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Cosmology and crisis in Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea.


This article explores Oksapmin imaginings of two interrelated crises: the temporary closure of the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine and a prolonged drought, both of which occurred in Papua New Guinea throughout 2015. Local interpretations were notable for assigning causality to a variety of indigenous magical and spiritual forces despite the fact that the Oksapmin have been evangelical Christians for over 50 years and have more recently been influenced by Pentecostalism, by which I mean both Pentecostal and charismatic forms of Christianity in which believers receive the 'gifts' of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, healing, visions, prophecy, and so forth. I argue that the core reason for the reference to these forms is their ability to vividly elucidate the physical and social dimensions of the immediate lived world as against the 'placeless' characteristics and otherworldly orientation of Pentecostalism. Presenting these cultural forms as components of an encompassing, syncretic, and multiplicitous cosmology, the paper critically engages with and re-imagines prevailing trends within the anthropology of Pacific Christianity which underline discontinuity, rupture, and the disappearance of indigenous religion, by presenting a picture of Oksapmin religion and cosmology characterized by an overall integration of the two worlds that manifests both conjunction and disjunction.

Keywords: Papua New Guinea, Oksapmin, religion, drought, mining, cosmology.


This article is about how the Oksapmin people have imagined a range of sudden changes to their lives in terms of their cultural, ontological, and cosmological schemes. During my last visit to the Oksapmin area in December 2015, local people were being faced with two serious problems. On the one hand, a prolonged lack of rainfall had significantly transformed their environment. Crops were failing, clean water was in short supply, and new species of animals were beginning to appear from the lowlands. The world seemed to be in sudden decline and out of control. On the other hand, the main bastion of socio-economic development in their lives, the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine headquartered at Tabubil, Western Province, had recently shut down. While not as much of an immediate threat to local livelihoods as the drought, the mine shutdown was nonetheless registered as a profoundly significant, and negative, change to the economic landscape as the primary source of cash and modernity had suddenly evaporated. The Oksapmin were positioned at an important crossroads.

Within this fraught milieu, fragments of explanations began to spontaneously emerge that I struggled to piece together. After all, wasn't the drought a 'natural' event? Didn't mine closures occur for economic and technical reasons? Evidently not for the Oksapmin. Their imaginings of crisis suggested an altogether different approach premised on people and not an independent ecology. In their discussions of these events, people talked of giant underground snakes, magical rituals, jealousies, envy and resentment, and even someone worshipping Satan in the bush. Through further inquiry, it gradually dawned on me that I was out of my ontological depth, dealing with people whose taken-for-granted reality differed enormously from my own. This paper is an attempt to work through these Oksapmin explanations and to elucidate the ontological and cosmological frameworks of which they are a part. Through this, it is possible to shed new light on how Papua New Guinean people employ dynamic cultural schemes within contexts of dramatic transformation and to move beyond Western ecologically based narratives by focussing on local imaginative agency. Furthermore, the critical historical moments I analyse act as windows through which to view an emergent cosmology bend and flow as it engages with and absorbs a range of environmental and cultural influences.

I first describe important aspects of the Oksapmin cosmology and the historical factors influencing its current shape. Then, I consider how Oksapmin people have employed this cosmology to explain and understand two critical junctures in their recent history, namely, the drought and mine closure. From this, I seek to make broader characterisations of Oksapmin ontology and cosmology. Through a presentation of ethnographic material related to the drought and the mine closure, I develop a picture of Oksapmin ontology and cosmology that is characterized by both ontological fluidity and cosmological dynamism. It is ontologically fluid in the sense that Oksapmin explanations of these critical junctures posit no fundamental distinction between two, ontologically autonomous domains of nature and culture, or 'the world' and people, but rather a moralized biocosmos within which people, ritual, and the environment mutually influence and constitute each other (Descola 2013). It is cosmologically dynamic in the sense that the ideas drawn upon by the Oksapmin to explain these related crises demonstrate the continuing efficacy of local autochthonous entities as well as people's ongoing ritualized and magical engagement with them. Furthermore, as I show, this recognition of indigenous spiritual forces occurs within a broader framework, within which most Oksapmin people view Christianity and what came before as being fundamentally compatible in many ways rather than condemning ancestral religion as sinful and satanic.

In this sense, my work may be read as providing an alternative take on the work of Joel Robbins' well-known analyses of Christianity. In several influential publications (2007, 2009, 2004a, 2004b), Robbins has advanced a theoretical programme for the anthropology of Christianity based on taking seriously local accounts of conversion as entailing radical changes in belief and history. Based on his research among the neighbouring Urapmin people, Robbins states, 'Christian converts tend to represent the process of becoming Christian as one of radical change' (2007:11). Furthermore, once converted, 'the Christian cosmos, with God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus as its key figures, [are] the only effective cosmological frame of reference' (Robbins 2009:112). In the final instance, ancestral religion may completely disappear (Robbins 2014:5), even though remaining components may persist, albeit diabolized through 'a flexible language of satanic influence that is very sensitive to local social concerns' (Robbins 2004b: 127).

Much of the material presented in this article concurs with Robbins' model as outlined above. Certainly, the process of conversion to Christianity for the Oksapmin did entail profound cultural change, and their ancestral religion was almost entirely abolished. Local people fully appreciate the magnitude of these changes in their discourse, just as the Urapmin as reported by Robbins. However, my ethnography tests the analytical limits of his model by interrogating the ideas that, first, fundamental Christianity is the only effective cosmological frame of reference and, second, that conversion necessarily entails a clean break from indigenous religion and cosmology and that whatever is left over by this process is invariably treated as something to be demonized and defused. Critical readers may argue that the material I present here suggests other lines of analysis, and I should make clear that I have privileged this perspective for particular reasons, one ethnographic, the other theoretical. First, the Urapmin are neighbours to the Oksapmin, living roughly 60 km away in the same Min culture area. Engaging with Robbins is thus useful in that his own ethnographic material provides a useful counterpoint to my own. Conceptually, the engagement is worthwhile in that through a close inspection of how the Oksapmin have imagined significant environmental transformations, it is possible to critically engage with prevailing trends in the anthropology of Christianity that Robbins, mainly through his research on the Urapmin, has been pivotal in defining. The debate generated by Robbins' work has been intensely productive, and my own work thus speaks to this discussion.


The Oksapmin are a group of approximately 10 000 people living in several high valleys in the rugged mountains immediately west of the Strickland Gorge in western Papua New Guinea (Fig. 1). Normally thought of as belonging to the broader Mountain Ok or Min cultural area (see Jorgensen 1996), there is also literature that points toward important cosmological, religious, and social connections with ethnic groups east across the Strickland (Macdonald 2016; Modjeska 1977; Strathern 1998). Their livelihood is built principally on a base of subsistence gardening, the main staple being sweet potato (tuan), which is grown in mounded gardens along the valley floor. Taro (fa) is also important, though probably less so than in the past. Apropos the cash economy, a very small amount of money is generated and circulated by the sale of household garden surplus at weekly produce markets scattered throughout the region. The majority of cash in the area, however, is remitted by Oksapmin people living and working in Tabubil, the headquarters of the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine. Since the opening of the mine in the 1980s, Oksapmin people have had a strong presence in Tabubil as workers, dependents, and vegetable suppliers. Some Oksapmin clans (fuh) even claim ancestral connections to Mount Fubilan, the location of the ore body being extracted, an important point for the discussion that follows. As well as Ok Tedi, the steady expansion of the extractive industries sector around Kiunga, Western Province, has also increased the flow of cash and store goods into the area.


Religiously, almost all Oksapmin strongly identify as Christian and attend church on a regular basis, though their cosmology is a diverse mix of synthesized elements from both the pre-Christian and Christian worlds. Before the arrival of Christianity, local religion was centred on a graded men's initiation system, a form the Oksapmin shared with their Min neighbours (Barth 1987), as well as a periodic human sacrifice associated with a regional ancestress the Oksapmin knew as Yuan, a custom that linked them closely to the Bimin-Kuskusmin and Duna groups on both sides of the Strickland Gorge (Brutti 1997; Macdonald 2016). In addition to this core ritual complex, Oksapmin religion and cosmology was made up of many other components that, while not the subject of collective ritual, were nonetheless crucially important forces shaping everyday life.

First, the Oksapmin recognized a wide variety of autochthonous forces and beings that inhabited various dimensions of the environment, known collectively as sup (power). These included both generalized forces inhabiting rock, fire, and particular bodies of water as well as known, named beings associated with certain clans, all of which dwelt within the land. Magical ritual also played and continues to play a key role in Oksapmin social life. Each Oksapmin clan had its own magical capacities and powers (sup) that are unique to them. One clan has the ability to promote or hinder taro growth (fa sup); another has the capacity to control fire (lat sup), another to control the growth of pandanus (ket sup), and so forth. The most important of these powers was the ability to control rain (tom sup), a capacity that continues to play a crucial role in contemporary life and one that I will discuss throughout the article. Typically, in times of crisis, experts from particular clans were sought out in order to counter problems being experienced as a result of certain weather or a particular crop not growing as expected. Then, there were magical rituals specifically used for attacking and killing people. The first was known as am san, a form of projectile 'sorcery' whereby a particular stone was used to first knock the victim unconscious and then hammer sharp objects such as barbs or nails. The victim would then be woken and continue with their everyday life unaware of what had happened until a spell was uttered that sent the sharp objects inside their body to their heart, thereby immediately killing them. Another form of magical attack was known as tamam, whereby an individual entered a state of sleep, possession, or trance before consuming the lifeforce of their target, typically imagined as a cannibalistic assault. Lastly, each clan possessed cosmogonic narratives describing their origins. These stories describe how each clan came to be, whether they descended from humans or totemic ancestors, and also their respective migrational histories that legitimated settlement on a given piece of land.

This religious and cosmological world was significantly transformed following the arrival of the evangelically oriented Australian Baptist Missionary Society (ABMS) in 1962. It is out of this encounter with Christianity that a new religion and cosmology has been born. The now localized Baptist church remains the largest denomination in the Oksapmin area, although it now competes for followers alongside a wide range of other evangelical and Pentecostalism churches. The Baptist missionaries impressed on the Oksapmin the incompatibility of Christianity and local religion, encouraging them to renounce any activity that directly contravened the paramount power of the Christian god or the directives of the Bible. The Oksapmin responded by dismantling both ritual complexes mentioned above as well as discarding other secular customs the missionaries deemed at odds with the Christian faith, such as polygynous marriage.

While initiations and sacrifice were gradually ceased, those aspects of the cosmology and religion that did not depend on collective ritual activities instituted in sacred cult houses were able to continue. These elements from the pre-Christian era were then absorbed together with Christianity in a variety of ways in the construction of a new cosmology. As will be seen below, this project of synthesis took place based on an attitude that the ancestral and Christian religions were, in fundamental ways, essentially similar and compatible. Those aspects of the ancestral religion and cosmology that were 'left over' from conversion were not uniformly demonized as something to be defused and fought against but rather continued as effective, ongoing, and sometimes valorizing elements within an open, heterogeneous field.

For example, those myths describing the origins of particular clans as well as features of the landscape have been re-imagined as a result of Christian influence. Some of their narrative elements were conflated with those taken from the Bible and Christian doctrine: an existing mythical 'prophet' is identified with Jesus; this same character's death prior to disappearing into the underworld is compared to Jesus' crucifixion, while a group of sisters in the original narrative are now equated with Mary and Martha of the New Testament. These cosmogonic clan narratives also describe events such as God and Maria having sex in a cave to conceive the Bible, and they creatively rename local places using names borrowed from the Bible, such as Galilee and Gethsemane. As myths primarily serve a cosmological function (Malinowski 1948)--in that they legitimate contemporary social formations by positing their origins in the ancient past--we can say that the synthesis of these heterogeneous elements within myths creates a local and ancestral basis for Christianity in the Oksapmin world (Macdonald 2014; see also Jorgensen 2001).

The autochthonous forces dwelling within the land, particularly those beings associated with the origin and genesis of certain clans, were also re-imagined in ways that aligned the indigenous and Christian cosmologies. Without questioning their ontological immediacy and meddlesome efficacy, these beings are now most commonly seen as creations of God. Some individuals state simply that these creatures, referred to commonly in Tok Pisin as masalai, were a part of God's creative project outlined in the first passages of Genesis; the masalai were just another of the living creatures that he placed on the earth and serve important roles as guardians of natural resources and the ancestors of clan groups. Others see them as those unruly angels who, together with Lucifer, were cast out of Heaven by God. A local primary school teacher, Cletus, explained:
They are all here. The bush spirits that are looking after the water up
in the mountains? I believe that they are the masalai (spirits) that
have come from Heaven. All of it comes from Heaven. They were sent away
from God and now they live here on earth.

Some of these terrestrial forces are seen as endangering any movement in the bush, especially such as when men go hunting. Protection is gained by using a combination of means; men typically carry charms with them, such as the sweet smelling bark of a tree, and at the same time may make Christian prayers prior to and during the hunt.

When discussing the Urapmin nature spirits known as motobil, Robbins makes the interesting point that 'since the Urapmin do not credit the Christian god with creating these things, or at least not with causing current manifestations of them, the nature spirits have been able to retain a presence in Urapmin life... In no respect can the nature spirits represent ambivalent, trickster-like figures, which there is some hint they may have done traditionally. It is only as figures of evil that they are able to survive in Urapmin life.' (2011:419). For the Oksapmin, treating these entities as creations of God has meant they are able to retain an important place in Oksapmin cosmology and social life, not as 'figures of evil' in strict opposition to God but as actors with an ambivalent moral status, able to stand as important ancestors from which clans have descended but also at times meddlesome powers that may cause harm. Even in this latter sense, however, it is not accurate to say that they represent evil, and there are no ongoing attempts made by the Oksapmin to expel or exterminate them. The claim then that, more broadly, conversion to Christianity entails the establishment of Biblical figures as the only effective cosmological frame of reference, as does Robbins (2009), may require slight modification, a point I expand upon below. Rather, it is the case that these entities may sit alongside the Christian god in explaining the origins of certain clan groups and environmental transformations.

The same cannot be said for witchcraft and sorcery, which have a much stronger association with sin and Satan. Tamam, a mystical, cannibalistic attack upon a person's internal lifeforce, has been thoroughly diabolized (cf. Meyer 1999); it is the quintessence of sin, the powerful Satanic force against which all Christians fight, regardless of their denominational affiliation, and even individual tamam see themselves as taking orders directly from Satan through the mediation of the sun (Macdonald 2015). Oksapmin speak of tamam as a kind of plague affecting society, and many suspect Christians of using their religious identity as a cloak to hide their actual evil nature. Accusations are often privately levelled at pastors in particular for being 'king' tamam, the most heinous individuals lurking behind religious piety. Am san is less intimately associated with the will and power of Satan. It is more of a deliberate technical procedure and not a compulsive, spiritually animated means of destroying a person's life (as with tamam). However, since it still involves violently killing another person, it is considered an un-Christian, and therefore sinful, practice. It should be clear that the demonization of these activities and their association with sin and Satan depends not so much on their being part of 'ancestral religion' but rather due to the fact that they are destructive activities primarily responsible for explaining why people die in sudden, tragic, and unfortunate circumstances.

Weather and crop magic are seen as primarily technical acts. Furthermore, they can be used to either help or harm. These kinds of magic can be used to restore livelihoods and save lives, as in the case of bringing rain after dry spells or by restoring the fertility of an ailing garden. But in the hands of a resentful or angry individual, these techniques can also be used for harm, such as creating prolonged dry spells and damaging otherwise healthy gardens, as will be seen below. Especially in these cases, magic is seen as sinful and may become associated with paying Satan his due. Otherwise, it is considered to be a broadly un-Christian thing to do, but little attention is paid to it as a symbol of evil compared to tamam.

Oksapmin church worship is diverse, owing to the wide range of local denominations. While there exists a variety of doctrinal emphases, practically all denominations in the area have a strong evangelical flavour. The majority Baptist church is unique in that it has incorporated into its worship charismatic elements acquired during a regional revival movement that swept through the Min area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With the exception of the fundamentalist Papua New Guinea Bible Church (PNGBC), Oksapmin Christian worship demonstrates an amalgamation of heterogeneous elements. The Christian god is worshipped using a range of local performative mediums. It is common for members of the congregation to play hand drums (walon) while singing in church; often, women will adorn themselves in luminescent shells (tiambel) as well as with the feathers of a variety of colourful bird species; and lastly, church members often sing and dance in ways similar to their pre-Christian ancestors but now in order to glorify the Christian god. Sermons may also reveal a synergy of various elements, although this depends greatly upon the ethno-theology of the individual pastor. A common technique, however, is to directly or indirectly establish vivid parallels and equivalences between a historical practice now given up and a Christian practice that has been adopted, so that profound change was imagined as a fulfilment and reformation of former practices.

From a broader, ideological, perspective, it can be said that, in contrast to the Urapmin and other Pentecostalists who claim to have made a complete and moralized break with their ancestral religion and cosmology, most Oksapmin Christians have overwhelmingly adopted what Michael Scott (2007: 303) calls a 'past-affirming reflexive ethno-theology', meaning they tend to positively emphasize the commonality between present and past religious configurations. The most common Tok Pisin expressions I heard when asking Oksapmin people about the relationship between their Christian worship and the rituals of their ancestors was that 'em wankain tasol' (they are essentially the same) or that 'tupela save go wantaim' (the two go together), an attitude that enables the kind of mixing and blending noted above. This widespread perspective that Christianity did not displace, but rather reformed and fulfilled, many aspects of indigenous religion suggests that Robbins' claim that 'Christian converts tend to represent the process of becoming Christian as one of radical change' (2007:11) may not apply fully to the Oksapmin and that such an argument may need to be tempered. Oksapmin people fully understand the extent to which Christianity has profoundly changed their lives, but the theoretical model of Robbins reaches its limit when confronted with the ethnographic reality that the Oksapmin do not understand this change as complete and not necessarily as predicated on a moralized condemnation of former and persisting elements of ancestral religion.

But this conciliatory attitude is not shared by all Oksapmin Christians, particularly those belonging to more strongly evangelical churches, such as the PNGBC, which has mustered a solid membership since arriving in the area in the early 1990s. The local pastor told me quite clearly that:
Following the ways of the ancestors is wrong. The Bible prohibits this.
Many people continue to mix Christianity and tradition. They haven't
broken out yet. The way of following God is not like this. When people
truly convert to Christianity they completely break out of a world and
into a new one. They leave everything of this earth. The people still
engaged in this mixing are being tricked by Satan. This is the road
along which sin travels. The Bible says no. According to 2 Corinthians:
5:17, the old will go and the new will come. When you become a true
Christian you will be completely transformed, born again.

This evangelical Biblicism is a good example of what Scott (2007:303) calls a 'past-renouncing reflexive ethnotheology' in that it rejects the persistence of indigenous religious entities in any shape or form as sinful and wrong and is a common perspective among Pentecostalist Christians worldwide. His statements also resonate strongly with what Robbins says about conversion to Christianity entailing a radical break with the past. However, it is not representative of the majority of Oksapmin Christians, who--although also evangelical and Pentecostal in orientation--do not partition their history and cosmology into a sinful, benighted past and pure, moralized Christian present. Rather, as we have seen, most Oksapmin Christians inhabit a mulitplicitious cosmology and religion characterized by the synthesis of pre-Christian and Christian elements into a single, heterogenous framework.

Now that I have described the Oksapmin religious world and explored the heterogeneous quality of their ideas and practices, as well as the positive value they assign to their past in relation to the transformations brought about as a result of Christianity, it remains to be seen how this cosmology is actualized when responding to crisis and tribulation. It is through this that we can more clearly make out the defining characteristics of the Oksapmin cultural world as well what sets it apart from other societies with similar histories of Christianization.


The Oksapmin have depended heavily on the Ok Tedi mine as the principal source of cash and development in their area since the mine opened in the 1980s. People living in Oksapmin rely upon their relatives working in Tabubil to remit a portion of their income in order to help pay for school fees, household commodities, and other items such as roofing iron, solar panels, and so on. Therefore, it came as a massive shock when Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML), the company operating the mine, announced in August 2015 that they would commence an 'orderly suspension of operations as a result of continuing dry weather' (OTML Press Release 12/08/2016). The company explained that the low rainfall and associated drop of the Fly River had prevented barges from reaching the port town of Kiunga, thus not allowing the company either to send concentrate out for sale or bring in food, fuel, and other supplies. The implication of this scientific, ecologically based narrative is a certain positioning of local people as victims vis-a-vis nature and the harmful effects of the drought. The drought happened to local people, and they had to find ways of managing it.

A recent overview of the Min people's experience of the drought and mine closure partially reproduces an etic line of ecologically causal thinking. Dan Jorgensen (2016) for example, in an insightful piece canvassing the impacts of the drought across multiple Min communities, portrays the drought as an effect of an El Nino 'weather event' that produced effects that had to be 'weathered' by local people. Jorgensen's paper is certainly very useful in that it highlights the concrete and pressing livelihood issues created by the drought but can be critiqued in that it stops short of providing an 'insider', emic perspective on how the communities he worked in understand the 'dry season' and related mine closure to have come about in the first place. In the absence of the local cultural and cosmological dimension, the paper, while highly valuable, principally defines the situation in naturalistic terms, as further shown by the organization of the article around 'impacts' to food, gardens, and water.

The Oksapmin people I spoke with during my trip in the middle of the drought and mine closure imagined these critical events in a fundamentally different way. The local people whom I spoke with about this issue did not believe the company's explanation. Most emphasized that OTML was a 'bikpla kampani' (big company) and that any such fluctuations in weather could be negotiated by other means, such as flying supplies directly to Tabubil, as had occurred in the past. Interestingly, the period of prolonged low rainfall, ascribed by OTML to an intense El Nino weather pattern that seriously affected most of Papua New Guinea, figured importantly in Oksapmin people's understanding of the whole situation, not as a cause but an outcome of the mine's shutdown, a reversal I will discuss below. From the Oksapmin point of view, a period of low rainfall could not halt the ongoing operations of a capitalist juggernaut that had successfully navigated similar adversities in the past. After talking for a while about other possibilities, among them the idea that the weather event was used as a pretext to hide financial mismanagement by the PNG National Government, we came around to what my Oksapmin interlocutors thought was really going on.

Since the early 2010s, the Kweptan clan had aggressively advanced their claims to be the true landowners of Mt Fubilan and thus the rightful beneficiaries of mine revenue streams. Despite vigorously pursuing their case through both legal and media avenues, the clan was not successful. Angered at having their claims rejected, the leaders of the Kweptan called upon their clan's autochthonous being, a giant snake living inside the ground, to inflict damage upon mine infrastructure. As mentioned in the previous section, these creatures are understood as God's creations, sometimes specifically explained as angels cast out of Heaven by God. When God banished Lucifer from Heaven, the Oksapmin ethno-theology runs, several of his co-conspirators were evicted at the same time. Whether placed directly by God as part of his original creative plan or expelled together with Lucifer, these ambivalent figures entered the earth, where they became the mong sup (ground power) that the Oksapmin know today, such as the snake referred to here. These forces are typically protected against by using a combination of traditional and Christian methods.

My informants explained that under Kweptan instruction, the snake collapsed part of the mine pit wall in June 2015. While the company issued a statement denying any link between the wall failure and the closure of the mine, the Oksapmin believed that this event was a crucial factor in the shutdown that happened the following month. There were also reports that the mine pit had been flooded as a result. Furthermore, the snake is also said to have caused a massive landslide around the Yuk Creek area near Tabubil, which occurred on Wednesday, 2 July, 2014. A last instance of disruption caused by the snake is the shaking and buckling of the iron bridge at the village of Bultem, also situated alongside the road leading to the mine. Exactly when this is thought to have occurred is unclear, although the Oksapmin gave me the impression that it was a recent happening.

Through manipulating their clan's ancestral snake, the Kweptan had caused extensive damage to key mine infrastructure and stopped the mine. Oksapmin people living in Tabubil were deeply upset about this development. Employees of the mine and their dependents greatly enjoyed the modern lifestyle afforded to them by employment and a regular cash income. Living in permanent houses with electricity and colour televisions, regularly consuming manufactured commodities, and operating with the greater autonomy and freedom afforded by the urban context, mine workers considered themselves to be living a privileged existence. The Kweptan's malicious act jeopardized these privileges because if the mine was shut down, the company could not continue to support a workforce of several thousand. Consequently, shortly after their announcement that the mine would be closing, OTML began repatriating employees to their home areas with the cold comfort that they would be called back to work when and if necessary.

Returning to Oksapmin from Tabubil in these circumstances was neither easy nor happy. Repatriated mine employees and their families were resentful that the mine had closed and that the relative luxury and freedom of city life was to be replaced by the social and physical demands of village life. Some were so incensed by this loss of luxury that they resorted to magical violence to vent their frustrations; if they were unfairly forced to suffer, then they would make everyone else unfairly suffer too. The vengeance inflicted upon the Oksapmin population was the drought.

I found this out during Christmas 2015 when sitting down one day on the floor of the small haus kuk (small kitchen where people cook, sleep, and socialize) in the hamlet where my research is based. I noticed my friends in excited discussion and, enquiring what was the matter, I was told 'ol lukim wanpla man long bus na em burukim skru na worshipim Satan stap' (a man had been seen kneeling down in the bush worshipping Satan). Enquiring further, I soon realized that a man had been seen in the bush practicing torn sup to stop rain and perpetuate the 'dry season'. The Oksapmin did not attribute the drought to this man alone but used this example more to draw attention to the fact that these kinds of practices were being widely followed and were responsible for creating the current situation.

Again, we see that the cause of the drought, as embodied by the man in the bush, is an amalgam of local and Christian cosmological elements: a magical practice oriented towards controlling one part of the environment that, due to its insidious, harmful character, has been re-imagined within the Christian cosmos as sinful and satanic. It is not simply that practicing magic is seen as sinful; rather, undertaking this activity in a way that causes harm to others is the result of Satan's mediation. It is clearly more than just applying a new moral categorization but re-imagining the dynamics of how the magic actually works. The practice continues as an effective and important cultural resource for explaining a lack of rainfall, but its deployment takes place under transformed cosmological conditions. This is evidence of a synthetic cosmology in motion, being used to rationalize and understand environmental transformations.

The Oksapmin see the closure of the mine and the drought as key indicators of a broader moral decay within their society. This wider malaise has been manifested most potently in the expansion of tamam, the evil, destructive foil to the creative and benevolent Christian god. Oksapmin Christians typically defend themselves from tamam, first, by regular church attendance, which acts to build up protection from attack, but also within Pentecostalist-focussed churches by more direct ritual means of deliverance prayers and confession (Macdonald 2015). In these rituals, tamam are portrayed as an imminent and dangerous threat to be violently exterminated by the Holy Spirit's omnipotence. It surprised me to learn that in this time of crisis, some Oksapmin had turned away from Christian ritual as a means of combatting tamam and instead employed am san magic to deal with the issue.

As described earlier, am san is a form of projectile sorcery whereby victims have sharp objects and toxic substances shot into their bodies by a powerful stone, thereby destroying their insides and eventually killing them. Special materials must first be acquired from the Om River valley, such as sago thorns, certain kinds of leaves, insects, and stones used in the procedure. These materials are gathered together, and then, the leader of the group will utter spells over them, thereby making the target fall into a stupor, a state in which they can be easily manipulated. Someone close to the target will have been regularly feeding information to the group about their movements, and it is this individual who is then tasked with luring the target to an isolated location where the attack can take place, typically a garden area high on the valley wall. Once there, the group seizes the target and bashes them on the head with the mentioned stone, rendering them unconscious. The group then uses the stone to firstly 'hammer' into the body sago thorns, nails, battery acid, and so forth and then to erase the wounds created by the operation. The individual is subsequently woken up without any knowledge of what has just happened to them. Life for the victim continues normally until one day when the objects and substances inserted into their body are ritually activated by the cult leader, at which point they begin to eat away at the victim's internal organs, eventually leading to their death.

Am san is typically spoken of as sinful and best avoided but not as necessarily evil. Throughout most of my time with the Oksapmin, I have very rarely heard it spoken of, and when it was mentioned, it was not with the same critical vehemence or moral censure as tamam. With the alarming spread of tamam, it is now used as the ultimate tool in avenging the death of innocent victims. As described to me, the aim of am san is to aggressively attack and ultimately kill individuals harbouring these evil forces. The objective was thus not to remove the evil from inside people by means of prayer and healing but to kill the evil person.

My conversations with people about am san thus revealed only a limited degree of intermingling with Christian elements beyond the re-categorization of this practice as sinful. Unlike tamam and the weather magic discussed above, there is no direct mention of Satan assisting these insidious activities here. However, the resurgence of am san is not without its pangs of Christian conscience. Participation in am san presented serious moral issues for those involved, all of whom were regular church goers and committed Christians with a firm belief in the existence of God and the sanctity of the Bible. To practice lethal sorcery and thereby be responsible for the death of suspected tamam, even if they are seen as harbouring evil, was to commit a serious sin, a realization which did not sit lightly on the minds of those involved. For instance, one man I spoke with about am san stated that:
When I think about it, it seems to me that participating in am san,
doing these things, it goes against God's word. I got involved because
I felt that it could help stop tamam from spreading. But now I think to
myself, why did I make the decision quickly to do these things? After I
made the decision to go inside, this kind of doubt started to creep
into my mind.

So, even if the content of the belief is not heavily syncretized, the issue being experienced is still the result of having the two elements co-existing in the same cosmological frame. This man was a devout Christian and a practitioner of magic at the same time; being an evangelical Christian did not prevent him from dabbling in the occult as a means of resolving social problems. The dilemma he faces, I think, is not to do with separating magic from Christianity but rather how to be a good Christian by not solving problems by resorting to violence and death. The co-existence of local and Christian beliefs is not a problem per se, only that the magic he is participating in is deadly.


In this section, I explore the broader ontological and cosmological significance of the Oksapmin imagination of the two dramatic transformations presented above. I have described the contemporary Oksapmin cosmology as a result of the historical confluence of local and Christian cultural forms and also shown how this multiplicitous cosmology is put into action when interpreting two recent critical junctures. But what does this tell us about how the Oksapmin understand reality and the fundamental frameworks within which their lives are played out?

I begin by quoting a brief passage taken from Philippe Descola's book Beyond Nature and Culture (2013) that provides a good entry point into my discussion of Oksapmin ontology that follows. He writes that
the modern West's way of representing nature is by no means widely
shared. In many regions of the planet, humans and nonhumans are not
conceived as developing in incommunicable worlds or according to quite
separate principles. The environment is not regarded objectively as an
autonomous sphere. Plants and animals, rivers and rocks, meteors and
the seasons do not exist all together in an ontological niche defined
by the absence of human beings. (Descola 2013:30)

This is a crucial point that has been taken up by anthropologists seeking to develop an ontologically informed anthropology 'beyond the human' (Kohn 2013; Viveiros de Castro 2007). Often based on fine-grained ethnographic approaches, these studies aim to elucidate the continuity and permeability that exists between human and non-human entities throughout indigenous societies 'who have not considered it necessary to proceed to a naturalization of the world' (Descola 2013:31). My discussion of how the Oksapmin have marshalled their cosmology to explain the drought, and the mine closure I think exemplifies Descola's point and, moreover, exposes a deep ontological schism between the Oksapmin and OTML. I do not seek to place the Oksapmin within Descola's four-fold typology of animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism but rather advance this general claim about the character of their ontology to properly contextualize further statements about cosmological change that follow.

I begin by recalling the explanation of the drought and mine closure offered by OTML. Very simply, they stated that the mine had to close as 'as a result of continuing dry weather'. The prolonged period of low rainfall produced by an intense El Nino weather pattern had made the level of the Fly River drop so low that barges transporting essential items could not travel, and therefore, the mine could not continue operation. This is a narrative based on Western scientific knowledge, which is based on an ontology that separates nature from culture, and spiritual or supernatural forces are explicitly eschewed as operative and efficacious entities. Even if human-induced climate change was taken into consideration as a contributing factor, the drought is presented as a natural and ecological event that operates entirely independently of human intentions and spiritual forces; people did not make the drought happen, nature did. It is precisely because this line of thought is premised on an ontology separating people from environmental transformation and invalidating supernatural explanations that the Oksapmin saw it as patently false.

From the Oksapmin perspective, sudden environmental changes do not simply occur in any simple sense; they are always the result of a complex dialogue between people, the conflicts and tensions that exist between them, and the non-human world that is mediated by cosmology and ritual. It is because the Oksapmin see such transformations as the result of these factors that a causal reversal becomes possible, whereby the drought did not cause the mine closure, but the mine closure caused the drought. Moreover, the material demonstrates that the causal relationship recognized by the Oksapmin is not the same as that represented by Western ontology within the company's explanation. Important fluctuations in the environment come to be ordered by, and embody, a trajectory of social, religious, cosmological, and not 'natural' or 'ecological' values (cf. Rudiak-Gould 2013:177). Within the local view, the mine closure resulted from the collapsed pit wall, the flooded mine pit, the buckled bridge, and a landslide, all tangible evidence of an autochthonous spirit's actions under the direction of an angered and resentful clan. The drought was likewise saturated in human intention. Following OTML's announcement to shut the mine, disgruntled employees returning home vented their frustrations by creating the drought through weather magic, the destructive performance of which was sanctioned and directed by Satan. In both examples, we see that ritual, cosmology, environment, and failed social relationships are all seamlessly wrapped into a single interpretive frame. The Oksapmin ontology, therefore, posits no separation between a world of people and a world of nature. To paraphrase Descola, all of the human and non-human elements within the Oksapmin world exist in a fluid, communicable relationship, influencing, reflecting, and permeating each other through the mediation of magic and cosmology. Within this ontological scheme, local people are not the passive victims but, together with the figures that populate their diverse cosmology, the creative authors of these sudden and dramatic transformations.

How the Oksapmin explained and interpreted the drought and mine closure can also shed light on the shape and composition of their cosmology and, in the process, can lead towards a useful re-imagination of current theoretical trends within the Anthropology of Christianity. The two principal cultural forms employed by the Oksapmin to understand the drought and mine closure, namely, the autochthonous ancestral figure as well as weather magic sanctioned by Satan, reveal a territorially and socially embedded synthesis of pre-Christian and Christian material. They are not indigenous practices operating independently of Christianity, and neither is there a Christian explanation removed from the local environment. Rather, what we do see is both elements interacting with each other in a dynamic interplay whereby Christians are explaining sudden and important transformations to the surrounding environment. One element without the other simply would not work and is impossible in the contemporary context. Referring solely to the 'old' belief would not give it a meaning in the Christian world that the Oksapmin live in. Conversely, referring solely to Christianity would not give it a meaning in terms of the known, named world that provides the existential parameters of lived social life, something that is an intrinsic capacity of the snake, weather magic, and other forms that resemble them. There is no dualistic compartmentalization of their cosmology into traditional and Christian categories and very limited recognition of two distinct systems interacting; rather, the Oksapmin have conflated and merged elements of both into a single, encompassing framework that they draw upon to explain happenings in their world.

I would like to set these observations against prevailing analyses within the Anthropology of Christianity concerning what happens to local cosmologies when societies convert to Christianity, particularly evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal variants. Anthropologists studying these kinds of churches have 'drawn attention to instances in which Christianity appears to impose what might be described as past-renouncing reflexive ethno-theologies: narratives of radical rupture with the past in which previous moral and religious regimes--including, sometimes, other forms of Christianity--must be rejected as wrong or even demonic' (Scott 2007: 302; see also Coleman and Hackett 2015; Robbins 2003). What follows from this are dichotomized cosmologies within which the Christian cosmos dominates at the expense of the ancestral religion and cosmology that is either completely erased or greatly diminished and demonized. In any case, within these explanations, if parts of the indigenous cosmology endure, such as nature spirits, then they are invariably demonized and fought against, and any ritualized engagements with them are seen as momentary lapses and examples of backsliding and sin (Robbins 1995).

As I showed earlier, some Oksapmin Christians do live in this kind of cut and dried world where Christianity is right, and tradition is wrong. The Oksapmin PNGBC pastor cited earlier certainly saw anything belonging to the ancestral religion and cosmology as wrong and emphasized that to be Christian meant imposing a radical break upon all that came before. But the majority of Oksapmin Christians, who belong mainly to the evangelically oriented Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist churches, do not see the world in this way, as evinced by the information presented above that shows a strongly past-affirming reflexive ethno-theology and a multiplicitous cosmology within which heterogeneous elements co-exist and intermingle. Yes, the indigenous religion was almost completely abolished as a result of conversion to Christianity, but, first, those discarded elements are not looked upon as benighted practices of a sinful past but rather positive precursors of the contemporary religious situation and, second, those aspects of the local religious and cosmological world 'left over' from conversion are not flatly diabolized on the basis of their ancestral provenance but interconnect with Christianity in a variety of ways and are morally evaluated on the basis of whether or not they are socially destructive. In many cases, such as the continuing existence of the masalai responsible for the mine closure (as well as the origins of clans), these are seen often as God's creation and may exist alongside, and not in opposition or competition with, him as explaining important local phenomena not explained in the Bible, such as the origins of local social groups and transformations to the immediate local environment, as described above. Like magic, it is only when these figures are turned to the pursuit of harmful ends that they come to be viewed as sinful. Indeed, a very simple way that many Oksapmin use to evaluate the moral value of any religious idea or practice, regardless of its provenance, is 'if it does harm then it is sin, and if it does not, then it is good.'

The question then becomes why is the Christian cosmos not the only effective cosmological frame of reference for the Oksapmin, who belong to a variety of evangelical and charismatically oriented churches? Why have the Oksapmin looked to Satan, magic, and autochthonous fallen angels instead of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit when interpreting the drought and mine closure? What explanatory advantages does the current mulitplicitous cosmology have over one in which 'tradition' and Christianity are separated out from each other on a moralized basis, with the latter being greatly diminished in form, treated as evil, and only allowed to account for illness and death? I argue that those parts of the Oksapmin cosmology utilized to explain the two critical junctures can be clearly distinguished from a fundamentalist Christian framework on the basis of their territoriality, their embeddedness within the known, lived, local landscape, and it is primarily this reason why the Oksapmin maintain an integrated, diverse cosmology instead of a bifurcated, morally fraught one. Indeed, as Joel Robbins states, Christianity 'defines salvation as an ultimately otherworldly state... its focus is on the person of Christ, not on a particular place it takes to be holy. For these reasons, it is not by nature a territorially focussed religion' (Robbins 2006:75). Because of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity's strong emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit, there is no further inclination to 'sacralise particular geographies or otherwise promote people's symbolic attachment to territory' (2006:75). Supporting this idea, in her study of Christianity among a group of Aboriginal Australians, McDonald refers to Christianity as a 'religion of placelessness par excellence' (McDonald 2001:80).

The Oksapmin cosmology, however, is finely attuned to the immediate geographic and social environment and provides local answers to local problems. There is a snake living in the mountains and available forms of weather magic that 'speak' to, and indeed are very much a part of, transformations to the landscape within which the Oksapmin people live. Because of its ability to not only imbue the environment with a mystical value but to see transformations to it in terms of local social conflicts, I see the Oksapmin world not so much as a sacred geography but more as a dynamic, moralized biocosmos within which people, religious forms, and the landscape mutually influence each other. It must be held in mind, moreover, that Christianity is an important part of this cosmological mix. While the typical evangelical-Pentecostal cosmology is one within which the local world is largely overlooked in favour of the spiritual, the Oksapmin cultural explication of the drought and mine closure has shown that they have given Christianity a local value through fusing it with existing embedded forms. The configuration is not a dualized one whereby Christianity speaks with the Holy Spirit and 'tradition' speaks to the landscape, but a multiplicitous one that speaks to both realms simultaneously.


Through a focus on the local Oksapmin imagination of two dramatic transformations in their society, we are able to gain a clear understanding of the shape and character of their ontological and cosmological schemes and what elements of these emergent, changing formations are both distinctive and particularly important in precarious times. The thrust of the article has been to elucidate the Oksapmin ontology and cosmology through a consideration of how local people have handled a range of important and sudden changes to their lives. Local explanations of the recent drought and associated closure of the Ok Tedi mine revert away from Western ontological models that impute causation to a largely autonomous nature and instead draw on local cosmological and magical entities within which social relations and changes to the surrounding environment interpenetrate and mutually influence each other. More broadly, the article has underlined that these cultural forms, and how they are creatively deployed in social life, denote a local cosmology not characterized by a fraught moral dualism between essentialized versions of indigeneity and Christianity. Out of the encounter between their existing yet dynamic traditions and Christianity, the Oksapmin built a new religion and cosmology by adding parts of a new world, subtracting parts of what was already there, and integrating all components together in multiple ways. Different parts of this repertoire are marshalled for relevant purposes, and in the present case, we have seen how magic and autochthonous beings were utilized to explain the drought and the mine closure, respectively.

To conclude, I want to set these findings within two schemes of significance. First, I want to return to the problem set out in my introduction concerning the theoretical emphasis placed by anthropologists of Christianity on discontinuity and rupture. The characterization of indigenous religion and cosmology within many of these studies is something that, first, is broken away from and that then diminishes or disappears completely. This leads to articles such as Robbins' piece entitled 'How Do Religions End?' (Robbins 2014). But my case study shows that converts to Christianity, Pentecostalist or otherwise, do not always or necessarily leave the past totally behind or condemn it but may instead construct a variety of new religions and cosmologies out of Christianity and their existing cosmologies. Certainly, Robbins is correct in drawing our attention to the fact that converts to Christianity do emphasize the dramatic transformations that have occurred in their lives and that theoretical models need to be developed within anthropology that attend to these processes. For the Oksapmin, Robbins' model holds true in terms of illuminating the widespread changes that occurred to the Oksapmin lifeworld as a result of missionization, and local people are clear as to the profound extent of these transformations. But Robbins' model also implies a 'this for that' transition of religion, whereby people give up completely what came before and shift their loyalties entirely to Christianity and the figures of the Bible. If aspects of local religion and cosmology do persist, as in the case of nature spirits, they are seen as 'figures of evil' and as instances of backsliding and sin, never as something that can be productively and positively combined with Christianity. The Oksapmin material suggests that this picture can be re-imagined to include both radical change as well as processes of positive integration. I suggest that it is unlikely that an ancestral religion can ever completely vanish as a result of Christianisation and that using disappearance as an analytical trope for studying local Christianity is problematic. Take Robbins' own statement regarding the erosion of indigenous Urapmin religion as a result of conversion to Christianity. In support of his discontinuity argument, he states that 'as the Urapmin tell it, fairly soon after their contact with Westerners, this ancestral religion was completely gone, and nothing I saw during my two years of fieldwork during the early 1990s contradicted this view' (2014:5, my emphasis). However, in some of his writings can be found passages that may cause us to doubt this claim. In the article 'Dispossessing the Spirits' (1995), Robbins first describes continued 'dabblings in magic and even occasional collective participation in indigenous ritual' (1995:214) and then, in a discussion of bush spirits, describes how 'the existence of these spirits has not been put into question by Christian conversion. Urapmin ontology has changed very little in this respect, except that people have recruited God as a powerful spiritual ally' (1995:218). In another article too, Robbins describes 'one traditional ritual [the Urapmin] still regularly practise. The ritual is pig sacrifice to the nature spirits who make people sick' (Robbins 2007:15-6). A way out of this seeming persistence of local religious practices is to simply state that they are the exceptions that prove the rule; people imagine themselves as completely Christian, and these indigenous ritual performances and magical dabblings are momentary lapses of faith that people must combat through concerted prayer and internal faith. This may apply to the first example, but Robbins explicitly states that the pig sacrifice is performed 'regularly'. While these spirits are demonized as figures of evil, this case does beg the question as to whether or not the indigenous religion is truly 'completely gone' and, by extension, whether other Pentecostalists in a similar situation can be said to truly believe they have made a total break with their pasts. Since the Urapmin regularly perform this ritual as well as occasionally dabble in magic, one would have to question the certitude with which they make these utterances. Robbins does talk of the struggle Urapmin undergo between local and Christian moralities (Robbins 2004a), but perhaps this struggle can also be extended to some extent to local religion as well. My point is not that rupture and discontinuity do not occur but that by privileging them we run the risk of inaccurately representing indigenous religious systems that are often comprised of both conjunctions and disjunctions. Furthermore, the way that local people handle Christianity does not have to be entirely systemic (see Hirsch's 2008 critique of Robbins); it is not that one society has syncretized it, one has taken it on whole, or that one has rejected it in favour of their existing customs; rather, all three (and any other permutations) may co-exist within the same society, and I think that is the case for the Oksapmin.

Another level of importance concerns power and agency, themselves embedded within broader ontological frameworks. Scholarly and media descriptions of the drought and the mine closure tended to portray local people as the helpless victims of these events. The drought happened to people within Papua New Guinea, and the mine closure had to be dealt with by those people associated with it. Within this Western ontological frame, an autonomous nature causes things to happen, namely, a drought, which leads to a mine closure, and these calamities are then negotiated by relevant communities. As can clearly be seen throughout this paper, the Oksapmin version of events inverts this scheme, positing local people not as the victims but the creators of crisis, even if they do suffer as a result. The drought and the mine closure is not something that has simply happened to the Oksapmin people; it is something that the Oksapmin people created themselves. Using their own magical and cosmological capacities, certain aggrieved and threatened Oksapmin groups authored these acts, the effects of which then irradiated outwards throughout the rest of the country. Within this world of understanding, Oksapmin is not another place within Papua New Guinea that has been 'affected' by these events; it is the causal epicentre of them. The explanations given to me are thus cosmological statements par excellence in that they are totalizing renderings of a known world and expressions of a mastery over it.


As always, I tender my sincere gratitude to all the Oksapmin people who contributed their thoughts, perspectives, and knowledge towards the formation of this paper. Thanks also to the editors Philipp Schorch and Arno Pascht for their critique of earlier drafts that greatly helped to improve and clarify my argument and presentation.


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Fraser Macdonald

University of Waikato
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