(P028)
Mutable Materialities of Indigenous Ways of Life
Location British Museum - Sackler A
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 14:30
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Inna Yaneva-Toraman (University of Edinburgh) email
  • Mia Browne (University of St. Andrews) email
  • Elliott Oakley (University of Edinburgh) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Antje Denner (National Museum of Scotland)

Short abstract

This panel starts from the position that imaginations and moral expectations about identity and indigeneity are often informed and contested through material culture. We ask: how do changing materialities relate to processes of self-making, self-presentation and representation?

Long abstract

Numerous ethnographic studies have underlined the significance of 'objects' in indigenous strategies to materialise and mediate their social relations, desires, and values, whether through the object's innate subjectivities, agency, or material qualities (e.g. Strathern 1988, Gell 1993, Santos-Granero 2009, Basu 2017). However, amidst large-scale environmental change and global extractive industries, historically-used materials are sometimes considered 'threatened', 'unsustainable,' or more difficult to obtain. Further, globalised trade and colonial processes have rendered particular manufactured goods more desirable or accessible, subverting assumptions about 'traditional' forms of material culture (Thomas 1991, Foster 2002). If material culture inculcates ways of thinking about identities, including indigeneity, this panel asks how changing materialities relate to processes of self-making, self-presentation and representation? Imaginations and moral expectations of the ways that people should be living are often informed, enacted and contested through the objects. We further ask: In what ways do materialities shape - or become shaped by - these expectations and evaluations across different domains, from local events to museum collections to anthropological studies? For whom does the mutability (or immutability) of materiality matter? How might we make sense of these perceived transformations such that they meaningfully inform disciplinary theory and practice? We invite contributions that question how anthropological, archaeological and museum renditions of objects are challenged by the mutability of the 'material' and the fluidity with which 'identity' is expressed within transforming national and global configurations.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

"Of the Land, From the Land": Mutable Baining Materiality in Response to Dispossession

Author: Inna Yaneva-Toraman (University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the ways in which the Baining people of Papua New Guinea respond to processes of dispossession of their land, themselves, and traditional objects, by adopting and changing materialities of representation that are deemed necessary in forming a group identity.

Long abstract

The Baining people of Papua New Guinea have been somewhat infamous among anthropologists not only because of their 'unstudiable culture' but also for their 'lack of rich material culture' (Bateson 1931, Fajans 1995). Indeed, apart from their enormous barkcloth masks, the Baining do not have any elaborate body decorations or jewellery, carvings or architecturally stunning houses, which have often been seen as the tropes of 'authentic indigenous culture'. In this paper I offer a critique to such imaginations or expectations of 'authenticity' and present three stories about changing materialities that are suffused with Baining notions about dispossession, indigeneity, and relationships with the land, in order to show how mutable materials and objects create new ways for people to engage with representations of themselves and form group identity. Colonial and post-colonial land development projects and labour migration into East New Britain has resulted in the forceful resettlement of many Baining communities, and limited access to their customary land from which they obtained raw materials for their masks and other objects used in kastom. In the face of these changes, the Baining, like other Melanesians, have adopted objects from European culture into their lives and practices (Sahlins 1985). By exploring stories about traditional wedding gifts of shells, use of store-bought paints in making of masks, and desire for modern clothing, this paper will show the intricate relationship of objects with the land, their significance for asserting a group identity, and how people respond to processes of dispossession and adoption of 'new things'.

The Avaiki Way: Mutable Materials and Articulations of being Rennellese in the Solomon Islands

Author: Mia Browne (University of St. Andrews) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the fluidity with which the 'materiality' of relations evince being Rennellese, in relation to transforming socioeconomic configurations and the broader multicultural context of the Solomon Islands.

Long abstract

On Mugava (Rennell), saying goodbye (hakanohoga) to guests are occasions to give mats, baskets and printed fabrics, collectively known as tetino, showing that they 'stayed with love' (inama'ine). At funerals, tetino might also be clothing, cloth or food, given to the family of the deceased and, along with mourning (magepe), is an important way of showing and sharing 'sorriness.' These are aspects of the Avaiki Way, the colloquialism that references ways of being Rennellese. They are situated in narratives of shared histories that are depicted through hanohano (lineages) and tagutupu'a (history stories), showing how people 'come out of place,' and the kinds of relations that these afford. Quintessentially Rennellese practices such as weaving are also depicted in this historical reckoning- stories recount how designs originated from women's dreams and the introduction of kie (pandanus) from the coast. Within this historical view, the 'flowing out' of knowledge and practices 'from before' are at the forefront of Rennellese concerns. While resonating with wider concerns regarding cultural heritage, they also fit within Rennellese narratives of decline; people becoming smaller, failing gardens and weakening leadership and sharing practices. Additionally, where conflicting mining, logging, conservation and development agendas often fail to meet expectations, the Avaiki Way inheres a moral register for articulating transformations. This paper explores how relations are creatively expressed in the production and flow of things, and considers the fluidity with which materiality evinces being Rennellese, amongst transforming socioeconomic configurations and the broader multicultural context of the Solomon Islands.

"It remains alive": Wood, Paper, and Lakaz Kreol

Author: Mairi O'Gorman (The University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

In Seychelles, Creole identity is represented not as hybrid and modern, but as fixed and oriented towards tradition. This conservative morality is produced through materiality of the "traditional Creole house", which, as a wooden artefact, is both fixed and capable of regeneration.

Long abstract

Discourses of indigeneity would appear to have little relevance to the ethnically heterogeneous population of the Indian Ocean archipelago of Seychelles. Yet despite the fact that the islands were uninhabited until the arrival of European settlers and enslaved Africans in the 18th century, many present-day Seychellois do not represent Creole identity as hybrid or fluid. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in 2016, I argue that being Creole is represented by Seychellois as geographically and materially fixed, located in a particular relationship with the natural world, plants and trees. At the centre of this relationship is the idealised "traditional house" which, being wooden, contains both fixity and the potential for regeneration. It is on the basis of this fixity that Seychellois are able to participate in broader global discourses of indigenous and traditional knowledge.

In Seychelles, lakaz Kreol (the Creole house) is rendered a cultural artefact by state actors working within the field of national heritage. The house is reproduced in large-scale reconstructions, in miniature, and in art. It was characterised by interlocutors as a better and healthier dwelling for human inhabitants than a modern building, generative of "Creole values" and morality, because wood is a "living" material. The grann kaz (plantation house) was upheld as the apotheosis of this form, despite its centrality to processes of violence, coercion and domination. This paper will argue that the aestheticization of the past, and Creole values, is made possible through the simultaneous durability and mutability of wood and paper.

Rebuilding the Umana Yana: Houses and indigeneity at a Guyanese National Monument

Author: Elliott Oakley (University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the changing materiality of Waiwai houses in Guyana through the reconstruction of a Waiwai roundhouse in the capital city. I argue that wages from building a 'traditional' structure enabled different, and desired, materialities for contemporary Waiwai village houses.

Long abstract

This paper explores the changing materiality of Waiwai houses in the context of Guyanese national imaginations and representations of indigeneity, focusing on the Umana Yana National Monument in the capital of Georgetown. In February and March of 2016, a group of 35 men from southern Guyana travelled reconstruct the Umana Yana, a conical thatched-roof roundhouse first built by Waiwai people in 1972. Based on the architecture of the umana, which was used as a communal house when missionaries first visited in the 1940s and remains a central building in Waiwai village life, the government contract to rebuild the structure after it was destroyed by fire in 2014 was awarded to two Waiwai villages. With their wages and government transportation, many Waiwai men purchased building materials for different types of houses: corrugated tin sheeting, nails and bolts, petrol and chainsaws to cut wood planks. Based on ethnographic research at the Umana Yana reconstruction and with Waiwai people in southern Guyana as well as archival research on the 1972 construction, I ask how the Waiwai concept of the house and its materiality connect to coastal Guyanese expectations of the country's indigenous people and incorporations of indigeneity into national identity. I argue that, in addition to being a powerful symbolic mediator of Waiwai social relations to the Guyanese state, Waiwai people approached the Umana Yana reconstruction as a wage labour opportunity to enable the multiple materialities of indigeneity that they desire.

Slate, cement and other materials of indigeneity in Taiwan

Author: Geoffrey Gowlland (Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo) email

Short abstract

In this paper I consider the significance of two materials, slate and cement, for the Paiwan indigenous people of Taiwan. I explore how the engagements indigenous people have with 'local' and 'modern' materials are not politically neutral, but tied to relations of power and forms of resilience.

Long abstract

In this paper, I discuss the many material entanglements of the indigenous people of Taiwan, and specifically the Paiwan people, with the market economy and the state, through a focus on a 'local' material - slate - contrasted with a 'modern' one - cement. Slate is the material of houses, tombs, and paths, a material that connects people living today with ancestors and mythical figures, and connects living spaces with the mountains and forest. Cement is the material of migrant work, of assimilation and hegemony. I consider the trajectories of slate and cement, their uses and transformations, as a way of tracing the unique histories of material enmeshments of the Paiwan people. Engagements with materials are not politically neutral, and are entangled in market relations and with the colonial and assimilationist ambitions of the state. I explore events in which materials are brought to attention and reveal their political significance: observations of the decay of houses, the opening of graves, and natural disaster are such moments when the power of materials to concretise and shape power relations is revealed to the Paiwan, and can lead to forms of resilience.

The Taste of Plastic: The decline of Ceramic Vessels in Shuar and Wampis communities in the Upper Amazon (Ecuador and Peru)

Author: Akimi Ota (The University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

In this presentation, I will provide my reflections on the social implications around the decline of ceramic vessels in Amazonia. My aim is to outline the particular context which favour this process and its implication to people's material relationship with the land in contemporary Amazonia.

Long abstract

In this presentation, I will provide my reflections on the social implications around the decline of ceramic vessels in Shuar and Wampis communities in North-West Amazonia, stretching from Ecuador to Peru. Inhabiting in the rainforest, Shuar and Wampis people have maintained their own techniques of producing ceramic vessels since the Pre-Columbian era. Attributed exclusively to the female labour, this practice has been playing an important role in creating indigenous sociability by providing necessary utensils for cooking and the following consumption of food and drink. Especially, a particular type of vessel, pinin, which is used for drinking manioc beer has a special value due to the degree to which this beverage is consumed and its essential role in assembling the villagers in many occasions such as communal work. During my fieldwork, however, I noticed that ceramic vessels have become almost completely absent in today's village life, and the knowledge is disappearing at the extreme pace. Instead, people now use manufactured vessels made from plastic or aluminium. "Manioc beer tastes like plastic with this bowl, it's not good", my interlocutor says. What makes them disappear, while people still prefer ceramic vessels? My aim is to outline the conditions and the particular context which favour this process which are inseparably social, political, economical and cultural at the same time, as well as discussing its implication to people's transforming material relationship with the land in contemporary Amazonia.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.