: Annette B. Weiner, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996 |~|]

Most garden and other tools are made of metal. Canoes are still built in the traditional way, with elaborately carved prows. Pandanus sleeping and floor mats, baskets, and armbands are woven, as are traditional women's skirts, which, although worn only on special occasions, are considered wealth and are essential for mortuary exchange. Bundles of dried banana leaves are also made by women and are considered wealth for mortuary exchanges. A few men still make arm shells for kula exchange, as well as jewelry such as spondylus earrings and necklaces. |~|

Stone axe blades are the wealth of the men; in the last century the stones were traded from Muyua Island and polished in the Trobriand Islands. Large cooking pots, also used in local exchange, come from the Amphlett Islands. Canoes from Normanby and Goodenough Islands regularly arrive with sacks of betel nuts for sale at the Kiriwina wharf. Kula voyages also allow partners to bring back exotic goods from other islands. |~|

Women and men work together to clear new garden plots. The men are responsible for planting the yams, staking the vines, building the garden fences, and harvesting. Women produce other garden foods, although occasionally a woman decides to start her own yam garden. Men fish and butcher pigs. Women do the daily cooking, while men prepare pork and cook taro pudding for feasts. Both men and women weave mats, but only women make skirts and the banana leaf bundles that are the women's wealth. |~|

Hamlet, garden, bush, and beach lands are generally owned by a founding matrilineage and are under the control of the lineage chief or hamlet leader. These men grant rights of residence and land use to others, such as their sons, who are not members of the matrilineage. Land disputes are common, and because court proceedings are public, they are fraught with tensions that sometimes lead to fighting. Knowledge of the history of the land from the time of the first ancestors legitimizes a person's claim, but competing histories make it difficult for the arbitrating chiefs to make decisions.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2023

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