Northeast Massim

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Northeast Massim

ETHNONYMS: No single name is used for the island cultures of this region by the inhabitants, but some of the neighboring cultures refer to all the inhabitants as Muyuw. Each island has a recognized individuating name, such as Gawans for the people on the island of Gawa. Muyuw, which Europeans named Woodlark Island, is divided into three distinctive units from east to west: Muyuw, Wamwan, and Nayem.


Identification and Location. This region is the home of the people of the northeastern section of the Massim, a word that may have originated in the region but is a European spatial designator. Although there are common physical, linguistic, and cultural characteristics throughout Milne Bay Province, among the Massim in particular, the region is defined by, and individuals and cultures understand themselves in terms of, linguistic and cultural variability. For example, although most linguists would say that Muyuw and Trobriand people speak different languages, there is a gradient of differences between the two. Similar continua run south from the Trobriands and from Muyuw to the island cultures of the Southern Massim. Cultural variation among these peoples operates in the same way.

This region is about 144 miles (230 kilometers) from east to west and 50 miles (80 kilometers) from north to south. The western end of the region, Iwa, is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the center of the Trobriand Islands. Included in the northeastern sector are Iwa, Kwaiwata, Dugumenu, and Gawa, which were called the Marshall Bennet Islands by Europeans after the 1830s, and Muyuw (Murua), or Woodlark Island. The name Woodlark was given to the island by a British sea captain in 1836 to commemorate its discovery in about 1832 by Captain Grimes of a Sydney-based whaler of that name. In its most extensive sense, Muyuw denotes the major landmass (Muyuw Island), Budibud (called the Laugh-Ian Islands by Europeans), Nasikwabw (Alcester Island), and Yemga (Egum Island). Yalab (Yanaba) Island, which is the northern side of an atoll of which Egum is the volcanic center, is not considered to be in Muyuw but is included along with Iwa, Kitava, and the Trobriands by the indigenous residents.

Demography. In 1851 a Marist mission estimate of the population on Muyuw listed 2,200 inhabitants, but that figure may have included only the southeastern corner of the island. An estimate made in 1915 placed the population between 700 and 900. This would represent a loss of about twothirds of the population between 1850 and 1915, a loss that may have been due to the arrival of Europeans. In the early 1970s Muyuw's population was approximately 1,500, and in the government census taken in the 1980s it was approaching 2,000. Other islands between Muyuw and the Trobriands have much higher population densities: Gawa has about 530 people; Kwewata, 250; Iwa, 590; and Kitava, 1,370. Although more recent official census figures are not available, the running count island officials put the population of the region, including Iwa, at over 5,000 in the late 1990s.

Linguistic Affiliation. Throughout the northeastern Massim area, Muyuw is the lingua franca understood by most people. At the end of the twentieth century Kilivila was the first language spoken not only in the Trobriands but also on Yalab (Yanaba). Budibud is the language of Budibud (Laugh-Ian Islands), and people on Nasikwabw (Alcester Island) speak what is now called Misima-Paneati.

History and Cultural Relations

Early European contacts were made in the last half of the eighteenth century through the explorations of Bougainville d'Entrecasteaux. "Trobriand" is a French name derived from one of the early voyages. Budibud was one of the first places in the greater Muyuw region to come into the European orbit. It served as a primary trading center for the distribution of European goods as well as an early major focus of the copra trade. Between 1812 and the mid-1830s British and later American whalers were active in the region and presumably made numerous contacts with Muyuw. Whaling flourished in the region during the 1840s and reached a peak around 1860. In 1847 whalers directed French Marist missionaries to Muyuw. They were relatively unsuccessful in converting the residents and were replaced in 1852 by the Milan Foreign Mission Society, which also failed and left the area in 1855. There was little missionary success on Muyuw until after World War II, when most of the population became nominal members of the Methodist (now United) Church. Evangelical Christians had increasing success on the island from the 1980s into the mid-1990s, a time of intensified mining exploration and timber-cutting activities.

Throughout the 1850s European trade goods, especially iron, were introduced to Muyuw. The premium placed on this metal as a source of tools and weapons soon ended the native stone tool industry. In the 1880s a German trader, W. Tetzlaff, set up a lucrative copra and trading operation on Budibud because those islands had been a traditional coconut plantation. After his death in 1892 the business was taken over and expanded by two Englishmen, Dick Ede and Charlie Lobb. The price collapse of the copra industry in 1929 brought an end to the expansion of this trade, and the industry never fully recovered. However, copra sales have continued to the present. In 1895 Ede and Lobb discovered gold on Woodlark Island, and that led to a gold rush and continuing interest in the island's mineral resources. By 1940 the island had produced some two hundred thousand ounces of gold. Just before World War II began, the last mine closed as the price of gold failed to keep pace with the cost of the mining operation.

Further Western development on Woodlark up to 1978 followed the enterprises of the Neate family in trade, lumbering, and the development of the ebony craft industry. The Neates were replaced in 1980 by the Milne Bay Logging Company, whose arrival coincided with worldwide expansion of the tropical timber trade. Apart from Australian and American activity during World War II, this timbering was the most important Western activity until the early 1990s. However, the island may now be too small a source of quality timbers.


Traditionally, settlements varied from kinship-related hamlets consisting of a small number of randomly placed dwellings on the smaller islands to larger villages in two east-to-west rows on Muyuw. In Muyuw yam houses are situated in gardens, though this pattern changes at the westernmost village. In Mwadau village and on all the islands extending into the Trobriands, yam houses are placed either in the village area behind the house or directly in front of it and are built with an eye toward longevity.

A colonial-era attempt to organize the smaller islands into villages is nearly over as these islands, including Nawyem in Western Muyuw, have reverted to what residents consider the traditional form: more scattered hamlets. On Iwa and Kitava, the nearest islands to the Trobriands, where the ideal village plan was and remains concentric, the houses of higher-ranked people were decorated with carved and painted boards. In the ideal pattern in the east, as exemplified by Wabunum village in 1982, houses are arranged in east-to-west rows oriented so that the front faces either south or north. This allows the sun to jump over the house ridge as it rises, a fact of cosmological significance to the people. In addition, each house mediates a set of oppositions, effectively north/south and factually front/back, public/private, formal/domestic, and male/female. Each of these forms pertains to activities and their locations within the individual household, and all are overlaid by different orders of relations with kin. This pattern is transformed toward the western end of the region. Boagis, on the southwestern tip of Muyuw and not considered a Muyuw village, does not fit the Muyuw pattern. Its irregular lines of houses are arranged along a northto-south axis, with most of the houses being open to the west. On Gawa small hamlets and hamlet clusters are laid out across the top of the island.

Before the 1920s and early 1930s houses were built directly on the ground with earthen floors, but after that time they were elevated on stilts. In recent years only temporary houses used to house village guests have been built directly on the ground. These houses are constructed with small poles and woven coconut fronds for siding. In regular house construction sago leaves are used for the roof and siding, except in western Muyuw and the small islands, where pandanus or coconut leaves are used for that purpose. Most houses have both front and back doors. The back door is oriented toward the areas at the back of the house where food is prepared, often, in Muyuw, in earth ovens, and where, also primarily in Muyuw, wells are located. The front part of the house is considered male and more public, while the rear is considered female and more private.


Subsistence. Fishing, horticulture, arboriculture, and outrigger canoe production remain major productive activities of the northeastern Massim people, closely related to the debt-credit networks that anchor kinship relations and the interisland exchange system, the kula. Taro, yams, bananas, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, and in recent years squashes and maize are grown. Toward the eastern end of the region taro and yams are the major items in kinship exchanges, while toward the west yams predominate. Villages in central and eastern Muyuw maintain large orchards of sago, whose leaves are used for house roofs and sidings and whose trunks are turned into a flourlike food for rituals, interisland exchange, and daily consumption. In the small islands to the west people plant and tend hundreds of nut and fruit trees to supplement the root crops. Most agricultural practices are imbued with ritual and ceremonial significance and are intertwined with the interisland exchange or series of mortuary ceremonies, especially east of Gawa. Pigs are important not only as an item in the diet but as a means of acquiring status and prestige through gift exchange.

Industrial Arts. Regional specialization in crafts is characteristic of the Muyuw area. Gawa and Kweywata specialize in the production of the largest class of outrigger canoes, anageg. Kweyakwoya in interior eastern Muyuw used to specialize in the production of medium-size outrigger canoes called kaybwag in addition to intricately carved paddles, sago troughs and hammers, wooden platters, ornate prow boards, and decorative carvings for domestic dwellings and yam houses. Sulog was the center of the stone tool industry until the introduction of iron. Budibud specialized in raising pigs and growing coconut trees, whose leaves were used to make coconut leaf skirts. Pandanus leaves were used to make sleeping mats.

Trade. The northeastern Massim area is part of an elaborate ceremonial exchange system known as the kula. This system involves the complementary exchange of two different kinds of shell valuables: mwal (arm shells) and veigun (necklaces). People engage in the kula to generate rank orders among individuals and prestige for their communities. This system is not just a matter of trade or barter but involves a highly formalized gift-giving ceremony between partners in which the equality of the gifts presented is ensured by the desire to acquire a reputation for generosity and the prestige of being a great giver of gifts.

Basic to the kula exchange are subsidiary transactions between communities in which village specialties of food or crafts are exchanged for one another. Although many of the items acquired are consumed as food or utilized in other ways, for example, as clothing, sometimes their exchange becomes the basis for obtaining kitoum, a specific classification of the two main kula valuables that confers formal ownership on the possessor. Every kitoum is a prized mwal or veigun, the primary means of interisland exchange. However, not every mwal or veigun a person holds is his or her kitoum.

Although a few valuables are always moving between contiguous villages, the articles travel in waves of up to five hundred valuables, with each crest taking about five years to circle the ring. Communities unite to form trading expeditions to move the crests. These expeditions generally are led by prominent members of the community with considerable experience and prestige in kula transactions. People contact established trading partners who exchange lower-ranked items as well as the primary kula articles. Each transaction involves the formal presentation of gifts to one's partner (the opening gifts), debate and sometimes haggling over the exchange, and, after the successful conclusion of the exchange, the final presentation of the closing gifts that end the negotiations. Generally, a man will receive arm shells from one partner to whom he gives necklaces and necklaces from another partner to whom he gives arm shells. Traded objects of this nature seldom cease circulating, and it is extremely rare for one valuable's return item to be given immediately. Often it takes months or years between the receipt of a mwal and the return of its veigun. This exchange form effectively divides labor between partners and is conceived to be like the division of responsibilities between husbands and wives.

Division of Labor. On Muyuw, men are considered producers and women are distributors. Men prepare the gardens, while women tend them, coordinate consumption, and plan future plantings. In fishing, men are directly involved in catching the fish and women cook and distribute the food. Both men and women garden on Gawa. Men are involved in more active occupations such as canoe building, hunting, house construction, the initial clearing of gardens, net making, and coconut gathering, while women typically work at more sedentary jobs such as cooking, clothing manufacture, and mat making.

Land Tenure. Property, including land, sago, betel and coconut trees, fishing nets, outriggers, and kitoum, is owned by the dada (subclans). Such property may pass from one subclan to another to cancel debts generated by the exchange of pigs in the mortuary system, especially in the large and small islands east of Gawa. The actual holdings of a subclan are always a function of the debt-credit relations it has with the clans into which it is married. Songs, dances, ritual shouts, and other entities with intangible value are also subclan property.


Kin Groups and Descent. The northeastern Massim are divided into several matrilineal, totemic clans (kum) and subclans (dal, dala). Among the islands that are conceived to be Muyuw there are eight clans, four old ones and four new ones. This representation changes from Gawa to the west, and so increasingly there is only the idea that there are four clans, the same as the so-called old clans in Muyuw. These clans go by the same names as those in the Trobriands. These identities expedite the kula exchange, and so partners in the trading relationship are often members of the same clan. Clans are identified with birds, fish, other animals, and, especially in Muyuw, the four winds, and these signs establish communication links throughout the Massim people and beyond. Clans function primarily in the selection of marriage partners, while subclans are the property-holding units. Traditionally, on Muyuw a form of incipient moiety structure existed, aligning the villages on the island into two war communities. These relations, however, crossed clan and subclan identities.

Kinship Terminology. The terminology is a variant of the Crow system used in the Trobriands. In the Trobriand system, the children of the father's sister are called by the same terms as paternal uncles and aunts and the mother's brother's children are classified with the same term applied to one's own children. There are several variations in the kinship terms used on Gawa for cross cousins. In Muyuw the kin terms are identical to those in the Trobriands except for a set of cross-cousin terms not found to the west and used for both patrilateral and matrilateral cross cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is organized by clan and subclan exogamy. Marriages are usually monogamous and after the early years relatively stable. Cross-cousin marriages are reported in areas to the west of Muyuw, and in the Trobriands the marriage of a man to his father's sister's daughter is an ideal. Although this form of marriage is not accepted on Muyuw, the children of cross cousins may marry.

Completing a marriage takes a number of steps, sometimes over many years. A man and a woman are considered married after they are publicly recognized to be staying with each other. They are likely to spend the early years of marriage living with the wife's parents. After an exchange of gifts between the families the couple can be led back to the man's father's house. Until this time, in Muyuw at least, the gender identities of the couple are formally inverted, with the woman having the prerogatives of the man, and vice versa, with respect to the formal control of their children. While a return to the man's village fixes the gender identify of the man, only a later exchange, ideally from the woman's brother through her husband, establishes the gender identity and responsibilities of the woman.

Marriages are formally ended with rituals conducted over a couple's deceased children, usually long after they are dead. Most of the transitions in a marriage, including its formal ending, are conducted around an exchange called takon. This involves the exchange of female things such as vegetable food and pigs for male things such as knives, axes, and in some contexts kula valuables as kitoum. This word or its cognates, and exchanges similar to those in Muyuw, are important in many of the northern Massim societies. Traditionally, interisland marriages also occurred, many of which were designed to strengthen trading partner relationships in the kula exchange.

Domestic Unit. Throughout this region most work, which is aimed both at kinship and at kula responsibilities, is organized among married couples, their brothers- and sisters-inlaw, and their proximate ascending and descending affinal relations. Residence is patrivirilocal. A small but significant number of men will, once they are married, move to their mothers' brothers' villages.

Inheritance. Land and other valuable material and intellectual items of production descend in accordance with the debt-credit network among intermarried subclans. Extensive mortuary rituals that are constant throughout the Massim but vary from one island to another are the prime mechanisms for passing responsibilities and productive resources across generations. Personally owned kula valuables (kitoum) often follow the same lines through time. However, a father should pass one or more of these items to his sons upon the death of his wife in partial recompense for the labor his wife gave him over their married lives. If a man's sister's son works with and for him, the man will try to pass one or more of his kitoums to him as well. There are often conflicts over such matters, and much attention is paid to how important men divide their resources among their sons and their sisters' sons.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There are no real class distinctions in the islands, but individual status and prestige and subclan resources vary greatly and may change as a result of success in productive endeavors, all of which lead to mortuary rituals and the kula exchange. Clan, subclan, and household heads are treated with great respect. On Muyuw there is a hierarchical ranking of villages involved in craft and food production. Lowest in rank are the craft villages, followed by those producing vegetable foods and fish, with the top ranking going to those producing primarily vegetable foods. A linear and nonrepetitive age grade system also exists on Muyuw, with separate terms for male and female and their marital status. The age grades begin with the infant (apwaw) and end with the yelew (ancestor).

Political Organization. Traditionally, each clan in its particular locale tended to recognize one man as its head. This person would be referred to as a guyawor a guyau. This term is cognate to, and the status shares family resemblances with, the system of chiefs in the Trobriands. However, nowhere from Iwa to Muyuw, perhaps for at least six hundred years, was there a recognized paramount chief or a chiefly system tied specifically to clan or subclan status. Many Muyuw say that the people who reside in north-central Muyuw, Wamwan, are the island's guyaw. However, unlike in the Trobriands, where public deference was shown to such people, the main prerogative of the Muyuw guyaw was to be buried upright rather than lying down in a grave. The status is invisible and is not formally tied to a subclan, unlike the case in the Trobriands. Throughout the twentieth century on Muyuw, the kind of deference shown to Trobriand chiefs was approximated only in regard to those individuals who became extraordinary successful in the kula. On Gawa, Kwewata, and Iwa there are intimations of hierarchical forms more like those in the Trobriands. One or two subclans will claim a kind of symbolic control over half or more of these islands. However, real control is dispersed and not hierarchical.

In the post-World War II period the Australian government, under a United Nations trusteeship, set up local government councils as a new form of indigenous political participation. Although this system has undergone minor terminological and other changes, it continues. Practically every hamlet or collection of hamlets has a local government councilor, and each island sends one or more representatives to council meetings, which are held at Guasopa in southeastern Muyuw near a World War II-era airstrip.

Social Control. Most mechanisms for enforcing social control work through obligations and desires and are located in the kinship/mortuary system and the kula. From an early age people are taught what is involved in marriage, and the only way to become effectively married is by gaining the support of elders. Sooner or later one behaves according to their desires. Periodically, people are formally instructed in correct behavior through a speech form called geyguiy (gweiguya in Gawa). Most of these speeches are made in private, but if a young person or a couple is especially problematic, the speech may be made in the open for all to hear.

Conflict. Warfare was common throughout the area before the early twentieth century. Gawa was frequently at odds with both Kweywata and Nasikwabw (in the Alcesters), and small-scale battles were fought between opposing factions on the same island. On Muyuw warring groups were organized into two war communities or alliances. Villages were arranged in these alliances in a manner that crossed the threetiered productive system: craft production, vegetable foods and fish production, and vegetable production alone. One of these alliances consisted of Kweyakwoya, Sulog, Wasimoum, Wayavat, Kowuway, possibly Moniveyova, and Dikwayas. The second opposing alliance contained the communities of Budibud, Kavatan, old Guasopa villages, Bomasiu, Nasikwabw or Boagis, probably Mwadau, and Kaulay. Warfare was ended under government administration, and conflicts in the late twentieth century usually took the form of neighborhood disagreements over work projects and kula cooperation and accusations of witchcraft.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Geliw, Tudav' (Tudava), and Malit' (Malita) are the three primary creator beings responsible for all aspects of culture and society on Muyuw and Gawa. The mythology and cosmology associated with these beings affect many aspects of daily life, such as the laying out of settlements and the arrangement of gardens, which correspond to specific cosmological elements. Under the influence of Christianity, God and Geliw are considered roughly equivalent, as are Christ and Tudav' and Satan and Malit'. Belief in witchcraft is an important part of the religious system, although it can be argued that much of the current witchcraft ideology arose out of alienated forms of exchange associated with incorporation into the modern world system. On Muyuw, for example, witches are thought to receive their nefarious and debilitating powers by marrying a devillike character who clearly looks like a gold miner.

Religious Practitioners. Witches (bwagaw) figure prominently as practitioners of evil magic. They are generally women and have the magical ability to fly from island to island, sail in steamships, and drive trucks through dense interior jungles. They are counterbalanced by specialists who use their powers to care for and protect the community at large. These curers are usually men of high prestige in the community (guyaw). Although not a class of specialist, garden, fishing net, and dog (for hunting wild pigs) magic is differentially distributed in the population. For the most part it is said that only men possess such magic, which is thought to be public and opposite the private magic of female witches. However, some women in Muyuw know and occasionally use garden magic.

Ceremonies. On Muyuw a new year or first-fruits ceremony called ivisan ven or kapwalas is observed. The rites are first held in the easternmost villages, often in late March, and then progressively cross the island from east to west, village by village. This rite officially opened the yam harvest season and was especially significant for its purificatory purposes. The Muyuw rite functioned to reorder and correctly align the productive and moral relationships of the people. On contemporary Gawa there is a purification rite that shares some features with the Muyuw new year rite, but no formal new year ceremony and little evidence of a calendar are recorded.

Two major reciprocal community entertainments are called the Comb and Drum dances. Although exhibiting some quasiceremonial aspects, they are essentially secular. Similar practices seem to be observed on Iwa. However, Iwa is the place where a formal new year rite called Milamala starts a progression that passes on to Kitava and through the Trobriands more or less from one full moon to the next. Iwa times the rite with a full moon observed about the time of the June solstice; the people watch the rising of the Pleiades, not the sun, to time the rite. The custom appears to end in the southern Trobriands in Vakuta in late September.

Arts. Woodworking is a highly developed skill on both Muyuw and Gawa, as is the art of carving and painting canoe prow boards. A complicated aesthetic order has been made all but invisible by missionary, state, and other modernizing institutions. Nevertheless, dancing, especially the Drum dance, is a favorite form of entertainment on Gawa, particularly for young people. Songs or chants are composed by women to celebrate a man's kula acquisitions or in honor of the dead. Traditional musical instruments consist primarily of drums, with the occasional use of conch shells. Rhetorical skills are highly developed and frequently are employed to persuade one's kula partner to release certain prized valuables in exchange transactions. The same skills are also used as a means of social control in persuading individuals such as witches to change their antisocial behavior.

Medicine. All long-term illnesses and all deaths except for those of the very old are believed to result from witchcraft. Curing therefore is relegated to the use of exorcistic magic to drive the evil from the afflicted. These curing practices may be focused either on the individual or at the community level, in which case special purification rites (bibira) are used to drive out illness and evil influences. On Gawa bloodletting is sometimes employed. An extensive use of plants for medicinal purposes in this area has gone largely unreported.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, death precipitated a series of elaborate and often extensive mortuary practices. This practice started about six hundred years ago and follows approximately a thousand years of mortuary customs focused on building megalithic ruins. Until the colonial government ended secondary interment practices, about two months after a corpse had been buried, it was exhumed and the forearm bones, phalanges, skull, and cervical vertebrae were removed. These bones were cleaned and kept in the house of the mourners or worn as ornaments over a period of about twenty months. Eventually they were disposed of by exposure on the cliffs that bordered the shore.

As is the case elsewhere in the region, complicated sets of mortuary rites still follow deaths, generically called sagal. In theory there are three rites for each death, called Ungayay, Lo'un, and Soi, or more specifically Anagin Tavalam ("Fruit of Our Crying"). Ungayay consists of the wake, a minor collection and distribution of food, and the burial. Lo'un occurs months or even years later after the Ungayay and terminates the marriage of the deceased's parents by means of a takon exchange (an exchange form in which vegetables and pork are exchanged for kitoum or kula valuables). The final rite, which also involves the distribution of pork and vegetable foods, transfers the obligations of the deceased to the people organizing the ritual. It is also an occasion in which marriages, kula, and other important relationships are discussed and debated. The order of the second and third rites is variable, and sometimes the rites are combined. Gawan mortuary rites are essentially internal matters, and overseas visitors are not formally invited.

Although belief in reincarnation is generally denied, the islanders do believe that when a person dies his Kaluwan or Balouma (life force or soul) leaves the body but remains around the living for a few days. In this form it is an Aluw and is the subject of fear, for at this stage it is vulnerable to manipulation by witches. Within a few days the Aluw turns into a yeluw (ancestor) and departs for Tum (Tuma), the island just northeast of Kiriwina in the Trobriands. Yeluw are invoked in magical practices used to influence the outcome of gardening, fishing, and kula endeavors.

For other cultures in Papua New Guinea, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 2, Oceania.


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Northeast Massim