- The Story of Holim Pas Tok Ples, a Short Film about Indigenous Language on Lou Island, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea
Manus Province in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has become well-known over the past few years for an Australian offshore refugee detention center that was set up on Los Negros Island in 2001 and then expanded to include facilities on both Los Negros and Manus Islands in 2012. However, as someone who is Manusian, from Lou Island in Manus Province, I think it is crucial for people, including the peoples of Manus, to remember that Manus is much more than simply the location for an imposed Australian detention center. Manus culture has developed over several thousand years, since Lapita seafarers began settling the province’s many islands.1 With a current population of over sixty thousand, it is vital that Manusians keep alive and pass on the histories and cultures that make us who we are. So, in the midst of the ongoing developments that surround the controversial refugee detention center and military base, I turned my attention to a completely different issue that is of urgent importance for my people on Lou and for the people of Manus as a whole—the fate of our Indigenous languages.
There are twenty-eight languages spoken in Manus Province (map 1; sil Papua New Guinea 2020). The cultural heritage and languages of Manus have been described as resilient, surviving multiple waves of colonization: German colonization, Australian administration, Japanese occupation, American “liberation,” and a second wave of Australian administration (Case, Pauli, and Soejarto 2005; Minol 2000). Since PNG gained its independence in 1975, Manus has been used twice as the location for detention of asylum seekers aiming to get to Australia—from 2001 to 2003 [End Page 478] and then again from 2011 to 2019. Under the pressures exerted by these waves of colonization, including our contemporary neocolonial education systems and continuous devaluation of Indigenous ways of life, how are the languages of Manus faring today? While living in my village on Lou Island for several months in 2018—aiming to learn my language, Ngolan Lou—it became clear to me that our language is in serious decline, and I imagine that this may be the case in many other Manus communities, too. In making the video Holim Pas Tok Ples (Holding on to Our Indigenous Languages),2 I explored the issue of the health and current neglect of Indigenous languages in the hope of raising awareness and motivating my people on Lou and people in other parts of Manus and across Melanesia to reverse this trend.
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Born in PNG, I grew up in PNG and Vanuatu. My father is from Lou Island, located about twenty-five kilometers off the southeast coast of Manus Island. My mother is Canadian but has lived in Melanesia for over twenty-five years. While I was raised in urban areas (Madang, PNG, and Port Vila, Vanuatu), I traveled to my rural village on Lou at least [End Page 479] once or twice a year and visited my mother’s Canadian family on Vancouver Island annually. The story that I tell in Holim Pas Tok Ples is one that I was able to piece together because of the perspectives my life has provided—I have had access to global perspectives through my mother and a connection to Indigenous perspectives and ways of life through my father. The idea for this video came following a gap year that I took after high school, during which I spent several months in my village on Lou trying to learn the language. I already spoke English, Tok Pisin, Bislama, and French (and had learned French later in life, in Grade 7, by being immersed at the Lycée Française de Port Vila), and so I was hopeful that I would learn a substantial amount of Ngolan Lou during my stay. What I found, however, was that I was not being immersed in the language as I had hoped to be, mostly because many...