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ETHNONYMS: Bileki, Muku, Nakanai, West Nakanai


Identification. The Lakalai are distinguished from speakers of related dialects and languages, all labeled Nakanai, by the absence of the phoneme n in their language. Most have learned to pronounce this phoneme through exposure to Pidgin English, and they often identify themselves to outsiders simply as West Nakanai.

Location. Located approximately 150°30 to 150°6 E and 5°25 to 5°40 S, Lakalai villages are on the central and Eastern part of the Hoskins Peninsula on the island of New Britain. The climate is warm and humid by day, cool at night, with an annual rainfall of about 355.6 centimeters and a well-marked rainy season when the northwest monsoon blows from December through March. An active volcano, Pago, erupted frequently early in the century, leading to abandonment of many villages as ash falls destroyed crops. The volcanic soil is fertile, but freshwater sources are few and Generally close to the beach, as, perforce, are most of the villages.

Demography. The population increased from under 2,700 in 1954 to almost 6,500 in 1980. The expansion reflects recovery from depopulation occasioned by Japanese occupation during World War II, coupled with the abolition of warfare and access to Western medicine. Many Lakalai now want to limit family size to about five children.

Linguistic Affiliation. Lakalai is an Oceanic (Austronesian) language, the westernmost of a chain of dialects also spoken in Ubae, in the West Nakanai Census Division, and in coastal villages of Central Nakanai Census Division, to the east. Their closest relatives are East Nakanai (Meramera, Ubili), still farther east, and, to the west, Xarua and the Languages of the Willaumez Peninsula (Bola or Bakovi, and Bulu). An early theory that this whole group of languages, classed together as Kimbe or Willaumez, represented a backmigration from islands located much farther east is probably incorrect.

History and Cultural Relations

Culturally, Lakalai differ very little from speakers of related branches of Nakanai to the east and from other residents of the West Nakanai Census Division, some of whom (the Bebeli or Banaule) speak a very different language. Prior to World War I, when New Britain was still part of German New Guinea, labor recruiters began to visit the Lakalai region, occasionally "blackbirding," kidnapping men to work on plantations as far away as Samoa. Many young men voluntarily went to work on plantations on the Gazelle Peninsula of East New Britain, where European settlements date to the nineteenth century, and returned home with steel tools and other European goods. As the region east of Lakalai became pacified, Tolai traders from the Gazelle Peninsula began visiting Lakalai. Ties with the Tolai, whose language was used by the Methodist mission, are still strong, and initially they helped lay the groundwork for the acceptance of foreign missionaries.

Nevertheless, major social change did not occur until the imposition of Australian rule and the arrival of Christian missionaries (Methodist and Roman Catholic) in the 1920s. Warfare was suppressed and traditional political organization partially replaced by a system of government-appointed Officials. In 1968, local government councils were instituted. The desire for foreign goods such as steel tools, and later the need to pay taxes, led almost all unmarried men to engage in wage labor outside Lakalai. With the establishment of government schools to replace or supplement mission schools, education improved greatly after 1968. By the 1970s, several men had gained degrees at the national universities, but today school fees are an increasing burden for parents. Lakalai is now linked by road to the provincial capital at Kimbe, and the greatly increased contact with outsiders has considerably altered village life. All Lakalai are Christians, the majority Roman Catholic, though many traditional beliefs remain. An antigovernment cargo cult that began in 1941 flourished for decades but was quiescent by the 1980s. Cash earned from markets and cash crops is supplemented by money sent by children working elsewhere, repaying sums spent educating them.


Traditionally, villages were small, probably containing no more than 150 inhabitants, but most were divided into two or more named hamlets, each with its own men's house, feasting area, and dance plaza. The hamlet contained shade and fruit trees but was kept free of weeds and grass. Many family houses contained an extended family, but each adult woman had her own cooking hearth. Each village shared a garden site and freshwater supply. Two or more adjacent villages constituted a territory within which relations were usually friendly. Villages of the same territory were connected by paths, intermarried, attended each other's ceremonies, and collaborated in warfare. The colonial authorities objected to the fissioning of established villages, and present-day ones are much larger and often lack men's houses, but hamlet affiliation is still important. Also as the result of government pressure, most dwellings are now built on piles, with separate cooking houses based on the ground and often slept in by the elderly.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional starch staple was taro, harvested and replanted daily. Because of a taro blight, beginning about 1960, this crop has been largely replaced by introduced crops, particularly manioc and sweet potatoes, and increasingly by purchased rice. Many other crops, both traditional and introduced, are grown; breadfruit, coconuts, bananas, papayas, Canarium almonds, and a variety of greens are the most important. In the past, various wild foods supplemented the cultigens, but now the only important one is sago. The hunting of small wild game such as marsupials and birds has also been abandoned, but wild pigs are still an important contribution to the diet, being netted, trapped, or nowadays killed with shotguns. The everyday protein supply comes from fish, shellfish and, during most of the year, megapode eggs laid in holes in a thermal Region that the nearby eastern villages try to keep for their exclusive use. Those who have the cash often buy canned fish or meat, but no one is dependent on food from trade stores. Some tobacco is grown, and many betel (areca) nuts. Markets just beyond Lakalai are now accessible by road, and women sell surplus coconuts, betel nuts, megapode eggs, and fruit to foreigners living near government posts. Some of these Foreigners also buy fish from Lakalai men. Cash crops are now a major source of income. The principal ones are coconuts (from which copra is made), cacao, and, most recently, oil palm.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, these included highly decorated canoes, spears (some covered with shells for use in Marriage payments), carved shields, slings, a variety of nets, coiled and plaited baskets, bags, pandanus sleeping mats, and bark-cloth slings for carrying babies. Elaborate painted bark-cloth masks and carved objects were made for ceremonies, and dances were accompanied by wooden slit gongs and hourglass drums. Specialists made ornaments of tortoiseshell, shell, and plaited fiber. The manufacture of ornaments, bark-cloth slings, traditional weapons, and special canoes used for racing has been abandoned.

Trade. This was regarded as highly dangerous, necessitating contact with clan mates who lived in enemy territory. The Lakalai received obsidian, red paint, and tortoiseshell from the Willaumez Peninsula, and they passed on shell beads traded from the east by the Tolai, who bought the shells from which they manufactured their own shell money (tambu ) in Nakanai-speaking regions. Tambu shells are still sold to the Tolai, nowadays for cash.

Division of Labor. Cooperation in such enterprises as house building and canoe manufacture typically involves hamlet mates together with affines and consanguineal kin from other hamlets of the village. For small-scale enterprises, men are likely to cooperate with partners specially selected to share a particular activity. They often exchange food with each other. Men clear bush, fence gardens, build houses, fish in the sea, and hunt. Until warfare over control of the egg fields ended, they also collected megapode eggs; now women do. Men manufacture fish nets and pig nets, canoes, and the coiled baskets used by women. Men and women cooperate to make sago. Women plant and harvest all garden crops, cook everything except food for special men's feasts, fish with hand nets in streams, collect shellfish in swamps, and care for Domestic pigs. They manufacture bags, pandanus sleeping mats, and skirts, some of which are used as dowry and marriage payments. Child care is increasingly shared by both parents. Of the cash crops, men plant and harvest coconuts and oil palms, though women may help in the preparation of copra. Both sexes plant and harvest cacao.

Land Tenure. Land is vested in the clan, and use rights to garden on it are granted by the senior resident male to nonclan members such as children and grandchildren of men of the clan and phratry mates. With the expanding population and much land permanently under cash crops, clan segments have begun to be less generous to other outsiders. Trees are inherited separately but revert to the landowners if no direct descendants of the planter remain in the area. Some productive reefs are also claimed by clans.


Kin Groups and Descent. Every Lakalai is born into a named, nonlocalized, agamous matrilineal descent group, called a "sib" or "clan" in the literature. Each has several food taboos, which differ for subclans, and a sacred place (olu ) in which the dead of the clan reside. Clans that share an olu or a food taboo consider each other "brothers" and so constitute phratries. The clan owns garden land, incorporeal property such as mask designs and magical spells, and portable wealth used to finance marriages of clan members and to settle feuds. Because clans are dispersed throughout Lakalai, only the local segment constitutes a social group, headed by the senior male. The father's clan also feels responsibility for the "children of the clan." Finally, all coresidents of a hamlet regard each other as members of a bilateral kindred.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is Iroquoistype, with relative age being indicated for siblings of the same sex. Because of consanguineal, clan, phratry, and hamlet ties, kinship terms are extended to all members of the village, many being related in more than one way. Classificatory Siblings are preferred to those labeled as cross cousins, with whom there is an avoidance relationship. Cross cousins may be married by arrangement, but marriages resulting from love affairs typically involve classificatory siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages may be either arranged by the father and mother's brother of each partner, acting together, or result from elopement, if the kin of the couple give their approval. Sister exchange is liked, but it still involves bride-wealth, which is contributed by the groom's clan and that of his Father and is highest for arranged marriages. Divorce is rare after the birth of the children, most of whom stay with the mother, especially if she did not instigate the divorce. Many men try polygyny as an alternative to divorce, but women strongly dislike the practice, and stable polygynous marriages are rare. Both the sororate and the levirate are practiced. Postmarital residence is normally patrivirilocal until the groom's father dies, at which point the man may join other kin, including clan mates. Christianity and other Western Influences have greatly reduced the incidence of arranged Marriages. An increasing number of younger Lakalai, especially men, marry non-Lakalai.

Domestic Unit. A woman usually lives with her husband's kin until several children are born, at which time the couple build a house of their own but may still share it with the husband's married brother or other kin. Increasingly, partly Because of mission pressure, a young couple may have their own house much earlier.

Inheritance. Most wealth is held by men, who can dispose of it before death, with the bulk being kept for the bride-wealth of sons. Productive trees may be planted for children of both sexes. Some magic, being clan-owned, should only be taught to a sister's child.

Socialization. This is primarily in the hands of the parents, aided by the father's elder brother. The mother's brother may give instruction, but unlike the parents and the father's brother, he should not scold or strike a child. Children are warned against involvement in clan feuds, and taught to behave in ways that will make them desirable spouses. Sexual behavior is relatively free, but a girl is expected to be secretive about her affairs. Extramarital pregnancy is strongly disapproved.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Under the leadership of one or more senior men, the hamlet acts as a unit in economic activities, including putting on feasts and sharing food received at feasts given by other hamlets. All protein food should be shared within the hamlet. Rivalry between hamlet heads, and covert clan feuds, weaken village cooperation, but crosscutting kin ties bind residents together, as does common reliance on a few ritual specialists such as a garden magician. Clan mates need not live in the same hamlet, and they act as a unit only at weddings and when producing masks and performing dances for ceremonies. A woman, as the continuation of the descent group, should be respected by her brother, but in general women are denigrated, and male solidarity, including that between brothers-in-law, disadvantages women. An abused wife may, however, shame her husband by cursing him in public, or she may leave him if her kin agree that she has been badly mistreated. Too much contact with women, and especially with menstrual blood and blood shed in childbirth, is thought to weaken men. In the past, men usually slept in a separate men's house and avoided contact with young babies, considered contaminated by the aura of childbirth. These attitudes have weakened greatly in recent years, but some menstrual taboos are still observed. The overall position of women has improved somewhat because of missionary influence.

Political Organization. Each hamlet is led by one or more senior men, literally called "big-men." They must have demonstrated ability to finance marriages and otherwise care for dependents and to sponsor ceremonies. In addition, each clan segment is headed by the senior male. In the past, leading warriors who also belonged to a clan holding land near the village were invested with a wristband containing a powerful spirit, which enabled them to settle quarrels as well as to continue success in battle. Because these men, called suara, tended to promote the interests of their own clans and Hamlets, the ideal solution was agreement by all the big-men to elect one as village chief. He carried no arms and was supported in his decisions by the remaining suara. Without such a chief, hamlets and villages often broke up. At present, elected officials handle village affairs, but hamlet and clan heads continue as in the past.

Social Control. Fear of being shamed by their elders and inability to finance their own marriages help to keep younger men well-behaved. In the past, threats of sorcery and beatings and the intervention of suara impeded open wrongdoing. Today, village courts and the external police and judicial System are resorted to when the scolding of elders is ineffective. Fear of Hell is also said to influence some of the more devout Christians.

Conflict. In the past, conflict between territories was often triggered by offenses such as the abduction of a woman or theft of a pig across the boundaries. When tired of fighting, the war leaders, united by their possession of the same kind of wristband, oversaw formal peace ceremonies at which compensation was paid for deaths.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. A single god, Sumua, resides in the volcano and controls the taro crop. Although beliefs about him were incorporated in the cargo-cult myth, he is thought to have become inactive with the spread of Christianity. Uncleared bush and the high seas are the domain of a variety of spirits, which can also enter villages after dark. Ghosts of near kin may be helpful, but in general spirits are at best unpredictable and are likely to be dangerous to the living.

Religious Practitioners. Specialist magicians perform Garden magic for the benefit of coresidents; specialist war magicians were equally useful in the past. Weather magicians are often hired to bring or prevent rain. Most men know spells for love magic, hunting, and fishing. Most older men are thought to know death-dealing sorcery, but deaths tend to be blamed on a few whose ancestors were renowned sorcerers. Both sexes rescue souls captured by ghosts and act as curers. Women are most likely to know magic relating to female fertility and child growth.

Ceremonies. The most important but most infrequent is the mage, which honors the dead kin of the sponsor. The climax involves dances and other performances and the distribution of feast foods, including domestic pork. Sponsoring mage is a major avenue to renown. Every dry season, men wearing masks (valuku ) peculiar to their clan parade through the villages, sometimes chasing and beating women and Children. In the past, when boys reached maturity, groups of them assumed a special headdress and also paraded, indicating their readiness for marriage. A joint ceremony honoring young girls occurs when they first put on leaf skirts. Other small ceremonies celebrate a girl's menarche and the first time a first-born child of either sex does something new. All ceremonies are generally enjoyable occasions, and religious aspects are minimal, even for the mage and the valuku. A Father is obliged to sponsor ceremonies honoring his children; men competing for status put on more spectacular Ceremonies than the occasion demands. The form and content of ceremonies has altered in recent years, but all persist apart from the one indicating maturity for boys.

Arts. Designs for masks, face paint worn by dancers and other participants in ceremonies, carved and painted canoes, and shields are all of the same sort, and all of them belong to the clan of the person who first discovers the design (often in a dream) or invents it. The Lakalai greatly value innovation in art, even though new designs must conform to a fairly rigid pattern, and they also praise new songs and dances. Major artists are men, but women compose songs, especially dirges, and sometimes learn new mask designs and songs in dreams. Men are the principal performers in dances and mage, in which they hope to attract the sexual interest of female spectators.

Medicine. Most remedies involve spells, but minor ailments may be treated by herbs alone. Today, Western Medicine supplements traditional cures.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, the dead were buried in the house floor. If a mage was planned, the left humerus was exhumed so it could be used as the focus of the Ceremony, and afterward it was attached to a spear with which a man was killed. With the prohibition of all these activities by the Australian government, the dead are now buried in village cemeteries, and other relics take the place of the humerus. Mourning involves the seclusion of the widow and long-term abstention from favorite foods by all close kin, and it is still observed in attenuated form. Souls of the dead are simultaneously thought to live in the olu, in a ghostly village in the bush, in the cemetery, and in the Christian Heaven.

See alsoTolai


Chowning, Ann (1965-1966). "Lakalai Kinship." Anthropological Forum 1:476-501.

Chowning, Ann (1973). "Inspiration and Convention in Lakalai Paintings." In Art and Artists of Oceania, edited by S. M. Mead and B. Kernot, 91-104. Mill Valley, Calif.: Ethnographic Arts Publications.

Chowning, Ann, and Ward H. Goodenough (1965-1966). "Lakalai Political Organization." Anthropological Forum 1:412-473.

Goodenough, Ward H. (1971). "The Pageant of Death in Nakanai." In Melanesia: Readings on an Area, edited by Lewis L. Langness and John C. Wechsler, 270-290. Scranton, Pa.: Chandler.

Valentine, Charles A. (1961). Masks and Men in a Melanesian Society: The Valuku or Tubuan of the Lakalai of New Britain. Lawrence: University of Kansas, Social Science Studies.

Valentine, Charles A. (1965). "The Lakalai of New Britain." In Gods, Ghosts, and Men: Some Religions of Australian New Guinea and the New Hebrides, edited by P. Lawrence and M. J. Meggitt, 162-197. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.