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The Contemporary Pacific 14.2 (2002) 492-494

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Unity of Heart:
Culture and Change in a Polynesian Atoll Society

Unity of Heart: Culture and Change in a Polynesian Atoll Society, by Keith Chambers and Anne Chambers. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. ISBN1-57766-166-4; xv + 283 pages, tables, figures, maps, photographs, glossary, bibliography, study guide. US$15.95.

Lagoons, palm trees, sandy beaches, and brown bodies contribute to the idyll of the Pacific. Behind that imagery is another side of life, which [End Page 492] Keith and Anne Chambers depict in their ethnography of Nanumea, an atoll in the northern Tuvalu group. As one of a very few recent ethnographies of atoll life,Unity of Heart is welcome to keep alive the anthropological tradition of a broad description of the particulars of daily living, complete with changes the authors observed over a thirty-year period.

The style of this work makes it eminently suitable to a wide readership. It provides a good introduction to the way anthropologists conduct fieldwork, and how they present their findings. The authors' rich fieldnotes feature prominently as quotes. The perspective of a husband-and-wife team, complete with their children, provides new insights as to how two anthropologists working together can provide a more holistic account, particularly of gender relations. The language is evocative of the lifestyle: laid-back, yet conveying many messages simultaneously. The reader can peel back the layers to discover the idiosyncracies of equality as it is lived outin the resident community of 1,000 people, how their changing values manifest themselves to the anthropologists on each return visit. This book give voice to the people of Nanumea themselves.

The "unity of heart" theme binds this community into a consolidation that differs from its neighbors and yet holds together internal inconsistencies. Belonging to Nanumea holds for those living away from their home atoll, whether in Funafuti, the urban center of Tuvalu, or in Auckland or Sydney. The importance of that shared ideology overrides the "challenges of today's offerings" (222). This is not an overly rose-tinted account, as the authors point out the political divisions and generational conflicts that they see emerging over the thirty-year time spread of their field visits. Tefolaha as the key character in the Nanumea founding myth may no longer create a feeling of cultural rootedness for the youth, yet there is a strong sense of community.

What binds communities such as these small islands in the Pacific is a key question today, particularly in the face of the varied threats to their residential viability if rising sea levels become a reality, and the increasing diaspora of settlements beyond their Pacific homeland. The resident population of Nanumea is diminishing only slightly compared to other outer islands, such as those in the Marshall Islands or Cook Islands. Yet material necessities are not easily found and in part are generated from nonresidents in the form of remittances. Can these bonds override the threats of disruption?

Many comparisons need to be drawn between ideologies of people such as those of Nanumea and similar communities in the Pacific. The varied modes of coping with life on the home island versus "living away" can provide further clarification of the strengths of unity that pervade this ethnography. The growing significance of the association of smallisland states to which Tuvalu belongs, along with Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Nauru, may draw on the ideology of unity, so clearly described here, at the wider political level. These island nations share many of the threats of [End Page 493] "smallness" as a euphemism for economic nonviability. Those that colonial structures divided for their own spoils now assert their distinctive identities within wider political amalgamations such as the Association of Small Island States and the Pacific Islands Forum. The influence of the British, Americans, and Australians in engendering different solutions to today's challenges is a mind-game that is likely to distinguish a Nanumean's thinking from any outsider's viewpoint. They are likely to differ among themselves about...


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