Ryan Schram Yawahigu ana amwahao Ol rot bilong laip bilong mi (or, Curriculum vitae)

Let’s talk kula

I am interested in finding sources on the phenomenon of “kula talk” (Weiner 1992: 141) or “kula speech” (Munn 1992: 109).

Many Kula researchers, including Damon, Weiner and Munn, mention a distinct genre of speech and discourse about the roads of kula valuables. The phenomenon is interesting because, as you all know, Malinowski argued that kula participants “have no knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure”; they just participate in it with their own partners but can’t imagine that it fits together in a particular way (Malinowski 1932 [1922]: 83). The concept of a ‘road’ as a metaphor for a set of partnerships is as good a social analysis as any Malinowski could come up with.

The content and pragmatic function of kula talk is hard to grasp from the sources I’ve found. Munn (1992: 109-110) seems to suggest that for Gawa Islanders it is a kind of moralistic register vested with authority when it comes from senior men and experienced, famous traders. Damon seems to suggest that the same kind of experts of kula on Muyuw would convene to figure out a single account of roads when things became muddled, as for instance what happened when an expatriate forced himself into the kula by starting up a factory for soulava necklaces on Kiriwina (Damon 1993: 236). Weiner writes: “As one kula player told me, all kula talk is dangerous because most of it is lies, specious rhetoric set forth to serve one’s own ends” (1992: 141).

Which is it? Are all kula traders liars, as one kula trader told Weiner, or is kula talk the mature voice of authority and morality? Are there sources I’ve missed?

On another, somewhat related topic, what is the history of state-kula interactions? For instance, in one patrol report from the D’Entrecasteaux region in 1933, a patrol officer reports that he held an informal court for hearing a dispute between kula men of Dobu and Bwaiowa in which Dobu people accused their partners in Bwaiowa of skipping Dobu and passing on valuables to partners in Duau, specifically Bunama by way of Kurada. After some summary of the rules of Kula and the background to the dispute, he writes:

These natives were then informed that it was a matter for themselves entirely but that the Govt had no desire to see the KULA system disorganised in any way, but if this skipping of Districts led to friction or trouble the Govt might think fit to curtail or maybe abolish the system. It was then suggested  that they talk the matter over thoroughly amongst themselves and let me know what decision they arrived at. This they proceeded to do and after a discussion lasting some time they informed me that they would all abide by the established trade route in the future. This I think is a wise decision on their part and one to which it is hoped they will abide, as there has been dissatisfaction amongst various natives owing to this skipping of certain Districts in the recognised route, which has resulted in armshells and bags not passing through the hands of established agents, and natives not getting the payment, or rather the exchange due to them, owing to the other District passing them and getting the item, which-ever it may be, bagi or armshell, ahead of them, and in some cases, to which they are not entitled.

I make no pretence of having a thorough knowledge of the KULA system but as far as I am able to judge, the decision arrived at by these natives is the only logical and feasable (sic) one available. (Rich 1933: 1-2)

Here is, quite unexpectedly, another type of kula talk which seems to evoke Damon’s case, except it is also taking place in the context of a court, and thus we can assume required some kind of intercultural translation. Are kula cases common? What are they like?


Damon, F. H. 1993. “Representation and Experience in Kula and Western Exchange Spheres (or Billy).” Research in Economic Anthropology 14: 235–54.

Munn, Nancy D. 1992. The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rich, M. C. W. 1933. “Report of a Patrol Made by M. C. W. Rich, A. R. M. to Dobu Passage, Sewataitai Bay, Normanby Island.” CRS G91, Item 492 [No. 5 of 32/33]. National Archives of Australia.

Weiner, Annette B. 1992. Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.