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ETHNONYM: Green Island


Identification. The Nissan Islanders live on Nissan Atoll and Pinipel Atoll, which together form the Nissan or Green Island Group in the North Solomons Province of Papua New Guinea.

Location. Nissan lies at 154°10 E and 4°27 S. Located 64 kilometers northwest of Buka and 110 kilometers east of New Ireland, Nissan links the Bismarck Archipelago to the Solomon Islands. Nissan Atoll is elliptically shaped, measuring 15 kilometers on its longitudinal axis with a maximum width of 7 kilometers. A land rim, nowhere wider than 2 kilometers and broken by three passages on the northwest side, encloses a large, picturesque lagoon. Two and a half kilometers to the northwest of Nissan, Pinipellocally known as "Pinipir" (the name used in this discussion)consists of a narrow island less than 10 kilometers long and a tiny uninhabited islet. The islands have a wet tropical climate with a year-round average daily temperature in the 20s. Seasonal monsoon and trade winds visit Nissan, and there is considerable rain (320 centimeters in 1971).

Demography. Early European visitors to Nissan estimated the population to be 1,500 or less. A 1940 census estimated the population at 1,427. In 1971, Nissan had a population of 3,094 (including absentees): 2,551 on Nissan Atoll and 543 on Pinipir. Almost half of these people were born after 1955, the population having doubled since World War II.

Linguistic Affiliation. Islanders speak a Non-Austronesian language including two major dialects, spoken respectively on Nissan Atoll and Pinipir; linguistically, Nissan is closest to Buka. Islanders also speak Melanesian Pidgin (Neo-Melanesian).

History and Cultural Relations

Most scholars agree that the Nissan people are Melanesians of Bukan origin, some believing that Nissan was first occupied by Polynesians and later overrun by Bukans. New Ireland cultural influence is also evident on Nissan. The Dutch explorers Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten were the first Europeans to sight Nissan in 1616. Abel Tasman again sighted the group in 1643 and Philip Carteret in 1767. By the 1870s European recruiters were taking islanders to work on plantations in Queensland, Fiji, and Samoa. After 1885, the Forsayth Company based in New Britain established a coconut plantation on Nissan. In 1890, Georg Schmiele, an Official with the German colonial government, also based in New Britain, visited Nissan to investígate the murder of the resident Forsayth trader. He recorded local customs, mapped the atoll group, and identified it by what he assumed to be the Islanders' own name for it, Nissan. Australia took over New Guinea in 1914, and Nissan eventually became part of the Bougainville District. In 1926 Catholic missionaries from the Society of Mary extended their influence to Nissan, the first priest being stationed there in 1939. In 1942 the Japanese forcibly occupied Nissan, remaining there until a joint American-New Zealand force expelled them. The Allies built a base on Nissan, relocating most islanders for the duration of the war to Aola on Guadalcanal, where many died of Malaria. After the war a civilian Australian administration reestablished control; it was replaced in 1975 by the government of Papua New Guinea. Also, after the war, mission-run grade schools opened, and high school and trade schools exist there now as well.


There are fifteen villages on Nissan Atoll and three on Pinipir with populations in 1971 ranging from 80 to 337 persons. Most villages consist of one or two hamlets and houses Scattered individually or in clusters in the bush. In precontact times, settlements were smaller and, because of endemic warfare, were located strategically in the bush. Consisting of a single or double row of houses, the hamlets were originally created by colonial officials as convenient administrative units. Some villagers maintain residences both in the hamlet and near their gardens in the bush to protect them against marauding pigs. The central feature of a settlement is its men's house (iabas ), where in the past all unmarried males over the age of 9 slept. Other men sometimes slept in the house as did male visitors to the village. Although many iabas customs are disappearing, it still serves as a clubhouse exclusively for men; in it they plan activities and gossip. Contemporary residences of traditional construction are single-room, windowless, rectangular structures with ridged, steeply sloping roofs. They are built on the ground with walls of areca-palm bark and sago-thatch roofs. Nowadays, islanders often build houses on piles and incorporate introduced Materials such as plywood, sawed timbers, concrete, and galvanized iron roofing.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Islanders are slash-and-burn subsistence horticulturalists. After a post-World War II taro blight, yams replaced taro as the major crop. Islanders also grow sweet potatoes (introduced in German times), tobacco, sugarcane, and minor foods introduced with sweet potatoes (cassava, pumpkins, corn, beans, water-melons, tomatoes, and cabbages). Garden land lies fallow for years between plantings. Tree cropssome grown in gardens, others partially cultivated in the bushinclude coconuts, plantains, bananas, papayas, breadfruit, Barringtonia, Canarium indicum, and Areca catechu, whose nut is an ingredient in a betel mixture (consumed as a stimulant). On Pinipir, which has extensive mangrove swamps, mangrove fruit is a local staple. Islanders also fish in the lagoon and sea using purchased lines and hooks, locally made spears and spear guns, nets, baskets, scoops, a stunning agent made of Pongamia pinnata leaves, and dynamite. Sea resources include fish, crabs, lobsters, shellfish, paiolo worms, and giant sea turtles. Domestic animals include chickens, dogs (eaten in some villages), cats, and, most importantly, pigs. Consumed mostly on ceremonial occasions, pigs, together with large manufactured rings of Tridacna shell, are the major form of traditional island wealth. Claiming that the activities of pigs interfere with copra production, some villages have eliminated their pigs in recent years. Although a few pigs are raised in villages, most are semidomesticated and approach humans only to be fed. Other pigs have become feral. Islanders hunt these pigs as well as the brown cuscus and, occasionally, birds and flying foxes. Purchased foods, such as coffee and tinned fish and meat, are also popular. Since German days islanders have raised coconuts for copra, deriving a small cash income; Recently islanders have also started producing cocoa. Since German times, islanders have left Nissan to find employment in other parts of the country on plantations, in towns (as Domestics), and on boats. Beginning in the 1970s, many have gone to work for a multinational copper-mining company on Bougainville. A few send money to relatives at home; others start new families outside Nissan.

Industrial Arts. Nissan men construct houses and singleoutrigger dugout canoes (replacing traditional double-outrigger canoes and seagoing plank canoes without outriggers) . Men also manufacture masks and other dance objects. Specialists make the large wooden slit gongs found in men's houses. Women plait coconut-frond leaflets into a variety of baskets and mats; they sew pandanus-leaf hoods and carrying straps. Islanders no longer manufacture stone axheads, Tridacna shell arm rings, and tools of war (bows and arrows, spears, clubs, slings, arm guards). Most technology currently used is of Western manufacture.

Trade. The people of Nissan Atoll once exchanged trading visits with the coastal villagers of northern Buka; those of Pinipir traded with the villagers of Anir off New Ireland. The major Nissan contribution to interisland trade was pigs. Bukans contributed clay pots, pipes, and bows and arrows; Anir gave shell rings, red ocher, tobacco, and riverine stones. Minor trade in foods between villages and districts on Nissan continues today. Exchanges of goods and services are particularly common within villages. Some islanders also engage in entrepreneurial activities associated with coconut and cocoa production or operate small trade stores on Nissan.

Division of Labor. Women undertake most domestic and child-care activities. Men take the lead in subsistence activities requiring strength, such as certain stages of gardening. Men are the primary actors at ceremonies, the women working mainly behind the scenes under male direction. Persons with special ritual or technological expertise assist others on a part-time basis. Various church and government employees on Nissan receive salaries.

Land Tenure. All land is divided into named sections. Each section, including settlement sites and stretches of beach, belongs to an individual or small group. Men inherit land and movable property from their fathers, sons inheriting land jointly but eventually dividing it among themselves. The men's sisters and their children have defined usufructuary rights to that land. Recent population growth and the diversion of garden land to coconut production mean that the size of cultivable properties is diminishing, a factor encouraging emigration.


Kinship Groups and Descent. Matrilineal descent groups crosscut village and district boundaries. These groups include moieties"Eat the Dog" and "Eat the Pigeon"that are Divided into sibs named after major dietary restrictions (tobu ) imposed upon members. Sibs may contain partially localized subgroups, sometimes named after specific land areas. Descent groups own no property although they may once have done so. Primarily they regulate marriage and breach the Political autonomy of once-warring villages and districts.

Kinship Terminology. A person distinguishes consanguineal relatives within his genealogical generation by sex only. Islanders believe the relationship between brothers and sisters to be the most important of all relationships, a basis, Indeed, of Nissan society and morality. It is characterized by formal avoidances known as walatur (literal meaning: "causing to stand up"), including the rulestill observed to varying degreesthat a brother may not remain seated while his sister stands in his presence. In the parental generation, all females, including the mother, are identified by a common term; two other terms distinguish the father and his male kin from the mother's male kin, such as the mother's brother. Kinship terminology could be described as a variant of the Hawaiian system, but unlike the ideal Hawaiian system the Nissan terminology distinguishes one's mother's brother from other male relatives of one's parental generation.

Marriage and the Family

Marriage. Marriages within moieties are allowed, although not preferred; but marriages within sibs are discouraged. Islanders tend to marry within their own villages and districts, but they also often marry outside. Traditionally, parents and other relatives of the couple arranged the marriage. Nowadays the couples themselves often take the initiative, seeking Family approval afterwards. Brother-sister exchange is the ideal; at the least, the sib giving a woman in marriage should eventually receive one in return. Relatives still exercise some Control over a couple's marriage by contributing to the payment of bride-wealth in cash, shell rings, and store goods. A traditional "giving" of the bride accompanies a church wedding. Upon marriage, the couple establishes a new household, Usually near the households of the man's father and brothers. Although infrequent today, polygamous unions were once Common. Nowadays islanders working or studying elsewhere in Papua New Guinea also marry people of other islands. Because of Catholic strictures, divorce on Nissan is uncommon, as it was traditionally.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the household unit, often combining for economic activities with other units related through the male heads of household.

Inheritance. On Nissan, men own land and movable wealth (shell rings and pigs). In some cases, a man will indicate during his lifetime the desired disposition of land and wealth upon his death. In most instances, a man's sons Inherit equally and divide the property and wealth among themselves. If a man has no sons, his brothers and brothers' sonsor, in the absence of these persons, his sisters' sonsinherit his property and wealth.

Socialization. Parents allow children to mature at their own pace. They show affection for small children primarily by physical means. Adults inculcate in children a sense of shame, considered a vital aspect of Nissan character. Preferred punishments are scolding and teasing. When not in school, children are expected to assist in the household. However, they often engage in unorganized, desultory play among themselves.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Islanders boast that their society is egalitarian. Major differences in wealth and power are uncommon. Nonetheless, sex, age, family name, personal character, and achievement affect social status. The system of ranking that sets big-men apart from ordinary men allows Individuals to draw distinctions of rank among these men as well, but it does not provide a basis for consensus on rank order.

Political Organization. Nissan has a local government, Including elected officials, administered under the North Solomons Province of Papua New Guinea. Nissan villages and sometimes hamlets also have traditional leaders, "big [Important] persons." Such big-men inherit their claims to Leadership from their fathers, sometimes also inheriting the land on which their hamlets are located. But big-men must validate and maintain their positions by demonstrating interpersonal and leadership skillscoordinating work efforts, settling disputes, and demonstrating generosityand by organizing mortuary feasts. Given islanders' egalitarian sentiments, bigmen adopt various strategies of indirect leadership, and followers, because they are not the equals of leaders, practice formal avoidances of them. It is possible that competition for the position of big-man was once more common than it is today. Another leader similar to the big-man existed in the past, the loia, who was surrounded by formal avoidances.

Social Control. Nowadays the provincial government and its local representatives have assumed many of the formal functions of social control. Big-men and other elders also resolve disputes within and between villages. A traditional form of mediated dispute settlement, poluk, involving the Exchange of pigs and shell rings between disputants, is unCommon today.

Conflict. The major causes of disputes are marital infidelity, contested land rights and boundaries, the marauding of pigs, and misdirected gossip. Thefts, unsolicited borrowings, unpaid debts, suspicions of sorcery, and fights between Children also cause disputes between people. Intervillage rivalries are common. Once these resulted in warfare (and cannibalism), and even nowadays they lead to occasional fights Between groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Islanders are Catholics who regularly attend church and village chapel services. Many also believe in and ritually interact with various local supernatural entities including spirits of the dead and nonhuman bush spirits. Dangerous supernatural power (barang ) is associated with women's menstrual blood and with several societies of magicians who derive barang from the spirits of the bush. Islanders consider bush spirits to be malicious, especially when not under human control. A pantheon of these and other nonhuman spirits associated with dance magic (buai ) and masked dance performances (dukduk and tubuan spirits) are the center of much attention in the context of dance competition at mortuary feasts. Although not malicious, spirits of the dead sometimes interfere in human activities. People also invoke the dead in rituals of divination and in magical rituals as former experts who assist the living magician.

Religious Practitioners. Practitioners of Catholicism include foreign-born priests and sisters as well as local catechists. Many adults also practice magical rituals in which they manipulate words and objects symbolizing desired ends. Magical knowledge is widespread on Nissan and is associated with virtually every important activity or event. Certain bodies of magical ritual belong to trained specialists. They are members of village-based male societies of weather magicians and also of dance magicians. These latter perform the buai rituals introduced after World War II from New Ireland and the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain. In the past, societies of grand sorcerers also existed.

Ceremonies. The most elaborate ceremonies on Nissan are associated with pig feasts that villages or hamlets stage under the direction of their big-men. At these feasts the hosts feed visitors pork and other delicacies; big-men make speeches; and villagers exchange large sections of pork with one another in order to discharge obligations arising out of the deaths of close relatives and in so doing validate Inheritance claims, including ones to headmanship itself. Feasts are scenes of ritual competition between villages. Weather magicians of the host group work publicly to guarantee a sunny day for the feast, while the magicians of rival villages, including the guest villages, surreptitiously summon rain clouds. Host and guest villages also perform choral line dances; in preparation for these performances, magicians act to ensure the success of their own dances at the expense of those of rival teams.

Arts. Traditional songs and stories continue to be Important to islanders. Contemporary art focuses on dances introduced from New Ireland and New Britain. Islanders adopt or create their own versions of foreign dance songs, dance movements (accompanied by the beating of hourglass drums), and dance costumes (masks, wooden dance sticks, and wooden headpieces).

Medicine. Islanders attribute illness to natural causes as well as to sorcery or malicious spirits. Numerous magical cures exist to treat illnesses as do corresponding rituals of Sorcery to cause them. Islanders also use Western biomedicine; they consult local medical orderlies.

Death and Afterlife. Islanders once dropped the weighted bodies of their dead into the sea. Nowadays, the dead receive Catholic burial in village cemeteries. A series of ceremonies once followed a death in order to effect the transition of the deceased to the afterworld. The final mortuary feast and minor celebrations preliminary to it continue to be held Primarily to honor the dead and to dismiss formally their claims upon village society.

See alsoKurtatchi, Lak


Krause, Fritz (1907). "Zur Ethnographie der Insel Nissan." Jahrbuch des Staedtischen Museums fuer Voelkerkunde zu Leipzig 1:44-159.

Nachman, Steven R. (1981). "Buai: Expressions of Sorcery in the Dance." Social Analysis 8:42-57.

Nachman, Steven R. (1982). "Anti-Humor: Why the Grand Sorcerer Wags His Penis." Ethos 10:117-135.

Nachman, Steven R. (1982). "The Validation of Leadership on Nissan." Oceania 52:199-220.

Nachman, Steven R. (1984). "Shame and Moral Aggression on a Melanesian Atoll." Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 7:335-365.