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Ethnography About Culture of The Trobriand Islands

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There are many cultures in the world, and many aspects that make up a culture like norms, symbols, and languages. Cultures may be as broad as the American culture or East Asian culture, and as specific as while other cultures are less heard of, like The Trobriand Islands are a group of islands in Papua New Guinea, near the eastern coast of New Guinea. They are Vakuta, Kitava, Kaileuna, and Kiriwana, with Kiriwana being the most inhabited (Map of Trobriand Islands).

There are four matrilineages: the Lukulabuta, Lukuba, Lukwasisiga, and Malasi. These matrilineal clans are referred to as the kumila. A lineage society has a way to prove ancestry, like birth certificates or other form of documentation. A clan society cannot prove descent, and instead may use totem poles or other symbols to tell of their ancestry. The Trobriand Islanders are a clan; they believe that their palm lines tell which of the four clans, or kumila, they belong to. This is important since only members of the same clan can ask for provisions of food. The Trobriand Islanders also have a more specific category within the kumila that they belong to, referred to as the dala. The dala is a mother’s matrilineage. According to Holly Peters-Golden in Culture Sketches: Case studies in Anthropology, when someone dies, his/her spirit goes to the Tuma island to rest and rejuvenate. A new spirit child is then re-created and returns back to the island of Kiriwana searching for a woman in the same dala that the spirit belonged to when it died (253). Hence, everyone in the same kumila are seen as related, and referred to as “brother” or “sister”.

Furthermore, these matrilineal societies are separated into villages that are governed by chiefs. Being a chief is seen as a person’s birthright through their matrilineal inheritance. In a chiefdom, everyone is related in some way, as described before. Chiefdoms are also stratified, but not polarized–they are based on kinship. The villagers give all of their resources to the chief, and the chief gives back to the villagers based on kin. Those closest related to the chief will receive more than the distant relatives of the chief, but everyone will receive resources nonetheless. Since the kumila and dala play such an important role in the social structure, Weiner, in her ethnography The Trobrianders of Papua New Giunea, stated that the women of the Trobriand Islanders “control immortality” (233). An illness is seen as someone intending to do harm, while a death is seen as the killing of a kin. People don’t just die, they are killed (Weiner1987 34).

The Trobriand Islanders have a very extensive mortuary ritual. Those in close contact to the deceased are separated into two categories: owners and workers. The owners are members of the same dala and are not allowed to touch the deceased nor participate in public grieving (shaving their heads and wearing clothes of the deceased). The owners are in charge of organizing the burial and exchange rituals. In the exchange rituals, the owners give skirts and bundles made from banana leaves to the workers, as well as yams. They do this to show that they do not suspect them of doing witch craft on the deceased and to thank them for mourning their loved one. The workers are not members of the same dala. They are in charge of bathing and decorating the near-deceased (while crying). Once the person dies, crying becomes a formality. They cry four times a day. The death of an important man, like a chief, brings lots of mourners. Weiner observed that when a chief died, hundreds of people gathered together to mourn his death (37).

The mourning ritual is not finished once the owners have paid the workers. After the burial, the the widow/widower is not allowed to speak to anyone, touch food, or leave their house. It is also taboo to call the deceased matriline by their names. Instead, they are referred to as “the son of the dead man” or other terms defining their relationship with the deceased. As time passes, members of the same dala bring valuables to the widow/widower and the bans are lifted. The workers shave their heads and depending on how closely related they were to the deceased, wear black. This is only done after the workers have received payment from the owners. Having enough resources for payment is crucial during the mortuary rituals.

The Trobriand Islanders fish, and thus practice hunting in their society. They are also a horticulturalist society, meaning they grow food. The Trobriand Islanders use a slash and burn technique to clear land. They garden many foods such as sweet potato, taro, squash, bananas, tapioca, beans, and yams (Malinowski ##). In fact, their economy and life are mainly centered around yams. Yams are used both cooked and raw. Yams used for food and yams used for wealth/exchange are gardened separately. Yams used for food are grown as needed by each home. Yams used for exchange have economical value only if they are raw. The yams grown from the exchange gardens are displayed in yam houses for as long as possible before they rot.

Yams are mainly grown and used by men.

Yams used for Annette Weiner stated that, “If a man has yams, he can find anything else he needs” .

Yams are central to the Trobriand Islanders’ lifestyle and economy, however, are not the only product to have economic value. Grass skirts, banana leaf bundles, and shells are also part of the Trobriand Islanders’ economy. Grass skirts and banana leaf bundles are considered to be women’s wealth.

Bronislaw Malinowski and Annette Weiner took different approaches to studying the Trobriand Islanders. Annette Weiner even claimed that “Malinowski never gave equal time to the women’s side of things”. Malinowski’s ethnography does not mention the hours-long exchange that Annette Weiner observed on her first day with the Trobriand Islanders. This could be due to Malinowski having a male-gender bias. Also, this exchange ceremony was for women, by women, and lasted up to five hours. Most males left the area that the ceremony would take place, even the elders. It was one of the ten ceremonies that Weiner witnessed throughout her research (“History of Anthropology Newsletter”). In fact, Malinowski completely disregarded women’s wealth and only focused on women’s reproductive role in the society, which, given that the Trobriand Islanders are a matrilineal society, he had to recognize.

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