Totem and transaction: the objectification of tradition among North Mekeo

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    Most recent treatments of Melanesian post-contact change have presumed that objectifications of 'culture' and 'tradition' have intensified and proliferated in response to the forces of colonialism and the penetration of the nation-state. Harrison (2000) has recently argued, however, that in pre-colonial times too Melanesians characteristically objectified their cultural practices and identities as 'possessions' that could be readily exchanged or transacted. Supposedly, the key difference between the two eras has accorded with different formulations of 'property': 'private property' and the logic of 'possessive individualism' in the post-contact era; and 'trading and gift-exchange systems' or 'prestige economies' in precontact times. In this article I examine Harrison's portrayal of Melanesian cultural practices as 'possessions' and the notions of 'property' that he sees as key to the cultural objectification in both pre- and post-colonial settings with reference to ethnographic and historical information regarding the North Mekeo peoples of Papua New Guinea. I argue from the perspective of the New Melanesian Ethnography that Harrison's view of pre-contact prestige economies and trade and gift exchange systems retains several misleading a priori assumptions about 'commodity exchange'; and, illustrating the potential of the New Melanesian Ethnography for historical applications, that he overemphasizes the extent to which post-contact changes in cultural objectification have involved individualised and commodified forms of property. Consequently, in the case of North Mekeo, both the continuities and the changes between pre- and post-contact cultural objectifications may have proceeded differently from the ways Harrison has outlined for Melanesia generally.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)89-109
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


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