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Kago, Kastom and Kalja: The Study of Indigenous Movements in Melanesia Today

Marcellin Abong
Marc Tabani

Chapter 6. The Yali Movement of Papua New Guinea: the Dialogics of Representation

Elfriede Hermann

Texte intégral

  • 1 Given that partitioning into cultural areas is now controversial in anthropological debate, I have (...)
  • 2 Translated from the original German by Elfriede Hermann.

1The Yali movement of Papua New Guinea was one of those indigenous initiatives in parts of south-west Oceania1 which, coming in the wake of colonization and Christian missionization, made a serious effort to transform the living conditions of the people living there. So great was their concern to change society that these movements indeed merit the name of “social movement” (cf. Paula Brown 1966: 150). They meet the definition of social movements, formulated by Joachim Raschke (1987 [1985]: 11), as “both product and producer of social change”2. Cultural activities exhibiting the character of such movements were chiefly concentrated in colonies later awarded to the now sovereign states of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. From the exogenous perspective of Western researchers, two aspects of these movements predominate: 1) a demand for industrial goods, i. e. what came to be called “cargo”; and 2) ritual practices for the purposes of acquiring the goods, i. e. what came to be called “cults”. Thus, from the mid-1940s on, the term “cargo cult” was used to represent social movements of this kind.

2In his study of two movements documented in colonial Papua New Guinea, the historian John Waiko (1973: 418-420) pointed out that what chiefly concerned the indigenous actors, in performing their rites, was alleviating the “disasters” inflicted by colonization and missionization. Their reaction to contact with Europeans had been to amass spiritual force. The “white man” proclaimed and demonstrated power outstripping that of the Melanesians. The indigenous peoples countered this demonstration of power by mobilizing their own sources of power, which they saw as represented in their ancestors. The fact that members of social movements in south-west Oceania focused on power relationships and were less interested in receiving goods than in acquiring knowledge about how to produce them (Lindstrom 1981, 1984: 303-304) has long seemed to researchers less important than the material aspect of “cargo” promotion. The bulk of exogenous representations described the acquisition of Western goods as the core concern of the movements. Therefore they seized on the “cargo” components, extrapolating from “cargo” to “cult”.

3Papua New Guineans pointed out to me that designating cultural activities as “cargo cult” is quite problematic. As Pacific Islanders have done in other parts of south-west Oceania, they have kept a close eye on how the term “cargo cult” has fared from colonial times to today’s post-colonial era. They took over the term itself, investing their own concept with meanings they could not help hearing in the exogenous discourses. In the course of interacting with exogenous perspectives, they developed perspectives of their own in respect of those activities designated as “cargo cult”. In these indigenous perspectives, “cargo cult” is loaded with negative connotations; indeed, one thing is perfectly clear–no one identifies at all with “cargo cult”.

  • 3 It often happened that indigenous men who had visited Australia during World War II would then, up (...)

4In the following pages, I shall acquaint you with these indigenous perspectives. The representations by the Papua New Guineans to which I have referred to all concern the Yali movement–which sprang up in the latter half of the 1940s in the north-east of what at the time was New Guinea. It took its name from Yali, the man who spearheaded the movement. After loyally serving in the Australian army in World War II, he returned after the war to his home region on the Rai Coast, where he soon acquired considerable popularity with the local people. With the permission of the Australian administration, he embarked on consciousness-raising tours to many parts of Madang District, urging his compatriots to participate actively in developing their region. In the speeches he gave on these tours, he dwelt on the high standard of living he had witnessed during his three trips to Australia, calling on New Guineans to work towards achieving the same for themselves3. He laid down rules for village life, exhorted his countrymen to plant cash crops, encouraged them to get some education and dangled the prospect of them one day winning political independence for Papua New Guinea. With his rule-making and his visions Yali made a deep impression on the people of his home region. New Guineans from various parts of Madang District, and even beyond, were led to take numerous initiatives in a variety of areas–social, economic, political and religious–all with a view to preparing themselves for the transformation. Because they regarded Yali as one who embodied the power and knowledge needed to alter their lives radically, he was able, in next to no time, to establish himself as a powerful and charismatic leader. From the indigenous perspective, he performed what they called “wok bilong Yali”, or “Yali’s work” – i.e. work in the sense that he was seeking to bring about social change in Papua New Guinea. The Australian administration, for its part, first acknowledged Yali’s initiatives and supported him. However, by the end of the 1940s, the Yali movement had come under attack from the Lutheran mission and European settlers, as a result of which the authorities moved in and denounced the movement as a “cargo cult”.

5In the humanities and social sciences, “cargo cult” was long thought of as an objective scientific concept. One need only examine the bulk of earlier anthropological writings on the subject to see that their authors thought they were merely stating a fact in describing this or that social movement as a “cargo cult”. It is this apparent “fact” that I will be placing in question here. My approach is indebted to discourse analysis as developed by Michel Foucault (1980 [1977], 1991 [1972]), but also to Lamont Lindstrom’s application of Foucault to a particular South Pacific society (1990a). Drawing on this perspective, I shall review the historical record to show how social movements continually came to be described as “cargo cults” – and with such virulence that what seemed to be the case came, over time, to be a matter of steadfast belief (cf. Kaplan 1990). In the course of my treatment I hope to show, with regard to this construction of “cargo cults”, that for a long time too little attention was paid to links existing between the discourses of the indigenous people and those of exogenous observers.

6Links of this kind between exogenous and indigenous representations will be analyzed from the theoretical perspective of dialogics. This analysis owes much to studies by Martha Kaplan and John Kelly (1994; cf. Kelly and Kaplan 2001), and Francesca Merlan (2005). Drawing on earlier works by Bakhtin and Voloshinov, Kaplan, Kelly and Merlan conceive the formation of cultural discourses and practices as a process triggered when cultures enter into dialogic relationships with each other. On this view, dialogic relationships embrace social interactions in their entirety, i.e. more is at stake than merely linguistic relationships (Kaplan and Kelly 1994: 129; cf. Merlan 2005: 179). Merlan argues that when investigating the (re) production of sociocultural patterns, centrality must be given to how those speaking and/or acting are oriented toward others (Merlan 2005: 176-179). It is from just such a dialogic perspective that I consider how indigenous and exogenous discourses on social movements (as well as the practices that accompany these) take their bearings from each other. Such mutual alignment I construe as a form of linking. Based on this, I argue that taking such links seriously would be a great epistemological step forward. For then we would better understand the indigenous perspectives and grasp why the term “cargo cult” is by no means unproblematic for anthropological use.

  • 4 See Spivak 1976: XIV-XVIII for an explanation of Derrida’s writing sous rature.
  • 5 A similar observation was made by James Clifford at the session we held in 2009.
  • 6 This article draws together a number of thoughts and passages taken from earlier, more exhaustive (...)

7In view of these problems, I suggested (2004), together with Vincent Crapanzano (2004: 227), that it was time to write “cargo cult” sous rature (after the French philosopher Jacques Derrida)4. Basically this means that a word is crossed out yet printed in order to show that, for all its inaccuracy, it is still indispensable5. The term is indispensable, in the sense that we must refer to it in our critical reflections. But in my view it is unsuitable as an objective scientific concept for analyzing social movements. It is in this context, therefore, that I use distancing inverted commas for “cargo cult” in my work6.

Early exogenous perspectives I: colonial representations

8First I shall look at early popular, missionary and administrative statements about social movements in south-west Oceania, for it is in such colonial descriptions that we first encounter the term “cargo cult”. Studies of the genesis of the term “cargo cult”, which Lamont Lindstrom (1993) and I (e.g. 1992, 1995, 2004) conducted independently of each other, reveal that from the mid-1940s on colonial discourses take to talking of “cargo cult” –before the anthropological discourses do.

9The first documented mention of “cargo cult” is by N. M. Bird, a settler in what was then the territory of New Guinea. In an article in the Pacific Islands Monthly (PIM), a periodical widely read throughout the south Pacific, he introduced the term thus:

“Stemming directly from religious teaching of equality, and its resulting sense of injustice, is what is generally known as ‘Vailala Madness,’ or ‘Cargo Cult.’ […] In all cases the ‘Madness’ takes the same form: A native, infected with the disorder, states that he has been visited by a relative long dead, who stated that a great number of ships loaded with ‘cargo’ had been sent by the ancestor of the native for the benefit of the natives of a particular village or area.” (Bird 1945: 69)

10When Bird talks of “Vailala Madness”, he is referring to a text by F. E. Williams, sometime assistant government anthropologist, who coined the expression for a certain movement that had arisen in 1919 in the vicinity of Papua’s Vailala River (1976a, b [orig. 1923, 1934]). Bird warned that such “madness” in the local people constituted a potential military threat. And if there was a show-down, they would then reveal their true face, opined Bird:

“His discipline and training will be discarded at a moment’s notice and he will, emerge, as he is, a primitive savage with all a primitive savage’s instincts.” (Bird 1945: 70)

11Bird’s article must have touched a nerve, and soon the pages of the Pacific Islands Monthly were the venue for a vigorous debate on the reasons for the emergence of “cargo cults”. The periodical published, among other things, an English summary (PIM, November 1946: 16,70) of a German article by G. Höltker (1946), a Catholic missionary with the Societas Verbi Divini (SVD), who possessed first-hand knowledge of the situation in New Guinea’s Madang District. In this summary, the social movements were referred to as “Cargo-cult”, “religious madness” and “mania”, and their “characteristic features” were described thus:

“The main characteristics of this mania are the following: A great confusion of old paganism with newly imported, half-understood Christianity; overemphasised local patriotism; arrogant consciousness of being a distinct race; and aspiration to political and religious independence.” (PIM, November 1946: 16)

12This notion that “old paganism” lay behind the evil of “cargo cult” was shared by both Catholic and Lutheran missions. Thus in a 1947 annual report written by the Lutheran missionary Wagner, who from where he was stationed in Ulap collaborated with Hofmann in Biliau for purposes of missionizing those parts of the Rai Coast hinterland as yet unoccupied by the Catholics, we read:

“Outwardly the cargo-cult is a result of the war and its confusion caused in those primitives, who, a few generations ago, lived still in the ‘stone age’. As for the inward reasons it is the result of the growing materialistic thinking which already had set in before the war, but now, seems to have seized their confused minds completely. Connected with it is, and was, a growing loosening from the gospel. The inward apostasy resulted in an open reversion into heathenism.” (Wagner 1947: 4)

13More or less simultaneously with these first references in popular and missionary sources, “cargo cult” begins appearing in documents of the Australian administration in New Guinea – for instance, from 1946 we find the term cropping up in patrol reports for parts of what was then Madang District. If we peruse these sources, it is clear the officers held a negative view of “cargo cult” and sought to proscribe it.

14It was in this discursive climate that the colonial institutions on the Rai Coast began to cast a quizzical eye on Yali’s activities, especially with regard to “cargo cult”. The Australian administration initially decided that the rumours swirling around Yali here were baseless. Well aware of his popularity with the indigenous population, the administration wanted Yali to press ahead with propagating their development program. The officer charged with monitoring Yali’s activities wrote: “One of his greatest claims for this is his denunciation of the ‘cargo cult’” (Prowse 1946: Appendix E). But from 1947 the Lutheran mission had Yali in its sights, promoting a form of discourse about “cargo cult” that was to his detriment. Writing of the area to which he had been assigned in the south-east part of the Rai Coast, Wagner saw Yali as some kind of hero surrounded by devotees, adding:

“The Yali-cult is the counterpart of the coastal-people to the more clumsy cargo-cult of the more backward mountain-people” (Wagner 1947: 4).

15In the following years Yali himself turned away from the missions, calling for a return to indigenous religious practices. At the same time, the Lutheran mission stepped up its efforts to discredit him. In 1950 they finally succeeded in hauling him before a court. By now the Australian administration, too, had withdrawn their support. As it happens, Yali was not charged with “cargo cult” – though this, at the time, was an offence under law. Instead the charges related to kidnapping and rape, for which the court sent him down for a period of six and a half years. Yali himself, the members of his social movement (who came from various regions in north-east New Guinea) and also the local people from his home region shared a common fate: that of being stereotyped by European observers as followers of “cargo cult”. In the course of this stereotyping, the administration took to characterizing the local people as “lazy” and “very backward” (Reitano 1949/1950: 4).

16While it is true that, during the 1940s, discourses of popular, missionary or administrative provenance did not share the same agenda when it came to describing and judging indigenous activities, nevertheless, common to all of them was their propensity for associating “cargo cult” with pejorative ideas, as for example when they spoke of “madness”, “primitiveness”, “heathendom” and “backwardness”. All of them referred to the fact that aspects of Western discourses had been adopted by the social movements. Thus popular and administrative discourses stressed that the social movements had borrowed parts of Christian teaching. Missionary discourses, in turn, complained that participants in the movements were taking their lead from the materialistic attitudes of the colonists. What none of these discourses did, however, was recognize the existence of links that might have promoted a dialogue between the indigenous people and the Europeans.

Early exogenous perspectives II: anthropological representations

17The anthropological “cargo cult” discourse arose against a background of earlier popular discourses by missionaries and administrators concerning “cargo cult”. Early anthropological representations differ in form and content from the colonial ones, but even they did not avoid the pitfall of slipping into the pejorative and the dismissive. Thus Lucy Mair (1948) introduced the concept by alluding to a movement that F. E. Williams (1976a, b [orig. 1923, 1934]) had documented only to dismiss it as “Vailala madness”:

“A notable feature of the reaction of the peoples of New Guinea to white rule is the occurrence at different times in almost every part of the Australian territories of a manifestation which used to be known as the ‘Vailala madness’, but is now more commonly described as the ‘cargo cult.’” (Mair 1948: 64)

18In her stock-taking of “cargo cult” manifestations, Lucy Mair stressed the element of “cargo” (1948: 66). Though she did refer to political agendas being pursued by the movements, it would be fair to say that in her classification she played down the importance of these for the movements.

19Soon social and cultural anthropology was producing an anthropological discourse on “cargo cult”. This discourse was thoroughly heterogeneous and contained analyses reflecting various schools of theory. Studies of social movements in south-west Oceania published between the late 1940s and the early 1970s placed their primary focus on traditional social structures and religious systems of belief, though they did allow for the impact of missionization and colonization on the indigenous cultures. They were therefore able to find room in their analyses for the indigenous adoption of Christian discursive formations as well as Western discourses relating to material goods and development. As a result, we can state that such studies were able to perceive the links between Western and indigenous discourses concerning these movements. But though their authors were alive to the existence of such links, what we largely miss in these studies, and the analyses they contained, is any sense of what the Western and indigenous discourses had in common, much less any readiness to question the practice of dubbing indigenous activities “cargoist” or “cultic”. Given that the bulk of anthropological explanations of the “cargo cult” complex were based, at the time, on Western rationality discourse, the activities of movement members were adjudged more or less clearly to be “irrational”.

20Structural-functionalist studies in those years, according to Mondher Kilani (1983: 41-46), were particularly inclined to judge the ritual activities of the movements in terms of the extent to which they shored up social stability; accordingly, they applied their own (Western) benchmark of rationality versus irrationality (e. g. Firth 1951, 1955; Stanner 1953, 1958; Hogbin 1970 [orig. 1958]; Inglis 1957). Although the Marxist-leaning studies of Tibor Bodrogi (1951) and Peter Worsley (1957) did construe the movements as anti-colonial articulations by subjugated societies, it would be fair to say that their arguments contain formulations that amount to a certain discrediting of movements of the “cargo cult” type. In his psychological interpretation, Weston La Barre (1971) made no bones about claiming irrationality (again) as a characteristic of “cargo cults”. His conclusion: “‘cargo’ ideology was not rational-economic but irrational-religious” (La Barre 1971: 17).

21Peter Lawrence (1954, 1955, 1964), who worked on the social movements and, in particular, on the Yali movement in Madang District of what was then New Guinea, stood apart from the structural-functionalist interpretations of the time. By approaching the epistemology of indigenous societies from a classical historical perspective, he was able to uncover the logic of the systems of belief underlying the “cargo-complex”. But because Lawrence was locked into the development discourse of the Australian administration, he condemned the “cargo” ideology as underlying the scant acceptance in the district of the administration-backed development programs, and wrote of the “... continuing native interest in cargo ideology, which is still a force to be combated” (1964: 264). The Yali movement was described by Lawrence (1964) as being part of a comprehensive “cargo” movement. On the one hand, Lawrence claimed that Yali’s compatriots, given the “cargo” rumours that were then in circulation, saw his programs as containing a “cargo” message. On the other hand, he considered that even Yali had himself been inducted into a “cargo cult” for a certain time by a “cargo” prophet.

22We will soon see how the inhabitants of Yali’s home village, the members of the Yali movement and its successor organization entered into dialogue with early colonial and anthropological representations. But before hearing their voices, I will give a brief overview of recent studies that deal with the term “cargo cult” from a critical point of view.

23 The Yali Movement of Papua New Guinea: the Dialogics of Representation In recent years, several historians and anthropologists have come to see the term “cargo cult” as unsuited for describing social movements in south-west Oceania. Certainly it was not mere chance that scholars from Oceania were among the first to express their unease at the use made of the “cargo cult” concept. Back in the 1970s, Waiko (1973: 420) rehabilitated the “Taro cult”, and also the “Baigona cult”, as movements that were not of the “cargo cult” type. Willington Jojoga Opeba (1981 [1977]: 128) confirmed this insight. Epeli Hau`ofa pointed out that the “cargo cult” label was understood in Melanesia as a negative stereotype, and joked that we anthropologists were “wearing dark glasses, through our fascination with cargo cults” (Hau`ofa 1975: 286). These early voices were soon joined by others. Louise Morauta (1974: 154) observed that Yali’s supporters in the greater Madang area dissociate themselves from any activities labelled “cargo cult”. Roger Keesing (1978: 243, 70), writing of the Maasina Rule movement in the Solomon Islands, was adamant that it could not be classified as “cargo cult”. Peter Hempenstall condemned the “cargo cult” concept as a demeaning colonial label (1981: 1; Hempenstall and Rutherford 1984: 120). Kilani in his insightful study (1983) pointed up the interconnectivity between Western rationality-vs-irrationality discourse and the “cargo cult” discourse of the anthropologists. Entering a plea for researchers to give more attention to the contextual parameters underlying social change in Melanesia, instead of viewing such change as an isolated phenomenon, Nancy McDowell (1988) announced serious doubts as to the utility of such a category as “cargo cult”. Taking account of ideological aspects, Pem Buck (1988) criticized that Western “cargo cult” discourses had been used to rationalize the exploitation of Papua New Guineans by Europeans.

24Since the 1990s, the critique of academic discourse on “cargo cult” has gathered pace. Martha Kaplan (1990, 1995, 2004) focused on the historical agency of members of the erstwhile Tuka movement in Fiji, and in so doing has provided a valuable critical analysis of the colonial constructions of “cargo cult”. Lamont Lindstrom (1990b: 240, 241; 1993; 2004), building on his research into the John Frum movement of Tanna, Vanuatu, trained a subtly critical eye on the multifarious “cargo cult” discourses propagated in south-west Oceania and in “the West”. His essay (this volume) on the online face of Western cargo imagery demonstrates yet again the fascination that “cargo cult” clearly evokes in Western cultural circles. Based on a study of the indigenous reception of the Western concept of “cargo cult” (as well as its colonial baggage), I have myself called for a thorough rethinking of the issue (1992, 1995, 1997, 2004). Wolfgang Kempf (1992) too, citing his investigations into indigenous conceptions of change, questioned how an early millenarian movement among the Ngaing came to be classified as “cargo cult”, and spoke of the “cargo cult” concept as already having the status of an historical “monument in the landscape of anthropological enquiry and discourse” (1992: 84). Writing in his introduction to the volume “Imagining Cargo Cults”, Ton Otto (1992: 1) formulated doubts as to the analytic value of the concept. Max and Eleanor Rimoldi (1992) drew attention to the stigmatizing effects of ascriptions of “cargo cult” in connection with the Hahalis movement on Buka Island. Michele Stephen (1997: 335) noted that “cargo cults” were so constructed as to make them the most exotic of exotic beliefs – “the most other”, as Stephen puts it. In view of this growing chorus of critical voices, Sjoerd Jaarsma (1997: 85) made the point that the academic “cargo cult” discourse might well founder on the rocks of its own critique of the concept. Critically resisting interpretation of Melanesian religion in terms of “cargo cult”, Joel Robbins (1998) suggested instead an examination of the indigenous model of the role of desire. Vincent Crapanzano (2004) injected an innovative perspective into the debate, entering a plea that the role of hope be investigated in connection with these social movements. What also proved especially important in the critical debate was the insight that construction of the other in Western “cargo cult” discourses is closely linked to the construction of the self (see on this point Buck 1988: 158; Kaplan 1990: 4; Lindstrom 1990b: 241; Hermann 1995: 169; Stephen 1997: 335-336; Lattas 1992: 1; Jebens and Kohl 1999). Nancy McDowell (2000), too, seized on to this aspect, critiquing constructions invoking a false polarity: “them”, the so-called cultists, versus “us”, the observers. Finally, the essays in this volume shed new light on earlier movements. Hence Marcellin Abong (this volume) characterizes the Nagriamel movement of Santo, Vanuatu, as political, thereby contributing to that movement’s rehabilitation.

25If these authors declined to categorize the movements under investigation as “cargo cult”, preferring alternative concepts instead, if some of these authors even went so far as to deconstruct the concept per se, this may indicate that some of them, at least, were acting out of an awareness that the indigenous actors felt themselves to have been misrepresented by exogenous representations. Let us therefore turn to the indigenous representations of Yali’s work, which strongly suggest that indigenous actors developed a critical stance towards “cargo cult” from interacting with messages whose ultimate provenance was early colonial and anthropological representations.

Indigenous representations I: how Yali’s work is seen by his home village

  • 7 At their request, I refer to their village under a pseudonym.

26The people of Yali’s home village Yasaburing7 are well aware of the notoriety they gained through both Yali and the book by Peter Lawrence (1964). Thus two women from Yali’s clan told me that all the villagers were ashamed of the allegations of “cargo cult” directed against them at the time:

  • 8 Kabak and Thalia 22 September 1985. All of the Yasaburings’ quotes have been translated from the o (...)

Kabak: He [Lawrence] twisted [what happened], and then ruined our name by saying: “They practised ‘kago kalt’!”
Thalia: That’s why we’re ashamed!
Kabak: Yes!
Thalia: That really hurt! That ruined our village’s reputation!8

27The sense of shame these two women expressed suggests the tenor of the local emotional discourse surrounding the Yali movement which is insistent that the Yasaburing were held in derision for years on account of alleged “cargo cult” activities. This, it must be said, was certainly not Peter Lawrence’s intention. What is clear from what the Yasaburing say is that, rather than Lawrence himself, it was the representatives of the missions and the administration who, for decades, kept up their allegations of “cargo cult”, sometimes backing these up by citing his book. Since the charge went hand in hand with insinuations of primitiveness, heathendom and irrationality, the Yasaburing, not surprisingly, felt degraded. They were firmly told to distance themselves from all and any “cargo” ideas and they were forbidden to participate in rites that were in any way linked to such notions.

28In dialogue with colonial “cargo cult” discourses, the indigenous people devised a matching one of their own. In an act of transculturation, they took over the English term “cargo cult”, fashioning from it their own concept “kago kalt”, which they wove into both the Ngaing vernacular and Tok Pisin, the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. They endowed “kago kalt” with meanings they derived from what they heard in the colonial discourses. Among the definitions of “kago kalt” communicated to me by the Yasaburing are the following:

  • 9 S. 25 May 1989.

Kago kalt, that means: people are waiting for money, hoping that money will come up out of nothing. People say the Yasaburing are waiting for money to come up out of nothing, for kago to come up out of very nothing.”9

29The idea that “money” or “kago” will “come up out of nothing” strikes the Yasaburing as nothing short of absurd. Moreover, they condemn any attitude of just waiting and sitting idly by, which in a subsistence economy such as theirs is bound to lead nowhere. For them it is clear that work is the key to getting anything at all. But in the perspective they develop, “kago kalt” is the diametrical opposite of work:

  • 10 P. 9 September 1990.

“Kago kalt means: Somebody is not able to work his business. Somebody is not able to work his garden. He will sit there doing nothing and he will be waiting.”10

30Kago kalt” in Yasaburing discourse stands for an attitude of muddled thinking, one that does not obey the logic of action in their world and which leads to laziness, indeed incapacity. For that reason, “kago kalt” is something to be condemned.

31The people of Yali’s home village are quick to protest when his work is described by such a pejorative term as “kago kalt” or “cargo cult”. Witnesses who remember Yali’s appearances after coming back from the war abruptly dismiss any suggestions of that kind. A highly respected elder, who had as a young man accompanied Yali on several of his tours through Madang District, offered this testimony:

  • 11 G. 27 May 1989.

“Before [Yali was put into prison] he did not say, ‘The kago will come or anything like that will come up! Only through our hard labour will anything come up, it’s not possible for anything to come into existence out of nothing! […]’That is what he told us. And I really believe in this, actually, all of us do. […] Because we heard his speeches and his teachings.”11

32When talk turns to Yali and to his deeds, the Yasaburing dwell mostly on the teachings Yali strove to get across in his speeches. Among his teachings, which the Yasaburing refer to as “school” (or in Tok Pisin, “skul”), are the following points, as described to me by a man of great influence from Yali’s clan:

  • 12 L. 17 March 1989.

“Now Yali gave his ‘skul’ […]. He said: ‘Earlier we Papua New Guineans practised a number of bad customs. But from now on we are going to change. […]’ And he went on to add: ‘You yourselves are to plant a row of coconut-palms! And then you will plant coffee! And on top of that, you will plant cocoa! You will also sow rice, cabbage and onions! The experts in charge of agriculture will give us all these things, so that we can sow them. From now on we will stand on our own feet.’ This he urged on everyone.”12

33These teachings the Yasaburing refer to as Yali’s “good work”. They allowed him to inspire his countrymen and also draw in a number of supporters from the outside, who took to visiting him in his home village. Scrutiny of local oral history shows that Yali’s positive deeds fall in the period between his return from the war in 1945 and his arrest in 1950. The Yasaburing distinguish this early phase of Yali’s initiatives from a later phase after 1955, the year when he returned home from prison. In this post-prison phase Yali was a broken man, they insist. From that time on, not only was he saddled down by “cargo cult” reproaches, he was also led astray by the actions of some of his followers. These were followers who had come from other parts of Madang District to Yasaburing and who had indeed, the villagers state, performed questionable deeds–for example, they had stood flowers in bottles and invoked the ancestors to create money in their place, and they had called upon Yali to deploy magical practices in order to harm others. It was these outsiders–the Yasaburing know–who were behind “kago kalt” and any recourse to it, and it was they, too, who had supplied the pretext for Yali’s work coming to be labelled “cargo cult”.

34The Yasaburing distance themselves from such machinations as these. They point out that they had, at the time, expelled these outside supporters of Yali’s from the village. To refute the “cargo cult” charges levelled by the Europeans, as well as the “kago kalt” rumours and aspersions of their countrymen, they were driven to devise counter-discourses of their own. In one of these, work plays an important role, as is manifest in the following statement by a middle-aged woman:

  • 13 P. 9 September 1990.

“We are not waiting for kago kalt or for somebody to produce money and to give it to us… No! I, in fact, all of us know very well how to take pains working our gardens and working our business in order to earn money.”13

35As these words clearly show, the Yasaburing point additionally to the effort they put into business (“bisnis” in Tok Pisin) and into development (“developmen”). These two keywords are central to two counter-discourses in which they engage in order to repudiate charges of “cargo cult”. A third counter-discourse focuses on their identity as Roman Catholics, who wish to have nothing to do with heathen practices of any kind. In addition, they have crafted a discourse turning on local tradition (“kastom”), which they are forceful in mobilizing against ascriptions of “cargo cult”. They deploy this discourse for the purpose of protecting the indigenous domain of ancestor worship (“tambaran” in Tok Pisin and “gabu” in the Ngaing vernacular) from the least hint of suspicion. Being a traditional practice serving the common good, ancestor worship has, they insist, nothing whatsoever to do with dubious ideas of more recent date.

36There is a final point that is worth raising: in a conversation I had with Bikmeri, Yali’s widow, she robustly rejected the allegations of “cargo cult”. She linked Yali’s actions to recommendations by the Australian military and administrative officials on the one hand and missionaries of European origin on the other:

  • 14 S. 24 August 1990.

“He [Yali] worked together with them [the whites]! So we thought: ‘We’ll just go on doing exactly the same, and things will get better’. [Bikmeri is incensed by now] But no! They cut down [Yali’s career]! They threw him into prison. And I said to myself: ‘It isn’t as if we were the ones to invent it! It was what you people [the whites] had taught him [Yali] and got him to spread! So the people here will learn to take the initiative themselves and to do the work! And behind you, you hear talk from some people and you go off in the very opposite direction!’ I was so angry [...].”14

37Bikmeri’s comments hold a mirror up to Europeans, reflecting the “cargo cult” focus back at them.

Indigenous representations II: how Yali’s work is seen by the Dabsau Association

  • 15 The Dabsau Association still exists. Thus, in the Weekend Courier (16-17 August 2008: 15) it was r (...)

38Following Yali’s death in 1975, a successor organization to the Yali movement emerged. It was called the Dabsau Association and tasked with articulating many of the issues that had been central to the Yali movement. When exactly it was that the Dabsau Association came into being can no longer be reconstructed, yet there can be no doubt that it had its origins in the Madang hinterland. Then, in July 1985, Yali’s son James–who had studied agronomy–, along with some of his university friends took over management of the Dabsau Association, intending to restructure it as an economic-cum-political body aligned to Western models. That same year–1985–I had the opportunity to document developments inside this body and noted that the Dabsau Association had taken to holding meetings in many different places–in Madang, in the Trans-Gogol region, on the north coast, on the island of Manam and in a beach village on the Rai Coast. Former followers of Yali from these regions now flocked to join the Dabsau Association15. Only the people of Yali’s home village maintained a critical distance from this new organization and its various activities, although some of them subsequently relented, especially when James Yali assumed the leadership.

  • 16 In 2007, after being vigorously attacked by the opposition, he was brought before the court and ch (...)

39Right from the start the Dabsau Association pursued a variety of goals, all of them responses to a globalizing world. Development was to be prioritized throughout Madang Province. Along with such intended changes to the economic order, social changes were to be set in progress as well. The better to achieve these multiple goals, the Dabsau Association strove for political representation, on the provincial if not the national level. Here the Association’s interests overlapped with those of James Yali, who had political ambitions of his own. Beginning in the late 1980s, he repeatedly ran for office. In 1987 he was a Madang regional candidate, and in both 1992 and 1997 he was a candidate for the Rai Coast Open constituency (Post Courier, 11 March 2003). In the national elections of July 2002, he won a seat for Rai Coast Open and was installed as Governor of Madang, a post he held until 200716.

  • 17 B. E. 2 January 1986. Translated from the original Tok Pisin by Elfriede Hermann.

40Preserving of elements of “kastom”, or traditional culture, was another of the Association’s goals. “In my view, our local culture (‘kaltsa bilong yumi long ples’) is both very good and very strong. So we mustn’t turn our back on it,” was the opinion expressed by one speaker for the Association17. Members were called upon to jettison those aspects that were seen as negative, e. g. sorcery, while retaining all those aspects that fostered peaceful and productive co-existence.

41One of the Dabsau Association’s goals – right from the start – was to clear Yali’s name, and the Yali movement’s as well, from the stigma of “cargo cult”. To this end, its members spent much of their time talking about the history of the Yali movement and how the Dabsau Association had come to be formed. The topic they returned to time and again was that of Yali’s many achievements in driving forward the economic, sociocultural and political development not only of Madang but of the country as a whole: as they saw it, Yali had paved the way for the very independence of Papua New Guinea. Indeed, the team of leaders (especially) insisted that millenarian thinking (along with the activities this gave rise to, which had sparked off the outcry against “cargo cult”) had no place in their future and must be abandoned. James Yali was explicit:

“That’s my aim: first and foremost it is to get the people to believe in self-reliance. That is not to wait for the service [rendered by some state institution], not to believe that my father would come back from the dead and lead them like he used to.” (3 October 1985)

  • 18 That movements which are linked to political interests are disparagingly dubbed “cargo cult” in an (...)

42But even as the team of leaders at the helm of the Dabsau Association were asking their followers to redouble their efforts at self-improvement, their political opponents were revisiting the old charges and adding more of their own devising. It wasn’t long before the organization was being accused of egging its members on to practise a new variety of “cargo cult”18. Thus, several ministers from the provincial government in Madang, who came from the Rai Coast and had preconceived views on the Yali movement, made threatening statements in which they called the Dabsau Association one big “cargo cult”. The then minister for provincial affairs and local government even went so far (this was at the beginning of December 1985) as to repeat the charge on Radio Madang. James Yali reacted by challenging the minister to a public debate, a challenge which the latter declined to accept. Launching a counter-discourse, members of the Association set out to demonstrate what the Yali movement had achieved on a variety of levels: economic, social and political. If its successor organization – and James Yali along with it – were to succeed, so the logic went, it would have to be apparent, with the vantage of hindsight, that the Yali movement had played a transformative role.

  • 19 Pangu Pati was for many years the ruling party in Papua New Guinea; it was brought down in Novembe (...)

43Counter-discourses and counter-strategies of this kind clearly show the members of the Dabsau Association engaging in a dialogue of their own with diverse “cargo cult”-inspired representations of the Yali movement. Among these representations are Western discourses, to cite one example; another would be the discourses promulgated by indigenous elites in post-colonial Papua New Guinea. Among these elites there circulated discourses modelled on exogenous representations and replete with negative connotations. The members of Dabsau Association had always expected that anything they said in their own defence would be drowned out by raucous cries of “cargo cult”. Small wonder, then, that they chose to stock up on counter-arguments so that, when the time came, they would be able to fight back. And they also took the precaution of forming alliances with powerful politicians, e.g. from Pangu Pati19.

Conclusion: linking the exogenous and indigenous perspectives

44All these discourses – those of the people of Yali’s home village and those of the members of the Dabsau Association – attest to dialogues between indigenous and exogenous discourse and practice. Papua New Guineans in (or on the fringes of) the Yali movement have found their ways of formulating “kago kalt”, ways that involve orienting their actions toward discourses and measures put in place by representatives of colonial and then postcolonial institutions. Their anticipation of the discourses of others was instrumental in shaping what they said and what they did about “cargo cult” and “kago kalt”.

45Thus, from a dialogic perspective, it is possible to point to several links between indigenous and exogenous representations. One of these proceeds by way of the negative connotations of “cargo cult” discourses. The Yasaburing have struggled to come to terms particularly with the negative stereotypes ascribed to “cargo cults” in the early popular, missionary and administrative sources. In the counter-discourses they developed, we find such stereotypes as “madness”, “primitiveness”, “heathenness” and “backwardness” recurring – yet these figure as criteria they utterly repudiate, and rightly so. Yali’s widow Bikmeri, as we saw, had clear words to say about a link between the indigenous actors and the Europeans: in her perspective, she herself, Yali and Yali’s followers had only done what the Europeans had urged them to do.

46And it is possible to discern yet another link, this time a genealogical one, linking the exogenous constructions to “cargo cults”. Popular, missionary, administrative and anthropological discourses made “cargo cult” the focus of their concern, delineating it from other concerns, endowing “cargo cult” with particular properties and creating through the act of definition a reality that would not otherwise exist (cf. Foucault 1988 [1969]: 74). Using these properties, it was possible to isolate, name and generally pin down something that was then required to function as the object of “cargo cult”. By means of such objectivization, the phenomenon of “cargo cult” was brought into existence (cf. McDowell 1988). “Cultic” practices performed in anticipation of “cargo” were made into a category of demarcation: “cargo cult” characterized the “others”, from whom the Western self could safely distance itself.

47By proceeding to a fundamental revision of the “cargo cult” concept, we may open our eyes to how much we participate in the phenomena we observe. By selecting certain characteristics of social movements, we have involved ourselves in their construction, thereby obscuring the links between what it is we have constructed and the indigenous activities in question. Owning up to these links will, however, let us see the social movements of south-west Oceania in a more useful way, not as a phenomenon that excludes those who construct it but, rather, includes them – and this from the very beginning.


48Warmest thanks to the people of Yasaburing for their hospitality and generosity in sharing their dialogues with me. To the people of other Ngaing villages, to members of the Dabsau Association and to my Papua New Guinean friends elsewhere I wish to express my gratitude for many stimulating conversations. I am greatly indebted to various institutions of government, on both the national and provincial levels but particularly to the National Research Institute and the National Archives of Papua New Guinea. Grants from the post-graduate scholarship program of Baden-Württemberg and from the German Academic Exchange Service greatly facilitated my fieldwork. I wish especially to thank Marcellin Abong and Marc Tabani for organizing the session at which this paper was first presented; also my thanks to them, the participants of the session, Steffen Herrmann and three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments, and to Wolfgang Kempf for critically discussing my ideas with me following our fieldwork. Dr Bruce Allen has kindly helped, as on so many earlier occasions, in preparing the English version of this article.



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1 Given that partitioning into cultural areas is now controversial in anthropological debate, I have taken geographical description as my benchmark, as have also Strathern, Stewart, Carucci et. al. 2002.

2 Translated from the original German by Elfriede Hermann.

3 It often happened that indigenous men who had visited Australia during World War II would then, upon returning home, launch initiatives designed to bring about a socioeconomic transformation of conditions on the ground. One interesting case is Tom Kabu, as Joshua Bell made clear in his contribution to our session.

4 See Spivak 1976: XIV-XVIII for an explanation of Derrida’s writing sous rature.

5 A similar observation was made by James Clifford at the session we held in 2009.

6 This article draws together a number of thoughts and passages taken from earlier, more exhaustive treatments of mine (Hermann 1992, 1995, 1997, 2004, 2009).

7 At their request, I refer to their village under a pseudonym.

8 Kabak and Thalia 22 September 1985. All of the Yasaburings’ quotes have been translated from the original Tok Pisin by Elfriede Hermann.

9 S. 25 May 1989.

10 P. 9 September 1990.

11 G. 27 May 1989.

12 L. 17 March 1989.

13 P. 9 September 1990.

14 S. 24 August 1990.

15 The Dabsau Association still exists. Thus, in the Weekend Courier (16-17 August 2008: 15) it was reported that its members had attended the funeral of Yali’s widow Sungum who was James’ mother. Many members of the Dabsau Association have formed a “Yali church” in the last decade. I owe this information to anthropologist Nancy Sullivan, who has been studying the activities of the Yali church and its members.

16 In 2007, after being vigorously attacked by the opposition, he was brought before the court and charged with rape. But when the next elections were held, also in 2007, he managed to win back his Rai Coast seat, from a prison cell, where he awaited the result of an appeal he had filed against the conviction (PNG Post-Courier 27 – 29 July 2007). In February 2010 he was released on parole (PNG Post-Courier 22 February 2010). I thank Steffen Dalsgaard for sending me a copy of the 2007 Post-Courier articles.

17 B. E. 2 January 1986. Translated from the original Tok Pisin by Elfriede Hermann.

18 That movements which are linked to political interests are disparagingly dubbed “cargo cult” in an effort to discredit them is a phenomenon we encounter as well in other parts of south-western Oceania. Marcellin Abong (this volume) describes this for the Nagriamel movement that originated in the mid-1960s on Santo, an island in today’s Vanuatu. See Marc Tabani (2009 and this volume) for some valuable insights into the nexi between indigenous movements and politics in Melanesia.

19 Pangu Pati was for many years the ruling party in Papua New Guinea; it was brought down in November 1985 by a vote of no confidence.


Conducted long-term research with the Ngaing of Papua New Guinea and the Banabans living on Rabi Island in Fiji, Banaba Island and Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati. Currently she is also engaged in research with various island communities in Kiribati. Her foci have been social movements, emotions, historicity, identifications, gender, migration, ethnicity, cultural transformations and transculturation, and, most recently, local perceptions of climate change. Since earning her PhD from the University of Tübingen in 1995, she has been with the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology, where she gained her venia legendi and currently has the responsibilities of a professor. From 2005 to 2011 she has also been a research fellow at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawai`i. Among her publications are Emotionen und Historizität: Der emotionale Diskurs über die Yali-Bewegung in einer Dorfgemeinschaft der Ngaing, Papua New Guinea (the conclusion is in English) (1995); and “Emotions and the Relevance of the Past: Historicity and Ethnicity among the Banabans of Fiji,” History and Anthropology 16 (3) (2005): 275 – 291; she is guest co-editor with Wolfgang Kempf of “Relations in Multicultural Fiji: Transformations, Positionings and Articulations,” a special section in Oceania 75 (4) (2005), and edited Changing Contexts – Shifting Meanings: Transformations of Cultural Traditions in Oceania (2011).

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