Birds Will Cover the Sky: Humiliation and Meaning in Two Historical Narratives from Auhelawa, Papua New Guinea
This article examines how the people of Auhelawa, a society on the south coast of Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea, make use of two historical figures—one a warrior, the other a police officer—to represent the nature of social transformation. In different ways, the stories of these heroes produce a dichotomous temporality of a time of war and a time of peace and thereby frame different kinds of sociopolitical institutions as inverted moral types. Comparatively, Auhelawa’s historical discourse resembles many indigenous Melanesian societies and can be taken as another instance of Marshall Sahlins’s claim that humiliation is necessary for people to learn to see themselves in a dominant culture’s eyes. I argue that these stories frame the cross-cultural encounter as an epochal shift, but not from tradition to modernity. Instead, people tell and circulate this historical knowledge in ways that play on its meaninglessness and thus hinder the capacity of narrative to situate contemporary life in terms of a history of progress. This kind of denial of a modernist historical consciousness is another aspect of humiliation, and it suggests that anthropologists and ethnohistorians rethink their assumptions about how postcolonial subjects locate meaning in history.