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Changing Contexts, Shifting Meanings

Transformations of Cultural Traditions in Oceania

Elfriede Hermann, editor

Publication Year: 2011

This book sheds new light on processes of cultural transformation at work in Oceania and analyzes them as products of interrelationships between culturally created meanings and specific contexts. In a series of inspiring essays, noted scholars of the region examine these interrelationships for insight into how cultural traditions are shaped on an ongoing basis.

The collection marks a turning point in the debate on the conceptualization of tradition. Following a critique of how tradition has been viewed in terms of dichotomies like authenticity vs. inauthenticity, contributors stake out a novel perspective in which tradition figures as context-bound articulation. This makes it possible to view cultural traditions as resulting from interactions between people—their ideas, actions, and objects—and the ambient contexts. Such interactions are analyzed from the past down to the Oceanian present—with indigenous agency being highlighted. The work focuses first on early encounters, initially between Pacific Islanders themselves and later with the European navigators of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to clarify how meaningful actions and contexts interrelated in the past. The present-day memories of Pacific Islanders are examined to ask how such memories represent encounters that occurred long ago and how they influenced the social, political, economic, and religious changes that ensued. Next, contributors address ongoing social and structural interactions that social actors enlist to shape their traditions within the context of globalization and then the repercussions that these intersections and intercultural exchanges of discourses and practices are having on active identity formation as practiced by Pacific Islanders. Finally, two authorities on Oceania—who themselves move in the intersecting space between anthropology and history—discuss the essays and add their own valuable reflections.

With its wealth of illuminating analyses and illustrations, Changing Contexts, Shifting Meanings will appeal to students and scholars in the fields of cultural and social anthropology, history, art history, museology, Pacific studies, gender studies, cultural studies, and literary criticism.

Contributors: Aletta Biersack, Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon, Bronwen Douglas, David Hanlon, Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Peter Hempenstall, Margaret Jolly, Miriam Kahn, Martha Kaplan, John D. Kelly, Wolfgang Kempf, Gundolf Krüger, Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris, Lamont Lindstrom, Karen Nero, Ton Otto, Anne Salmond, Serge Tcherkézoff, Paul van der Grijp, Toon van Meijl.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

The symposium “Changing Contexts—Shifting Meanings: Transformations of Cultural Traditions in Oceania” was sponsored by the Honolulu Academy of Arts between February 23 and 26, 2006, in conjunction with the exhibition Life in the Pacific of the 1700s. This extraordinary gathering presented several hundred artifacts collected during the second and third Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook (1728 –1779), generously loaned to the academy by the Institute of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the...

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pp. xi-xiii

First of all, sincerest thanks to those cultural communities throughout Oceania who generously welcomed us into their midst. To all who aided our research and granted access to their lives and knowledge, we are greatly indebted. Given that in the process of writing culture we constantly interact with their representations and praxis, it is not surprising that their voices and actions are always present in our research finding...

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Introduction. Engaging with Interactions: Traditions as Context-Bound Articulations

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pp. 1-19

The meanings ascribed to cultural traditions constantly shift in the course of interactions between people and their ideas, actions, and objects. They are always articulated from specific perspectives that social actors have staked out within historically developed interconnectivities and multifaceted power relations. Being formed and expressed in relation to particular circumstances, they can be said to articulate the specific contexts...

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Changing Contexts, Shifting Meanings: The Cook / Forster Collection, For Example

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pp. 20-37

The artifacts of the Göttingen–Cook/Forster Collection originate mainly from different islands and cultures from the South Seas; they were collected during the three voyages James Cook undertook between 1768 and 1780 on behalf of the British Crown. Shortly after the return of the ships from the first voyage, some items came into the possession of the Academic Museum of Göttingen University. They formed the basis of what...

Part I: Early Encounters

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Histories of the Before: Lelu, Nan Madol, and Deep Time

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pp. 41-55

During his end-of-century tour through what he called the “sea of little lands,” the British anthropologist F. W. Christian (1899a) visited Nan Madol on the island of Pohnpei in the Eastern Caroline group of the larger Micronesian geographical area. In three separate visits to the ruins in March of 1895, Christian surveyed the entire site, made maps, and took photographs of the larger, more prominent islets of Nan Dauwas and...

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Beyond the Beach? Re-articulating the Limen in Oceanic Pasts, Presents, and Futures

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pp. 56-73

Moruya Heads, New South Wales January 1999. I am reading Greg Dening’s Readings / Writings tucked up against the sand dunes, pondering the relation between his writing and the materiality of the beach: its scorching sands, its vast white expanse, the turbulent palette of the ocean as the weather changes and the tide rises and ebbs, and how in the heat of an Australian summer mirages are created, confounding quotidian...

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Encountering Agency: Islanders, European Voyagers, and the Production of Race in Oceania

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pp. 74-92

This chapter combines an ethnohistory of encounters between Pacific Islanders and European voyagers with the history of the unstable idea of “race” by correlating voyagers’ racial terminology with their experience of particular indigenous people. I take seriously local initiatives, actions, and demeanors — condensed as agency—as refracted through varied genres, modes, or media of travelers’ representations. I interpret encounters...

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Aphrodite’s Island: Sexual Mythologies in Early Contact Tahiti

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pp. 93-106

In June 1767, the British ship Dolphin discovered Tahiti for Europe. Captain Wallis was on a voyage of exploration, searching for the Unknown Southern Continent. Although canoe travel linked this small Polynesian island to the archipelagoes around it, until that moment its people knew nothing of the wider world. Now this isolation was shattered as a succession of ships from France, Britain, and Spanish America began to anchor off...

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An Encounter with Violence in Paradise: Georg Forster’s Reflections on War in Aotearoa, Tahiti, and Tonga (1772–1775)

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pp. 107-122

During James Cook’s second circumnavigation of the globe from 1772 through 1775, a certain young man’s observations shed light on European encounters with foreign cultures from a perspective unlike that of any other European of his day. The young man was Georg Forster (1754–1794), a youth of only seventeen at the journey’s start. Although in contrast to Cook—whom the public knows much more about today—his...

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Inventing Polynesia

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pp. 123-137

It is usually assumed that the naming of the Pacific regions, at least for Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, was invented by the French navigator Dumont d’Urville in the early nineteenth century, as the expanded knowledge of the Pacific, or Oceania as it began to be called at the same time in France, required more detailed maps and hence...

Part II: Memories

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Naming and Memory on Tanna, Vanuatu

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pp. 141-156

On August 5, 1774, James Cook’s ship Resolution dropped anchor in what Cook was soon to name Port Resolution, a small bay on the eastern tip of Tanna Island (Cook 1777, vol. 2: 83–84). Cook had been sailing down the middle of an archipelago he had just renamed the New Hebrides, mapping and making observations. Attracted by the fire of Tanna’s active volcano, and by a snug harbor located close by, Cook decided to...

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Inventing Traditions and Remembering the Past in Manus

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pp. 157-173

Societies remember the past in many different ways. There are historical narratives of various kinds, which keep track of past events that are relevant for the keepers of the histories (for example, descent groups, church groups, religious movements, political units). The past is also remembered in the passing on of ritual practices, social customs, practical knowledge, and material products. Traditions are forms of historical...

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Social Mimesis, Commemoration, and Ethnic Performance: Fiji Banaban Representations of the Past

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pp. 174-191

In this chapter I will show that mimetic practice in a society is a key element in creating and handing down binding representations of a collective past. “Social mimesis,” in the sense used here, derives primarily from the philosophical works of Gebauer and Wulf (1995, 1998, 2003). These authors have taken a concept normally associated with aesthetics and usefully extended it to the social and cultural sciences. Following Gebauer...

Part III: Global and (Trans)local Processes

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Moving onto the Stage: Tourism and the Transformation of Tahitian Dance

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pp. 195-208

While living in France in February of 2002, I visited the annual Salon Mondial du Tourisme (tradeshow of global tourism) in Paris. It was packed with thousands of people browsing among some two hundred booths advertising every tourist destination imaginable. While looking at a display about farm stays in Tuscany, I suddenly heard...

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Producing Inalienable Objects in a Global Market: The Solien Besena in Contemporary Australia

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pp. 209-220

The Solien Besena are a unique cultural group originating from the Motu-Koita and Tatana people of the Papua New Guinea south coast region, between Tatana Island and the Brown River. Numerous clan members migrated to eastern Australia in the 1970s up until the late 1990s. The Solien Besena now hold a distinctive ethnic marginality in both Papua New Guinea and Australia and consequently they aggressively promote...

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Alienation and Appropriation: Fijian Water and the Pacific Romance in Fiji and New York

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pp. 221-234

In changing contexts through time and across the globe, certain Fijian water has shifted in meaning. It has emerged unnamed from springs, free-flowing and uncommoditized in the foothills of the Kauvadra mountain. It has been put in a coconut shell cup and named “wai ni tuka” (water of immortality) by prophet-leader Navosavakadua, drunk to induce warrior invulnerability by the Vatukaloko people, and sent to potential allies...

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Shanti and Mana: The Loss and Recovery of Culture under Postcolonial Conditions in Fiji

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pp. 235-249

In The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Ashis Nandy (1983) argued that the British, in India, hypermasculinized themselves while denying adult manhood in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to the colonized men in India. Kipling is his prime example. Nandy argued that the Gandhians responded most effectively: they abandoned efforts to outmasculine the British and instead valorized an...

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Justice in Wallis-‘Uvea: Customary Rights and Republican Law in a French Overseas Territory

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pp. 250-259

On the Polynesian island of Wallis-‘Uvea, which is part of the French overseas territory referred to as Wallis-and-Futuna, several “affairs” occurred between 2001 and the present, whose legal and political dimensions provoked much turmoil in the territory. These affairs illustrate particularly well the difficulties that arise from the interaction between two different legal systems, one of which is the local system, considered “customary...

Part IV: Cultural Exchange and Identities

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Maori Traditions in Analogy with the Past

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pp. 263-276

During the late 1980s and early 1990s a whole generation of scholars examined and discussed the reconstruction of traditions and their politicization in the Pacific. This debate about the revival of traditions came gradually to an end during the mid-1990s. Some ten years later, however, it may be concluded that the implications of this discussion for anthropological theory have barely been made explicit. The aim of this chapter...

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Contemporary Tongan Artists and the Reshaping of Oceanic Identity

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pp. 277-295

According to Epeli Hau‘ofa, “in cultural creativity we can carve out our own spaces, in which we set the rules, the standards that are ours, fashioned to suit our circumstances, and to give us the necessary freedom to act in order to bring out the best in us. The realization of this potential can unleash an enormous creative energy that could help to transform and reshape the face of contemporary Oceania in our own image” (2005:...

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A Tale of Three Time Travelers: Maintaining Relationships, Exploring Visual Technologies

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pp. 296-311

This chapter traces the stories of three late eighteenth-century Palauan treasures that are now held in the British Museum1 — a large shell-inlaid bird-shaped wooden bowl, a shell-inlaid canoe, and an oil painting of three Palauans. These pieces were given, transferred, or commissioned during Honourable East India Company ship visits — Captain Henry Wilson’s first extended visit to Palau in 1783 and Captain John McCluer’s...

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Cultural Change in Oceania: Remembering the Historical Questions

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pp. 313-322

Ordinarily a historian among anthropologists is a nervous creature. The Malinowskian tradition of European anthropology condemned the historian to the status of inferior cousin in a family devoted to studying the functional regularities of social structure in “other cultures.” History was regarded as an oversimplified project, a fact-grubbing chronicle or speculative flight of fantasy incapable of connecting with the reality of past...

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pp. 323-350

This volume comes out of a symposium staged in conjunction with an exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts: Life in the Pacific of the 1700s: The Cook / Forster Collection of the George August University of Göttingen. Displayed in that exhibit were some five hundred items of ethnological interest from New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, the Marquesas, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Hawai‘i, and the northwest coast of America...


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pp. 351-355


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pp. 357-365

About the Editor

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pp. 367

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860141
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833664

Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Oceania -- Civilization -- Congresses.
  • Pacific Islanders -- Congresses.
  • Social change -- Oceania -- Congresses.
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