by Michael Main

Michael Main Portrait
Michael Main has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. Michael’s PhD research focused on the Huli population in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands and the impact of ExxonMobil’s Papua New Guinea Liquefied Natural Gas project. Michael has a professional background in geology and environmental science, which underpins his interest and work in the anthropology of development and resource extraction.

The most ubiquitous tool in the mapping of social features such as clan membership, land ownership, patterns of descent and affiliation, is the making of lists. Lists including clan names, clan leaders, genealogical trees, villages, hamlets, and sites of cultural heritage to which clan ownership is ascribed. This aspect of the anthropological gaze has been widely critiqued, especially in the context of resource extraction projects and the promise of benefits to identified land owners. The people of Papua New Guinea have, perhaps more so than in any other part of the world, been subjected to an anthropological insistence on “objectifying other cultures through our reality.” 1 The result, which Burton labels the “Melanesianist paradigm”, continues to produce inadequate and unsuccessful models for social organisation, even as “anthropologists have long been familiar with … things that ruin the purity of lineages, various multilocal systems of residence which destroy simple territoriality, and a range of leadership models in which ‘consensus functions’ are not prominent.” 2 More recently the extent to which groups in Papua New Guinea choose to objectify themselves through the reality of state and company expectations is being highlighted, for example in the context of Suabi list making and their expectations for resource development: “where, before, boundaries had been mutable they were now being fixed on paper.” 3 The imposition of state-based (or state-like) expectation, the construction of lists and its role in fermenting new and adaptive social forms has a long history that can be traced to the practice of colonial administrative officers in their efforts at what they termed “land investigation.” 4 At Komo I watched members of one particular clan gather in the house where I lived making lists of sub-clan representatives, office bearers and signatories for the bank accounts that were expected to be opened for each of the 177 sub-clans at Mt Gigira so that the promised LNG royalties could be received. Yet none of what I was witnessing seemed to gel with the everyday ways in which people were relating to this corporate concept of either “clan”, or land, and none of it had anything to say about patterns of movement, residence, conflict, sources of power, or the articulation of sentimentalities about life as it was being lived.

For Huli the word “clan” has been applied to describe identifiable social groupings related to land ownership, patterns of residence and descent just as it has in all other parts of Papua New Guinea. Some researchers in Papua New Guinea have made critical examinations of the term “clan” as it applies to particular language groups. Burton points out that the word translated as clan for the Upper Watut is taka, which more closely resembles what we would understand as a surname, rather than a clan. 5 Minnegal and Dwyer translated the Kubo word oobi, which means a mound or gathering of people united by a patrifilial lineage, as “clan”, which over the past few decades has largely replaced the original term. 6 A similar situation has occurred with the Onabasulu word mosumu, where patrifilial association that is only loosely associated with rights to land has been replaced by a concept of “clan” that fixes patrilineal membership to specified areas of land for the purpose of establishing revenue-seeking Incorporated Land Groups (ILGs). 7 The reason that I am highlighting the literature that critically appraises the notion of clan in PNG is not because I wish to make a similar case for Huli, but rather to highlight the unusual agreement between western notions of clan and the Huli understanding of hameigini. The Huli hameigini has not been significantly reworked to accord with the fixed requirements of ILGs because the type of competition for land ownership that is given greater impetus by the ILG system is in many ways a continuation of the same praxis of dispute that has been occurring for centuries. The Huli hameigini, along with Huli patterns of residence and descent, have been given careful and nuanced consideration by Laurence Goldman, 8 and I do not intend to make any modifications to that work. Yet my experience of conducting fieldwork posed two questions in relation to Huli social structure: first, a full grasp of the literature on Huli social structure was not enough to remove the sense of confusion and bewilderment when confronted with Huli social structure as a lived experience; and, second, in spite of the highly complex picture that is presented by the literature and was perceived by me in the field, Huli people themselves never seemed to reflect upon this complexity or regard their own society as something that was or is terribly difficult to understand. Something has been missing from the literature that relates to a broader Hela-Huli life-world as it extends beyond the classifications even of a post-structuralist method of description, which seems to create a world of complexity by virtue of its own stylistic requirements.

Huli hameigini (referred to by Glasse as “parish”) are contained within parent units originally glossed by Robert Glasse as “phratry”. 9 A hameigini is a patrilineal descent group that is mythologically related to an apical ancestor, understood as a type of spirit or dama, who is the original inhabitor of a portion of land and part of a genealogical dama spirit tree that ultimately descends from Hela. The macro-scale knowledge of Hela is transmitted by descent through the leadership class of the dindi pongoneyi who carry inherited information about Hela genealogy, mythological history, clan migration history, and concealed spiritual and cosmological knowledge. The account given in the preface to this thesis tells of Hela being descended from Hu and Hunabe, however those figures remain unknown to all but a select few, and represents just one of a number of competing accounts. 10 Each hameigini is a branch of a higher-order ancestor and its members take the patronymic of that ancestor. This system is separate from the mythology of Hela, and, although no previous researcher (with one exception) had ever collected a genealogy that leads all the way to Hela, the genealogical linking of individuals back to Hela himself is described later in this chapter.

During my first two months at Komo I found myself busily making lists of hameigini and phratry names, not because that was what I had initially set out to do, but because my companions had decided for me that that was what I needed to do. Compiling a definitive account of Hela and finally getting that entered into a computer and perhaps even published in a book was what my friends desired my purpose to be. The person with whom I primarily worked to compile my lists was Michael Ango, son of Allan Ango who is one of the last remaining dindi pongoneyi. Allan’s eldest son, Michael, would have followed as the next dindi pongoneyi if the system of inherited Hela meta-knowledge had not almost completely been abandoned. Michael did, however, possess a lot of knowledge, he was connected to others across various parts of Hela who were also in possession of similar lines of inherited knowledge, and he was extremely keen to have a researcher such as myself get down on paper a definitive account of Hela macro-genealogy and geographical proprietorship. Michael referred to groupings at the phratry level as “major stock clans”. When I asked him how to describe the concept in the Huli language he replied that it was tene hameigini. No previous researcher had ever recorded a Huli word for phratry, and it seemed unlikely that I should have encountered such a missing term so easily. It is possible that the term was invented for me to satisfy my own questioning of what the Huli word for “major stock clan” would be. However, the term does make sense, as tene hameigini literally means the source for the hameigini. I will incorporate the phrase tene hameigini in this thesis because that is the phrase that was given to me and that appears to be currently in use. During my encounters with the way Hela history and structure is conceptualised I found that I was being expected to negotiate two defining features: one was an intense desire for a definitive account to be mapped, clarified, presented and understood; and the other was the immense scale of such a project that consisted of such highly fluid, contingent, and varying accounts across Hela territory, and throughout Hela history, that no such definitive account could possibly exist. This degree of cognitive dissonance I found very difficult to reconcile, and certainly provides the basis for much ethnographic frustration.

During my discussions with Michael I realised that what is important to understand are not definitive lists, but relationships; and the most important relationships are not those between kin or those between hameigini, but between people and the land. The relationships that people have with the land are not simply about portions of real estate, but are also about the material features of the land such as mountains, caves, swamps, waterfalls, ritual sites, and even individual trees. And the level at which these relationships need to be understood is with the individual. Goldman writes:

Actors in these systems are engaged in processes of continual reanalysing and reassessing linkages, so that perceived agnatic or cognatic definitions are not irrevocable one-time models, but rather commutable and convertible angles of vision on the same set of relationships … Understanding Huli social structure is, then, very much a task that entails locating idioms and terms in their appropriate contexts of discourse, their appropriate levels of reference, and appropriate orientations in some speaker’s viewpoint or strategy. 11

Goldman’s analysis, although he doesn’t state it directly, forces him to come to terms with the primacy of the individual in Huli society. It has not been fashionable to write about individualism in any Papua New Guinean society, except in the context of the ravages of modernity. The prevailing ethos around the collective egalitarianism of “Melanesian culture” reached its zenith with Marilyn Strathern’s construction of “a vocabulary that will allow us to talk about sociality in the singular as well as the plural” in which “Melanesian persons are as dividually as they are individually conceived,” 12 which extends even to the relational composition of “the [human] body itself”. 13 Here I labour on Strathern’s much cited claim because, over the years, this idea has been compressed and solidified into an oft-repeated singularity, that of “dividuality”, where the original nuance of Strathern’s argument has been lost. Rather than adopting Strathern’s device and applying it directly to Huli, her vocabulary provides a way for me to highlight a fundamental point of difference for Huli in comparison to other Melanesian groups. Huli prioritise the individual over the relational. This is not to suggest that relational components of Huli personhood do not exist, or that they are not significant, rather that Huli individuality is something that is largely unaccounted for in the literature. The relational components of Huli personhood are illustrated by Holly Wardlow via her interpretation of the Huli word madane as “resentment”, not in terms of the individual but as evidence for:

a specifically Melanesian construction of self, or at least a self that has been very thoroughly theorized and explored in Melanesian anthropology; that is, the relational, multiply-authored self who is embedded in networks of kinship and who, in a sense, exists and reproduces society through duties to others. 14

However, as mentioned in Chapter 1, madane is a verb that means to perform a very bad, hateful act towards someone, or something. Laurence Goldman provides a translation of madane in the context of a dispute over the cause of a woman who was burned to death: Mende amugubi libu kiraba amu dedagoni mende amugume madane buwa heda kabe = “One of the two women got burnt, and the other one how could she do some bad thing and burn her?” 15 In this case the argument is about whether there was any intentionality behind the event, or if the woman had been accidentally burned to death. Madane is used to form a rhetorical question by the person who is making the case that the event was an accident. Madane implies ill-intent because what makes the act bad is the intention behind it. How could she madane? It was an accident. Madane is also part of the language of deception and, depending on context, can mean “deceive” or “trick” and is “usually used with malicious intent.” 16 Following Li Puma, Wardlow has advocated for a more nuanced understanding of Melanesian personhood poorly understood and that is contingent and comprising of both individual and dividual aspects, and that this “more complex” perspective needs to be embraced in order to understand Huli female agency. 17 Yet for the more relational components of Huli personhood Wardlow has used the concept of resentment, via the use of the word madane, to illustrate these aspects of Huli selfhood.

Madane is a more interesting word than even Wardlow’s work has revealed. There is no English equivalent to madane, and, when asked, Huli do tend to explain madane in terms of the emotional state behind the act, rather than try to find an equivalent verb that does not exist. Lomas translates madane as “spite” and the closest English equivalent might be “to spite.” Frankel also translates madane as an emotion word that causes people to act. 18 Like Wardlow, Frankel mistakes action for motivation. So what is going on? When I asked about madane I was told that it meant “hatred”. Like resentment, hatred is a common motive behind madane. In Huli “modes of doing” include the act of saying (la: verbal) and the act of doing (bia: non-verbal). 19 Madane takes bia and is a non-verbal act. States of mind in Huli are expressed via the context of an act and are “inferred from verb form and choice.” 20 The use of a verb such as madane to describe a state of mind is therefore a characteristically Huli form of expression. Resentment may sometimes be the feeling behind madane, and the modern ubiquity of this feeling is no doubt what Wardlow picked up on when the word madane was repeatedly given to her as a description of events. Wardlow states that madane “implies action,” however it is more accurate to say that madane is action; “madane seems a close cousin of resentment, and, as the Huli suggest, “modernity” is a ‘taim bilong madane’”. 21 What Huli mean by this is that modernity is a time when people do bad things, often out of resentment. To madane is very much an individual act that is the result of individual choice. Not everybody chooses to madane as a result of resentment, and madane is non-specific and can take many forms.

The reactions against ideas of dividuality have often consisted of efforts to find some sort of compromise, or hybrid idea, and are usually formulated in the context of the impact of “western modernity.” For Lipuma, “The ethnographic goal… is to uncover the conditions (e.g., encompassment by the West) under which dividual and individual aspects of personhood emerge and are hidden.” 22 Douglas, after wrestling with the tension between Sahlins’ “social-historical individual” and Strathern’s “partible person”, decides that “a bit of both is in order.” 23 More recently, Martha Macintyre criticises the idea of “partible personhood” because it “clearly ignores the decades of influences” that modernity has imposed. 24 For Huli I wish to argue for an ethos of individuality that not only pre-existed the first contact period of the 1930s, but in many ways exceeds our own reflections upon capitalism, modernity, and the West. I also argue that what often presents as an absence of an autonomous self, bound up in social obligation and threatened by madane, is the logical product of a staunch individualism that will not permit material achievement outside the boundary of the self.

(Extract printed with permission of Michael Main. “Until Hela Becomes a City: The Western Encounter with Huli Modernity”. Doctoral Dissertation, Canberra: Australian National University, 2020. pp. 276-285.)

(Photo courtesy of Sliweg Photography).

  1. Roy Wagner, The Invention of Culture (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 144. []
  2. John E. Burton, C’est qui, le patron? Kinship and the rentier leader in the Upper Watut, Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Working Paper No. 1 (Canberra: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Project, Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 1997), 1. []
  3. Monica Minnegal and Peter Dwyer, Navigating the Future: An Ethnography of Change in Papua New Guinea, Asia-Pacific Environment Monograph 11 (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2017). []
  4. Colin Filer, “The Role of Land-Owning Communities in Papua New Guinea’s Mineral Policy Framework,” in International and Comparitive Mineral Law and Policy: Trends and Prospects, ed. Elizabeth Bastida, Thomas Wälde, and Janeth Warden-Fernández (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2005), 912. []
  5. John E. Burton, C’est qui, le patron? Kinship and the rentier leader in the Upper Watut, 1. []
  6. Monica Minnegal and Peter Dwyer, Navigating the Future: An Ethnography of Change in Papua New Guinea, x. []
  7. Monica Minnegal and Peter Dwyer, “Boundaries and Barriers among Kubo and Beyond,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 120, no. 4 (2011). []
  8. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 22-25. []
  9. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua: A Cognatic Descent system, 23. []
  10. After telling me this and the other information contained in the preface, Allan Ango began to despair that he did not know what might happen to the world as a result of this information being given out, and that he would have to kill a pig to appease the land. The reason for his decision to talk to me was that he equally despaired that this information was being lost and needed to be preserved. []
  11. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 23. []
  12. Marilyn Strathern, The Gender of the Gift (Berkely, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1988), 13. []
  13. Ibid., 208. “In the partibility of its extensions into relations beyond itself and in the internal relations that compose its substance, the body consequently appears as a result of people’s actions.” []
  14. Holly Wardlow, “Transformations of Desire: Envy and Resentment among the Huli of Papua New Guinea,” in The Making of Global and Local Modernities in Melanesia, ed. Joel Robbins and Holly Wardlow (Hampshire and Burlington: Ashgate, 2005), 65. []
  15. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 328. []
  16. Laurence Goldman, “Talk Never Dies: an analysis of disputes among the Huli,” pp. 161,186 and 413. []
  17. Holly Wardlow, Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society, 8. []
  18. Stephen Frankel, The Huli Response to Illness, 143 []
  19. Laurence Goldman, Talk Never Dies: The Language of Huli Disputes, 28. []
  20. Laurence Goldman, The Culture of Coincidence: Accident and Absolute Liability in Huli, 298. []
  21. Holly Wardlow, “Transformations of Desire: Envy and Resentment among the Huli of Papua New Guinea,” 64. []
  22. Edward LiPuma, Encompassing Others: The Magic of Modernity in Melanesia (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000), 135. []
  23. Bronwen Douglas, “Rank, Power, Authority: A Reassessment of Traditional Leadership in South Pacific Societies,” in Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology (Amsteradm: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998), 33. []
  24. Martha Macintyre, “Introduction: Flux and change in Melanesian gender relations,” in Transformations of Gender in Melanesia, ed. M. Macintyre and Ceridwen Spark, Pacific Series (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2017), 6. []