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


Playing at Being a White Man: In the native conception a white man is always sitting on a chair writing or reading a book. Ponkob, aged three, is attempting to imitate these alien manners. His left foot betrays the intense strain under which he is laboring.

Sometimes, however, my doctoring brought rich rewards. There was one tall, shaggy-headed sorcerer, with one injured eye and a bad case of ringworm, who sought my aid to cure his disfigured skin. Day after day he came to be treated, while I supervised the application by one of the small boys of a stronger lotion than the natives were allowed to have themselves. After about two months Pataliyan was cured, and made me the confidant of his projected elopement with a widow. The wrath of the ghostly husband shook the village and killed an unfortunate woman go-between, and the whole village was thrown into confusion—which was priceless to the ethnologist—all from a steady application of ringworm medicine to make the lover beautiful and desirable to a much wooed and most excellent maker of pots.

The children were my chief concern, as I was trying to add to our knowledge of child psychology at the same time that I worked on the general ethnological background of the people. By selecting the oldest boys of the adolescent group, youngsters of about fourteen, as house boys, we were able to attract all the rest of the children to our little patch of back yard. Each fourteen-year-old had a ten-year-old slavey, who in turn delegated the disagreeable aspects of his task to a six-year-old. Dinner was often prepared buy a dozen small hands, one small boy tending each pot, faithfully blowing up the twig fire underneath it. The little girls were enlisted to pluck the wild pigeons and to fetch the fire wood. I was making a collection of drawings by the savage little youngsters who had never seen paper or pencil before, and this practically disrupted the household. Every available square inch of the table, box, or trunk surface was preëmpted by children engaged in drawing. They would have drawn all night happily, had I permitted them, and they came to wake me before dawn with requests for “paypa.” Getting meals prepared or floors cleaned in this general nursery-school atmosphere was often difficult and always accomplished in the midst of a terrific din of happy insistent voices.

Photography demanded more organization. In that climate films have to be developed at once; there is no packing them off to the dark room of a commercial photographer. This meant working at night. Water had to be brought from the mainland almost a mile away, and the only water fit for photography came from a “place of blood” where some of the ancestors of the village had been slain. Such blood lingers and has a bad habit of entering the bodies of the descendants who are foolhardy enough to approach within its death-dealing atmosphere. So it took many sticks of tobacco to obtain a large enough supply of water for washing films. If the water ran out, there was no remedy, for no one would venture into that fearful place after dark. As there were many films to be washed, we trained a squad of native children as helpers, retaining two extra children, one to watch that no torch-lit canoes came near the house and one to scratch the backs of the other children so that they wouldn’t drop the films which they were washing.

By such devious means and amid such peculiar surroundings, we worked our way into native life, until our house was known generally as the “kamal” or club house, because it was always so crowded. From the native children which I had assembled into a household, it was possible to reach out into their respective homes, and to follow the details of the ceremonies, quarrels, and reconciliations which went on within the thatched walls of other houses. By oneself assuming the tabus and duties, the privileges, and obligations of a native woman, as much as possible, one receives in return the confidence of the women and learns the carefully guarded secrets which have been hidden from twenty generations of husbands and fathers. The temper, the emphasis of native life, from the woman’s point of view, gradually unfolds before one’s eyes, as do the moods, the thought processes, the interests of the group of children who sleep on one’s floor and eat one’s rice day after day. The native language becomes more and more a familiar idiom. One learns to joke in it, perhaps even to pun a little, (although I knew that I was never permitted to swear, as both of my parents are living and profanity is only permitted to the orphaned). One learns to shudder when tabus are violated, to meet the news of a misfortune with the immediate question “Which ghost is responsible?” The personalities of all these alien people who press about one all day long become as clearly realized as those of the members of a family.

Only a six-weekly or less frequent mail breaks this long detailed identification with native life, from which one finally emerges wearied with the continuous restraint, the continuous re-valuation of experience, but bearing, as a field trophy, a knowledge of the native customs and the native thought attainable in no other way.

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