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The Contemporary Pacific 13.2 (2001) 569-574



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Book Review

Chiefs Today: Traditional Pacific Leadership and the Postcolonial State

Leadership in the Pacific Islands: Tradition and the Future


Chiefs Today: Traditional Pacific Leadership and the Post colonial State, edited by Geoffrey M White and Lamont Lindstrom. East-West Center Series on Contemporary Issues in Asia and the Pacific. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. ISBN cloth, 0-8047-2849-6; xiv + 343 pages, map, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, us$49.50; paper US$18.95.

Leadership in the Pacific Islands: Tradition and the Future, edited by Don Shuster, Peter Larmour, and Karin von Strokirch. Pacific Policy Paper 30. Canberra: National Centre for Development Studies, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University and Mangilão: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1998. ISBN 0-7315-2372-5; xi + 149 pages, appendix, notes, bibliography. Paper A$20, US$15.

Chiefs Today, a collection of essays edited by Geoffrey White and Lamont Lindstrom is a welcome contribution to the literature on leadership and political systems in the Pacific. The volume focuses on the position of chiefs in the present-day Pacific Islands and their relationships with the state. The term chief has become the common gloss for a great variety of traditional leadership types throughout the Pacific region. Lindstrom and White define chiefs as political leaders drawing their authority and influence from a discourse on local tradition. They distinguish three main types: chiefs who represent the state, serving as its statesmen (for example in Tonga); chiefs who function as the state's intermediaries and brokers at the local level, exercising state control and providing state services; and chiefs who act against the state as representatives of local identities and aspirations. The case studies in chapters 2 to 14 illustrate the various discourses that have contributed to the persistence, transformation, and (re)emergence of chiefs in the Pacific. The editors do not attempt to systematize these discourses, but I do not believe that it would inflict gross conceptual violence on the idiosyncrasies of the various cases to characterize them as discourses on state, democracy, and nationhood, discourses on Christianity, discourses on tradition, and discourses on business and development.

Cluny Macpherson discusses the persistence of chiefly authority in Western Sâmoa (chapter 2). He shows how chiefs and missionaries entered a "natural alliance" to their mutual gain, a collaboration that continues up to the present. Through various transformations of constitutional arrangements, the chiefs have continued to wield considerable political power, formalized and legitimated by the state. The Tongan case, described by Kerry James (chapter 3), is special in that it is the only surviving kingdom in the Pacific. The centralization of power in the royal family, the restricted number of appointed nobles, and the state ministers have effected a transformation of traditional chieftainship. Even though this hierarchical system enjoys great legitimacy in Tonga, James points to problems deriving from its rigidity. In chapter 4 Robert Franco compares the "populist and hierarchical vitality" of the Western Samoan chiefly system with the continuity and stagnation of the Tongan monarchy and nobility.

Toon van Meijl elaborates the [End Page 569] urban-rural opposition within the Mâori population of New Zealand (chapter 5). The rural-based tribal chiefs engaged in strategies to enhance the empowerment of Mâori tribal organizations through a process of political devolution. Urban groups reacted by forming pantribal organizations, which achieved political recognition as regional authorities. Stephanie Lawson uses the case of Fiji (chapter 6) to argue forcefully that tradition can be used as a political tool to serve certain interests, in particular those of an indigenous elite. She emphasizes that the present political position of chiefs is largely a colonial construction, but is legitimated on the basis of a discourse on tradition that opposes western values of political equality and liberty, inclusion and participation. Alan Howard and Jan Rensel move the scene to Rotuma, an isolated Polynesian island in the Republic of Fiji (chapter 7). Even though the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9464
Print ISSN
1043-898X
Pages
pp. 569-574
Launched on MUSE
2001-07-01
Open Access
No
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