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

verandaHE VERANDA AT HIGH TIDE: The houses are built upon high piles, and at low tide stand some ten to twelve feet above water level. But at high tide, the lagoon deepens and the veranda becomes a convenient land platform for the canoes which are the only means of transportation in this water Venice.

The Veranda at High Tide: The houses are built upon high piles, and at low tide stand some ten to twelve feet above water level. But at high tide, the lagoon deepens and the veranda becomes a convenient land platform for the canoes which are the only means of transportation in this water Venice.

In the cases of the South Seas Hall of the American Museum hang many specimens, pieces of costumes, ceremonial staves, ornaments, weapons, canoe models, the outer and visible symbols of the civilizations which have been built up by the patient brown peoples of the Pacific Islands. To the hall in the Museum it is only possible to bring these physical things, the carved float and net, the kava bowl with its opalescent tint testifying to the generations of kava drinkers which it has served, the child’s grass skirt, tightly bound to preserve the carefully crinkled waves against the day when it was to be worn. But if these lifeless specimens are to be placed in their true setting, if we are to understand the uses to which they were put, the difficulties under which they were manufactured, the human needs which they satisfied, it is necessary to go to these island communities and learn meticulously those aspects of their lives which can never be enclosed within a wall case, nor caught more than superficially in a model. It becomes the task of Museum ethnologists to make expeditions into primitive communities just as those who are to prepare the great habitat groups of animals have to follow the elephant and the tiger into their native haunts.

We are accustomed to think of expeditions as large groups of scientists equipped to the teeth with scientific paraphernalia. Such expeditions carry preparators, camera men, guides, shooters, beaters, in addition to the central quota of scientists. They march across deserts or into jungles, carrying their food and their tents with them, setting up a microscopic world of their own wherever they go. Such are the ideal conditions for an expedition in the natural sciences other than ethnology. But the ethnologist cannot march upon a native community like an invading army, for that community is going to be not only a source of labor and food, but also the very stuff of his investigation. He must slip in quietly, lower himself or herself as gently as possible into the placid waters of native life, make the unprecedented arrival of an inquiring white person as inconspicuous as possible. For such an expedition there are no camera men, no preparators, no army of carriers, not even servants, because to take servants from another community causes friction and upsets the nice balance of native life. An ethnological expedition is limited to one, unless it be that a husband and wife or father and daughter can go together and take their place in native society. Two members of the same sex would work against each other, vying for the attention of the same informants, and the natives would not be slow to play them off against each other. Upon our last field trip my husband and I went together, a felicitous scientific arrangement, as there are such strong sex antagonisms in Melanesia that no member of one sex can hope thoroughly to win the confidence or understand the point of view of the other.

As one cannot take an army of helpers neither can one take too bulky an amount of equipment. Tents and pavilions would stand out too sharply on the native scene, tend to distinguish the investigator from the native at the very points at which the investigator wishes to blur the differences. We therefore took with us only a minimum amount of equipment, two stretchers, two tables, two chairs, a typewriter, camera, developing apparatus, and a shotgun. The rest of our luggage was packed with note paper, drawing paper for the children—I took a thousand sheets and the supply ran out in the first month—baubles by the gross, beads, toys, balloons, paper flowers, etc. and large and bulky amounts of rice and tobacco. Everything had to be packed into cedar-wood boxes with double locks, one of which sang when it was turned like a musical clock to warn the owner of the prowling thief, the other put on for safety, as there were many duplicate keys about. The tobacco had to be unpacked from the telltale crates in which it is shipped from Louisiana and repacked in ambiguous cedar boxes.

In Rabaul, the capital of the Mandated Territory, we had acquired a Manus boy from the village of Pere, who spoke excellent pidgin and would serve as an interpreter in his own village. As he was a government servant and therefore allowed by ordinance to wear a shirt, he was of no use whatsoever for any more menial tasks. In Lorengau, the seat of the Manus district government, we acquired a second boy from the village of Pere, and our insidious approach was by now well begun.

The next step was taken by the District Officer, who summoned Gizikuk, so-called headman of the South Coast Manus, because he was the one man who could make the ten independent little democracies coöperate to the extent of providing canoes when these were needed by the government. Gizikuk came, very proud and bedezined with bead work, and was presented with preliminary “grease,” no less than twenty sticks of tobacco. He looked over our luggage and decided that it would take nine canoes to transport it the day’s journey to Pere. This proved to be just four and a half times as many canoes as would really have been needed. We agreed to pay five shillings a canoe, and Gizikuk went away to muster the fleet. Meanwhile with the aid of Banyalo and Manawai, the two Manus boys, and through the medium of pidgin English, a start was made on the Manus language.

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