OCEANIA ETHNOLOGY

VANUATU

Ethnologists often find more interest in the social life of the Banks Islanders and the Vanuatu Islanders than in their arts and crafts, as these are often thought to be much advanced than in other parts of Melanesia. Their canoes are stout enough, but not as well finished as those of say Santa Cruz; their decorative art has been described as nearly non-existent. The natives are good gardeners but less successful as fishermen. As fighters however, they were well armed with bows and arrows, spears, and well-finished hardwood clubs.

           

The carved head of a Vanuatu war club.

Each village has, or had a large men's club-house, the gamal, divided into a number of compartments. This house and its compartments represent the division of the men of the district into a number of grades of membership of the village club. Entrance into the first grade occurred in boyhood, with later grades being reached at certain times such as say, the attainment of manhood, or when patronage was obtained from one who is already a member of higher grade.

A Vanuatu carving.

A youth must continue to eat with the women until such time as he can obtain admission to the club-house. This admission is obtained through elaborate initiation feasts sponsored by his patron.

Many lengths of shell money are required as initiation fees, and these can be obtained either from friends or by working for them. A candidate must therefore be industrious and generally respected, and it will be seen how powerful a social influence the senior members of the community can exercise through the club-house or suckwe system.

Although the sukwee has its formal initiation and its restrictions as to membership of the higher degrees, it is, nevertheless, an open, almost public, society or village club, with its special house in full public view. In hidden places in the bush however, they are set apart the gamal of the much more restricted and secret tamate or ghost societies. These societies parade the spirits of ancestors which are represented by the special marks. They also have elaborate and expensive initiation ceremonies, and they "protect" their communal and personal properties by a tapu and general influence of the tamate itself.

The front and back of a Vanuatu comb.

It is curious that two such organisations have existed together in Vanuatu and it has been suggested that they are the result of a second migration into a region whose occupants already had a "social ladder" in the village organisation. On this view, the later immigrants are held to be responsible, not only for the secret rites of the tamate, but for the increased number of degrees in the suckwe lodges as well. In other words, the immigrants so successfully established themselves in the new region, that they were able to keep their own rites and ceremonies secret while at the same time securing a high status in the suckwe, or general village club.

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Jane Resture
 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 5th March 2008)