New Caledonians

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New Caledonians

PRONUNCIATION: n(y)oo kal-uh-DOHN-ee-uhns
ALTERNATE NAMES: Kanaks (indigenous Melanesians)
LOCATION: New Caledonia (island chain in South Pacific between Australia and Vanuatu)
POPULATION: 224,824 (July 2008 estimate)
LANGUAGE: 39 indigenous languages; French (official), Javanese,Tahitian,Vietnamese,Wallisian
RELIGION: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant); Islam


The island chain of New Caledonia presents a cosmopolitan mix of cultures from many parts of the world. The original inhabitants are Melanesians, sometimes called "Kanaks." The term "kanaks" can have both positive and negative associations, depending on who is using it and in what manner. There have been French settlers in the islands since the 19th century, and their impact in terms of culture, language, and food can be clearly seen. Asians from Vietnam and Indonesia have also settled in New Caledonia and created their own immigrant communities. Lastly, Polynesian migrants from other parts of the French Pacific, especially Tahiti and the Wallis and Futuna islands, have relocated to New Caledonia in hopes of finding economic prosperity.


New Caledonia is part of the Melanesian culture area of the South Pacific. New Caledonia is situated east of Australia and west of Vanuatu. New Caledonia is the third largest island in the South Pacific following New Guinea and New Zealand. There is a large chain of mountains that runs north and south and divides the island into two regions: a dry west coast area and a wet, tropical east coast area. The entire island is encircled by a barrier reef, creating the world's largest lagoon around the island. The main island of New Caledonia is referred to as "Grande Terre." There are several smaller islands and chains of islands that belong to the Territory of New Caledonia and Dependencies. New Caledonia has been an overseas territory of France since 1956. The French have had some sort of political control over the island group since the first French missionaries landed and settled at Balade in 1843. French settlers took land away from the indigenous Melanesians of New Caledonia and relocated them to reservations just as the Native Americans were. This history has left permanent scars for many New Caledonians and can be a source of friction between the two groups. The current population of New Caledonia is nearly 225,000.


By the latest count, there are 39 living indigenous Austronesian languages spoken in New Caledonia. Some of these languages have been described by missionary linguists, are now written, and have been used to translate the New Testament. Many others have not been studied by outsiders. Other languages spoken in New Caledonia include French, Javanese, Tahitian, Vietnamese, the Malayo-Polynesian language Wallisian, and Tayo, a French-based Creole. Tayo has about 2,000 speakers who live primarily in the village of St. Louis. Over 50,000 New Caledonians speak French as their first language.


Indigenous New Caledonian groups have large bodies of myth regarding their social histories and genealogies. Many groups have totemic myths that recount how the natural symbol of the group, an animal, plant, or mineral, came to stand for that group. These myths also describe the migrations of the splinter groups that have left the original group over time. Indigenous New Caledonians have an unusual metaphor for this relationship. While most Austronesian groups in the Pacific use the branches of the tree as a metaphor for genealogical relationships, the New Caledonians use mounds of earth to describe them. Each clan house is built on a mound that is named. The names of all the clan house mounds are recounted in story form to tell the migration history of the clan and to demonstrate the social ties that bind distant communities.


Christianity is the majority religion in New Caledonia, with around 90% of the population claiming to be Christian. Of these, 60% are Roman Catholic and the other 30% are Protestant. Islam is the religion of approximately 4% of the New Caledonian population, and the vast majority of the Muslims are from Indonesia. The remaining 5% of the population follows traditional religious practices and has not been affected by missionary activity.


The only national holiday in New Caledonia is Bastille Day, celebrated July 14. The various ethnic groups that live in New Caledonia all celebrate their own secular and religious holidays. Indigenous New Caledonians celebrate certain rituals that could be considered the equivalent of religious holidays.


Passage through the various stages of life is marked by ceremony and the exchange of commodities among the indigenous New Caledonians following traditional cultural patterns. Other groups on the island recognize culturally significant events such as birth, marriage, and death in their own ways. The Javanese tradition of slametan, or feasting, has been brought to New Caledonia. This feast is performed on important days within the ritual calendar and marks the passage of time within certain events. For instance, slametan are given seven days after a birth and also seven months after a birth.


Until the French colonial administration pacified hostilities among the indigenous New Caledonians, warfare and raiding were endemic to the island. The New Caledonians hesitated to take control of the land of a group they had beaten in battle because of fear of retribution by the ghosts and spirits of the group. The victors would encourage the village priest to placate the spirits, and only then might they consider taking up residence on the newly acquired land.

Kinship relations dictate the nature of interpersonal relations among the indigenous New Caledonians. The maternal uncle is extremely important for indigenous New Caledonians; he must be given gifts at the occurrence of births, deaths, and marriages.


There are a wide range of living conditions among the New Caledonians. Those people that live in the capital city of Noumea may experience a very cosmopolitan lifestyle. The amenities of life are essentially the same as those of most middle class Americans. Socio-economic status determines what lifestyle a family will have in the city.

Indigenous groups in New Caledonia have villages arranged around a rectangular plaza that is flanked by beehive-shaped family houses. At the end of each line of family houses is the larger, beehive-shaped clan-house, or men's house. This house is off-limits to women, except during special events. As opposed to other groups in Melanesia, the indigenous New Caledonians do not store their clan artifacts and treasures in the clan house; instead, they build separate small houses to store them. These structures are fenced in to keep women and children from seeing the items of ritual significance that are stored inside. Behind the houses, running parallel with the plaza space, are street-like spaces. Beyond these spaces are small, rectangular-shaped work sheds where the activities of pottery making, wood carving, and mask-making take place. At the furthest point away from the plaza are the huts for menstruating women.

Most of the roads in New Caledonia are unpaved. Railroads do not exist on the island. Transportation for the indigenous New Caledonians that still follow traditional ways of life include travel by foot, by canoe, and, in some cases, by light truck or bus. Airfields have been built in many parts of the islands to facilitate economic development and increase mobility.


Indigenous New Caledonians have separate living quarters for men as opposed to women and children. Men spend most of their time in the clan house. Each married woman has her own separate house where she lives with her unmarried children. Marriage partners are typically chosen from members of the mother's clan, and the preference is for a man to marry his mother's brother's daughter. In the most traditional New Caledonian villages, these arrangements are made by infant or child betrothal. This means that a baby girl will be betrothed to a man or boy much older than she. The marriage will not be formally transacted until after she has reached puberty; however, it does mean that the ages of the married couple will be wildly divergent and the wife will greatly outlive her husband.


The cosmopolitan nature of New Caledonian society presents wide variety in terms of clothing and adornment. In Noumea, a range of styles of dress can be found, in many cases related to the ethnicity of the individual. Modern French fashion coexists alongside peasant attire adopted by some of the resident indigenous New Caledonians of the city. Traditional attire is worn only by a few indigenous groups on the island nowadays.


The traditional foods of the indigenous New Caledonians are taro root and yams. Taro is classified as a "wet" food and is associated with females, while yams are classified as a "dry" food and associated with males. Yams are the focus of much symbolic and ritual activity for traditional New Caledonians. Indigenous New Caledonians also keep domesticated chickens as a food source for special occasions. Fishing is important, while hunting is far less so.

Urban New Caledonians eat a wide variety of foods and have an extensive array of restaurants at their disposal. There are grocery stores as well as specialty shops that sell specific kinds of foodstuffs.


As a French possession, public education is conducted within a French framework. Noumea has many educational opportunities, especially for the French population. The indigenous New Caledonian population has less access to formal education. The literacy rate among both adult men and women in New Caledonia is approximately 96%. The remaining 4% is constituted by the indigenous New Caledonians that have not been integrated into the larger society.


Traditional forms of dance and music are still performed in indigenous New Caledonian villages. Popular music from France and French Polynesia can also be heard in New Caledonia. The various ethnic groups that have immigrated to the island also brought their music traditions with them. The culture of compact disk music guarantees a continual stream of new musical influences into Noumea.


Nickel mining and smelting is one of the major industries in New Caledonia. New Caledonia possesses about 35% of the world's total nickel deposits. Many mine workers, however, are not from New Caledonia, but are instead immigrant workers from other parts of the South Pacific, especially Wallis and Futuna Islands. The tourist industry also employs many workers in New Caledonia. The majority of workers in the service area of tourism are New Caledonians. Most of New Caledonia's tourists come from Japan to spend their honeymoons.


There is a wide range of sports available in New Caledonia, and, again, socio-economic status dictates the spectra within which any individual can participate. Golf, tennis, and soccer are all popular sports, especially among the French New Caledonians.


There are broadcast television stations as well as a handful local radio stations in New Caledonia. In Noumea and other areas that have electricity, television, video, and DVDs are popular forms of entertainment.


New Caledonian indigenous groups are very well known for their distinctive style of masks. The nose of New Caledonian masks forms a hooked beak. This style of mask is very well represented in museums throughout the world.

Indigenous New Caledonians also make carvings and sculptures that decorate the village houses. Some of these items are now marketed for tourist consumption.


Land rights are an important issue for indigenous New Caledonians. A large portion of their traditional lands were confiscated by French settlers in the colonial period. Efforts to reclaim those lands are underway by groups that were displaced. Other groups that were able to maintain their traditional lands and ways of life are struggling to continue their cultural patterns into the next century.


New Caledonia belongs to the Melanesian culture area, which is characterized by sexual segregation and antagonism. The degrees to which sexual segregation and antagonism were part of precontact culture are not well understood by anthropologists. However, it is clear that in contemporary New Caledonian Kanak society, aggression towards women is a major social and medical problem. One issue of concern is the increasing risk of the transmission of HIV/AIDS and STDs to women through patterns of sexual aggression and assault by men. The emerging pattern is one of gender violence towards women perpetuated by spouses, relatives, and colleagues.


Duituturaga, Emele. "New Caledonia: Fatal Intimacy: Gender Dynamics of STD and HIV/AIDS." Pacific AIDS Alert Bulletin 19: 14-15, 2000.

Leenhardt, Maurice. Do kamo: Person and Myth in the Melanesian World. Trans. B. M. Gulati. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

—by J. Williams

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New Caledonians

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