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The payback beat: Ethnographic citizenship and the public kinship of indigenous subjects in postcolonial Papua New Guinea

The payback beat: Ethnographic citizenship and the public kinship of indigenous subjects in postcolonial Papua New Guinea

Ryan Schram

University of Sydney

February 14, 2019

A paper presented in The State and the Dynamics of Enslavement, a workshop held at Deakin University, February 13–15, 2019. Slides and paper are available at: http://anthro.rschram.org/talks/payback.


Unlike many postcolonial nations, Papua New Guinea defines itself through ethnographic citizenship in which members of its population are united in the empirical fact that they have an origin in some kind of indigenous society, rather than a common cultural tradition. In order to have standing in the PNG public sphere, people are required to produce knowledge of themselves as subjects of a integrated, functional social order. This poses an acute dilemma: one's inalienable belonging and enduring obligations to fellow members of a rural community—typically grounded in forms of kinship—are matters of public discourse, yet the preeminent value of relationships underlying these modes of sociality are potentially disqualifying stigmata in a liberal order. In this paper, I examine journalism for rural audiences in PNG as a site where alternative public discourses of collective life emerge. In Simbu Nius, a provincial news magazine, rural clans figure prominently as agents in local news events, yet the recognition of their reciprocal interrelationships is always haunted by the stereotype of tribal retaliation and so they remain precariously situated on the edge of the liberal public sphere. Keywords: media discourse, newsgathering, journalism, violence, stereotypes, Tok Pisin

The love gift

In response to a murder in Mount Hagen town in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Western Highlands Peace Committee was formed to raise funds for a “love gift.” They claimed that it was based on Highlands tradition, but stressed that it was not compensation.

“Love Gift,” a display advertisement placed in the PNG //Post-Courier// in response to the killing of Alan Mourilyan on April 2, 2004 (Western Highlands Peace Committee 2004).

Ethnographic citizenship in PNG

  • As an independent nation-state, PNG embraces its diversity but only in an ethnographic lens in which difference is culture, and every person is presumed to belong to and come from a social order grounded in traditional rules (Schram 2018, 203).
  • Ethnographic citizenship requires people to produce knowledge of belonging as rules that function to create a coherent, stable, orderly community, that is, as a system which governs them as a state governs citizens.
  • Difference that cannot be translated into culture is deemed to be illegitimate and disqualifies people from standing in the public sphere.

The dilemma of the ethnographic citizen

  • Given that, as Robbins (2009) argues, many social institutions are based on fundamentally different values, and that in light of this individuals appear as bearers of obligations rather than rights, many forms of indigenous belonging are denied public recognition as unruly, uncivil tribes.
  • As Demian argues, “[C]ompensation suffers from excess on two fronts: that people choose to engage in it outside the remit of the law, and that it can be used to assess value on a scale that the law does not provide for. Both of these practices are seen as interfering with the process of the law, and as such they disrupt the potential for compensation to be appropriated (in the most positive sense of the term) into Papua New Guinea’s legal repertoire.” (Demian 2011, 62)

News discourse of PNG print journalism embodies the contradictions of ethnographic citizenship

  • For Mark Fishman, in a mass society, “the world is bureaucratically organized for journalists” (Fishman 1978, 51).
  • In PNG, by contrast, journalists must move between multiple ways of knowing.
  • Arguably, ethnojournalists narrate an alternative modernity, but this alternative narrative of history and change is precarious because it always at risk of transvaluation as unruly, uncivil tribalism.

Simbu Nius: A provincial newspaper from the PNG Highlands

  • The PNG central government saw the absence of a national news media that reached rural audiences as a problem of national development
  • It sponsored the production of several provincial newspapers through provincial branches of the national Office of Information.
  • While funded by the state, provincial papers paid freelance writers for news reports, feature articles, fiction, and opinion essays.
  • In seeking to bridge a gap in knowledge, Simbu Nius also relies on the knowledge of Simbu people who are already adept at crossing boundaries.

Official and grassroots registers in Tok Pisin news reports of tribal fights

Official terminology reflects reliance on official sources

  • peles bilong pait (fighting zone)
  • distrik (district)
  • vilis (village)
  • tribal pait (tribal fighting)
  • sab klen (sub-clan)
  • kompenseisen (compensation)

Grassroots terminology indexes the combatants’ perspective on violence

  • kisim spia (catch a spear; be injured by a spear)
  • brukim suga (break sugarcane; peace-making ceremony)
  • lain, hauslain (coresidential kinship group)
  • tupela lain wanpisin (two lain of the same clan)

The compensation page

Simbu Nius also covers demands for and exchanges of compensation between rural hauslain, and in one issue grouped several articles in a special section: “The compensation page.”

The elements of a typical compensation article are:

  • The day and place of a public event
  • The two groups involved
  • The precipitating event, e.g. a car accident, fight, landslide
  • The nature of the harm, e.g. death, injury, property damage
  • The compensation mark, the amount of money and pigs demanded
  • If reporting an exchange, the amount presented

Aglaiku and Kondoku, tupela lain wanpisin

In one article on compensation, the reporter quotes the “spokesman” for the recipients:

  • Mausman bilong Aglaiku, Mr Alois Ambaidungua itok, “Ol Aglaiku bai ino inap long kisim dispela K2,500.00 long wanem, yupela save olsem Gende kisim bikpela bagarap we kola bun bilong em ibruk, na ino inap long wok.” “Sapos yupela putim narapela K2,000.00 moa, bai mipela kisim, tasol nogat bai nogat.”
  • The spokesman for Aglaiku, Mr Alois Ambaidungua said, “The Aglaiku will not be able to accept this K2,500.00 because, as you all know, Gende received a big injury where his collar bone was broken, and he can’t work.” “If you all put another K2,000.00 more, we will accept it but if not, then nothing.” (Gigmai 1988a)

The reporter then notes that the public officials present then spoke with the Aglaiku group to avoid a fight. The next day, they returned to accept the money originally offered. The report concludes by saying:

  • Dispela kain problem isave igo bikpela na bikpela pait isave kirap, tasol tupela Kondobu na Aglaiku wan pisin i pasim dispela kain trabel na nau ol pas wantaim istap.
  • This kind of problem usually gets bigger and a big fight usually erupts but the two fellow subclans Kondobu and Aglaiku have prevented this kind of trouble and now they have come together as one. (Gigmai 1988a)

Asking for compensation from the government

Another article on the “compensation page” reports a roadblock erected by a hauslain outside of Kundiawa, the capital of the province. It first quotes the “spokesman” for the hauslain:

  • “Mipela askim gavman long wokim kompensaisen long dispela graun bruk tripela (3) yia igo pinis. Tasol dispela askim bilong mipela igo nating na ino gat bekim ikam yet inap nau.”
  • “We have asked the government to make compensation for the landslide for three years. But this request of ours went nowhere and there has been no reply until now.” (Gigmai 1988b)
  • “Sapos gavman ino wokim haiwe, giraun bai ino inap bruk tasol haiwe kamap na giraun bruk olsem na gavman mas tingim mipela.”
  • “If the government did not build the highway, the land would not have collapsed, but the highway was built and so the land collapsed and the government must remember us.” (Gigmai 1988b)

And then quotes the reply from the elected premier of the province:

  • “Dispela rot blok em igat mining bilong em. Yupela man mas pasim rot inap gavman karim cash moni ikam kapsaitim long yupela orait opim rot. Nogat bai nogat.”
  • “This road block is meaningful. You all must close the road until the government brings cash money and dumps it on you all, and then open the road. If not, then nothing.”

Kinship in public

  • News of compensation and fights take place in an alternative, Simbu modernity.
  • Readers are not only addressed as Simbu, but as themselves members of hauslain who are likewise enmeshed in cycles of obligation and conflict.
  • Yet bringing kinship into the public sphere also entails the dematerialization of reciprocity. Compensation is a valid form of political action, but as a symbol of a claim to a relationship based on equivalence and mutual obligation.
  • Alternative modernity and double-counsciousness are both steps in the same process of producing liberal subjects as ethnographic citizens.


Demian, Melissa. 2011. “‘Hybrid Custom’ and Legal Description in Papua New Guinea.” In Recasting Anthropological Knowledge: Inspiration and Social Science, edited by Jeanette Edwards and Maja Petrović-Šteger, 49–69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fishman, Mark. 1978. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gigmai, Lawrence. 1988a. “Aglaiku Compensation Long Mingende.” Simbu Nius 2 (10): 21.

———. 1988b. “Vilis Blokim Haiwe.” Simbu Nius 2 (10): 22.

Robbins, Joel. 2009. “Recognition, Reciprocity, and Justice: Melanesian Reflections on the Rights of Relationships.” In Mirrors of Justice: Law and Power in the Post-Cold War Era, edited by Kamari Maxine Clarke and Mark Goodale, 171–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511657511.010.

Schram, Ryan. 2018. Harvests, Feasts, and Graves: Postcultural Consciousness in Contemporary Papua New Guinea. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Western Highlands Peace Committee. 2004. “Love Gift.” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, April 2, 8.

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