Printer Friendly

Ni-Vanuatu Research and Researchers.


The Vanuatu Cultural Centre has played a central role, both in supporting and directing expatriate research in Vanuatu, and in developing a group of ni-Vanuatu researchers, known as fieldworkers. At annual workshops, the fieldworkers are trained in basic linguistic and anthropological documentation techniques, and discuss ways to maintain and revive local practice in their own areas. The fieldworkers also advise and assist expatriate researchers. This paper outlines the work of the Cultural Centre and the work of ni-Vanuatu researchers, focusing on the fieldworkers.


Since the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC), formerly the New Hebrides Cultural Centre, first opened in Port Vila in 1957, [1] it has played a central role in research in the social sciences in Vanuatu, both in terms of expatriate researchers and in the training of ni-Vanuatu research workers. In pre-Independence Vanuatu the Anglo--French Condominium administration supervised research through its residencies, and through a single board of management of the Cultural Centre. Since Independence in 1980 an almost exclusively ni-Vanuatu board of management, under the Ministry of Culture, has directed research in Vanuatu. In the early 1990s under the ministry of Sethy Regenvanu, a Vanuatu research policy was developed and the National Cultural Council established, consisting of the curator (and later director) of the Cultural Centre and a number of ni-Vanuatu nominated by the minister. Under the direction of the Centre's first full-time curator, Kirk Huffman (1977-90), ni-Vanuatu interest in traditional culture flouris hed, eventually leading to the development of a national ni-Vanuatu fieldworker network, which devotes its energies to researching and preserving Vanuatu cultural heritage.

The first ni-Vanuatu researchers gained their training on the job, working as field assistants to both French- and English-speaking expatriate researchers from a range of British, Australian, Canadian, American and French research institutions. These institutions included Oxford and Cambridge universities, the Australian National University (ANU) and Sydney universities, the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, the Australian Museum, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and ORSTOM. These early researchers worked with ni-Vanuatu field assistants and informants, most of whose names are no longer recorded and whose work was restricted to assisting the one researcher only.

From the early 1970s ni-Vanuatu field assistants and researchers increased in number, some working for the Condominium administration as education and administrative officers. Others worked directly with expatriate researchers. For example, Jack Keitadi, later VCC curator, assisted Les Groube, Jack Golson, Norma McArthur and Matthew Spriggs (all archaeologists from the ANU) on Aneityum. George E S Pakoa assisted Jean-Claude Rivierre and myself (linguists) in the Shepherd Islands. Jerry Taki provided considerable assistance to Les Groube, and later Matthew Spriggs on Erromango. At the same time, all of these field assistants received on-site training and later became researchers in their own right. In 1976-77 Peter Crowe, an ethno-musicologist from the University of Auckland, now resident in France, undertook research into the traditional music of Ambae and Maewo. During the course of his research he was assisted, among others, by Jeffrey Uli Boe (Maewo) and James Gwero (West Ambae). These two field assistant s were to become the first of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Men Fieldworkers. Their role as fieldworkers will be further described below.

French researcher Jean-Michel Charpentier, who had carried out research into the languages and societies of southern Malakula since 1970, joined the VCC as acting curator in 1976. Under his guidance a program of tape-recording Vanuatu oral traditions was initiated, sponsored by a grant from Unesco. Peter Crowe was also part of this project. Within the same decade Paul Gardissart, a former teacher and later broadcaster, recorded a large corpus of oral material, much of which he developed into programs for Radio Vanuatu, initially Radio Vila. When Kirk Huffman, at the time a Cambridge University postgraduate student in anthropology, took over as curator of the VCC in 1977, the Oral Tradition Program was developed further. Many of the recordings were developed into radio programs, mainly through Huffman's initiative, with the support of the Centre's board of management, especially its chairman, Godwin Ligo, who later became director of Radio Vanuatu. Early contributors to the radio programs included James Gwero and Jeffrey Uli Boe.


Soon after Vanuatu became Independent in 1980, the Oral Tradition Program developed into what was to become the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Fieldworker Network. With an initial grant from the Australian government's South Pacific Cultures Fund, about fifteen ni-Vanuatu with a keen interest in the preservation of traditional culture were brought to Port Vila for a two-week workshop, which Kirk Huffman invited me to conduct. The purpose of this initial workshop was to transcribe and publish some of the oral traditions already recorded, and to push ahead with recording for use in schools.

The participants in this first workshop, nearly all of whom went on to become important figures in their home islands, expressed a desire to learn the techniques of lexicography. Their intention was to work on dictionaries of their own languages. (There are 113 remaining vernacular languages spoken in Vanuatu today.) The aim of the fieldworker program is the preservation, documentation and revival of kastom, kalja mo tredisen in Vanuatu. Participants in the early workshops included James Gwero (Ambae), Jeffrey Uli Boe (Maewo), Eli Field (Banks), Richard Leona (Pentecost), Graeme Tor (Pentecost), the late Chief Willie Taso (Ambrym), Alben Reuben (Malakula), Longdal Nobel (Malakula), Aiar Rantes (Malakula), the late Aviu Koli (Epi), Michael Matoa (Efate), Sempet Naritantop (Erromango), Jerry Taki (Erromango), James Nobwat (Erromango) and Philip Tepahae (Aneityum).

During the following fifteen years, the South Pacific Cultures Fund continued to support the training workshop, by providing the finance to bring together annually a gradually increasing number of ni-Vanuatu men, selected to represent as many of the islands and cultures of Vanuatu as possible. Thus the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Fieldworker Network was formed. In its early years the major representation was from Malakula, Ambrym and Pentecost, islands where traditional societies and their attendant ceremonies had continued throughout the Anglo-French Condominium period (1906-80). Ni-Vanuatu fieldworker numbers remained stable at fifteen to twenty during the early and mid-1980s, but slowly increased to a point where in the late 1990s they number over fifty, representing all major islands and regions. The annual fieldworker workshop has become a major event in the Vanuatu year.

The ni-Vanuatu fieldworkers are usually important members of their own societies, either village or area kastom leaders or their nominees. The prime requirement for their recruitment is that they have a demonstrated commitment to maintaining the traditional lifestyle and cultural values of their home communities. They receive no salary or wages from the Cultural Centre, but rather undertake the work of fieldworker and de facto local cultural officer as part of their community's commitment to maintaining and preserving kastom in their respective areas, normally an area speaking a single language or a group of closely related languages. Language and culture are key identification badges for all ni-Vanuatu, an island nation with one of the greatest language densities in the world.

The fieldworkers are generally provided with tape-recorders, cassettes and batteries, together with a modicum of stationery, in order to undertake research. Their role is multifaceted, with a clear set of objectives and outcomes. They are encouraged to record oral traditions in their own language area for transcription, later publication, and use in an educational context in their home area. This process of data collection may extend to video and audio recording of traditional ceremonies. Their use of non-print forms of data collection has made a significant contribution to broadcast media in Vanuatu, particularly in the production of radio programs, though lately this has extended to some involvement in television. Fieldworkers have an increasingly important advisory role to play, acting as liaison for all Cultural Centre activities in the islands. They advise the Vanuatu Cultural & Historical Sites Survey (VCHSS) for example, and they act as mentors/supervisors to expatriate researchers working in their ar eas.

The workshops have assisted in contributing to a process that has always been an integral part of Vanuatu identity: pride in one's local language and culture. With the call for Independence and the development of political parties during the early 1970s, this sentiment was reinforced, and in 1980, when Independence was finally achieved, there was an immense upsurge in national and regional cultural pride, stimulated in part by the First National Arts Festival in Port Vila in 1979. One example of this is that the consumption of kava, long opposed by the expatriate missionaries but an integral part of male Vanuatu life, became a kind of symbol of Independence, especially in Port Vila. Scores of kava bars (known to many as nakamals) were set up in the capital, in which ni-Vanuatu men could meet to drink kava and talk. Prior to Independence such practices were also discouraged by the joint colonial governments.

When the fieldworker workshops began, the primary aim was the recording and transcription of oral traditions, mainly kastom stories from around the islands. However, the fieldworkers were equally concerned with the goal of language preservation in the face of increasing pressure from Bislama, the national English-based pidgin, and from the two languages of education, English and French, set down in the Vanuatu constitution. In the beginning this took the form of the development of a dictionary file-card system by each fieldworker (for nearly all of the fieldworkers speak different vernaculars). The fieldworkers had already familiarised themselves with the orthographies of their own languages during the course of writing and transcribing legends and kastom stories. Words were collected by semantic domain, first taking everyday objects from the environment such as birds, fish and shellfish, the village, the house, the sea and marine craft, the natural environment, parts of the human body, flora and fauna. From these domains fieldworkers moved on to consider family and kin terms, which led to the production of genealogies.

Once the immediately visible items for dictionary entries had been exhausted, a more conceptual approach is adopted, concentrating on a single topic each year. Each topic is set a year in advance of the next workshop, allowing fieldworkers time to consult with their home communities and to prepare a presentation of up to one hour. Most fieldworkers thoroughly research their appointed topic, present it as a kind of seminar, and field questions afterwards. Topics canvassed in the annual workshops to date include: marriage, pigs, birth, death, land tenure, chiefly power, the graded society (nimanggi), gardens, fishing, trading and exchange, music and dance, and environmental management. Each fieldworker is given a large-format, hard-cover, ruled book, always with a red cover, in which to record the information they have researched. When each topic has been presented at the annual workshop, the idea is that fieldworkers write up their presentation as an essay in their 'red buk'. Over the years fieldworkers build up an ethnography for their own group, section by section.

Thus there is a dual output from the annual workshop, first a draft ethnography written by each fieldworker in his own language for the benefit of his home community, and second a draft dictionary file, updated each year as new vocabulary from the workshop topic is extracted and incorporated. [2] In addition, all of the workshops are recorded, and in recent years transcribed, edited and printed for the benefit of the fleldworkers. The presentations, discussions and publication of an edited version (some of the matters discussed involve sacred/secret information) of the workshop proceedings represent a major contribution to recorded knowledge on the part of ni-Vanuatu researchers. These publications are not, however, made more widely available.

In 1994 the Vanuatu Cultural Centre Women Fieldworker Network was founded. Like the men's network, the women's group began on a small scale with ten recruits. Today they number around twenty-five. Their existence is due in large measure to the efforts of Jean Tarisesei, co-ordinatior of the Women's Culture Project, and to Lissant Bolton, of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the ANU. Tarisesei and Bolton began the Women's Culture Project with a field-based documentation program on Ambae in 1991-92. This program, which set out to document and revive women's skills and knowledge about plaited pandanus textiles, resulted in radio programs and two films (made with Jacob Sam Kapere), and culminated in a workshop. The workshop, which took place on Ambae in June 1992, was attended by forty women from the island, and represented a concentrated discussion of women's work and lives. The workshop was recorded on audiotape and video. Following this, annual workshops for women fieldworkers commenced in Port Vila i n 1994, and are now firmly established in the Vanuatu calendar. As with the men's workshops, proceedings are recorded. Procedures of early workshops were not transcribed, but it is intended that in the future edited versions of the proceedings will be published in Bislama for the benefit of the fleldworkers and their home communities.


In 1995 the VCC moved physically from its former headquarters on the Port Vila waterfront, to a new building set on higher ground opposite the Vanuatu Parliament. The new building was officially opened by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Culture the Hon. Sethy Regenvanu in November of that year, at the conclusion of a week-long 'mini arts festival'. The VCC now incorporates a number if separate sections or units, all operating under the directorship of Ralph Regenvanu. These include the National Museum, the National Film and Sound Unit, the Women's Culture Project and the Vanuatu Cultural and Historical Sites Survey. Each of these units has its own staff. All but the National Library (which remains on the waterfront) are based in the new building on the hill. Apart from the VCC in Port Vila, a regional Cultural Centre at Lakatoko-Norsup on Malakula was founded in 1991. Also attached to the Cultural Centre is the Vanuatu Young People's Project, a team of ni-Vanuatu researchers, young men and women who ar e engaged in researching culturally related social problems associated with increasing urbanisation around Port Vila, initiated by Canadian anthropologist, Jean Mitchell.

The Vanuatu Cultural and Historical Sites Survey was set up in 1990 to aid the planning of archaeological surveys throughout Vanuatu. The original office, funded by the European Community, was set up by two professional archaeologists, David Roe and Jean-Christophe Galipaud, who engaged and trained a number of ni-Vanuatu field assistants, among whom were the late Jean-Paul Batick, the present head of the VCHSS unit Martha Yamsui, Regina Batick and Willie Damelip. This unit, working in close collaboration with the fieldworkers, has mapped and listed cultural and historic sites in some areas of the country, especially those areas in which rural development is likely to take place. Reports to date have been completed for more than twenty areas. Originally separate from the Cultural Centre, although housed in the same building, the VCHSS was incorporated administratively into the organisation in 1995.

The Vanuatu National Film and Sound Unit grew out of the audio and video archives developed during the early years of the Cultural Centre. Kirk Huffman devoted some time and energy to tracing early film taken in the archipelago, and obtaining copies for Vanuatu. In 1986 Jacob Sam Kapere of Tanna joined the Cultural Centre as cameraman. Kapere had undertaken training in ethnographic filmmaking in Australia, and in turn provides training for other staff and fieldworkers, such as Vianney Atpatoun, Alben Reuben and more recently Hardy Ligo. The NFSU houses a large collection of ethnographic film, mostly dating from the late 1970s although the collection also includes material from as far back as 1917. Kapere and other staff travel throughout Vanuatu at the request of individual communities where funding permits, filming and recording traditional ceremonies, such as grade-taking ceremonies. The archive is held within the new Cultural Centre building. The NFSU monitors the work of expatriate film crews in Vanuatu, ensuring that local sensitivities about what can be filmed are respected. Since the advent of television in Vanuatu in the early 1990s, the film unit has also assisted with the production of cultural programs for Television Vanuatu. The NFSU operates a lending service through which copies of unrestricted material can be borrowed for private viewing, largely by people in Port Vila, although tapes are also sent to the islands.

The Cultural Centre's audio and video archive is known throughout Vanuatu as the Tabu Room. The Tabu Room was developed initially in response to natural disasters, especially cyclones, which devastate parts of the Vanuatu archipelago every year. Hardly any of the fieldworkers have any safe and weatherproof place in which to store their research equipment and documents. Where paper is concerned, rats also are a problem. In response to this, ni-Vanuatu researchers, fieldworkers and others, were invited to store originals of their materials in safer, weatherproof and air-conditioned conditions in a special room within the VCC. The Tabu Room operates on the same basis as a bank. Depositors or their nominees control access to the materials on deposit, be it paper, cassette or video film, specifying what material is restricted.

The staff of the Cultural Centre has won the confidence of the ni-Vanuatu population to such an extent that not only fieldworkers, but many private citizens now deposit private or restricted cultural and genealogical material in the Tabu Room, knowing that it is safe and that it will remain confidential. Many older ni-Vanuatu had been aware for some time that much traditional knowledge was being lost with the passing of many of the older members of society. Because of the widespread cultural revival which Vanuatu has enjoyed after Independence, many communities, encouraged by the fieldworkers in their areas, work collectively and individually to record traditional knowledge, often as audio recordings, copies of which are deposited here for safekeeping. These recording activities involve considerable research and consultation with the communities and individuals concerned, and must be included in any account of the ni-Vanuatu research effort.


The Vanuatu Cultural Centre, staffed by ni-Vanuatu officers, plays an important coordinating role, both in its own right and through its nation-wide network of ni-Vanuatu fieldworkers. In recent years it has been important in formulating the government's cultural and research policy, especially with respect to the admission of foreign researchers. Research projects must all be submitted to the Vanuatu Cultural Council through the Cultural Centre, including ethnographic film projects. It is here that the fieldworkers are important, for each project passes through the hands of the relevant fieldworker to the local community for evaluation. For a project to be considered acceptable it must not only be beneficial to the area concerned, but also contain a training component, whereby the local VCC fieldworker or another member or members of the host community receive training in the major discipline involved. When the expatriate researcher arrives in Vanuatu he/she is assigned to a particular fieldworker and works under the guidance of that fieldworker for the research term. Fieldworkers are also assigned to work with archaeological research teams.


A small group of ni-Vanuatu, many of whom are VCC fieldworkers, have made successful grant applications to either the Australian government's South Pacific Cultures Fund or Unesco, to support individual or community research projects. One of the most impressive projects is the linguistic salvage work being carried out by a team of Erromangan researchers, led by Jerry Taki. This team is making a study of languages and dialects remembered by only a handful of very elderly speakers on Erromango, before this knowledge is lost forever. Their research training was received at the Cultural Centre fieldworker workshops. Other projects include that of Philip Tepahae from Aneityum, the southern-most island. Almost single-handedly he has compiled a dictionary of nearly 5000 entries, and has produced a major ethnographic account of Aneityum. More recently he has been working in collaboration with John Lynch (University of the South Pacific), and these two projects will soon be published.

Another ni-Vanuatu fieldworker compiling a word list of his own language is Silas Alban of south Efate, who has been working in collaboration with the Australian linguist Nick Thieberger to develop this into a dictionary. Thieberger worked with the Cultural Centre during 1996-97 as an Australian volunteer, assisting with computerisation of the catalogue.

While much of the more advanced research work by ni-Vanuatu has been concerned with language, fieldworkers are involved in many other projects. For example, in 1994 Aiar Rantes, a fieldworker from south-west Malakula, cleared and largely reconstructed the former mountain village in which his parents lived before becoming Christian and moving down to the coast at Wintua. The aim of his project is to use the former village as a training centre for young ni-Vanuatu, so that Christian ni-Vanuatu may learn and appreciate traditional ways, customs and ritual. On the same island, a little further south, Longdal Nobel, another Cultural Centre fieldworker of some standing (who has undertaken overseas training both from the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the ANU), has been very active in promoting traditional culture. He has researched his own Na'ahai culture, and in 1998 opened a local cultural training centre in south-west Malakula. Nobel has worked with Tim Curtis, a doctoral student in anthropology at ANU.

Wilson Kaluat, of south Efate, has made a number of successful overseas grant applications, which he has applied to researching traditional knowledge in a peri-urban environment and setting up a kastom school in his home village. Kaluat has subsequently collaborated with anther ANU student, Greg Rawlings. Nadia Kanegai also wrote and published a book on bure, women's tattooing in Ambae, the result of her own research.

Researchers with the French organisation ORSTOM, have also worked with many ni-Vanuatu, including fieldworkers. Alfreda Mabonlala, who has worked with ORSTOM for a number of years assisting ethnobotanist Annie Walter, published an illustrated set of Apma (Central Pentecost) legends for use in regional schools, and has prepared a large set of scientific botanical drawings of Vanuatu flora. Annie Walter has also worked for many years with the ni-Vanuatu botanist Sam Chanel.

Ni-Vanuatu, both as individuals and groups, have maintained and promoted indigenous Vanuatu dance, music and material culture, resulting in cultural performances at home and abroad. There have been two national arts festivals, one in Port Vila in 1979, just prior to Independence, and the other in Luganville in 1990. Other major regional festivals are the Pentecost Arts Festival held in 1983 and the Malakula Arts Festival in 1986. Outside Vanuatu, ni-Vanuatu researchers and cultural policy-makers have participated in numerous cultural festivals and symposia, in New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Ni-Vanuatu also accompanied and interpreted the major exhibition of Vanuatu art that visited Port Vila, Noumea, Basel and Paris between 1996 and 1998.


Ni-Vanuatu research in kastom can be said to occupy a special place in the life of ni-Vanuatu citizens, especially those living outside the capital, Port Vila, for kastom, a way of living in keeping with societal traditions, is discussed and debated regularly in villages throughout the country. This research is formalised around the national Cultural Centre, which, through its nationwide network of fleldworkers provides an infrastructure to encourage and facilitate ni-Vanuatu research.

Ni-Vanuatu research is now undergoing a period of change, for while fundamental research and training is still centred around the VCC, there are an increasing number of ni-Vanuatu who are receiving tertiary-level training in overseas institutions, in Australia, New Zealand and France in particular. Nearly all of these researchers are working in collaboration with expatriate researchers, in a range of disciplines, especially linguistics, anthropology, ethno-musicology and archaeology. At the same time, an increasing number of ni-Vanuatu, especially the more energetic fieldworkers supported by their home communities, are undertaking substantial research, much of which will reach the publication stage.


(1.) The foundation stone for the VCC was laid in 1956. From its inception the Cultural Centre included the National Museum and the National Achives. The National Achives became a separate organisation in 1994. The National Museum and National Library remain part of the Cultural Centre.

(2.) Problems of alphabetising were initially considerable. However, the advent of computerisation has eliminated this problem and made it possible for updates of dictionary files to be produced and taken back to local communities by the fleidworkers every year.
COPYRIGHT 1999 University of Sydney
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Tryon, Darrell
Geographic Code:8VANU
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Previous Article:Introduction.
Next Article:The Australian National University--Vanuatu Cultural Centre Archaeology Project, 1994-97: Aims and Results.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |