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PRONUNCIATION: nee-vahn-(y)uh-WAH-too
POPULATION: 218,000 (estimated 2007)
LANGUAGE: English, French, and Bislama


The Ni-Vanuatu are the Melanesian inhabitants of the island chain known today as the Republic of Vanuatu. From the time of its European discovery until the time of its independence in 1980, the Y-shaped chain of islands was known as the New Hebrides. Vanuatu is probably best known to Americans as the setting for the James Michener novel that was made into the musical "South Pacific." The American reality-television show "Survivor: Vanuatu" was filmed on the island in 2004. The American view of this island and the South Pacific in general does not do justice to the reality of the cultural diversity of this island group.


Vanuatu is located squarely in the heart of the Melanesian culture area. Vanuatu's nearest neighbors are New Caledonia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. A total of 83 islands make up the Republic of Vanuatu. Twelve of the islands are considered the main islands of the group. The islands are both of volcanic and coral formation, providing for a wide range of topography within the country. Some islands are very mountainous and are covered in lush vegetation. The climate ranges from oceanic tropical to subtropical depending on island type and geographical location. November through April is the hot, rainy season for the Ni-Vanuatu. This is also the period of the most hurricane activity that passes through the islands. The three largest islands are Espirtu Santo, Malakula, and Efate. The capital city of Vanuatu, Port Vila, is located on Efate and has a population of approximately 33,700. The only other town in the chain is Luganville, which is located on Espirtu Santo. Luganville has a population of only around 10,700. The total population of the Republic of Vanuatu was estimated to be 218,000 in 2007.


With over 100 distinct languages spoken in the Republic of Vanuatu, it ranks as one of the nations of the world with the greatest amount of linguistic diversity per square mile. Many of these languages have never been described by anthropologists, linguists, or missionaries. There are three official languages in the Republic of Vanuatu: English, French, and Bislama. The first two owe to the island's colonial history: it was jointly administered by Great Britain and France. Bislama is a contact language that is derived from a form of South Pacific English that spread with European economic activities in the region during the 19th century. The name Bislama comes from the English rendering of the French phrase "beche de mer" that refers to the edible sea slug that was economically important during that time.


For many traditional communities in Vanuatu, the yam is a secondary source of food after the taro root, but of primary importance in terms of cultural ideology and symbolism. The cycle of yam cultivation in many communities dictates the sequence of ritual activities. Appropriately enough, there are important myths regarding yams. Among the speakers of the Sa language on South Pentecost Island, there is a myth recounting the origin of yams that goes essentially as follows:

In the beginning, there was no food. There was an old man who stayed alone in his hut, lying down and never going out. One day, he was cutting his fingernails and toenails and he threw the pieces out the door. The nails sprouted a plant that grew out of the ground. He tasted the plant and it tasted good. He called to his children and told them to clear a spot in the forest but he would not tell them why they were doing the work. When the spot was cleared, he instructed his children to kill him, cut him up, and bury the pieces in the spot they had cleared. He had given them his buttocks as a charm and it caused the yams that grew from his body parts to be enormous.

Other tribal groups in Vanuatu have similar myths regarding important parts of the natural and supernatural world.


The predominant religion of the Ni-Vanuatu is Christianity. However, a large number of Ni-Vanuatu still practice traditional, indigenous religion and there are certain cargo cults on the islands. The most well-known of those is the John Frum movement that started in the 1930s. The John Frum movement exists in opposition to the Christian church and its followers often see it as a way to better their material lives. The message of the John Frum movement has been to maintain the traditional ways of life that the Christian church tried to abolish, such as kava drinking, traditional dancing, and other behaviors that were viewed as "pagan" by church authorities.


The largest national holiday in Vanuatu is Independence Day, celebrated on July 30. There are usually many local as well as national competitions that co-occur with Independence Day celebrations. In the community of Sulpher Bay, on the island of Tanna, John Frum Day is celebrated in February.


In the tribal societies of Vanuatu, passage from one stage of life to another is often marked with rituals, symbolic behaviors, and overt physical alterations. Male initiation is widespread in the Melanesian culture area to which Vanuatu belongs. Not all tribal Ni-Vanuatu practice male initiation now or in the past. In groups where male initiation is practiced, it usually involves the cutting of the foreskin of the penis. The young man then wears a plaited fiber cover over the penis called a "penis-wrapper." Males who would refuse to undergo the operation may not be considered adult men.

In the northern islands of the chain, tribal Ni-Vanuatu have a cultural pattern of ranked status grades that primarily men pass through during adulthood. The named stages are entered through the purchase of various symbols associated with the grade and a large sacrifice of animals. Traditionally, pigs are the currency by which an individual accedes through the ranks. They are all the animals that are ritually slaughtered at the culmination of the event. In some cases, women may also pass through the stages of rank.


The interpersonal relations of traditional Ni-Vanuatu are governed by the nature of the genealogical relationship between the participants. In some communities, there is a strict avoidance between brothers and sisters. They are not permitted to talk or even occupy the same space after passing puberty. Interactions between brothers and sisters in these communities must be accomplished by a young girl who acts as an intermediary.


Over 85% of the population of the Republic of Vanuatu is rural. Most rural villages are now located in the coastal plain regions of the islands. Prior to European involvement in the islands, villages were located in the upland regions to provide for some defense against enemy raids that were endemic. Housing styles vary considerably from region to region. The urban Ni-Vanuatu occupy a range of dwellings comparable to those found in North America. Houses constructed of the remains of other buildings are found on the fringes of the city, while modern homes, apartments, and condominiums are found in the city itself. The rural housing ranges from traditional construction out of locally produced materials to mixed construction that utilizes traditional elements like woven bamboo walls and earthen floors as well as galvanized sheet metal for roofs.

Health treatment is limited for the Ni-Vanuatu. There are only two hospitals in the islands, one in Port Vila and the other in Luganville. These are most accessible to the urban Ni-Vanuatu. The rural Ni-Vanuatu do not have easy access to medical facilities or health care. There are several development agencies that work with the national government in an effort to improve health care delivery systems for the rural population.

The city of Port Vila has many of the amenities that Americans are accustomed to. There are several fine restaurants encompassing a fairly wide range of cuisine including Continental French, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Clubs, movie theaters, and other places for night time entertainment are available.


For the rural Ni-Vanuatu who still reside in traditional villages, the choice of a marriage partner is determined by considerations of kinship and descent. Some societies divide the entire population into two groups, loosely related by descent, and the marriage partner must come from the opposite group. The marriage itself is usually accompanied by the exchange of certain products including woven mats and pigs. Among the Tannese of the TAFEA district of Vanuatu, sister-exchange marriage is practiced. Sister-exchange marriage requires that a male may not marry unless he has a sister to exchange in return for his prospective bride.

In the northern part of Vanuatu (Espiritu Santo, Sakao, Ambae and others), descent is reckoned along matrilineal lines. In the central and southern islands (Pentecost, Ambrym, Efate, Erromongo, Tanna, and others), descent is reckoned patrilineally.


There is a wide range of clothing found among the Ni-Vanuatu. The urban Ni-Vanuatu dress in a style that would be familiar to most Americans. Traditional villages often combine styles of Western dress with more indigenous forms of dress and adornment. Women often wear fiber skirts and go topless, while men might wear a traditional pubic covering or a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.


Food choices and food preparation varies between the rural and urban Ni-Vanuatu. The urban dwellers have a wide selection of food options. Shops sell imported food products while the large marketplace that operates in Port Vila brings in traditional food crops from the rural areas. Restaurants are also available to the urban population. The choice of food depends upon the income of the family. For the rural Ni-Vanuatu, the food choices are much more limited. Traditional food crops such as taro root and yams are prepared in traditional manners without the use of electricity or gas.


Education has been provided by the mission schools that were run by the various Christian sects on the islands. Literacy is low for the overall population since many still do not have access to any form of public, institutionalized education.


Dancing is an important part of the traditional culture of the Ni-Vanuatu. In many villages, a person's identity is tied to the family dancing ground called nasara. Musical instruments of the traditional cultures of Vanuatu include the slit gong, made from a hollowed-out tree trunk and carved on the ends. The slit gong is used to represent the voices of the spirits and also for long distance communication between the village and people who have gone off into the forest.


Ni-Vanuatu engage in a variety of types of work. In Port Vila there are bureaucratic jobs associated with the government and also with the work of foreign development agencies. Traditional forms of work were and, in some cases, still are, divided among tasks for males and tasks for females. Although females are often the main food producers, the work of men is typically more highly valued.


Tennis and golf are sports that the urban Ni-Vanuatu have some access to in Port Vila. Tennis matches on the international circuit are occasionally scheduled for Vanuatu.


For the majority of Ni-Vanuatu, entertainment and recreation follow traditional cultural patterns. Broadcast television was not available in the Republic of Vanuatu until 1992. Electricity has limited availability for the vast majority of Ni-Vanuatu, so they are not able to watch videos, television, or see movies. These pursuits are reserved for the urban Ni-Vanuatu and the numerous expatriates from other nations that reside in Port Vila.

An important form of traditional entertainment for adult Ni-Vanuatu men is the drinking of the intoxicating beverage called "kava." Kava is prepared from the roots of the domesticated kava plant (piper methysticum). This plant is related to the vine that produces peppercorns. The freshly dug root balls of mature plants are cleaned and then pulverized or ground, and the pieces are soaked in water and then strained through coconut fiber to produce the semi-liquid drink. On the island of Tanna, the roots are chewed and then spit out in wads to be placed in water to create the drink. Typically, adult men drink kava nightly. Kava is the favored intoxicating beverage for most Ni-Vanuatu, in part because it does not induce aggressive behavior. In fact, kava drinking is a quiet occasion and is usually completed within a couple of hours.

The popularity of kava drinking has lead to the development of local commercial kava bars in the villages, towns, and cities. The "nakamals," as they are called, are a local gathering place for men and women to drink kava. As opposed to the traditional kava drinking patterns, the nakamals permit women to drink, as long as the woman does not come from the same village as the owner of the bar. Large quantities of kava are produced nightly for the customers. Meat grinders are often used to process the large quantities more rapidly than the traditional methods of production. A half coconut shell of kava costs around 50 cents and on average, men only drink two or three rounds an evening.


Tapa cloth was also a traditional product of many groups in Vanuatu. The process has now become part of the repertoire of folk arts that is produced for sale to tourists and collectors.


The maintenance of traditional culture in light of the influences of the outside world is one of the overriding problems facing the Ni-Vanuatu. Broadcast television has also introduced a new set of cultural images to the island nation. The economy is also a cause of concern for the Ni-Vanuatu. As opposed to other South Pacific nations, Vanuatu's tourism industry continues to show significant growth. In the late 1990s, the island nation received only about 35,000 visitors per year. The 2007 figures show that over 150,000 tourists visited Vanuatu in that year alone. Increased airline service, the development of boutique hotels, and a growing backpacker tourism focus has fueled the tremendous growth in tourism that Vanuatu has experienced.


The role of women varies among the Ni-Vanuatu. Tribal groups divide into two main camps. In some areas male domination is manifested by a series of cultural institutions like male initiation, yam cults, and the wearing of penis wrappers. In other areas, especially parts of Espirtu Santo and Efate, women have greater control over their resources and genealogical descent is traced through the female line.

The Tannese, one of the southern ethnolinguistic groups of Vanuatu, recognize two genders: male and female. The opposition of male and female governs the Tannese understanding of most of the natural world. For instance, the two staple food crops, yam and taro, are classified as male and female respectively. The characteristics of maleness that apply to all items in this classification are hardness, dryness, heat, and the state of being closed. Femaleness is characterized by softness, wetness, cold, and the state of being open, which is equated with menstruation.

Like most other Melanesian groups, the Tannese believe that boys must be transformed into men through complex rituals that remove the female essence that was instilled in them through reproduction and birth and replace it with a new male essence. Circumcision is central to transforming boys into men and replacing the female essence with a new male essence.

There are two public activities that distinguish men from women; those are public speaking and kava drinking at the kava-drinking grounds. Only men are allowed to speak at the regular dispute settlement meetings and only men are allowed to be present at the public kava-drinking grounds.


Allen, Michael, ed. Vanuatu: Politics, Economics and Ritual in Island Melanesia. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Kirch, Patrick V., and Jean-Louis Rallu, eds. The Growth and Collapse of Pacific Island Societies: Archaeological and Demographic Perspectives. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Küchler, Susanne, and Graeme Were. The Art of Clothing: A Pacific Experience. Portland, OR: Cavendish, 2005. Vanuatu & New Caledonia. Footscray, Victoria; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet, 2006.

—by J. Williams

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