The patrol that went wrong – Part 2
China, Daru & the fisheries business

The scandal of PNG's massive cultural loss


TUMBY BAY - The republishing of Bomai Witne’s 2014 article on how difficult it is for many Papua New Guineans to distinguish how much their cultural perceptions belong to tradition on the one hand and colonialism on the other prompts my further exploration.

It seems that the link with the past for many people, particularly children, in modern day Papua New Guinea is growing more and more tenuous as the years go by.

If the experience in other cultures is anything to go by, there will come a day when culture and tradition in PNG will have morphed into an entirely artificial creation bearing little resemblance to past realities.

As Bomai notes, children’s knowledge of their ples tok (tribal language) is so bereft they can’t communicate with their grandparents in the village.

At schools during significant occasions and celebrations they are dressed in traditional costumes and bilas (decoration) whose practical function and meaning escapes them.

It seems that the preservation of culture and tradition was not something that significantly exercised the minds of PNG’s founders nor the outgoing Australian administration.

To a certain extent this is understandable because back in the 1970s most traditions, including languages, were largely intact and practised each day.

And, while the Christian missions had made significant inroads, many people were still able to distinguish between their old and new beliefs and accommodate both in their daily lives.

In the same way, modern economic practises were not well-entrenched, and their impact was largely benign and could be accommodated alongside traditional concepts of community and the common good.

Over the ensuing years, however, the pervasive influence of the churches grew and a new form of brutal economics based on greed and individualism came into play.

If it had been possible to predict these future trends, maybe the administrators and leaders of the 1970s could have made plans to counteract the more dire impacts.

But they didn’t do this in any meaningful way.

For instance, they could have properly funded the national museum and art gallery and extended like services to regional areas for instance but they didn’t.

Instead, they extolled modernity and largely neglected traditions. For many politicians, the collections in the national museum were an embarrassment; a painful reminder of a primitive past. Such sentiments continue to this day.

Those administrators and leaders could have supported PNG writers, historians and anthropologists so traditions and heritage could be preserved for posterity. There was action at the time, but it wasn’t designed to be sustainable.

They could have mandated the teaching of culture and tradition in the schools especially attuned to regional customs and practise, but they didn’t do so to any great effect.

They could have set up linguistic programs to encourage the preservation and use of regional languages and, for that matter, the dying lingua franca Hiri Motu, but they didn’t.

That none of this was ever done, or done with little effect, is now, as Bomai Witne laments, to the detriment of modern day Papua New Guineans.

One could now ask whether these unfortunate oversights are redeemable at such a late stage.

It would appear not if recent efforts by Papua New Guinean writers to gain support from the government is any indication.

The government just doesn’t want to know about anything so ‘esoteric’ or ‘irrelevant’ as home-grown literature.

Its mind is firmly fastened on economic matters – material matters - to the exclusion of just about everything else.

If an endeavour cannot demonstrate an economic return, preferably quickly, it fails to attract their support.

They seem unable to connect arts and culture to economics, even though such connections are known to be significant.

When it comes to potential money spinners like tourism, their minds turn to luxury resorts rather than the enmeshing cultural experiences that many overseas visitors seek.

The PNG government is not alone in this of course. In many parts of the world the Disneyland mentality prevails and the arts and culture suffers.

One day in the not too distant future a Papua New Guinean child may ask their parents, “Who am I”.

In a nation that has even lost track of its own history, the answer will be interesting.


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Kurumbi Wone

Information and images about the island of New Guinea and its people are portrayed in the international media as "scary and dangerous" places and people.

Most people who have been fed negative images of New Guinea assume that the island's main problems are in the areas of development, education, health and all other socio-economic issues.

While these are also part of it, they are not the main problems. They are merely symptoms of something that is so broken at the heart of how we (Papuans) see the world.

The main problems are the loss of languages, the displacement of the old cosmologies, the demonisation of Papuan ontology (Papuan essence) and the devaluation of the Papuan value system).

The Europeans came and launched a brutal attack on our being at the level of language and cosmology. We were made to feel guilty for who we are, and this guilt was institutionalised as virtue, but we were reprogrammed to think we had to buy this virtue from the colonisers.

So being virtuous in today's New Guinea means having lots of money, two or three smartphones and Hilux, good English and maybe a carton of beer every week.

We can not keep blaming the colonisers for everything that goes wrong with us, because we also have a big share in our own tragedy and downfall.

Everyone alive today will be dead within the next two hundred years. So what will survive after that? Is it the language, the ancient knowledge of the elders, our land, our tribe, our clan and our family? Or what is it?

Perhaps the Chinese, Indians and Indonesians will occupy the island of New Guinea and we, the Indigenous Papuans, will be recorded and displayed in their museums and library books.

These are serious questions that require our sincere attention to the fate of our ancestral land, our language and our children.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I agree with what you say about indigenous Tasmanian culture Dave - we see the same thing happening over much of Australia too.

What in effect is happening is that Australian Aboriginal culture is being homogenised into something it has never really been.

I was lucky enough to have spent time with tribalised Aboriginal people in the Western Desert in the 1970s and unlucky enough to have seen their culture largely decimated in a couple of short decades. It was unbelievable how quickly it happened. I now know more about those people's sacred places and ceremonies than their grandchildren. Before I retired I was actually showing those grandchildren their myth sites during social mapping jobs because their parents and grandparents hadn't passed anything on to them. It was a saddening process. The same thing appears to be happening in PNG.

Philip Kai Morre

Culture is our identity and a person without a culture can not exist. Culture is a integral part of our existence spiritually, physically and emotionally.

Early anthropologists, ethnographers and linguists, mostly missionaries, recorded some of our customs in form of books and audiotapes but most are lost in antiquity.

I did some work with SIL in translating the bible into Kuman language but most local priests and pastors are not interested in getting them to read the word of God to their congregation. People are also not interested.

I co-authored the Kuman English dictionary with Daryl Puntz of SIL but no one is interested to buy them.

I tend to think that western culture superior to our culture or is our mentality wrong? Our local dialect is dying out and a sort of mix tok ples is taken place.

Dave Ekins

This is the most important issue ever raised on this forum, further reinforced to me last week after looking at some of my scratchy old Super 8 movies shot in the Southern Highlands over 50 years ago.

I wondered if events such as the Wola “Timp” ceremony and other singsings still take place and whether the bilas is still authentic?

Unless there are written, oral and visual records, physical artifacts and communal effort to keep the incredible PNG cultures alive while there are still people about who know or remember the authentic traditional activities, then Phil’s comment about an artificial creation will occur.

This will be a self-inflicted tragedy, a betrayal of all future generations and a blight on those who could have done something about it.

In Tasmania, notwithstanding the fact that the extirpation of the original inhabitants was perpetrated in different times by people with no desire or ability to preserve the culture, most of what is touted as Tasmanian aboriginal culture today is an artificial creation.

The language relies of the limited and poorly interpreted lexicon of a few early settlers and French explorers, the dances and decoration are plagiarised from the Northern territory, the music of clap-sticks and didgeridoos is also adopted from mainland Australia and smoking ceremonies are similarly contrived.

The only authentic artifacts still able to be made are shell necklaces. We in Tasmania, and particularly those who have an aboriginal ancestor, are the poorer for all of this.

The challenge for Papua New Guineans to retain core aspects of their traditional culture is enormous and a start could be made by writing and recording now.

Chris Overland

Phil, I do not think that I am confusing the socio-economic with the cultural.

As an example, a smart phone is not merely an object. It is an expression of western science, technology and culture simultaneously. In fact, it has been a powerful engine of change in our own society, let alone in those that we once called "primitive" and now characterize as "developing".

The same can be said of clothing, media in its various forms and, sadly, weapons of various kinds.

So, yes there is a lot of cultural imperialism in evidence today (especially emanating from the USA) but I would submit that it rarely survives in an unmodified form once it collides with an indigenous culture that differs greatly from that of the source tradition.

You and I were agents of cultural change in PNG, both consciously and unconsciously. The same is true of all kiaps, didimen, tisa, masta maks, doktas, missionaries and so on.

We did this in various ways but, mostly, by simply being there. Our cultural baggage was like a shadow, always with us but rarely noticed.

I cannot see how PNG cultures will all survive the impact of modernity completely unscathed but I also cannot see how they will utterly perish.

Using Australia as an example, it is pretty obvious that we Australians are not Americans or British. So many thing are done or thought about differently in Australia. Visitors soon notice this, especially if they are widely travelled in the so-called "Anglo-sphere".

Similarly, a Papua New Guinean abroad soon realizes that his or her way of looking at the world is different to others because his or her cultural background is, in many respects, profoundly different.

At some level, culture is incredibly resilient and deeply resistant to change. This characteristic ensures that survives exposure to cultural imperialism although perhaps in a modified form.

Whether the human race is on a path to cultural convergence is hard to say. Superficially at least, this seems to be the case but profound underlying differences remain.

I suspect that what I might call "core" cultural characteristics are utterly impervious to this convergence process.

Even very serious attempts to literally exterminate certain cultures have failed. The Chinese are trying to do this with the Uighur people but my expectation is that this too will fail.

The people of PNG have never been placed under such a level of cultural duress, so my expectation is that many of their significant and shared cultural beliefs will not be easily destroyed or modified.

This seems to be the lesson of history: culture dies very hard indeed and only the utter destruction of a culture via the agency of war or conquest or disease or environmental catastrophe seems capable of doing this.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think you might be confusing the socio-economic with the cultural Chris.

To my mind there is nothing wrong with Papua New Guinea becoming a modern and prosperous nation with all the accoutrements that entails.

What bothers me is the potential loss of its sense of cultural identity.

A sense of unique cultural identity is what forms the backbone of any nation.

The cultural imperialism that is seeing many nations becoming mirror images of California is very concerning.

To know who you are you have to know where you came from.

Garrett Roche

With regard to ‘PNG’s massive cultural loss’ I think we cannot overlook the efforts various individuals and organisations have made with regard to support and preserve the many many languages of Papua New Guinea.

We know there are over 800 distinct languages in Papua New Guinea and (according to Wikipedia) it is indeed the most linguistically diverse country in the world.

Anthropologists and the various church organisations, together with the people themselves, have succeeded in recording many of these languages.

The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) continues to do great work in this area. In many areas, SIL has succeeded in getting the various churches to work together under SIL guidance to produce competent translations of scriptures.

While accepting that a fundamental aim of these translations is to make Christian scriptures available to the people, at the same time there is the genuine acknowledgment that this work will be of great assistance in preserving essential elements of the local cultures.

Perhaps the various cultural shows throughout the country also create an opportunity to display and record traditional dances and singing.

Arthur Williams

One example of the churches positive influence on culture must be the London Missionary Society that morphed into the United Church.

I think it helped the Tolai culture by producing a Tolai language hymn book that was not only used in the Gazelle Peninsula but was (and may still be) the main hymn book used in its congregations on Lavongai and all of New Ireland Province.

I was one of the lay preachers asked to take part in the 1974 New Year's Eve service. It began at 6pm and took us through the evening until 1975 arrived.

There were about 12 or more speakers that night interspersed with prayers in the speaker's language of choice but with hymns from the Kuanua hymn book that we always used for church services.

Over the years I had marked my personal hymn book with the English titles under what I called the Tolai version (actually they call it Tinata Tuna) titles. So was happy to sing the strange words while my mind did instant translation. As I now do when part of a congregation in Cardiff when a popular Welsh language hymn is being sung.

It seemed to me that the written Tolai language was thankfully easy to follow and sing with what seemed most consonants were followed by a vowel.

It's my belief that the religious support for their language has contributed to the Tolai's traditional tongue still being very strong in their current homeland of Rabaul.

PS - My daughter laughed at me in 2007 when we attended the United Church at Taskul. There were the usual repetitious choruses prior to the formal service.

I took part with gusto in them but one new one to me was 'All stand up!' repeated far too many times. I hadn't sung that one in my 30 years in PNG so thought it was a new composition.

Only after a few weeks did I find out that my ageing and increasingly hard of hearing had translated 'Hosanna' into 'All stand up'! No wonder the little kids would stare at me and most likely were wondering why this strange whiteman kept singing the wrong words.

Chris Overland

No culture is fixed in time or space. All cultures change over time, mostly because they cease to meet contemporary needs. Aspects of culture are reinterpreted or simply abandoned as no longer fit for purpose.

A culture that is unchanged or unchanging is that of a society that is going to die. Cultural rigidity in its various forms is a death sentence, not evidence of some sort of national or tribal purity of spirit.

This will be the case for PNG. Ideas and traditions that no longer have utility will quietly disappear, perhaps being replaced by other ideas that are quite foreign in their nature.

There is nothing unusual in this process, which has been going since time immemorial. If it hadn't we would all still be living in caves.

So, probably, facsimiles of PNG's ancient cultures will live on, while the people at large simply create a new set of cultural norms that can accommodate their lived reality in a profoundly changed and rapidly changing world.

Thus we can readily see pictures of PNG men dressed in entirely traditional attire whilst making a call of their smart phone or hunting crocodiles with distinctively non-traditional shotguns or rifles.

None of this means or requires a loss of identity which will endure despite the often significant changes that have and will occur over time.

Identity is a function of many factors, not least of them being a deeply held belief about who you are and where you come from.

I would venture to say that very few Papua New Guineans have become so alienated from their origins and traditions that they have completely lost any sense of their place within a broader cultural framework.

So, to my mind at least, nothing is happening in PNG that is unusual in the broader context of human history. Their cultures are not dying, just changing.

Chips Mackellar

Motu gado laloaboio lasi

Michael Dom

Em tasol ia!

Kerukeru lasi.


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