The Trobrianders of PapuaNew Guinea
Chapter 2: Death And TheWork OfMourning
Uwelasi was an old but powerful chief who was ill for several weeks.
Before his death, they washed his body and dressed him in the tradition white pandanus penis
covering. They rubbed his skin with coconut oil and aromatic grasses were tucked into his
armbands. They painted his face and the traditional silver of polished shell (mark of death) was
inserted through the tiny holes in his nose made when he was a child. White cowrie-shell
decorations (mark of chiefly rank) was tied around his legs, waist, forehead, and the red shell
necklace (young people wear) was around his neck.
Internally he was dying, outwardly symbolically young and chiefly past seductiveness and fame.
Most deaths are considered to be a result of sorcery into the victim’s betel nuts, natural death is
only when one is old and dies while asleep.
When a politically important person is dead, it’s because someone wants to reduce power.
When another dies, it’s an attack on the matrilineage matrilineages are unequal in resources
matrilineage properties are controlled by a chief/leader who inherits these rights Deaths or
offenses = loss of part of the ancestral land competition
A person belongs to a matrilineage + one of four matrilineal clans (no chiefs/leaders, no sharing
land) to separate villagers into marriageable and non-marriageable categories.
Death = attackon thematrilineage
o Chief = the power + supporters
o Girl/women of child-bearing age = attack on the entire matrilineage
Owners and Workers
Kinship determines role during mourning thedeath of someone.
Owners (toliuli) – members of dead’s matrilineage (mainly) and the rest of the clan.
o Organize the burial and exchanges
o Cannot touch the body, drive the grave, or carry the body to the grave site + workers jobs
o Do not grieve publicly
o They give away their resources: yams, pigs, stone axe-blades, traditional male valuables,
skirts and bundles of banana leaves, valuables of women.
o Give away to repay all members of other matrilineages who were close to the deceased
during his life.
Workers (toliyouwa) – villagers from other clans related to dead though marriage or patrilaterally
and children, friends, political allies (mainly wife and father + their matrilineage)
o Public mourners
o Sit with the body and prepare the grave
o After the burial, they shave off their hair, paint their bodies black, and wear mourning
People gather in the central plaza and participate in an all-night vigil used to be 3 nights, but
Australian government thought it should occur faster because of sanitary purposes
Men sing their repertoire of ancestral songs competition
o Tuma – an island 20 sea miles from kiriwina, where spirits (baloma) would join the other
spirits of dead Trobrianders and return to a state of youth and continue to live.
NO ONE sleeps, to do so is to show disrespect to the owners and to imply that you caused the
Women attended to the body, and carried the body and chanted the mourning cry. Sons wore a green pandanus covering, and daughters wore an undyed banana skirts. The danced
and mourned at the same time, while carrying a personal item of Uwelasi’s.
The Threat of Sorcery
Important to disguise feelings, even when angry, keep smiling. To do so otherwise, openly invites
fighting and such behavior leads to sorcery.
Adults and children fear nothing but sorcery a man wanted to investigate a noise he heard,
believing a sorcerer entered his house.
Big mistakes such as sorcery, killing, stealing land are remembered in each generation
Others must ask a chief to perform sorcery, with a big payment such as a large stone axe-blade.
Women not suspected of sorcery because they don’t walk at night. BUT some women and few men
are flying witches (GOOD/BAD)– ability to leave their bodies while asleep at dark and attack
someone by destroying a vital organ and only another flying witch can recite spells that will cure
the patient. Villagers careful not to anger known flying witches.
Plans occur at dark, a specialist has free choice when taking requests and may warn the victim.
Sorcery works slowly, giving time for someone to get a curing specialist, possible before the 3rd
betel nut. some believe western poisons are incurable and cause death in 24 hours
If a chief has strong magic and is powerful enough, he will announce his responsibility for a death.
Leon doubted Vanoi’s magic, and Vanoi told him if he didn’t believe Leon should smoke this
cigarette. Leon got violently sick and died a week later.
No one touches the Chief’s carrying basket, and people fear when the chief offers betel and cigars.