Living With the Natives of Melanesia

How Ethnological Work Is Carried on by Representatives of the American Museum among Primitive People of the South Seas

strangle hold

A Strangle Hold: Native children are trained to ride in this fashion on their parents’ backs and taught that no matter what happens they must never slacken their hold. This small girl who is riding on Doctor Mead’s back is anticipating a grave emergency.

The fleet which Gizikuk had declared necessary arrived, and a box or so was allotted to each craft, slender dugouts built up with wide side-strakes, the whole topped by a wide platform, upon which small dome-shaped houses are constructed. As it was impossible to foresee what the attitude of the natives would be concerning questions of food, whether they would expect us to share their meal, resent our eating in their presence, or tabu eating in mixed company altogether, we took no provisions, but prepared to tighten our belts for the day. And so it proved, for with characteristic Melanesian manners, our boat’s crew cooked messes of sago and cocoanut oil on the small fireplaces on the edge of the platform, and feasted happily, completely ignoring our famished presence. Entrance into native life is always accompanied by just such delicate situations, into which the average white trader or government official can step without trepidation, making the native custom bend to his whim but toward which the ethnologist has to act with the greatest circumspection. A misstep at the start may result in weeks or even months of delay. So on a Polynesian island, to take one’s own food instead of relying upon the hospitality of the natives which is always tendered with the grand manner, would be to insult one’s hosts irrevocably.

After traveling all day along the edges of the mangrove swamps, sometimes crossing the reef, more often poling our way through the shallow reef-bound lagoons, we arrived at about eight in the evening at Bunei, the village of Gizikuk. Here another situation arose. Gizikuk wished us to stay in his village; but Bunei was smaller than Pere—this had been ascertained from the census—and as I wanted particularly to study children, it was necessary for the village to be large. Furthermore, we had two boys from Pere who might be miserable in Bunei. But if Gizikuk were really a chief, as he claimed to be, to offend him by refusing to make his capital our headquarters would have been fatal. However, we bet on his authority being a mere matter of personality and government backing (a guess which subsequent experience proved to be correct), and we insisted, to his great disgruntlement, upon pushing ahead to Pere. At midnight the fleet of canoes, under full sail, swept into the moonlit lagoon village, between the rows of pile-built houses, up to the doors of the “House Kiap,” the government barracks, where we took up our temporary abode.

group of Melanesian girls

They Roll Their Own: A group of small girls under the supervision of a young male of eight are rolling for themselves cigarettes from a stick of Louisiana twist and squares of newspaper.

The “House Kiap” is in the village, built by government order to accommodate traveling officials and other white men, but it is distinctly not of it. From its narrow walls, 14 x 12, we again temporized, learned more of the language, tried to get an accurate enough picture of the social scene, so as to know whom to trust, and whom it was dangerous to displease. Meanwhile, through our two boys, and another and then another who were speedily added to our menage, we let it be known that we wished to learn the language and witness all the important events in the lives of the people. For one to understand the onslaught to which we were subjected by such an invitation it is necessary to remember that these people have had only one kind of contact with white people, as inferiors, either as work boys or merely as native British subjects dealing with occasional government officials very much on their dignity. The house of a white man, any house in which a white man took up temporary quarters, was forbidden to the native, except in his servant capacity as cook or house boy. Missionaries, who must use softer methods to entice the heathen into the fold, had never been among the Manus. Into this setting stepped ethnologists who could not work unless all these carefully constructed barriers for the peace of the white invader were summarily shattered. To the native it was as if we had hung up a shingle saying “We want to be bothered. We aren’t like other white people,” and they responded to this chance of a lifetime with great vigor. All day the house was crowded and not until midnight was there any peace.

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