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Identification. The word "Siuai" originally applied to a cape on the southern coast of Bougainville, but it later came to identify a wider area of the coast, its hinterland, and the people who lived there.

Location. The Siwai occupy the center of the Buin Plain of southern Bougainville, North Solomons Province, Papua New Guinea. The area, which is 7°S and 155° W, is in the humid tropical lowlands, almost all of the population living below 200 meters above sea level. Some Siwais now live in urban areas in other parts of Papua New Guinea.

Demography. In prewar years, the Siwai population was around 4,500; by the mid-1970s it had grown to about 9,000 and by the late 1980s was probably about 13,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Siwai (or Motuna) language is a Non-Austronesian (Papuan) language similar to other inland South Bougainvillean languages such as Buin, Nagovisi, and Nasioi. There are trivial differences in language within the Siwai area.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic, archaeological, and mythological evidence indicates that Siwais migrated to Bougainville from New Guinea and have lived in and around their present location for at least 2,000 years and probably very much longer. They have close linguistic relations with Buin people to the south and, to a lesser extent, with Nagovisi people to the north. In precontact times contact with other linguistic groups was not great, though there was some intermarriage, trade (especially with the Alu and Mono islands in the Solomon Islands), and occasional warfare. Europeans traded intermittently and inDirectly with the Siwai coast in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, but beyond steel tools there was minimal trade until well into the twentieth century. Around the turn of the century, a small number of men worked on distant plantations and brought back new plants; others were introduced in the period of German administration. Colonial administration effectively reached Siwai after 1919 when an Australian administration post was set up on the Buin coast. In the early 1920s, both the Catholic and Methodist missions set up stations in Siwai and in the years before World War II there was a small amount of trade in copra, most people were converted to Christianity, monetization followed the imposition of taxation, and most adult men were employed for substantial periods as plantation laborers, mainly on the east coast of the island. Cultural change was more rapid in the postwar years: cash cropping, especially of cocoa, became important; education became almost universal and continued to the tertiary level; traditions were transformed; a massive Copper mine (Panguna) was constructed 50 kilometers away, introducing new forms of employment; alien political institutions were introduced; and Siwai became part of an independent Papua New Guinea in 1975.


In precontact times Siwais lived in small, dispersed hamlets scattered throughout the region. Most such hamlets had Between one and ten houses and were located on the garden land of the matrilineage. The houses were built directly on the ground. In the 1920s the Australian administration imposed a policy consolidating the scattered hamlets into about sixty line villages in order to simplify control and improve public health. Each married man was required to build a house on piles and the new villages were located on ridges, near springs (for drinking water) and large streams (for bathing and sanitation). Many families retained their hamlet, or garden, houses and spent periods of time in both. Following the independence of Papua New Guinea and considerable pressure on resources there has been some movement away from line villages to the original hamlet sites on traditionally owned land. In most Villages there was at least one men's clubhouse (kaposo), a much larger building where men met to talk, beat slit gongs, and organize and hold feasts. A century ago some men's houses were well decorated. Traditionally, houses have been simply made of wood, woven bamboo walls, and sago-leaf roofs. From the 1970s onward some more permanent houses have been constructed, a few with electrical generators, water supplies, or even solar power. Villages, and the population as a whole, have remained in much the same locations in historic times. New developments, including mission stations, schools, and administrative buildings, have been built outside villages and have not grown into settlements.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Siwai have long been horticulturalists. Until World War II the horticultural system was dominated in every way by taro (Colocasia esculenta ) of which there were more than fifty different kinds. Other root crops such as yams and sweet potatoes were also grown, alongside sugarcane, bananas, and various green vegetables. Tree crops, including coconuts, breadfruit, sago, and almonds, were important, pigs were of major significance (for exchange and feasting), and fish and prawns were taken from small streams. Taro constituted about 80 percent of the diet. Taro blight (Phytopthora colocasiae ) wiped out taro in the early 1940s and, despite constant attempts to regenerate taro, sweet potatoes now dominate the horticultural system as taro previously did. In the postwar years, Siwais attempted to withdraw from plantation labor and establish their own commercial agricultural system. Rice, always a prestigious food, was widely grown; peanuts, corn, and coffee were also tried but a lack of access to markets prevented commercial success. Cocoa was introduced at the end of the 1950s. Construction of roads to the Buin coast in the 1960s and across the Mountains to the east coast in the 1970s enabled cocoa marketing to become increasingly successful. After experiments with other forms of commercial agriculture, mainly cattle farming, cocoa is now the sole commercial crop and is planted and marketed by almost all households. Cash income is primarily generated from cocoa sales, vegetable sales in markets within Siwai, some local wage and salary employment, and the Remittances and expenditure of Siwais working at Panguna and elsewhere.

Industrial Arts. Few artifacts are currently produced in Siwai. Pottery manufacture effectively ended not long after World War II. Finely woven baskets of different kindsknown as "Buka baskets," though almost all are made in Siwaiare produced on a significant scale by several village households and sold extensively in Bougainville and beyond.

Trade. In the nineteenth century there was considerable precontact trade and intermarriage with the nearby Solomon Islands. One significant traded item was shell money, brought from Malaita in the Central Solomon Islands. Trade with European traders began before the end of the nineteenth century, and it increased in the 1920s and 1930s, with monetization and missionization. European trade largely replaced trade with other Melanesians, though shell money continued to be traded until recent years. In 1956, a Siwai Rural Progress Society was established to market cocoa, copra, and other local commodities; the society grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s but collapsed as individual producers traded Directly with east coast wholesalers. Most villages have at least one trade store.

Division of Labor. Horticulture was and is women's work, and women worked in the gardens four times as much as men in the early decades of this century. Men spent some time in the gardens, undertook arduous clearing activities, hunted, were responsible for garden magic, and organized ceremonial activities. The introduction of sweet potatoes reduced the necessity for long hours of horticultural work for the women. Cash crops became male activities, garden magic disappeared, and time spent on ceremonial activities declined. Many men and some women are now employed inside Siwai, but even more of the people work outside Siwai at the mine and in the towns.

Land Tenure. Throughout Siwai, land is owned by matrilineages. Every matrilineage owns full or residual rights to tracts of garden land or potential garden land and most matrilineages claim ownership of more distant hunting areas or fishing streams. Land was sold in certain exceptional circumstances, and some rare tracts of land are now individually owned. Men conducted agricultural activities on their wives' land, and high levels of cross-cousin marriage previously ensured the integrity of tracts of matrilineage land. High Population densities, nontraditional marriage, and cocoa cultivation have increased the complexity of land tenure and inheritance.


Kin Groups and Descent. Siwai society is divided into many matrilineages, but most villages are primarily composed of two matrilineages whose members have been marrying each other for generations. Such intermarrying matrilineages become local descent groups. Most matrilineages produce their own stores of wealth and their own particular tracts of land. There is regular interaction between matrilineage members.

Kinship Terminology. Siwai kinship terminology is similar to other terminologies that have been labeled Dravidian, characterized as two-section systems, and associated with bilateral cross-cousin marriage and sister exchange. Genealogical knowledge is very shallow. There are few strictly affinal terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the traditional marriage system, matriLineages were often paired and both matrilateral and patrilateral cross-cousin marriage were strongly favored. Marriages to members of the same matrilineage were forbidden and have not occurred. In the past, polygyny was not uncommon and leaders occasionally had several wives. It is rare in Contemporary Siwai. Divorce was common and widows and widowers normally remarried. Although cross-cousin marriages within villages remain common, many marriages are now contracted between Siwais and members of other linguistic groups from other parts of the country or even beyond. Postmarital Residence was initially virilocal, but later it often shifted to avunculocal or uxorilocal.

Domestic Unit. Most households are nuclear families; extended households are very rare. Youths often sleep in separate houses from their parents.

Inheritance. Personal effects are usually inherited by the oldest son. Until very recently such goods have been few and inconsequential.

Socialization. Children are normally treated with affectionate indulgence by their parents and disciplining is often ineffective. Punishment and rewards are normally verbal. Conflicts between children, especially brothers, are more common than disputes and conflicts with parents, who are accorded considerable respect. Primary school education is now effectively universal and many children go on to Secondary and tertiary education.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In precontact times age carried some status but the greatest status was held by traditional leaders or big-men (mumi ), the greatest of whom in the present century was Soni of Tutuguan village. Leadership was achieved through acquiring wealth and renown, which resulted from industriousness, charisma, acumen, diplomacy, and kinship support. Leaders normally acquired wealth in pigs, land, and also wives, through various exchanges, and through forms of redistribution, usually in association with funerary feasts. Other men had various degrees of renown and prestige, but there was no formal ranking system. Women had substantial authority principally in their own productive and ritual areas; women were not recognized as traditional leaders in their own right. In the postwar years, though some men are still recognized as traditional leaders, leadership itself has taken on new forms, as businessmen and politicians have acquired different spheres of operation and feasting has become generally less substantial and significant in everyday life. Many men are often absent from the villages for long periods of time. The economic independence of women has lessened as the cash economy has become more important.

Political Organization. In precontact time Siwai was not a tribal group in any sense other than linguistically. In the prewar years, the administration appointed individuals in each village to liaise with administration officials, but Siwai only became an effective political unit in the 1960s with the establishment of a local government council. Otherwise, Siwai was still divided into seven districts, and it effectively reverted to its former decentralized political organization in the 1970s with the establishment of community governments to replace the local government council. Most villages now have their own councils. Siwai elects two members of the North Solomons Provincial Government and is part of the national South Bougainville constituency.

Social Control. In earlier times, leaders were the principal means of social control and acquired renown partly through their ability to achieve this. In the 1920s, the administration appointed village headmen to assist the administration in achieving law and order; however, except for new offenses, their authority was less than that of traditional leaders. A more modern court system evolved alongside the local Government council but was replaced by more traditional village courts working with community governments. Serious offenses are considered at the provincial level. Traditional leaders now have less ability to achieve social control. Social Control was also achieved by avoidance behavior. Sorcerers also had considerable authority, which is now more often wielded by church leaders.

Conflict. Before the twentieth century there was intermittent feuding and localized warfare within Siwai, and probably occasionally with neighboring language groups. Wars were organized by mumis, but they rarely involved many people, lasted long, caused much loss of life, or covered a wide area. Individual disputes rarely led to open hostility. In the present century, such warfare has ended. There remain divisions within Siwai, marked by the adherence of different districts to the Catholic or the United church, which have occasionally sparked conflicts. More recently, there have been disputes over political issues such as secession and over the closure of the Panguna mine that have led to conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Creation myths surround the great historic spirits, primarily "the Maker" ("Tartanu") who brought life to earth. There are many spirits (mara ) associated with particular areas, kin groups, or men's houses, which are believed to have positive and negative qualities, but no systematic religious behavior related people to these spirits. Although mara are still feared, Christianity has generally replaced traditional beliefs and most Siwai are at least nominal adherents of either the Catholic or the United church. In the last two decades there have also been some revival movements.

Religious Practitioners. There was no set of ritual practices or priesthood, though both mumis and sorcerers (mikai ) were believed to have some ability to control the spirit world.

Ceremonies. A ceremonial cycle marked most significant stages in the life cycle. Betrothal was marked by the exchange of strings of shell money and marriage by magical rites to ensure the well-being of the couple. Baptisms were held four or five weeks after the birth of a child. Little if any ceremony marked the achievement of adulthood. The most elaborate ceremonies accompanied cremations and ceremonies to mark the end of mourning periods, which were accompanied by the exchange of pigs, shell money, and other goods.

Arts. Singing and dancing mark memorial ceremonies Especially. Women's songs and dances are distinct and performed separately from those of men. Large slit gongs in men's houses are beaten in unison at various stages in the preparation of ceremonies. Men's dances are accompanied by panpipes and wooden trumpets and women's dances by a wooden sounding board.

Medicine. Diseases were attributed to a number of sources but usually to the action of malevolent spirits or the breaking of taboos. Curing techniques consisted of ritual precautions and the use of herbal medicines of many kinds. Both women and men might have knowledge of medical skills, and there were specialists in areas such as bone surgery. Sorcerers would ward off or drive out evil spirits and cause them to avenge particular incidents. Western medicine is now sought, especially for more recently introduced diseases, but traditional herbal medicines remain in use.

Death and Afterlife. In exceptional cases death was also attributed to sorcery or mara, but, especially for the old, it was usually considered to be quite normal. At death the soul was traditionally believed to leave the body and set out for one of three abodes: "Paradise," a lake in northeast Siwai, the abode of fortunate ghosts; or "Kaopiri," a legendary lake in the north for those who have not been adequately mourned; or "Blood Place," for those who died in fighting. Such beliefs have been largely replaced by Christian beliefs concerning Heaven and Hell.

See alsoNasioi


Oliver, Douglas L. (1955). A Solomon Island Society: Kinship and Leadership among the Siuai of Bougainville. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Connell, John (1978). Taim Bilong Mari: The Evolution of Agriculture in a Solomon Island Society. Canberra: Australian National University Development Studies Centre.