Trobriand Islands

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Trobriand Islands

ETHNONYMS: Kaileuna, Kilivila, Kiriwina, Kitava, Vakuta


Identification. The Trobriand Islands were named for Denis de Trobriand, the first lieutenant in one of D'Entrecasteaux's frigates when this group of populated atolls and hundreds of islets was sighted in 1793. Traditionally, Kiriwinathe largest and most heavily populated islandand three other neighboring islandsKaileuna, Kitava, and Vakutawere each divided into discrete, named political Districts. Although these divisions still exist, the islands now form a more unified political unit as parts of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea.

Location. The Trobriands (approximately 8°30 S, 151° E) are situated about 384 km by sea from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, in the northern tip of the Massim. Kiriwina is 40 kilometers long but only 3.2 to 12.8 kilometers wide, and the other islands are much smaller. Except for Kitava, where cliffs rise sheer for 90 meters, the islands are relatively flat, crosscut by swampy areas, tidal creeks, and rich garden lands that abut rough coral outcroppings. Reefs may extend up to 10 kilometers offshore; anchorage is often dependent upon high tides and careful navigation. Temperatures and humidity are uniformly high. Rain showers, heavy but usually of short duration, average from 25 to 38 centimeters each month. Yet unexpected droughts can occur, causing severe food shortages.

Demography. At the beginning of this century, the population in the Trobriands was about 8,000, but by 1990 it had increased to approximately 20,000. Although many young people leave the islands to find wage labor or to attend technical schools or the University of Papua New Guinea, a large percentage of them eventually return to resume village life.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kilivila language belongs to the Milne Bay Family of Austronesian languages. Although Kilivila is spoken on a few other Massim islands, the major speakers are Trobrianders. Mutually understandable local dialects are used in which different phonological rules are employed without affecting the syntax. Since the time of first contact, many English words have been incorporated into the Kilivila lexicon. Tok Pisin is rarely heard, although, along with Motu, it is often learned by Trobrianders who have resided elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. English is taught in the local grammar schools as well as the high school on Kiriwina, but less than half of the young population attend school.

History and Cultural Relations

The origin stories for each matrilineage describe how different groups arrived in the Trobriands from under the ground or by canoe and claimed garden and hamlet lands as their own. These claims were often contested by others who arrived later, so that subdivisions of matrilineages occurred. American whalers were in the northern Massim during the 1840s, and twenty years later Queensland's blackbirding ships made frequent kidnapping excursions to other islands in the vicinity. In the 1890s, Germans periodically sailed from New Britain to purchase tons of Trobriand yams, while wood carvings, decorated shells, and canoe prows were already becoming part of museum collections. The turn of the century marked the establishment of the Methodist Overseas Mission (now the United Church Mission) on Kiriwina, followed in 1905 by the arrival of Dr. Rayner Bellamy, the first Australian resident government officer. Bellamy spent ten years in charge of the government station on Kiriwina and assisted C. G. Seligman with ethnographic information during Seligman's Massim research. Following his mentor, Bronislaw Malinowski stopped on Kiriwina and then stayed for two years between 1915 and 1918. The Sacred Heart Catholic Mission arrived in the 1930s but during World War II all resident Europeans were evacuated. Australian and U.S. troops set up a hospital and two airstrips on Kiriwina. Although no battles were fought the area served as a staging ground for planes en route to Rabaul and the Coral Sea. In 1950, when Harry Powell arrived to undertake ethnographic research, surprisingly few fundamental cultural changes had occurred. Even in 1990, kula, the interisland exchange of arm shells and necklaces, was as intense as ever, while yam harvests and women's mortuary distributions remain as politically dynamic.


Trobrianders live in named hamlets associated with specific garden, bush, and beach lands. Usually, from four to six hamlets are grouped together to form a discrete village with populations ranging from 200 to 500. Yam houses stand prominently around a central clearing, dwarfing the individual dwellings built behind this plaza. Chiefs may decorate their houses and their yam houses with ancestral designs and hang cowrie shells indicating differences in ranking. If a chief is polygynous, each wife will have her own separate house. In all other cases, husbands and wives live together with their young children while adolescent boys, and sometimes girls, have their own small sleeping houses close by their parents' living quarters. These are the houses widows and widowers retire to when they are too old to remarry. Hamlets look much as they did in Bronislaw Malinowski's photographs. Roofs are still thatched (although some metal roofs are in evidence) and the walls are made from plaited coconut-palm fronds. The interior of the house is private, with a fireplace and sleeping areas, while most social life takes place on the verandas. Burial plots are at the edge of the hamlet. From there footpaths provide quick communication between villages. On Kiriwina, only one vehicular road (with several spurs) bisects the island.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Trobrianders are yam growers par excellence. Through slash-and-burn technology, large yam harvests are produced once a year. Taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, sugarcane, leafy greens, beans, tapioca, squashes, coconuts, and areca palms are also grown. The pig population is small; pork is usually eaten only at special feasts. Few chickens are raised and fish provides the major protein source. There is almost no game, except for birds that are sometimes hunted; children catch and eat frogs, grubs, insect eggs, as well as mollusks they collect along the reefs. Since colonization, government attempts at developing cash crops have failed (except for a period of copra production) and only within the past few years has a local market run by women been installed on Kiriwina. Fishing provides many coastal men with cash incomes and a fishing cooperative has been successful on Vakuta Island. In the 1970s, weekend tourist charters resulted in increasing carving sales, but over the past decade tourism has declined dramatically. Ebony wood, once prized for fine carvings, is depleted and must be imported from other islands. A few Kiriwinans own successful trade stores; a guest lodge and two other trade stores are owned and run by expatriates. Today, remittances from children working elsewhere in the country provide villagers with their main source of cash. Women's bundles of dried banana leaves act as a limited currency when villagers buy trade-store foods, tobacco, kerosene, or cloth and sell such things to other villagers for payment in bundles. In this way, those without cash can purchase Western merchandise.

Industrial Arts. Most garden and other tools are metal. Canoes still are built in the traditional way, with their elaborately carved prows. Pandanus sleeping and floor mats, baskets, and armbands are woven; so are traditional women's skirts, which, although only worn on special occasions, are considered as wealth and are vital for mortuary exchanges. Bundles of dried banana leaves are also produced by women and as wealth are necessary for mortuary distributions. A few men still make arm shells for kula exchanges as well as decorations, such as Spondylus earrings and necklaces.

Trade. Stone axe blades are men's wealth; in the last century the stones were traded in from Muyua Island and polished in the Trobriands. Large cooking pots, also used in local exchanges, come from the Amphlett Islands. Canoes from Normanby and Goodenough islands arrive periodically with sacks of betel nuts that are sold at the Kiriwina wharf. Kula voyaging also enables partners to bring back exotic goods from other islands.

Division of Labor. Women and men work together in clearing new garden land. Men tend to planting yams and staking up the vines, as well as building garden fences and harvesting. Women produce other garden foods, although occasionally a woman decides to make her own yam garden. Men fish and butcher pigs. Women attend to the daily cooking, while men prepare pork and cook taro pudding for feasts. Men and women weave mats but only women make skirts and the banana-leaf bundles that are women's wealth.

Land Tenure. Provisionally, hamlet, garden, bush, and beach lands are owned by a founding matrilineage and are under the control of the lineage's chief or hamlet leader. Rights to residence and the use of land are given by these men to others, such as their sons, who are not members of the matrilineage. Land disputes are frequent and, because the court cases are public, they are fraught with tensions that sometimes lead to fighting. Knowledge of the history of the land from the time of the first ancestors legitimates a person's claim, but competing stories make the arbitrating chiefs' decisions difficult.


Kin Groups and Descent. The strength of matrilineal identity is embodied in the belief that conception occurs when an ancestral spirit child enters a woman's body. All members of the matrilineage are believed to have the "same blood" and also to have rights to the "same land." Land, ancestral names, body and house decorations, magic spells, dances, and taboos are all owned by members of individual matrilineages. Although men may lend the use of land and names to their children, they must be reclaimed by men's sisters at a later time. From birth, Trobrianders belong to one of four exogamous matriclans that are not corporate groups. Clan membership determines marriage categories, bringing together in alternating generations members of different matrilineages within the same clan who view themselves as close kin. These are the people who support each other in important exchange events.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are a modified Crow type with a number of atypical features. For example, the same term is used for ego's mother and mother's brother's wife and the terms for parallel siblings-in-law are merged with parallel siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most marriages occur between young people living in different hamlets within the same or neighboring villages. By marrying a father's sister's daughterusually three generations removeda man marries someone from another matrilineage within his father's clan. Endogamous clan marriages sometimes occur but they are regarded as incestuous and are not discussed openly. Only when a young man may inherit the leadership of the matrilineage will he live avunculocally in his mother's brother's hamlet. Other married couples usually reside virilocally in the young man's father's hamlet. The major commitment that follows each marriage is the annual yam harvest produced by the woman's father and eventually by her brother in the woman's name. These yams obligate her husband to obtain many bundles of banana leaves for her when she participates in a mortuary distribution. Divorce has few obstacles and although the couple's kin may seek to prevent the dissolution of the marriage there is little they can do if either spouse is adamant about their separation. If a divorced man wants one of his children to remain with him, he must give his wife's kin valuables. Remarriage is usual for both spouses. There are a few permanent bachelors but women do not go through life unmarried.

Domestic Unit. Nuclear families live together in one household. Older people usually take one of their grandchildren to live with them.

Inheritance. A villager's personal property, including magic spells, are given to those who have helped him or her by making yam gardens and assisting with other food. This is the way sons inherit from their fathers. Matrilineal property, such as land and decorations, is given to a man's sister's son, while a woman may inherit banana trees, coconut or areca palms, magic spells, and banana-leaf wealth from her mother. Among kula men, shells and partners are inherited either by a son or a sister's son. When a man dies, his house and yam house are destroyed and his wife usually returns to her natal hamlet.

Socialization. Young children are cared for by both parents. Because marriages often take place among people living in the same village, grandparents also provide child care. A man's sister performs beauty magic for his children and acts as a confidant when they reach puberty and seek out sexual liaisons. Children who attend the Kiriwina high school board during the week, while others who go to high schools on the mainland only return for holidays.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Trobrianders are divided between those bom into chiefly and commoner matrilineages. Chiefly matrilineages, ranked among themselves, own rights to special prerogatives surrounding food prohibitions and taboos that mark spatial and physical separation as well as rights to wear particular feather and shell decorations and to decorate houses with ancestral designs and cowrie shells. For all villagers including chiefs, the locus of social organization is the hamlet with networks of social relations through affinal and patrilateral ties to those living in other hamlets within the same village. Women and men also consider themselves kin to those whose ancestors came from the same place of origin. Traditionally, only members of chiefly lineages and their sons participated in kula, but now many more villagers (although by no means all) engage in kula. Chiefs remain the most important kula players.

Political Organization. Each ranking matrilineage is controlled by a chief but the highest-ranking chief is a member of the tabalu matrilineage and resides in Omarakana village. The most important chiefly prerogative is the entitlement to many wives. At least four of each wife's relatives make huge yam gardens for her and this is the way a chief achieves great power. But if a chief is weak, he will have difficulty finding women to marry. The villagers of all the islands elect councillors who are members of the Kiriwina Local Government Council. Chiefs sit at the Council of Chiefs, and the Omarakana chief presides over both councils. Chiefs' kula partners are the most important players in other kula communities, and chiefs have the potential to gain the highestranking shells.

Social Control. Disputes most often arise over land tenure, usually before the time of planting new yam gardens. Other causes of conflict concern cases of adultery, thefts, physical violence and, more rarely, sorcery accusations. The Council of Chiefs arbitrates most problems but some cases are referred to formal courts.

Conflict. Because of the many intermarriages that occur within a village, conflicts are quickly resolved by public debate. Warfare between village districts was a common occurrence prior to colonization. Such fighting, undertaken by chiefs, most often took place during the harvest season when political power or its absence was exposed. Today, fights sometimes erupt for the same reasons, but the presence of government officials usually holds these incidents in check. The most dangerous conflict is the traditional yam competition where the members of one matrilineage line up their largest and longest yams to be measured against the yams brought together by the members of a rival matrilineage. Lengthy speeches made by intervening kin or affines will Usually stop the competition from proceeding. Once a winner is declared, the losers become the most dangerous enemies of the winning matrilineage for generations.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Trobrianders believe in spirits who reside in the bush who cause illness and death, but their greatest fear is sorcery. Only some people are believed to have the knowledge of spells that will "poison" a person and such experts can be petitioned to exercise their power for others. Counterspells are also known; chemical poisons obtained from elsewhere are thought to be prevalent. In addition, magic spells are chanted for many other desires, such as control over the weather, love, beauty, carving expertise, yam gardening, and sailing. Mission teachers have not disrupted the strong beliefs in and practice of magic. Recently, villagers from two hamlets have introduced a new fundamentalist religion whose tenets negate the practice of magic.

Religious Practitioners. Most villagers own some magic spells, but only certain women and men are known to have the most sought after and powerful spells for gardening, weather, and sorcery. The most powerful spells are owned by the Omarakana chief. Some villages have resident mission catechists who conduct Sunday church services.

Ceremonies. A series of rituals are performed for a pregnant woman, and for several months after birth the mother and infant remain secluded. Their emergence is marked by a feast. The largest festivities occur during the annual harvest season after the yams are brought from the garden and loaded into yam houses. Led by a chief or hamlet leader, a village may also host cricket matches, dancing, or competitive yam exchanges, all of which culminate in a huge feast for participants. Kula activities are surrounded by many rituals and feasts.

Arts. Dances first brought by the original ancestors are still owned by the members of individual matrilineages. Drums are the only traditional musical instruments for these dances. Jew's harps or flutes made from bush materials are played for personal enjoyment. String bands are now common. Traditional songs are still sung when someone dies. Traditionally, only certain special people had the magical knowledge necessary to make them expert carvers of canoe prows, war shields, dancing paddles, large bowls, and betel chewing implements. Today, many other villagers carve tourist items.

Medicine. Some women and men are renowned curers, depending upon plants and herbs from the bush that they use with magic spells. A small hospital is located near the government station on Kiriwina, and medical aid posts (usually poorly stocked) are within walking distance of most villages. Adequate medical care is still a grave problem.

Death and Afterlife. When a person dies, the spirit goes to live on the distant island of Tuma where the ancestors continue their existence. At the end of the harvest period, the ancestors of a matrilineage return to the Trobriands to examine the well-being of their kin. The mourning and exchanges following a death are the most lengthy and costly of all ritual events. When a person dies, an all-night vigil takes place in which men sing traditional songs and the spouse and children of the deceased cry over the body. A series of food and women's wealth distributions takes place after the burial, and then the close relatives of the spouse and father of the dead person shave their hair and/or blacken their bodies while the spouse remains secluded. On Kiriwina, about six months later, women of the deceased's matrilineage host a huge distribution of skirts and banana-leaf bundles to repay the hundreds of people who have been in mourning. (On Vakuta Island, only skirts are exchanged.) The woman who distributes more wealth than anyone else is a big-woman. Today, trade-store cloth is sometimes used in place of bundles, and such cloth is central when a women's distribution is held in the capital by Trobrianders living there. Annual distributions of yams, pork, taro pudding, sugarcane, or betel nuts take place each year after an important person dies. When a harvest is especially large, a villagewide distribution is held that honors all the recently deceased from one clan.

See alsoDobu, Goodenough Island


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