Fieldwork 2010: Into the network
I recently spent some five weeks carrying out new ethnographic fieldwork in the Torres Islands, but have only now finally been able to find the time to sit down quietly and write a brief summary and some reflections thereof.
In simple terms, this was an opportunistic trip. In fact, it was really about reconnecting with my people on the islands. But there was no special research agenda, no particular objectives, other than to continue to chase after materials to do with Torres Islands ontology, especially as it relates to cosmogony, the living and the dead, and especially the kinship system. Ah, the kinship system. That old ethnographic bugbear. Just when I think I have pretty much exhausted every avenue, every productive question, every possible angle, and NOW I finally have grasp of it, something new comes up that turns out to be absolutely crucial, and there we go again. Well, it did it again (as I will explain presently). I also visited libraries, cultural centres, and took a quick trip back to Kanaky.
So, I will summarise the itinerary here and then get down to details in the next post.
I spent two weeks on the Torres Islands, during which I caught up with all sorts of news, beginning with the sad discovery that chief Pita Wotekwo’s wife passed away last year. I was also finally able to ascertain that last year’s triple earthquake (three within the span of a half hour, the strongest of which reached 7.8 mag, on 9 October) DID produce a tsunami. In fact, it seems to have produced up to three tidal waves, or at least one large tidal wave and two subsequent tidal surges. However, despite damage to some villages, the death count was minuscule. At least in absolute terms. In relative terms, these were people whose names I knew and who live in a community of less than 1,000; five families, in all the Torres Group. So not inconsiderable. But still, not catastrophic, as I had at one point feared it might have been.
During my time on Loh something else happened.
I was adopted. That is to say, I went through the formal exchange ceremony by which I was inducted into a family. Chief Peter’s family. Suddenly I had a father, uncles, a mother, sisters, brothers, and, most important of all negemeltok, “taboo family members”, otherwise known as in-laws. My best friend, informant, colleague, ethnographic trainee, in fact, is my brother-in-law, and I soon discovered that they take the taboo on not naming in-laws quite seriously. I can no longer name him (he’s the guy in the canoe in my bio page on this blog) except by the official title of tauien, or taui, i.e., brother-in-law.
Humbling and honorific as this all was (and potentially dangerous, when I had to down three large shells of fresh kava on an empty stomach, one after the other, during the ceremony), it was also intimidating.
The next morning I found I was a bit panicky. Claustrophobic, is the precise term for the feeling I got. All of a sudden I was one of “them” (I know that sounds terrible, but you get my meaning). I was no longer the foreigner, the ignorant white man, the crazy salul who suddenly shows up unannounced and cavorts all over the place to his heart’s content. Now I have a name, and a place, and have to respect those of others. I have close family (some of whom, let’s be honest, are not people I made great friends with in over a decade), and I have to respect certain taboos about entering other areas of the village and speaking to certain people in certain ways.
Even talking to my taui was now slightly awkward. I used to joke with him a lot, calling him Mr William, and basically not having to mind how I addressed him. True, I still have a joking relationship, but it is qualified by all sorts of kin-related conditions.
I think one of my uncles best summarised it when he was quoting a long list of names from people in other islands, many of whom I have never met before, who are now part of my “family”. He said, quite literally translated BTW, “You are now part of the network. You’re connected, wherever you go.”
Talk about coconut wireless-turned-GPS.
So that was really the key event during my time on the Torres.
What came thereafter was a brief and frustrated trip to Luganville (Santo Island) with my tauien in tow, in order to try to reach the end of the Cumberland Peninsula. We had managed to sort out all of the logistics, lining
up trucks, boats and a couple of distant contacts in North Santo, when I came down with a strange and extremely frightening fever that forced me, very reluctantly, to ditch that last week of forest trekking.
So I returned to Vila, the taui returned to Loh Island, and I quickly decided to take advantage of the extra time and money and ended up going to Nouméa and doing some very productive work at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, at the South Pacific Commission, at the IRD library and at the Museum of New Caledonia.
I also carried out work with the Video and Sound Unit at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Jakob, the head of the unit, was fantastic, and we produced several good videos with previously unedited materials from Tanna, Banks Islands and Ambrym.
Finally, while passing through Sydney on my way back to the Mexican plateau, I managed to get in a very pleasant, rewarding and also necessarily eye-opening evening catching up with Kirk Huffman and Yvonne.
I returned with piles of books, photocopies and even two full fieldbooks worth of notes. No ethnographer can wish for a better result, and once again it was worth every cent, every antimalarial pill and every feverish sweat that washed over me during my illness.