In Auhelawa, tetela refers to a historical narrative, and as a verb it can mean both to recite such a narrative or to use this kind of narrative to explain something. The first thing people think of when they think of a tetela is a story of the origin a susu (matrilineage) as a narrative of its mumuga (founding ancestor), her migration from an original place, followed by several other places where she may have settled, and then her arrival in Auhelawa, the relations she formed with people living there, and then a recitation of her descendants to the present day. Yet anything can have a tetela and can be explained by its tetela. The tetela of lineage migrations are also windows onto the past. For instance, many tetela of susu say that founders fled because of famine or from cannibal raids on other islands, and this has led Auhelawa people to conclude that there was a severe drought in the precolonial past that sparked intergroup warfare and cannibalism.
Tetela stories are distinguished from other stories about the past, particularly vedevedede, which are stories based on features of the landscape like rocky outcrops in the bush or standing stones. These stories explain these landscape features as the traces of heroes, witches, and monsters. People say that they “don't know” whether vedevedede are true, but they do know that tetela are true because people of different branches of the same susu will have similar stories about their common origins.
When I arrived in Auhelawa to do fieldwork, I imagined that I could learn about the different susu by asking people to tell me their matrilineal genealogies. When I first learned about tetela, I thought that this was a way I could explain what I was looking for. But tetela are not just a list of ancestors. And people do not tell tetela for purely informational purposes. Rather elders pass their knowledge of tetela on selectively to their descendants so that they are aware of their claims to land, and tetela knowledge is used in mediations to resolve disputes over land. When I asked to hear tetela, many people told me that they didn't know the full story and that I should ask someone who knew the stories better. Indeed most people do know the basic facts of their own (and other people's) tetela; they did not have the authority to pass the knowledge to me (see Briggs 1984, 15).
I was not the only person who tried to collect tetela from their relatives in different susu. Young people try to gather as much information about their relatives' descent and their history of land ownership. They even call it “research,” the same word that people used to describe what I did in fieldwork. But “research” by Auhelawa young people is also “politics.” When people ask for tetela, they are also inquiring to see if elders in different susu will back them up on their claims about what land they own and what lands they have the right to garden. (Auhelawa susu authorize the children of men to garden in susu land, a right known as usufruct in the West.) I, an outsider who behaved a lot like a government official or development worker, seemed to have a keen interest in tetela, so I must be trying to meddle in land disputes. (And to make matters worse, some of the younger generation had already encouraged me to research land disputes, and to recommend solutions—that is, to use my ethnographic research to determine who owned what land!) I began to think that for ethical reasons I should just move on to other topics, since it seemed like people did not want to consent to share this information with me.
Tetela were not, however, secret knowledge to be protected from outsiders. In fact, most knowledgeable people know a lot about other people's susu's tetela. Tetela are assumed to verify each other. So when people in Auhelawa have a dispute over land, the local magistrate holds a mediation. During my time in Auhelawa, official functions of the land court for the district were suspended due to lack of funds, and magistrates only had legal authority to help parties resolve their own conflict. In Auhelawa mediations, a huge crowd turned up. The parties each presented their understanding of the inheritance of rights over the land in question, and both stories were evaluated by everyone present for how much they conformed to the conventional wisdom based on more or less shared knowledge of other people's histories.
It was clear however that talking one on one with people about their susu's tetela was not going to be based on a shared understanding of my research. I did discuss my own susu's tetela with our elders, and had brief conversations with other people I knew well about the basic facts about their tetela. In those cases, I played the role of a junior member of a susu or close relative who had been chosen to receive this knowledge.
Late in my fieldwork, though, I learned about another context for tetela telling. I heard a story about “a time when the sky sneezed” and turned completely black during the day. I went to one elder member of a friend's susu who was well known for his knowledge of an important historical story. I asked him if he knew any tetela about this time. He said he did not, but “if we tell histories (tetela), we will find it” (Schram 2018, 46). It could be that he was suggesting that people could pool their knowledge of tetela to discover things in the past, much more like the research historians do than the “research” young people do to build a case for themselves. If so, this would have been a great opportunity for me to ask my questions in a culturally acceptable setting, as a student being taught by experts who were working together to create and extend knowledge about the past.
Briggs, Charles L. 1984. “Learning How to Ask: Native Metacommunicative Competence and the Incompetence of Fieldworkers.” Language in Society 13 (1): 1–28.
Schram, Ryan. 2018. Harvests, Feasts, and Graves: Postcultural Consciousness in Contemporary Papua New Guinea. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.