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Retheorizing mana: Bible translation and discourse of loss in Fiji.

More than twenty years ago, Roger Keesing called for anthropologists to rethink their understandings of mana, criticizing the adoption of R.H. Codrington's definition of it as 'supernatural power' expressed in terms of substance (Codrington 1957: 118). Keesing wrote that 'mana as invisible medium of power was an invention of Europeans, drawing on their own folk metaphors of power and the theories of nineteenth-century physics' (Keesing 1984: 148; see also Keesing 1985). Mana, he argued, is a quality, not a medium; a stative verb, not a noun of substance. In making this argument, he echoed mid-century anthropologists such as Raymond Firth, who observed the tendency for mana to become 'a specialized abstraction of the theoretical anthropologist' (Firth 1940: 487), and E.E. Evans-Pritchard, who complained about 'the speculations of such influential writers as Marett and Durkheim, who conceived of [mana] as a vague, impersonal force' (Evans-Pritchard 1965:110).

Despite the clarity and persuasivness of the argument, however, a new scholarly theorization of mana has yet to take place. This may partly be the result of intellectual conservatism and partly the result of English grammar. It is difficult to jettison the idea of mana as substantive power, especially when such an idea fits well with intellectualist definitions of 'religion' which have been so prominent and influential in anthropology for the past several decades (e.g. Geertz 1973). Moreover, as Whorf observed about English, 'We are constantly reading into nature fictional acting entities, simply because our verbs must have substantives in front of them' (Whorf 1956: 243). The task of retheorizing mana should be a central one for scholars of Oceanic religions, however, and this article is an attempt to rise to the challenge that Keesing posed: to '[trace] out the development of mana as a concept in time and space, anchoring it in social systems rather than disembodied philosophies' (1984: 153). However the term is translated--I will discuss the Fijian translations at length--its grammar, poetics, and pragmatics can inform debates about power, authority, agency, and responsibility.

I will examine the changing use of the term 'mana' in indigenous Fijian discourse, and make three interrelated arguments. First, the grammatical and semantic transformation of mana that Keesing observed between Oceanic languages and English has also occurred within Fijian itself. That is, in contemporary Fijian discourse, the term 'mana' is often used in its nominalized form, and is sometimes substantivized. Second, I will argue that the most influential social force shaping new meanings of mana in Fiji is institutional Christianity, specifically the Methodist Church and its translation projects. Finally, I will show how the sociopolitical context in which Fijian mana has been transformed is one in which human agency and the potential for effective action is often understood as something being diminished or lost. In other words, mana is now often configured negatively.


Published Fijian-English dictionaries treat 'mana' as a substantivized noun and an adjective. In the mid-1840s, the ethnologist for the United States Exploring Expedition reported that Fijian 'mana' meant 'a miracle' (Hale 1846: 399; but see below). In 1850, the missionary David Hazlewood gave 'mana' several distinct definitions, including 'a sign, or omen; a wonder, or miracle' and 'effectual; efficient, as a remedy; wonder working' (cited in Keesing 1984: 143). Arthur Capell, who revised Hazlewood's work and is credited as the compiler of the current standard Fijian-English dictionary, defined 'mana' primarily as 'supernatural power; a sign, a token, omen; as adj., possessing supernatural qualities' (Capell 1991: 135).

In certain ethnographic texts, however, 'mana's' role as a verb becomes evident. For example, A.M. Hocart's translation of a Lauan chief's statement is revealing for its grammatical awkwardness: 'In the Solomon Islands,' Hocart records the Tui Tubou saying, 'things mana because they were from the beginning. In Fiji they don't mana; they do mana once, but if another man uses them they don't mana' (Hocart 1929: 186). The chief was evidently using 'mana' as a verb in these instances, not a noun, and to his credit Hocart attempted to preserve this role in English.

In his unpublished Fijian language dictionary, the linguist Paul Geraghty defines 'mana' as 'yaco dina na kena inaki,' meaning 'achieving its intended purpose' (Qereti n.d.). In personal communication (2002), he affirms that 'mana' is canonically a verb in Fijian:
 This is not just the original but also the current meaning--mana is
 never a noun (though it can, like any verb, be nominalised). It does
 not have the same meaning as it does in anthropology--where the
 meaning of 'mana' is derived from Eastern Polynesia. [The meaning
 of] 'exercising spiritual power' ... is usually rendered in Fijian
 by 'sau'.

Accordingly, 'mana' in Fijian is often best translated into English as 'work,' 'succeed,' 'achieve,' or the like--that is, as a verb denoting effective action. (2) Like 'work,' 'mana' is a verb that can be used nominally or adjectivally without altering its form. It can also be reduplicated and given affixes (e.g., 'vakamanamanataka,' meaning 'make mana' or 'make effective') and used in conjunction with certain other words, as I will describe below in regard to Bible translation.


An equation of mana with dina ('true') has persistently caught the attention of observers of Fijian society. In a well-known encounter in 1837, the Tui Cakau (high chief of Cakaudrove) and his sons tried to convince the Methodist missionary David Cargill to come to their region. At first they tried to convince Cargill by appealing to the new religion's possible truthfulness, saying:
 If you come to us, we will allow our children to be taught to read
 on your first arrival, & we will listen to your doctrine, that we
 may know if it is true or false, beneficial or useless. (Cargill
 1977: 95).

Note how, in the last phrase, the chief's sons glided from truth to effect: If Christianity were 'true,' presumably, it would be useful or effective. If it made sense, it would work. Cargill then asked the Tui Cakau 'about the truth of Christianity,' and the chief answered: 'True--everything is true that comes from the white man's country; muskets & gunpowder are true, & your religion must be true' (ibid.: 95). In 1914, Hocart quoted an informant as saying, 'If it is true [dina] ... it is mana; if it is not true, it is not mana,' and he concluded that 'The fundamental meaning [of mana] appears to be "to come true"' (Hocart 1914: 98, 100). This definition is useful for combining 'mana's' role as a verb with its associations with truth and effectiveness, resonating with Geraghty's 'yaco dina na kena inaki.' (3)

One of the first ethnographic surveys of Fiji, undertaken as part of the United States Exploring Expedition in the late 1830s and early 1840s, recorded the conjoined use of 'mana' and 'dina' in ritual performance. The expedition's published account described a Fijian wedding as follows:
 During this ceremony, the girls are engaged in chewing the [k]ava,
 (4) on which the priest directs the water to be poured, and cries
 out, 'Ai sevu [The offering].' He then calls upon all the gods of
 the town or island. He takes care to make no omission, lest the
 neglected deity should inflict injury on the couple he has united.
 He concludes the ceremony by calling out 'mana' (it is finished);
 to which the people respond 'ndina' (it is true). (Wilkes 1845:
 209) (5)

This source also describes a warrior chief (vunivalu) leading men to fight by telling his soldiers, '"Attend!" On this the whole clap their hands. He then tells them to prepare for battle, to which they answer, "Mana ndina" (it is true)' (ibid.: 205). Similarly, a Methodist missionary in Kadavu Island in the 1860s, Jesse Carey, recorded an example of a Prechristian Fijian prayer for the sick as follows:

Ke masu ena vukuna e dua na mate e vaka oqo. E dua mada na yaqona e lai cabo vua, a sa ta[ra]i 'au tara ga qai bula na baca.' Oti oya qai mama, lose Ni sa tauya, sa qai masulakina, 'Na, isevu kei Ravouvou kei Delaitoga ... kei ira kece na kalou mai Natuicake mai ra tale ga. Mo dou yalovinaka me bula na mate.' Era qai kaya, 'Mana e dina', sa qai dina.

If he [the priest] prays for someone who is sick, it's done like this. Kava is offered to him [the priest], who touches it [and says], 'I am touching it [so] the sick person will be cured.' Then the kava is chewed, mixed. When it is ready, [the priest] then prays, 'The offering to Ravouvou and [or of] Delaitoga ... and all of the gods/spirits from the east and the west as well. Please be so kind as to cure the sick person.' Then they say, 'Mana, it is true,' and then it is true. (Carey n.d.) (6)

The prayer's conclusion--'Mana[,] e dina,' meaning 'mana, it is true'--is evidently meant both to complete the ritual and to make it effective. Utterance of the phrase enacts closure and also success, as shown in the final line of explanation, when Carey's interlocutor adds, 'sa qai dina,' meaning 'and then it is true.'

These accounts from the middle of the nineteenth century reveal the poetics of mana--the way that, chanted at a ritual, it manifests a 'magic, incantatory function' while displaying a 'focus on the message for its own sake' (i.e., the 'poetic function' as described by Jakobson 1960: 355-356). Besides having internal rhyme, the chanting of 'mana, e dina' (or just 'mana, dina,' in Wilkes' examples) resonates iconically with the times it has been uttered in previous rituals. In other words, like any formulaic ritual phrase, 'mana, e dina' 'rhymes' with its previous instances of performance, an apparently stable formula in Fijian ritual action through a long span of history. 'Mana' is also performative in J.L. Austin's (1962) sense, accomplishing the act that it articulates. By intoning 'mana, e dina,' the priest and people attempt to effect the things that are being requested--in these cases, marriage, preparation for battle, and the treatment of sickness. The function of 'mana's' ceremonial usage is thus a closure to ritual action, similar to 'amen' in English; Hazlewood's dictionary from 1850 conveyed the pragmatics of 'mana' in this regard ('a word used when addressing a heathen deity: so be it, let it be so'; in Keesing 1984: 143). A theologian and former president of Fiji's Methodist Church, Ilaitia Tuwere, has written similarly that 'mana, e dina' is used as 'the sacred liturgical phrase of communal response.... This is the communal request for the blessings of the gods (or ancestors) ...' (Tuwere 2002: 137; see also Hocart 1914: 98).

The phrase 'mana, e dina' is used in contemporary Fiji at rituals such as isevusevu, presentations of kava between visitors and hosts (see Ravuvu 1983: 120). Once the representative of the party receiving the offering has finished a speech of acceptance, 'everyone present chants in unison, 'A ... Mana. E Dina. A Mudou,' and claps rhythmically (Arno 2005:51). (7)


The nominalized form of 'mana' which was already present in one of Hazlewood's definitions from 1850--'a sign, or omen; a wonder, or miracle'--began to appear frequently in the anthropological literature during the twentieth century, occluding scholarly understandings of Fijian 'mana' as a verb. Hocart himself, in a short and quixotic article from 1922, glossed 'mana' as 'miraculous power,' thereby abandoning in two words his previous sensitivity to cultural context and linguistic detail. The missionary Wallace Deane equated 'mana' with the Latin term 'potens' (1921: 4), and Alan Tippett, who was a missionary, missiologist, and anthropologist, wrote of people and objects getting a 'charge of mana,' of war clubs being 'mana repositories and mana transmitters' (Tippett 1968: 53, 66).

Scholars in Fiji were following broader intellectual trends. For Mauss (1972), mana was a socially generated force universally underlying senses of magical efficacy, in fact encompassing the 'sacred' generally. (8) Levi-Strauss, expanding upon Mauss, suggested that mana is 'a universal and permanent form of thought' arising from an imbalance between symbolism and knowledge, what he awkwardly called 'a non-equivalence or 'inadequation' ... a non-fit and overspill' between signifiers and signifieds (1987: 53, 60, 62). In Levi-Strauss' structuralist universe, where humanity endlessly reshuffles categories of identification and opposition, 'a surplus of signification' is inevitable in cultural projects (62). Mana is a 'floating signifier,' absorbing such surplus signification. That is, according to Levi-Strauss, it is 'devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all,' and he goes on to characterize it as 'a symbol in its pure state' (55, 64).

Once 'mana' became a standard noun in the English-language anthropological vocabulary, it propagated vigorously in Fiji and elsewhere. Keesing criticized this unchecked growth. But is it possible, pace Keesing (and Geraghty), that ethnographers in the twentieth century who nominalized and substantivized 'mana' in English were accurately replicating new patterns of Fijian discourse? That is, might indigenous Fijian speakers themselves have been nominalizing and substantivizing 'mana'?

In certain ethnographic accounts, Fijian speakers seem to have recognized 'mana' in its nominalized form and occasionally used it that way. For example, Buell Quain (1948: 200) wrote, 'The term mana, impersonal supernatural power, is understood at Nakoroka [in Vanualevu] and occurs in ceremonial chants. But the equivalent in the local dialect is sau.' His observation was telling, because, as mentioned above, 'sau' is the Fijian term equivalent to the Eastern Polynesian sense of 'mana.' In other words, Quain's interlocutors recognized the Polynesian-derived use of 'mana' as a substantivized, nominalized term, but in this regard they preferred 'sau.' Marshall Sahlins wrote that chiefs' 'spiritual power is variously called the "strength of the chief' (kaukauwa ni turaga), or the "power of the chief" (rara ni turaga), or by the well-known Oceanic term, mana' (Sahlins 1962: 319). Recently, a Fijian scholar writing in Fijian has used 'mana' in its nominalized and substantivized form, claiming that 'it is very dangerous for us to touch the heads and necks of our chiefs, because those are the site of mana and the seat of the sau of the land and people' (Seruvakula 2000: 36). (9) It also bears mention that two of the most prominent indigenous Fijian scholars writing in English use 'mana' as a noun. The anthropologist (and now senator) Asesela Ravuvu defines it as 'power to effect' (1983: 119), and the theologian Ilaitia Tuwere sounds positively Codringtonian when he writes 'Mana is power or influence, not physical and in a way supernatural, but it shows itself in physical force or excellence which a person possesses' (Tuwere 2002: 136).

During my research in Kadavu in the 1990s and early 2000s, I heard 'mana' used more often in its nominalized form than its verbal form by Fijian speakers. For example, during conversation at a casual kava-drinking session in July 2003, a Tavuki chief spoke of 'na mana ni cakacaka ni Kalou,' meaning 'the mana of God's works.' (10) The month before, during a home prayer session, a Methodist minister had mentioned in his prayer 'nomuni sau, nomuni mana vuni na Kalou,' meaning 'your sau, your hidden mana, God.' In a sermon for Pentecost Sunday in May 1999, the Tavuki circuit catechist preached, 'Sovaraka ke na Yalo Tabu i levu kena kalougata, mana kei na sau i na tubu i na noda vanua,' which translates as 'The Holy Spirit pours forth many blessings, mana and sau will prosper in our land.' Speakers did occasionally use 'mana' as a verb, however, as when another Methodist minister prayed for the healing of a chiefly family by requesting 'ka tu talega na vakanuinui ... me qaravi tiko na masu ... me rawa ni na mana ... na cakacaka levu edatou sa mai qarava rawa ena bogi edaidai,' meaning, 'we hope that ... people will continue to pray ... so that the great work we have just completed tonight will mana [='be effective'].'

I argue that there are several forces behind the present-day prominence of nominalized 'mana' in Fiji. One force is Polynesian cultural influence which, in precolonial days, was reinforced by Tongan military strength. The eastern regions of Fiji, especially, bear deep imprints from Tonga. Cherished Fijian cultural institutions such as chiefly kava ceremonies bear a strong Tongan-Polynesian stamp, and so the concept of mana as substantive power has almost certainly migrated westward into Fiji from the islands to the east. A second force behind 'mana's' nominalization is institutional Christianity, and specifically the translation efforts of the Wesleyan Methodist missionaries who produced the Bible in Fijian. These translation efforts, to which I now turn, were themselves marked by Polynesian influences.


Keesing did not include distinctively Christian visions of Oceanic mana within his scope. He wrote dismissively, 'despite the wholesale destruction of Oceanic religions by Christianity, we have further ethnographic evidence on mana,' ignoring the possibility that Christianity might be precisely the key to rethinking mana in the contemporary Pacific. (11)

Fiji was missionized originally by British Wesleyan Methodists beginning in 1835. Although the first worker to attempt Biblical translations was a skilled linguist trained at the University of Abderdeen (Cargill 1977), most of the Wesleyans were not especially accurate or sensitive translators. In 1843, the missionaries settled on the dialect of politically ascendant Bau Island as the tongue in which the Fijian Bible would be produced, but their Bauan was riddled with terms from eastern dialects of Fiji as well as terms unnecessarily introduced from English and phonologically shifted, such as 'parataisi' for 'paradise' and 'parofita' for 'prophet' (see Clammer 1976: 40, 48-50; Schutz 1985, 2004). In addition, the missionaries failed to understand idiomatic Fijian grammar, and so, for example, 'a tediously large proportion of verb phrases in the Bible begin with a sa, which is in fact a rarely used pluperfect' (Geraghty 1989: 387). The quirky language of the Fijian Bible has been described as 'far from native; it even verged on the pidgin in some respects' (ibid.: 385; see also Cammack 1962).

The first Fijian language version of the New Testament was published in 1847, the first complete Bible in 1856, and the revised version that is still used today in much of Fiji appeared in 1902. (12) The term 'mana' appears in the Fijian Bible, but in ways which display the missionaries' lack of familiarity (or perhaps insensitivity) to Fijian idioms and nuances.

First it is important to note a negative point: that 'mana' is not used where it might well be. For example, Hocart (1922: 140) pointed out that the 'idea of mana' could be found in Genesis 39:2-3.
 And the LORD was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man; and he
 was in the house of his master the Egytian. And his master saw the
 LORD was with him, and that the LORD made all that he did to
 prosper in his hand.

Hocart was observing, correctly, that Joseph's effectiveness as an actor and his resultant prosperity accorded with concepts of mana. When the verses were translated into Fijian, however, the missionaries chose a stilted, literal phrasing without the term 'mana' being used: 'A sa tiko kei Josefa ko Jiova, a sa tamata yaco ko koya; a sa tiko e na vale ni nona turaga na kai Ijipita. A sa raica na nona turaga ni sa tiko vata kaya Jiova, ka vakayacora ko Jiova na ka kecega sa cakava ko koya' (emphasis in original). (13) The latter part can be translated back into English as 'and Jehovah made everything that he [Joseph] did effective.' As Hocart observed, the 'idea of mana' is fully present--but the term is entirely absent.

Where 'mana' does appear in the Bible, it does so in five distinct ways. It does appear as a verb, but rarely. In Galatians 3:17, the phrase 'the covenant ... cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect' is given in Fijian as 'a veiyalayalati ... me sega kina ni mana na vosa ni yalayala,' with 'mana' conveying the meaning of effective achievement ('make ... effect'), here presented negatively. In Colossians 1:29, 'his working, which worketh in me mightily' is presented in the Fijian Bible as 'nona cakacaka sa mana e na lomaqu,' with 'mana' used for 'worketh.' However, using the Fijian Bible's concordance (14) these are the only two instances I have found of 'mana' being used as a verb.

The most common use of 'mana' in the Bible is in the noun phrase caka mana (or cakacaka mana) meaning 'effective action,' from the verb cakava, meaning 'to work' or 'to do.' (15) As mentioned above, it is used to translate 'miracle(s).' In the Fijian Bible, the caka mana construction is used at least thirty-five times, in twenty of those instances for the word 'miracle(s),' but also for 'wonders,' 'wonderful works' or 'wondrous works,' 'mighty works,' and 'signs.' An additional twenty times, the construction (vei)ka mana is used. 'Ka' means 'thing,' and vei- is a plural prefix (thus, 'mana things'). Twelve of these times, (vei)ka mana is used for 'miracle(s),' and eight times for terms and phrases including 'signs,' 'marvellous things,' 'mighty works,' and 'mighty acts.' In all of these cases, then, 'mana' is part of a noun phrase denoting astonishing accomplishments.

'Mana' is also used in the noun phrase vosa mana. Vosa is a verb meaning 'to speak,' so with 'mana' added it denotes the action of speaking effectively or miraculously, and can be used to translate such terms as 'divination.' (16) In the Fijian Bible, however, 'vosa mana' lives a curious life. In four out of five instances of the phrase's use, it is used negatively to denote the lies of false prophets, e.g. in Ezekiel 13:6, 'They have seen vanity and lying divination,' 'Era sa raica na ka wale kei na vosa-mana lasu.' Where one might expect to find it used positively to denote the effectiveness of divine speech--e.g., in the first chapter of Genesis, wherein God speaks the world into existence, or in Jesus' commanding the dead to rise (Mark 5:41-42, John 11:43-44), the term 'vosa mana' does not appear. (17)

In addition to these uses of 'mana' in noun phrases constructed with nominalized verbs, 'mana' is used for the homonymous 'manna,' the miraculous food that God gave the Israelites. For example, Psalms 78:24 begins 'And had rained down manna upon them to eat,' which was translated into Fijian as 'Sa vakatauca na mana vei ira me ra kania ...'. There are eighteen instances of 'mana' being used for 'manna' in this way. Finally, 'mana' is sometimes used in the Polynesian sense of power or potency. In Matthew 14:2 and 2 Corinthians 4:7, the phrase kaukauwa mana is used respectively for 'mighty works' and 'power.' 'Kaukauwa' is a noun meaning strength (it can also be used as an adjective meaning 'strong'), so in these instances 'kaukauwa mana' is a noun phrase which might be glossed as 'effective strength.' Finally, in one particular verse, Hebrews 7:16, 'mana' is used by itself in its nominalized form: 'the power of an endless life' is translated as 'na kena mana ni bula tawa mudu.'

I have presented these examples at length to show that in the Fijian Bible 'mana' is used with far greater frequency in noun phrases, and as a noun denoting the homonymous food manna, than it is used as a verb. This is a striking pattern of usage, and it raises the possibility that missionaries' distinctive use of the term in the Bible prompted or hastened a shift in the ways that indigenous Fijians use the term in other contexts. Keesing wrote that 'there are some parts of Melanesia where mana has apparently been substantivized, where a metaphysic that lies latent in conventional metaphors of 'having mana' was apparently created' (1984: 152). Fijian Bible translations, I argue, are likely to have been a force in the creation of such a new metaphysic--not because of anything latent in metaphors of efficaciousness, but because the translators persistently nominalized 'mana' and neglected or refused to use it as a verb. (18)

Besides nominalizing 'mana' in the Bible, Methodist missionaries reconfigured people's imaginations about the invisible world, placing Jehovah atop the pantheon of gods and displacing ancestral spirits into the realm of 'devils' and 'demons.' In doing so, they rendered the invisible sources of earthly power both more remote and potentially more dangerous. Missionaries, in short, reshaped ideas about the potential for effective human action, although some Fijian religious innovators resisted this move and attempted to rewrite Christian power relations in Fijian idioms (see e.g. Kaplan 1995). In the mid-nineteenth century, one man complained to the Rev. Joseph Waterhouse about the ruptures caused by Christianity, asking the missionary, 'Will you leave me without a god?' He lamented:
 Is this your religion of love? You talk of benevolence and of love.
 It is a veil with which you would conceal your cruelty. Missionary,
 you are cruel! You deprive us of all our gods; you take from us our
 best deities ... and you make us forlorn wanderers on earth without
 a solitary god to comfort us! (Quoted in Thornley 2002: 69)

Although the man's sorrow is deeply moving, his worst fears were never realized. Old gods and spirits still live in the Fijian religious universe, appearing in eerie stories, haunting shadowy places outside the village, and afflicting people with ill health, for example. His anxious sentiments of deprivation are still prominent in indigenous Fiji, however, as I will discuss in the next section.

I have argued that Fijian 'mana' is canonically a verb, but that it is now commonly used in its nominalized form, and that the use of 'mana' in the Fijian Bible was likely a factor in this shift. Such an argument is difficult to prove without a detailed history of the pragmatics of Bible usage in Fiji--of the ways indigenous Fijians read and quote the Bible, and the multiple uses to which sacred verse is put in private and public contexts. Suffice it to say that many Fijians read the Bible closely and are deeply familiar with many parts of it. However, for the purposes of this article, I now turn to a different aspect of the Fijian situation which illuminates the nominalization and substantivization of 'mana,' showing how discourse about diminution and loss has turned mana into a marker of social decline. In other words, Christian transformations of mana were not simply grammatical, nor simply a matter of substantivizing mana so that, as a thing rather than an action, it could then be lost. The transformations of mana were metonymic of wider political processes.


Keesing offered an argument about the social forces behind the substantivization of mana in Polynesian languages, writing that it was related to hereditary chieftainships' transformation 'into an aristocratic class' with a correlated 'creation of developed theologies ... [due to] the emergence of a class of theologians' (1984: 152, emphases deleted). In his model, meaning follows politics: Eastern Polynesian mana is a substance because those societies became aristocracies supporting theologians who were engaged in 'celebrating and rationalizing the chief's sanctity' (ibid.).

His claims are suggestive for Fiji, where, as many scholars have noted, British colonial policies froze dynamic interrelations of land ownership, kin group roles, and chiefly authority, creating a permanent elite chiefly class. As Nicholas Thomas has written, 'a general cultural potential for substantivization' exists, 'but the process of naming and reifying customs and beliefs takes place in a particularly marked and conspicuous fashion in the course of colonial history' (Thomas 1992: 65). If Keesing is right, then the substantivization of 'mana' in Fijian discourse might be driven, at least in part, by the British-led creation of an indigenous Fijian aristocracy, as well as British encouragement of large-scale Indian labour migration to the islands. (19)

This argument is incomplete, however, because it neglects the influences that came specifically from Christianity, as discussed in the preceding section. In both their Bible translations and in their own political reconfigurations, Methodist missionaries helped create new senses of power's distance from human action, developing a 'perpetual lament' about decline and loss in Fiji (Tomlinson 2004a).

Chiefs' authority is a focus of such anxieties. Ilaitia Tuwere comments that young indigenous Fijian men often lament, 'Ke ra vinaka walega na noda i liuliu (if only our leaders were good), referring to traditional leaders in general and implying that mana is slipping away from its source' (2002: 138). Similarly, Christina Toren remarks that in Gau Island:
 Today people say that a high chief's mana is not what it was, that
 this is because they are all Christians, and so the power of the
 ancestor gods has diminished because 'no one attends on them any
 more.' (Toren 1990: 102; see also Kelly 2005: 14; Toren 2004)

In 2003, I recorded one Kadavuan man's folkloric tale of how Ratu Sukuna, the late paramount chief and statesman, had bragged about his sau (spiritual power) to a Methodist minister. Ratu Sukuna had claimed that the falling rain was not making them wet because of his sau, to which the minister offered a challenge, saying, 'Right. Please take a step forward.' When he did so, Ratu Sukuna got wet. The storyteller explained, '... na Kalou e solia taucoko mai na mana, na sau.... Sa vadeitaki oya na sau kei na mana e jiko vei ira na tamata ni Kalou. E lailai jiko vei ira na turaga bale ni vanua o Viti,' meaning '... God gives all the mana, the sau.... It was confirmed then [in the story] that mana and sau is with the people of God. Less is with the chiefs of the land of Fiji.' The man who told the story was a Methodist catechist, so the narrative can be seen as his own claim to authority. However, as I argue in my full analysis of this story (Tomlinson n.d.), his claims would not convince many indigenous Fijians, for whom the effectiveness lost by chiefs is not necessarily inherited by other social groups.

A key dimension of chiefs' supposed loss of power is the loss of their ability to speak with automatic effectiveness. This is a transformation wrought at least partly by Methodist missionaries' introduction of a new language ideology, one that holds fundamentally effective speech to be the domain of Jehovah. An example that illuminates this transformation comes from an encounter in Rewa in 1842. The leading Rewan chief, the Roko Tui Dreketi, objected when two indigenous Christian teachers prepared to sail for Kadavu, which was under Rewa's command. Missionary Thomas Jaggar noted that the chief threatened the teachers, saying 'That if he [one of the teachers] persisted in remaining on board the canoe should not sail, and that if the other teacher was not fetched away quickly that he wd be killed.' Jaggar then described the teacher's response:
 The teacher replied 'You have said that I shall not go
 in this canoe therefore I go ashore, but that the lotu
 [Christianity] shall not reach Kandavoo [Kadavu] are your
 words only, the words of a chief but a man, the lotu is
 a thing of the True God and therefore it will spread to
 Kandavoo & every other land; no man can prevent the
 accomplishment of the words of God'. The chief and others
 with him at this were very angry. (Keesing-Styles and
 Keesing-Styles 1988: 88; emphases deleted)

In dismissing 'the words of a chief but a man,' the indigenous teacher was articulating a risky new configuration of speech and effectiveness, arguing that--contrary to traditional Fijian expectations--the chief's words did not inherently have effect simply because the chief had spoken them. Rather, only Jehovah, the Christian God, could speak with automatic effectiveness, and Jehovah's authorized speakers (missionaries, teachers, catechists) mediated divine power. (20)

Present-day laments about the loss of chiefly power sometimes focus on the physical size and strength of bodies. For example, Quain noted wryly that 'A generation past, chiefs could uproot great trees with their bare hands' (1948: 200). But ancestors generally, and not only chiefs, are portrayed as having been bigger and stronger than people living in the present. For example, during research in Kadavu I was told about the amazing feats of strength still evident in the architecture of Soso village, on the south coast. I heard that an earthen house foundation in Soso, which has large stones at its edges, was built by men using only coconut palm leaves as shovels; and each worker was said to have carried one of the massive stones, which could be six feet long. As another example, when an old burial ground on the island of Vitilevu was examined in the late 1980s, 'reports of "giant" skeletons were advanced as archaeological proof of the modern decline of Fijian physiognomy' (Becker 1995: 16).

Both individual bodies and society itself are described in terms of the loss of power, effectiveness, and organization. The claims are stereotypes, but they are firmly believed and they provoke considerable anxiety: kinship connections are forgotten, and proper roles neglected; land boundaries are blurred in people's memories, and land ownership itself has become threatened by the supposed rapacity of Indian citizens living in Fiji; people drink too much kava, and consequently fail to work diligently. In this regard, then, Hocart--on whom Keesing based the Fijian portion of his argument--got mana's situation backward when he compared it with the Pali term iddhi:
 ... iddhi is not a thing of to-day, but a thing
 of the past, at least in Ceylon. In the old days
 there were saints, and therefore iddhi; but not
 now. That shows that iddhi is dead and fossilized.
 Mana, on the other hand, is a living conception;
 you can meet any day men who possess supernatural
 powers; every great nobleman has it. (Hocart 1922: 140)

In fact, pace Hocart, Fijian 'mana' is often identified with actions in the past and thought to be attenuating and diminishing for people in the present. In this regard, ancestral spirits play key roles because, besides Jehovah, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, they are the actors who can work most effectively in the present. Ancestors' effectiveness is manifest in negative events such as people's sickness, failure to get married or have children, failure to prosper economically, and so forth. The malfeasance of ancestors is often described in terms of their 'cursing' people. Living humans do not have the power to fight these dangerous spirits alone, but they can and do engage in Christian rituals such as 'chain prayers' (masu sema) in which God is asked to negate the powers of the spirits.

In a chain prayer that I have analyzed previously (Tomlinson 2004b), I recorded five instances of the term 'mana' being used. (21) Twice, it was used in its nominalized and substantivized form in a prayer given by the catechist, who used it in parallel construction with 'sau.' In his prayer, the catechist spoke of the earthen house foundation 'ka koto kina na sau kei na mana' ('where sau and mana lie') and asked God 'me soli jiko na mana kei na sau' ('that mara and sau be given'). In two other instances, however, 'mana' was used as a verb by the minister who was conducting the chain prayer. In a speech between prayers, he expressed the hope 'me rawa ni na mana, dei kina, na cakacaka levu edatou sa mai qarava rawa, ena bogi edaidai' ('that the great work we have just completed tonight will be effective and permanent'), and in the prayer which completed the night's ritual, he requested of God, 'Ni vakamanamanataka na qaqa ni masu sa cabo oti' ('Please make the words of the prayers already offered mana'). But the minister also used 'mana' in its nominalized form when he prayed earlier, 'Tou sa vakararavi, ka vakanuinui kina nomuni veivota, nomuni mana, nomuni sau, kei na nomuni veivabulai' ('We depend on, and hope for your shares, your mana, your sau, and your salvation [of us]').

Evidently, nominalized and substantivized mana is a vital part of contemporary Fijian language and spiritual imaginations. For scholars, there are three interrelated challenges in retheorizing mana as suggested by the Fijian data: first, to recognize the term's grammatical role as a verb; second, to trace the ways it has become nominalized and substantivized through Christian projects of translation and colonial transformations of chiefly authority; and third, to pay close attention to the ways that mana can be understood primarily in terms of absence or cessation. The argument I have made in this third section is that Fijian mana is now configured negatively, in terms of loss.


'When the debates were resolved in favor of mana as a noun, labeling a diffuse spiritual energy or power,' Keesing wrote, 'it was more by virtue of rhetorical persuasivness and the sheer intelligibility of such an imagined medium of spiritual potency to European philosophical imagination than because of solid textual, liguistic, or ethographic evidence' (1984: 137). His argument was compelling, but as I have shown, his analysis was incomplete. Anthropologists did indeed generalize the Polynesian sense of mana too widely, including in Fiji; but many indigenous Fijians now speak of mana in a Polynesian vein. To trace the transformation, I have argued, scholars must pay attention to Christianity as an institutional force that created new senses of mana in multiple ways. In their Bible translations and their recasting of the invisible world which placed humans in a newly weakened position, the Wesyelan missionaries in Fiji both substantivized mana and raised the threatening possibility of its disappearance.


Fieldwork and archival research has been conducted with the support of an International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, and grants from the University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology, Bowdoin College, and the Monash University Faculty of Arts. I thank all of these institutions for their support. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2003 American Anthropological Association meetings and at seminars in 2005 and 2006 at the London School of Economics, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Sydney. I thank all of the audiences for their criticisms, and especially wish to acknowledge the help of Paul Geraghty, Trevor Stack, Matthew Engelke, Christina Toren, Allen Abramson, Michael Scott, Neil Maclean, and Shane Aporosa at key points in the paper's development. All errors are my own.


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Matt Tomlinson

Monash University


(1.) In this article, I focus on Fijian data. For other Oceanic languages, and more wide-ranging considerations, see especially Capell (1938); Durkheim (1915); Firth (1940); Handy (1927); Hogbin (1936); Keating (1998); Marett (1909); Shore (1989); and Valeri (1985), as well as the sources cited elsewhere in this paper.

(2.) It has a transitive form, manata, which Capell associates specifically with sickness: 'to be affected by, of a disease' (1991: 135).

(3.) See also Hocart (1929: 186); Miyazaki (2004); Sahlins (1985, 2004); Toren (2005: 276).

(4.) Kava (in Fijian, yaqona) is the name of a plant (Piper methysticum) and also the beverage made from it.

(5.) 'D' in Fijian orthography is pronounced/nd/; 'dina' and 'ndina' are the same word, and the former is the standard spelling.

(6.) E (in 'mana[,] e dina' is the third-person singular subject pronoun (Dixon 1988: 57). Carey's interlocutor was a man named Joeli Nan from Ono Island.

(7.) 'A mudou' (or 'a muduo') does not have a literal translation; see Capell (1991: 151), Hocart (1929:71 n. 13). On isevusevu, see also Amo (1985); Brison (2001); Miyazaki (2004).

(8.) 'It would probably be fair to say that the sacred is a species of the genus mana' (Mauss 1972:119).

(9.) This is my translation. The Fijian original is: 'na uludra li se domodra na noda gone turaga sa qai ka rerevaki sara meda bau tara yani, ka ni oya na itikotiko ni mana ka idabedabe ni san ni vanua' (Seruvakula 2000: 36).

(10.) From this point onward in the text, I put 'mana' in boldface (when within quotations) for the reader's convenience.

(11.) He did, however, mention the fact that 'Coastal, Christian Kwaio pull the rope on an outboard engine: if it doesn't start, it isn't [mana]' (1984: 149).

(12.) On the history of Bible translation in Fiji, see Clammer (1976); Geraghty (1989); Schutz (1972, 1985, 2004); Tippett (1947: 67-69); Thornley (2000, 2002, 2005); Tomlinson (2006).

(13.) All English-language Bible passages in this paper are from the King James Version. Fijian Bible citations come from Ai Vola Tabu, 1926. London: British and Foreign Bible Society.

(14.) Ai Tokani ni i Vola Tabu, 1984. Miami: Life Publishers International

(15.) Here, I do not hyphenate terms which are often hyphenated in the Bible, such as 'cakacaka-mana.'

(16.) The term can be used in non-Christian contexts, as shown in a recorded tale of the succession to the Verata chieftainship. In this narrative, the reigning chief tells his grandsons, 'I now hold before you a tabua (whalestooth) as my vosa-mana (word of mana) to you, After I have uttered my word I shall bury this tabua into the ground before you. You must know that this [isl my word of blessing to you' (English translation from Tuwere 1992: 14; original Fijian version in Rokowaqa 1926:61).

(17.) However, in reference to Lazarus' resurrection in John 12:17-18, the word 'miracle' is translated with one of the noun phrases incorporating 'mana,' ka-mana.

(18.) Mana also appears in The Book of Mormon to designate 'manna' in 1 Nephi 17:28 and Mosiah 7:19; see Ai Vola i Momani, 1980. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The translators of The Book of Mormon, like the Wesleyans, did not use 'mana' in places where it would have worked well, such as in 1 Nephi 9:6 ('for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words').

(19.) On colonial British policies and ongoing indigenous Fijian transformations, see especially Clammer (1973); France (1969); Howard (1991); Kaplan (1995, 1998, 2003, 2005); Kelly and Kaplan (1994, 2001); Lal (1992); Nayacakalou (1975); Norton (1977); Tomlinson (2002, n.d.).

(20.) Kaplan (1995) relates the history of a Fijian prophet who took the name 'Navosavakadua,' meaning 'he who speaks once [and is effective].' Although the term 'mana' was not part of his prophetic name, the concept underpins it.

(21.) On chain prayers, see also Newland (2004).
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