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A study of the harvest festival celebration in the Trobriand Islands


By Edward Oliver Russell
University of Durham

A dissertation submitted in accordance with the requirements of the University of Durham Anthropology Department for part of the degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Anthropology



        Any anthropological field trip to the Trobriand Islands is engulfed within the massive amount of publications that Bronislav Malinowski has written. His work on the Trobriand Islands "Remains the most famous, if not the most copious and exhaustive, ethnography in the Anthropological literature." (Young: 1979) Malinowski revolutionised ethnography. He was the first person who managed to spend an extended period of time amongst a community (recommended by Rivers in 1913. (Kuper: 1973)) He added to River's ideas by developing the method of statistical documentation of concrete evidence, the collection of imponderabilia of everyday life and the accumulation of a corpus inscriptorium.

        "these three lines of approach ... lead to the final goal, of which an ethnographer should never lose sight. The goal is, briefly to realise his vision of the world."(Malinowski: 1922)

        His theories on fieldwork have since been criticised, yet they laid the foundation for future ethnographers. The publication of his diaries has brought the strongest personal criticism over comments such as

       "I see the life of the natives as utterly devoid of interest or importance, something as remote from me as the life of a dog." (Malinowski: 1967)

        Geertz described Malinowski as

       "a crabbed self pre-occupied hypochondriacal narcissist, whose fellow-feeling for the people he lived with was limited in the extreme." (Young: 1979)

        Whatever the reader's views on Malinowski, he has given a lot to the discipline of social anthropology.

        The aim of this dissertation is to provide a more comprehensive account of Milimala, the Trobriand celebration of the return of the spirits. As Malinowski said in his self-critical catalogue of his "errors of omission and commission" in reference to Note 8: 'Visit of the spirits:'

       "The evidence there given is incomplete as it contains only the results of my first two expeditions to New Guinea." "

Malinowski, having written so much about other aspects, wrote surprisingly little about a major event in the Trobriand calendar. His main discussion of Milamala was in Baloma: The spirits of the dead in the Trobriand Islands (1918 Journal of the Anthropological Institute, Vol 46). Other discussions of Milamala are dotted around in his subsequent monographs on the Trobriand culture. There is also usage of other material written by subsequent authors which is provided in quotation form and a further list is provided in the bibliography.

        The author's personal material is used extensively throughout this dissertation. The author spent approximately three months with Luciana Lussu in the Trobriand Islands living in Oluweta village, a subsidiary village of Yalumgwa under the auspices of John Kasaipwalova and Chief Nalubutau. We had been introduced by our "guiding angel" Jutta Malnic. We were very kindly looked after by Kenneth and Jenny Kalabaku. Kenneth is the youngest nephew to Chief Nalubutau and has been educated at the University of Papua New Guinea. Kenneth was an invaluable interpreter and very kindly drove the author to other villages.

        The main method of research used was participant observation, by questioning and tape recording locals in Kiriwina dialect and then through translation via Kenneth at a later stage. This method was not always used as Missionaries have been educating the locals to the ways of English and hence a number speak it quite fluently. Other data for this dissertation was collected the the local hospital due to the influence of Joseph Anang.

        The dissertation attempts to balance a fine line between "new data" and "old data." "Old data" was collected from the elders and is hopefully representative of the data acquired at Malinowski's time. The author's main sources of "old data" were from Andrew Kalabaku (village leader of Oluweta) and Chief Nalubutau (Chief of Yalumgwa). Other "old data" was picked up from talking to Tolosi (the guardian of the Labai caves) and elders in Luia, Kabwaku and Yalumgwa. This "old data" is used to compare Malinowski's details of Milamala, the author's details and any subsequent authors'. There are also many areas to which Malinowski does not devote any attention (especially dancing) with which there is little to compare. The "new data" is comprehensively used in Chapter Two and Chapter Four.

        Data on the activities of Milamala was almost wholly taken from outside of Yalumgwa village. In 1991 there was no Milamala celebration in Yalumgwa so in order to obtain data, the author travelled to other villages by Toyota truck. The author also spent four days at Luia, a village in the Kuboma region, studying Milamala with an English teacher who was very informative. The lack of Milamala in Yalumgwa was a big disappointment but meant that the sources were collected from further afield.

        Another disappointment was the lack of cricketing festivities. Our hosts said that the last one had been five years previously, put up by Yalumgwa and was so expensive in food and valuables that nobody had held one since due to the inability of being able to match up to it! Thus cricket is not mentioned. There is, though, an excellent film produced by Jerry Leach on it even though it is only a reconstruction. (Weiner: 1977) Weiner described the film:

       "cricket is examined in its many levels of meaning, and, by the end of the film, cricket as played by the Trobrianders makes sense." (Weiner: 1977)

        This dissertation is split into five parts: Chapter One looks at the myth of Milamala and the sequence of ritual events in relation to the return of the spirits (Baloma). This contradicts Malinowski's view of events in numerous places. Chapter Two looks at the main activity of Milamala: night and day dances. Malinowski makes scant references to dance so much of the material is drawn from the author's sources and from Father Baldwin. Chapter Three looks at the activities during Milamala such as Kasivila, the change in the role of Karibom, the statistical evidence for increased sexual activity, the role of Kayasa, Buritilaulo and Vatowa. Chapter Four looks briefly at the political and social influences on Milamala, the change of Milamala, the present situation, and the future of Milamala. The conclusion analyzes the Milamala period and attempts to place it within anthropological theories on ritual.



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