views updated May 29 2018


ETHNONYMS: Ipare, Tana, Tannese


Identification. Tanna island is part of the Southern District of Vanuatu, a southwestern Pacific archipelago once called the New Hebrides. James Cook, the first European to visit this part of Melanesia, gave Tanna its name in 1774-"Tanna," in many of the island's languages, actually means "ground" or "land." Cook, pointing downward, no doubt asked "What do you call this [place]?" The Tannese mistook his question just as he mistook their answer. This cross-cultural misunderstanding was the first of many to follow.

Location. Tanna is located at 19° S and 169° E. The island is 40 kilometers long by 27 kilometers wide at its broadest point, with a total area of 561 square kilometers. A well-populated central plateau (Middle Bush) rises in the south to mountains more than 1,000 meters high. The island is mostly tropical forest, except for a grassy plain in the northwest that lies in the rain shadow of the mountains. In the east, a small but continuously eruptive cinder-cone volcano coughs up lava bombs and spreads volcanic ash across the island.

Demography. There are about 20,000 Tannese, 10 percent of whom have left home to work in Port Vila or Luganville, Vanuatu's two towns, and in New Caledonia. The island's population density is around 32.3 persons per square kilometer; the population is growing at a rate of 3.2 percent per year.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tannese speak five related languages that are syntactically and semantically very similar, differing mostly in phonology and lexicon. They are part of the Southern Vanuatu Subbranch of the Oceanic Branch of Austronesian languages. Most Tannese also speak Bislama (Vanuatu Pidgin English), and some are schooled in English or French as well.

History and Cultural Relations

Although the archaeological record has yet to be fully explored, it is thought that oceangoing Melanesians first landed on Tanna about 3,500 years ago. The island has also experienced considerable Polynesian influence. In fact, Tanna's two nearest neighbors, Aniwa and Futuna, are Polynesian outliers. From the 1860s through 1900, labor recruiters removed more than 5,000 Tannese men to work on plantations in Queensland and Fiji. During these years, too, Presbyterian missionaries opened stations on the island. In mission literature, Tanna was infamous for its resistance to Christianity, but by 1910 the missionaries had succeeded in converting about two-thirds of the population. Mission success correlated with the establishment of joint British and French colonial rule over the archipelago in 1906. Vanuatu remained under this unusual "condominium" form of colonial administration until its independence in 1980. Starting in the late 1930s, a number of island social movements emerged in reaction to foreign rule, and many people quit the missions. The John Frum movement, much influenced by World War II, is the best known of these. A spirit figure, John Frum, counseled people to return to traditional practices and to seek help from American troops. This movement, once a cargo cult, remains an important religious group and political party. Other national political parties are also active on the island. In general, Presbyterians support the Vanuaaku party, while John Frum and "Custom" people (traditionalists) and French-educated Catholics support its rival, the Union of Moderate Parties. This contemporary political opposition reflects an enduring traditional dualism in island culture.


The most salient feature in the cultural landscape is the kavadrinking ground. These are forest clearings, shaded by magnificent banyan trees. Men convene there daily to prepare and drink kava (Piper methysticum ). People also meet there to dance, to exchange goods, and to resolve disputes. Nucleated villages or scattered hamlets are located along the periphery of these circular clearings. At the last official census in 1979, Tanna had ninety-two villages that included 370 hamlets. Most villages are small, averaging about sixty residents. Most families possess one or more sleeping houses, plus a cook house. The traditional thatched house is still common, although many people now also build with corrugated aluminum and cement brick.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Tannese are swidden horticulturalists. Using hand tools, they clear and burn off plots for yams and taro, ritually the two most important staples. They also grow manioc, sweet potatoes, bananas, and a range of other fruits and vegetables. Thanks to fertilizing ash falls from lasur volcano, garden-plot fallow time is quite short. Domestic animals include pigs, dogs, fowl, and also introduced cattle and horses. Coastal villagers fish and gather reef products, although the Tannese are indifferent fishers. People are engaged primarily in subsistence production, although they also plant cash crops, especially coconuts, coffee, and vegetables. The average family's annual cash income, however, is less than $500 [U.S.].

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, island industrial arts were quite simple, consisting of stone tool making, the weaving of pandanus mats and baskets, and the manufacture of women's bark skirts and tapa belts that once held up men's penis wrappers. Today, a few men earn a little money in cement brick manufacture, automobile repair, etc.

Trade. The island's principal exports are copra and coffee. Its imports include Japanese vehicles, fuel, tools, processed foods, and clothing. Cooperatives and small-business owners operate a handful of trade stores, and women sell produce at several roadside markets. Rudimentary tourism, focused on the volcano, also brings some money into the island.

Division of Labor. Islanders practice a muted division of labor. Men do heavy garden clearing, plant yams, erect house frames, fish beyond the reef, and drive trucks. Women perform day-to-day garden work, cook, wash clothes, and weave baskets and mats. Men, however, also cook, weed gardens, and may wash their own clothes in a pinch. Both sexes, moreover, care for children.

Land Tenure. Every Tannese boy receives a personal name that entitles him to several plots of land near a kavadrinking ground. Women's names have no land entitlements. A name also may entitle a male bearer to perform various ritual acts, to control a section of traditional road, and so on. Every family possesses a limited number of names that are used each generation. If a man has no sons, he adopts boys (or other grown men) by giving them one of his names. In actual practice, the exact connection between a particular personal name and its associated lands is often disputed. Garden land, however, is plentiful, except in a few locales. Moreover, most people neither live nor garden upon their own lands; permission to use another's land is usually readily obtained.


Kin Groups and Descent. The most important kin group is the nuclear family. People have a notion of patrilineal descent, and families group into something like patrilineages, localized at kava-drinking grounds. These larger groups, however, are perhaps better called "name sets" rather than lineages inasmuch as new members are recruited by receiving personal names rather than by being born into the groups. A man only becomes a member of his father's lineage if he receives one of its names. Up to half of all men receive names from someone other than their fathers, and thus they may belong to a different name set. Single lineage/name sets are joined into larger groupings, associated with particular places or regions. Finally, each lineage/name set belongs to one or two moieties, Numrukwen and Kaviameta, though today these have only occasional ritual importance.

Kinship Terminology. The terminological system is of the Dravidian type in which every person of one's generation falls into one of four categories: brother, sister, spouse, and brother/sister-in-law.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Kin terminology reflects the island practice of sister-exchange, bilateral cross-cousin marriage. The ideal marriage partner is a child of one's mother's brother, or father's sister, although many people marry less closely related classificatory cross cousins. The ideal marriage also consists of a sister exchange between two men. Many marriages, in actuality, involve complex transactions in which women are "swapped" among three or more families. Many men obtain a wife by exchanging a classificatory sister or some other female relative. Some promise a firstborn daughter in return for her mother. A concern for balance governs marriage, as it does all other forms of exchange. With sister exchange, every marriage entails another, and divorce is very uncommon. Should a marriage fail, the wife's family must provide the husband's family with another woman in order to maintain the exchange balance.

Domestic Unit. A nuclear family is the basic domestic group that produces and consumes food and other goods. Residence is virilocal. As boys get older, many build their own sleeping houses, although they continue to eat with their parents until they marry.

Inheritance. There are few material goods on Tanna that survive more than one generation. Women inherit little. Men inherit land as well as rights to ritual and medical knowledge from the men who named them, most often their fathers. Men also succeed to the social positions of older namesakes.

Socialization. A child is raised by both parents and, importantly, by older siblings. Disciplining is rarely physical, but rather takes the form of teasing and shaming. Boys are circumcised between 5 and 10 years of age; their emergence from about six weeks of social seclusion is an important ceremonial occasion. Girls' first menstruation is sometimes marked by the gift of pig and kava from their fathers to their mothers' brothers.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Two or more lineages/name sets are localized at each kava drinking ground. The men of several neighboring kava-drinking grounds together belong to a named, regional group, of which there are about 115. Kavadrinking grounds across the island are linked by a complex system of traditional "roads" along which men exchange messages, goods, and spouses. This road network, by which each Tannese village is linked to all others, has produced cultural homogeneity across the island, despite linguistic diversity.

Political Organization. Tannese society is hierarchically organized on the basis of sex and age. There are also two chiefly positions at most kava-drinking grounds: the ianiniteta ("spokesman of the canoe") and the ierumanu ("ruler"). These today have only occasional ritual importance. Among adult men a principle of egalitarianism governs social interaction. A few men, however, enjoy more influence and prestige than others. In the main, these iema asori, big-men, are unlike those found elsewhere in Melanesia whose positions depend on economic ability. On Tanna, a village leader owes his status to his age, his ritual and other local knowledge, and to the size of his name set. A second kind of "ideological" big-men are the leaders of the various island-wide political and religious organizations, such as the John Frum and Custom movements.

Social Control. Although national police and island courts operate on Tanna, most disputes are handled unofficially. Avoidance is a common tactic. When people must resolve their differences, they convene a dispute-settlement meeting at a local kava-drinking ground. Here, big-men and involved third parties attempt to establish a social consensus that at least temporarily resolves the problem and ends avoidance between disputants. Resolution is signified by the exchange of pigs and kava between the two sides. Although traditional sorcery is today uncommon, islanders believe that ancestors displeased with conflict may make them sick. A serious illness thus induces people to attempt to resolve outstanding disputes.

Conflict. The root of most conflict is exchange imbalance, particularly within sister-exchange agreements. People also dispute land ownership and boundaries, and disagreements sometimes occur between husbands and wives. Traditional raiding and cannibalism ceased in the early 1900s. In the period leading up to independence considerable social disruption took place but today, aside from occasional fights during dispute-settlement meetings gone awry, the island is remarkably peaceful.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity has merged withnot replacedthe traditional concern with ancestors and spirits. Missionaries proscribed a number of customary practices, including dancing and kava drinking, and reworked local political and economic structures. The John Frum and other movements, drawing upon both custom and Christianity, have added further, syncretic elements to Tanna's religious life. In addition to ancestors, people recognize various spirits associated with particular places, such as the reefs and mountain peaks. The Polynesian Mauitikitiki (Mwatiktiki on Tanna) is also a popular culture hero. John Frum continues his work as a spiritual mediator to the outside world, particularly to America. The John Frum-Custom people of the southwest claim a special relationship with Prince Philip of Britain who is, they maintain, a son of the mountain spirit Kalpwapen.

Religious Practitioners. All men are in contact with their own ancestors. Kava drinkers, spitting out their last mouthful of the drug, utter prayers to surrounding ancestors buried on the kava-drinking ground. A few men and women are known to have particularly good contacts with the supernatural world by way of dreams and various ritual devices. These "clevers" diagnose illness, find lost objects, and so on. Most of the Christian denominations have ordained local pastors. The successful prophets of John Frum and other notable spirits also serve as religious officiants.

Ceremonies. All Tannese ceremonies consist of exchange (of pigs, food, kava, woven goods, and lengths of cloth), kava drinking, and dancing that lasts through the night. Most of them are associated with important events in the life cycle of individuals. The family of the person involved gathers goods to present to his or her mother's brothers, with an equal amount of goods returned when the exchange is later reversed. Two ceremonies, not tied to individual life cycles, function to maintain regional relations. In nieri, people of two kava-drinking grounds exchange different kinds of food such as yams for taro. The nakwiari, involving several thousand people, is the island's most spectacular ceremony and involves exchange of pigs and kava between two regions, after a night and day of song and dance.

Arts. There is little material art on Tanna. Island aesthetics focus instead on singing, dancing, and body decoration. Although people make panpipes and bamboo flutes, they use no musical instruments to accompany song or dance that, for rhythm, relies instead upon hand clapping and foot stomping. Women paint their faces in mosaics of color that reflect the decorative dyed patterns on the bark skirts they wear to dance.

Medicine. Island etiology cites maleficent spirits and ancestral displeasure to explain many illnesses. Also, an imbalance of body elements may cause disease. Everyone knows at least one or more secret herbal cures for specific ailments, and a few men and women are renowned as particularly astute curers or bone setters.

Death and Afterlife. Important men are buried on the kava-drinking ground; other people are buried in the village. Christian pastors typically officiate at burial. The traditional funeral, however, that takes place a month or so after death is the final exchange between a person's family and that of his or her mother's brothers. Ancestral ghosts go off to a land called "Ipai"; they may also remain close to their old homes, and they are often seen in gardens and the forest.


Adams, R. (1984). In the Land of Strangers: A Century of European Contact with Tanna, 1774-1874. Canberra: Australian National University.

Allen, M. R., ed. (1981). Vanuatu: Politics, Economics, and Ritual in Island Melanesia. Sydney: Academic Press.

Bonnemaison, J. (1987). La dernière ile. Paris: ORSTOM/Plon.

Guiart, Jean (1956). Un siècle et demi de contacts culturels à Tanna, Nouvelles-Hébrides. Paris: Musée de l'Homme.



views updated Jun 27 2018

Tanna. A Jewish sage of the 1st and 2nd cents. CE. The tannaim (pl.) were teachers who handed down the oral law and midrashim and were distinguished in the Talmud from the later scholars, the amoraim.