The Contemporary Pacific 15.2 (2003) 497-499
[Access article in PDF]
Oceania: An Introduction to the Cultures and Identities of Pacific Islanders, by Andrew Strathern, Pamela J Stewart, Laurence M Carucci, Lin Poyer, Richard Feinberg, and Cluny Macpherson. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002. ISBN 0-89089-444-2; vii + 272 pages, figures, maps, notes, photographs,bibliography, index. US$30.00.
Creating a book with the scope promised by this title cannot have been an easy task. Fortunately, a reviewer's job is eased by the editors' clear statement of goals: "The book is intended primarily for use in college level courses for undergraduates" (3). I have taught different versions of a course on peoples of the Pacific to American undergraduates for about a quarter century and write my review with that experience in mind.
Differences between Oceania and any comparable texts are quickly apparent. Eschewing conventional "culture area" labels as anachronistic, the book's three main sections are entitled "The South-West Pacific," "The 'Eastern Pacific'"(note the additional quotation marks), and "The West Central Pacific." The first section comprises just a few pages more than either of the others, though the population represented by the first is about five times that of the other two combined. All sections attend to issues of history and change, as well as basic ethnography, but each pair of authors has been allowed a distinctive style of presentation. Detailed "case studies" —ethnographic or thematic—appear in all sections.
"The South-West Pacific" here includes the islands of New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. Presentation moves from the southeast to northwest with the most pages devoted to the largest populations, in the Solomons and New Guinea. The case studies include the specific (eg, "The Asmat of Irian Jaya: Art and Its Changing Meanings," which cries out for an illustration or two) and general (eg, a particularly effective treatment of "'Cargo Cults' and Millenarian Movements as Objects of Study"). This section is generously larded with comparisons of the authors' own work with Papua New Guinea Highlanders to that with other populations. Given the linguistic, cultural, and historical differences separating these Highlanders from all the Austronesian speakers elsewhere in the region, the comparisons are not always convincing. The final subsection, "An Overview of Political Problems," admirably fulfills the book's intention to make students aware that Islanders live with both tradition and modern institutions.
It is not clear why the next section is entitled "The'Eastern Pacific'" since this authorial pair writes throughout of "Polynesia" and "Polynesians." This is perhaps the most conventionally presented section, beginning with geography and language, and moving on to subsections on prehistory, seafaring,subsistence,and expressive arts, [End Page 497] before taking up "Central Themes in Polynesian Culture." "European Contact" is followed by "Contemporary Issues," in which the cases treated at length are those of Maori, Samoa, and Anuta. These cases repeat some material from earlier pages, but repetition is not necessarily a defect in a book designed for student use.
The authors of "The West Central Pacific" are at pains to say "that Micronesia does not exist" (187), a matter of some contention among specialists in the region. However, they do write plausibly about the linguistic and archaeological evidence for at least two separate settlements of the far-flung islands, and no one is likely to disagree with the claim that the respective colonial histories have been different. It is this section that most extensively lives up to the book's subtitle on the subject of "identity," devoting fifteen pages and examining the topic both by island group and thematically. This is also the section I thought was written with some genuine literary flair.
Specialists in Pacific Island studies will inevitably find details with which to quarrel. For example, the Bougainville mine began full-scale operations three years before Papua New Guinea's independence (contrast with page 52), while quoting population figures given by Douglas Oliver more than forty years ago supports a picture of modern Native Hawaiians that is lacking in nuance, to say the least...