Harvests, Feasts, and Graves is an ethnographic investigation of how people in one Papua New Guinea society, called Auhelawa, question the meaning of social forms, and through this questioning seek paths to establish a new sense of their collective self. You can pre-order your copy now at Cornell University Press’s web site.

“This is an exceptionally rich and engaging ethnography that addresses classic themes with contemporary arguments, much as Auhelawa themselves do.” —Michael Lambek, University of Toronto

“Ryan Schram’s Harvests, Feasts, and Graves is a compelling ethnography of contemporary Papua New Guinea that innovatively addresses complex theoretical issues of epistemology, historical consciousness, and the practice of anthropology itself.”—Courtney Handman, University of Texas at Austin

Looking south from Kurada, Normanby Island, PNG

Here’s what the book is about:

Living on the south coast of Normanby Island, Auhelawa consider themselves to be caught between two eras. Their villages each center on stone memorials to the matrilineal founders, and yet today people regard these obscure traces of the past as unreliable guides to the present. They see evidence for many changes in their way of life: earning money, growing new kinds of vegetables, reorganizing settlements, and becoming Christian. These were supposed to be the beginning of a new kind of society, promised to them first by Australian colonial governments and Christian missionaries, and then by the independent state of PNG. Instead, Auhelawa see a breakdown of an old order without any new system taking shape. This book documents how Auhelawa produce their own knowledge of themselves as part of a social order in an intercultural conjuncture. In the settings of their yam gardens, ancestral shrines and cemeteries, Christian churches and celebrations, and memorial feasts, people create practical social theories of how societies change. Auhelawa’s encounter with foreign domination has shattered the mirrors by which they see themselves as whole, and this book shows how they pick up the pieces and assemble a new, postcultural sense of their belonging.


Upon arriving in Auhelawa, the author begins to learn how local people navigate their social world, but also that many now doubt the conventions means of charting their social location. The chapter introduces the central problems of the book, particularly the nature of historical consciousness, and the relationship between indigenous models of society and social theory, particularly in a situation marked by ontological insecurity. An overview of chapters is also provided.

A group of men uproot, lift and transport a feast house built for the annual synod of the United Church diocese at Bunama, August, 2006.

Chapter 1. Natives and travelers

The first chapter asks how Auhelawa establish their knowledge of a collective order based on matrilineal groups. Settlement in this region is highly dispersed and people consider themselves related through common matrilineal descent and shared totemic affiliation to a number of groups in various places and on different islands. In this fragmented social landscape, burial sites anchor people to places as members of descent groups. Yet in looking to these sites as symbols of a corporate identity, people find them to be incomplete. As sites of memory, they are indecipherable without expert knowledge of the history of their lineage. Yet when they turn to a historical framework to learn how to read these signs, they come to see themselves not simply as members of groups, but also part of a broader regional network which spread through migrations from place to place over generations.

Chapter 2. You cannot eat your own blood

The second chapter introduces another dominant frame for social interaction which they term ‘respect’ (veʻahihi). This primarily characterizes the relationship between cross-cousins. To explain the codes of respect, Auhelawa say ‘You cannot eat your own blood’; in other words, one must abstain from sharing what one gives to another. While people speak of their respect from cross-relatives as a rule, in many instances, people have choices about how they observe it. When they account for their own and others’ behaviors of respect, though, Auhelawa have to rely many different frameworks for seeing the connection between symbolic interactions on the one hand and the relationship between those involved on the other. While they posit the existence of social norms, they also recognize that these situations grant one person, the recipient of respect, a greater authority to decide whether another’s actions should count as such.

Chapter 3. Hunger and plenty

The third chapter asks why an apparently successful mode of subsistence in Auhelawa today appears to Auhelawa to be in decline. People say that feasts are smaller and families are poorer because they have given up traditional ways of gardening. Why do people need to read changes in gardening practice in terms of a narrative of decline? Part of the answer comes from Auhelawa’s experience of Australian colonial administration, which attempted to intervene in nearly every aspect of life in the name of preserving native welfare. Yet, why should the state’s vision of the social world now be more credible? To answer this, we must examine the kinds of thinking about material resources which are afforded by garden yam houses. Yam houses are where Auhelawa gardeners store their harvests, and where people can give their membership in a household as a unit of production a material form.

Chapter 4. Banks, books, and pots

The fourth chapter explores the way people use the concept of gimwala (barter) to frame their everyday uses of money. Gimwala is used today to denote buying and selling with money, and it connotes selfishness. Gimwala and money itself serve as methods for interpreting patterns of action as disorder and change. The stigma of money is curious given that most people in Auhelawa depend on cash to meet their daily needs. The task of earning money, and bearing the stigma of selfishness, falls to women as mothers. This chapter argues that women distinguish their own cash earning from gimwala by acting in ways that make market trade resemble the patient work of the disciplined gardener. However, if their earnings are a harvest of cash, then their consumption on behalf of their family is a new kind of moral selfhood which is not contingent on the obligations of exchange.

Chapter 5. One mind

Chapter 5 examines the ritual of collective Christian worship itself as another, rival site for modeling society. The forms of worship are oriented by a metaphor of ‘one mind’, meaning a unity based individual commitment as well as cooperation. Unlike missionaries, Auhelawa see Christianity as a separate parallel domain of social behavior governed by the one mind of the congregation as opposed to the selfishness of everyday life. They imagine that the sign of true individual commitment to the church can be seen in the collective action of the congregation. Yet in using regular Sunday worship as a site for producing the congregation, Auhelawa people find themselves constantly unable to achieve the pattern they believe is sufficient for producing this group. The paradoxes created by the idea of a Christian congregation with one mind are ultimately resolved in annual public fundraising events in which money stands for the Christian community.

Chapter 6. The weight of tradition, the children of light

This chapter examines attempts to articulate Christian identity through new forms of mortuary feasting in which no exchanges are made. In spite of people’s desires to displace traditional institutions in favor of Christianity, participants in contemporary feasts often cannot agree on what the significance of their acts of mourning are. Their social interactions are indeterminate even when actors explicitly impose their preferred reading of the events as either based on respect or unity. I examine several examples of mourning and the ways in which people work to impose one reading of mourning over another. In particular, Christian mourning induces a crisis of signification, yet does not lead to any new form emerging. In order for Christian feasting to be possible, people have to find various ways to make room for the performance of its opposite.


This concluding chapter summarizes the main thematic connections among the chapters and the overall argument. It emphasizes that when Auhelawa people creatively apply indigenous frameworks in metaphorical ways to new situations, they do not reduce their intercultural engagements to purely local categories of value. Rather, because people also situate these creative responses in a broader narrative of being ‘mixed’ they see these responses as producing new kinds of identities. In sum, Auhelawa produce a postcultural consciousness in the ways they subvert the reading of social patterns in terms of a collective worldview. What kind of political subjectivity is this? The conclusion considers postcultural consciousness in light of questions of postcolonial citizenship, particularly in relation to the limits of liberal publics’ capacity to embrace cultural differences. Auhelawa’s experiences are related more generally to recent developments in PNG politics where people challenge the ideology of ethnographic citizenship of PNG’s postcolonial state.