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  • Dangerous Objects:Changing Indigenous Perceptions of Material Culture in a Papua New Guinea Society1
  • John Barker

In this article I examine the ways that the Maisin people of Oro Province in Papua New Guinea have understood and deployed objects of their material culture over the course of a century of interactions with European outsiders. In the early years of the twentieth century, an Anglican missionary noted local attitudes toward certain significant objects. Some of these objects likely became part of a large collection he made for the Australian Museum. I compare his observations with my own, made in the course of ethnographic fieldwork some 70 years later. The comparison shows that Maisin during both periods identified certain objects as emblems of kinship identity and others as dangerous, as materials for sorcery. However, Maisin attitudes toward these and other objects have been strongly influenced over the decades through encounters and dialogues with outsiders, particularly missionaries in the past and, more recently, environmentalists and museum curators.

Objects can Kill.

Three months into my fieldwork with the Maisin of Papua New Guinea, I came across the odd sight of an old drum hanging from a tree behind one of the village houses. I learned that a year or so earlier the owner of the drum had been publicly accused of using it to contact the spirit of a dead shaman (the former owner) to ensorcel his own wife. Protesting his innocence, he gave the drum to the son of the deceased shaman—himself a retired mission teacher—who, unwilling to handle the object himself, hung it in a tree to rot away. When I saw it, the drum had become blackened and cracked. But people clearly feared it. Although the drum was in itself nothing special, its connection to the shaman gave it historical significance, because he had been well known to the colonial authorities of the 1930s (Barker 1990). I offered to arrange for it to be sent to the National Museum of Papua New Guinea. The son eagerly accepted my offer to get the drum away, but insisted upon secrecy. It was brought to me late at night, tightly wrapped. I sent it on to the National Museum with a letter of explanation. There it remains to this day.

My experience echoes that of an earlier resident among the Maisin. In 1902, an Anglican lay missionary, John Percy Money, built the first church and school at the largest Maisin village of Uiaku. In March 1903, a group of villagers responded to the urgings of one of the mission teachers, a Solomon Islander named Willie Pettawa, by bringing their "charms" to the house of the missionary. The following day, Money took the "great heap" of objects, burned them, and then scattered the ashes in a nearby swamp. An avid collector of Native "curios," Money very likely first examined the artifacts to see if any were worth preserving. It is possible that he put some aside, as he did at a similar purge of "charms" that occurred near the mission headquarters at the Ubir-speaking village of Wanigela around the same time (Wetherell 1977:177). If so, some of these objects may form part of a huge collection of Maisin and Ubir artifacts that Money gathered on behalf [End Page 359] of the Australian Museum in Sydney between 1904 and 1908.

A small but significant portion of early ethnological collections came to museums in similar ways. Across Oceania, converts marked their acceptance of Christianity by desecrating spiritual places and objects. By defying the taboos of sacred groves in Malaita or exposing cult objects to women and uninitiated men on the south coast of Papua, Christians sought to demonstrate the superior power of their newly found god and, very likely, to reduce the chances of the ancestors retaliating for their heresy. Often encouraged by missionaries, the new zealots engaged in orgies of destruction. But some objects survived, put aside by missionaries to be used as teaching devices on fund-raising tours or to be sold to collectors and museums (Lawson 1994). The same thing happened elsewhere in the indigenous world. In British Columbia, for instance, the Methodist missionary Thomas Crosby amassed a...


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