The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 201-203
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Cargo Cult as Theater: Political Performance in the Pacific, by Dorothy K Billings. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002. ISBN 0-7391-0238-9; x + 267 pages, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$90.00.
One Melanesian cargo cult hit primetime news in 1964. The 22 June issue of Newsweek breathlessly asked, "What Price LBJ?" The article went on to report that people on New Hanover, in Papua New Guinea's Bismarck Archipelago, had raised money to "'buy' President [Lyndon Baines] Johnson,who would then rule the island—bringing with him, of course, cargoes of Hershey bars, cigarettes, and other luxuries. Before long, followers had given . . . $987 to make an early purchase of LBJ." This was, of course, four months before the November 1964 elections in which Johnson would wallop Barry Goldwater, the choice, not the echo. One senses underneath the cute story of befuddled Islanders trying first to vote for, and then to "buy" LBJ an early, oblique critique of Johnson's "Great Society" that would treat poverty with welfare subsidies. Some years later, the Johnson cult also made it onto the cover of a trashier publication, The Weekly World News, its headline: "wacky tribe thinks that former prez LBJ" is their "big-eared god."
Anthropologists, too, interested themselves in cargo cult. Dorothy Billings arrived in 1965 to check out the scene. But Australian administrators headquartered in Kavieng, New Ireland, refused to let her onto New Hanover. She set up shop instead in administratively approved Mangai village, about thirty miles down the road from Kavieng. Billings eventually received permission to go to New Hanover during a second fieldtrip, in 1967, and she returned to the region another seven times between then and 1998. She built these doubled field sites into a career, exploring stylistic contrasts between individualistic, competitive New Hanover and communitarian, egalitarian New Ireland.
Overviews of Melanesian cargo cults have commonly featured the Johnson cult, but this is the first comprehensive description of the movement. Billings combines the story of [End Page 201] thirty-five years of Johnson cult excitement with a retrospective of thirty-five years of her cult commentary, beginning with a 1972 dissertation, "Styles of Culture: New Ireland and New Hanover." Transcripts of Billings' 1967 interviews with cult supporters and opponents comprise much of the book. She also recounts in great detail how, when, and where she came by these interviews. Alongside the trials and tribulations of anthropological fieldwork, this blow-by-blow chronicle offers insight into colonial culture and the often eccentric administrative and mission personalities who inhabited the PNG hinterlands in the final decade of Australian rule.
The story began with a US military team of geodetic surveyors arriving on New Hanover in 1963. During what was then the height of the Cold War, military agents were poking their noses in distant places. On New Hanover, they climbed Mt Patibung, leaving behind mysterious cement markers. This American presence, along with the more sustained one during the Pacific War, encouraged about half the island's people to attempt to vote for LBJ during the first House of Assembly elections, held in February 1964. Official Australian frustration with this waylaid election result advanced to repression when many Johnson supporters next refused to pay head taxes or participate in census lineups. The administration arrested large numbers of Island men between 1964 and 1966. In October 1966, an American Catholic priest resident on New Hanover joined with Johnson supporters to found the Tutukuval Isukal (literally, "Stand Up Together to Plant") Association (TIA). This continues in business today and, in addition to its economic enterprises, has enjoyed considerable political success electing candidates to Parliament. By the late 1980s, the association—like much of Melanesia—had been significantly influenced by evangelical Christianity. LBJ's original importance in the movement was symbolic and his failure to turn up and his eventual death did not much temper movement appeal. In return, New Hanover did not much strike home with Johnson. When Billings sent her first article to the ranch inTexas, he replied...