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Reviewed by:
  • Shifting Images of Identity in the Pacific
  • Eric Silverman
Shifting Images of Identity in the Pacific, edited by Toon van Meijl and Jelle Miedema. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004. ISBN 90-6718-244-3; viii + 269 pages, tables, figures, maps, photographs, notes, bibliographies, index. €30.00.

This collection of timely, sometimes splendid essays was culled from a variety of workshops at the 1999 conference of the European Society for Oceanists (ESfO) in Leiden, the Netherlands. The papers focus on the shifting dynamics of Pacific identity within some sort of political context. Each essay presents a case study of change and often continuity in how a Pacific Island community defines itself on the stage of globalization.

Several aspects of the volume are commendable. First, the papers incorporate varying degrees of contemporary [End Page 635] theory, but laudably (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) remain tethered to on-the-ground social experience. Theory rarely eclipses description and analysis. The book will thus appeal to readers interested in specific Pacific locales as well as scholars seeking conceptual frameworks or analytic ideas to apply elsewhere. Second, each paper includes at least some reflection on history and the colonial experience. Third, the chapters exhibit a nice range of topical and regional focuses, and, fourth, they represent a broad spectrum of national intellectual traditions, mainly from Europe. Finally, most essays in the book are written in clear, accessible prose.

The introduction by Toon van Meijl trawls the spectrum of social science to summarize some key ideas for thinking about identity. Here, and throughout the volume, identity is defined as a sociocultural rather than a psychological construct. The chapter stresses the fluidity of identity as well as themes of contestation, contradiction, and colonization. Identity often plays with and against history; it is a matter of both continuity and discontinuity. Tradition, as van Meijl stresses in agreement with most scholars, is often reconstructed to sustain emergent forms of cultural and political self-consciousness in the postcolonial Pacific.

Don Gardner discusses how the forces of colonialism, ranging from the formation of administrative units to the determination of clan-based mineral rights, heightened an us–them opposition among the Miyanmin of Papua New Guinea. Traditionally, Miyanmin conceptualized their group identities through fluid notions of body substances, kinship, and residence. All groups were permeable. A sense of fixed, bounded "we-ness" emerged largely through the imposition of Western institutions. Similarly, Jelle Miedema draws on myth, migration, marriage patterns, and language to stress the diffuse nature of traditional group identity among the Kebar of the Bird's Head Peninsula, West Papua. A common tribal identity often masks differences within the group; conversely, boundaries obscure similarities. Here, again, the overall message is that premodern corporate identities were far more fluid than modern notions of the social unit as inextricably closed or bounded, and thus traditional identities often clashed with Western practices and institutions.

Allen Abramson discusses the use of "neo-traditional symbolism" by village Fijians to appropriate public space during protests staged at luxury hotels on Viti Levu over the nonpayment of ground rent in the early 1990s. The protesters challenged the inequality of an encroaching capitalism by appealing to the traditional institutions of chiefs, land tenure, and ritual hierarchy. Yet this mobilization of tradition also reproduced inequality by promoting long-standing political—that is to say, chiefly—hierarchies. In this instance, appeals to tradition both sustained and subverted a grassroots egalitarian sentiment.

Three contributions focus on art. Judy Flores discusses artists who, since the 1970s, mobilize traditional as well as (more interestingly) modern symbols to assist the indigenous [End Page 636] rights movement in the Mariana Islands. Wolfgang Kempf, borrowing ideas from Foucault, interprets historical themes of diasporic tragedy as performed by a Banaban dance and theater troupe during a tour of Japan in 1997. (Banabans were displaced in the 1940s to an island in Fiji, due to phosphate mining.) Monique Jeudy-Ballini, in a brief but terrific essay, shows how Western desire for ceremonial masks among the Sulka of New Britain impacts on local perceptions of cultural identity vis-à-vis Westerners. Formerly, these masks were burned after ritual, since the ceremonial act of display exhausted aesthetic potency and efficacy. Viewers...


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