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The (Re-)Appropriation of Spirit Beings--Spirits of the Dead and Spirits of God in a Sepik Community.

'Wara i man!', (1) my Nyaura (West latmul) mother Lina explained when waves swept into our canoe and water started to rise around our feet. It was my first journey to my fieldsite (2) Timbunmeli village, situated at Lake Chambri in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Heavy wind had stirred up the water of the Chambri Lake to a white foaming sea. Lina was scared. The water, regardless of our efforts to scoop it out, threatened to sink the heavily loaded canoe. Lina started to pray and hit the sea with her rosary that she held in her right hand. 'Naughty! Enough!', she exclaimed.

In Timbunmeli spirits are part of people's lifeworld--their experienced reality. They dwell in people's surrounding, invisible to the human eye. Traditionally the Nyaura distinguish between ancestral clan spirits (wagen), spirits of the dead (undumbu) and spirits of the bush (miunjumbu) and water (wanjemook). Spirits are the source of people's well-being, power, and their support is crucial for material success, but they also bring sickness, misfortune and death and thus have to be treated with respect. If insulted by unobservant human behaviour, spirits may take revenge on the offender or her/his family. For example, a water-spirit may be angered by disrespectful behaviour, such as swearing, defecating or urinating in its area. When enraged, a wanjemook may send a thunderstorm or heavy wind and rain that not only threatens to destroy people's houses but also endangers those who are travelling in their canoes--like us upon my first journey to the village. While Lina did not know what had stirred up the waterspirit whose action threatened to capsize and sink our canoe, she tried to control it by praying to God--the most powerful being in Timbunmeli today.

While the Nyaura distinguish different spirit beings traditionally, new spirits were introduced to their lifeworld with the influence of Christianity--God, Satan, angels and saints. Interestingly, currently old and new spirit beings undergo a re-interpretation and (re-) appropriation process that merges them into one class of spirits--Nyaura spirits who are spirits of God. Spirits of the dead are nowadays called 'saints', 'angels', and 'souls'; spirits of the bush and water are called 'nature' that was created by God; and God is now understood to be the most powerful ancestral spirit in Nyaura cosmology. Following this reasoning, Lina tried to control the angry 'nature' by turning to God and we arrived soaked with water but safely in Timbunmeli.

One of the most influential studies of religious change in the anthropology of Melanesia is Joel Robbins' monograph 'Becoming Sinners' (2004). Robbins argues that the subjects of his study, the Urapmin of the Sandaun Province (formerly West Sepik), have adopted Christianity as a whole new culture. Robbins' monograph has to be seen in the context of a new interest in Christianity within Melanesian anthropology (e.g., Barker 1992; Eriksen 2008; Hess 2006; Jebens 2005; Mosko 2001; Stewart and Strathern 1997). Whereas Robbins argues for a radical change, others, similar to myself (Falck 2016), have argued for continuity within processes of religious change (e.g., Lawrence 1964; Macdonald 2014; Mosko 2010; Otto and Borsboom 1997; Reithofer 2006; Telban 2017; Van Heekeren 2004; Wood 2011).

According to Robbins, the Urapmin have undergone a self-inflicted rapid and radical cultural change. Drawing on Marshall Sahlins' structural history (e.g., Sahlins 1981, 1985, 1992), (3) Robbins (2004:10, 2005) differentiates between three different models of change: in the model of assimilation people integrate new circumstances into their own cultural categories. Their own categories may be expanded without the relations between them changing. In the model of transformation (or transformative reproduction), the relations between the categories change as a result of the attempted assimilation of new happenings. In the third model, the one of adoption, which, according to Robbins, corresponds to the Urapmin case, 'people take on an entirely new culture on its own terms, forgoing any conscious effort to work its elements into the categories of their traditional understandings' (ibid.). However, I see the need to add a fourth model to Robbins' theory of change, which I shall call the model of re-appropriation. Central to this model is a re-orientation towards the past and a re-affirmation of local categories after a period of experimentation with new categories.

The model of re-appropriation captures dynamics that take place after attempts of rapid and radical change have failed. It may contain aspects of the models of assimilation and transformation that may lead to an expansion of categories or to an alteration of the way categories relate to each other. I suggest that cultural change needs to be thought of as a longer process than suggested by Robbins' model of adoption and that it may change its direction over time.

Essential to Robbins' model of change is Sahlins' notion of humiliation as a driving factor for change (Sahlins 1992). Sahlins has described humiliation as disgrace resulting from the depreciation of 'all indigenous senses of worth, both the people's self-worth and the value of their objects' (ibid.:24). Robbins developed Sahlins' notion further by suggesting 'that the initial humiliation must take place in traditional terms' (ibid.:9). In my investigation of religious change in Timbunnmeli, I pick up on Robbins' suggestion and take the notion of 'humiliation' as a broad metaphor for a social and psychological state resulting from the realization of being overpowered by Western superiority and disempowered in relations with other Sepik societies. With the encounter with Whites a process set in that started to change relations at the middle Sepik (see Gewertz 1983)--relations that the Iatmul had with others, but also with themselves and their cultural items.

However, while Robbins argues that a notion of humiliation has led the Urapmin to abandon their culture and take on an entirely new one, I have found a different outcome in my fieldsite. Initially, the Nyaura sought to abandon their own spirits in light of changes in the regional political-economic system brought about by the encounter with white people and due to the devaluation of their spirits by the influence of the Catholic mission. However, when conversion did not bring about a betterment of their living situation as initially hoped, a notion of humiliation returned that leads the Nyaura to re-appropriate their old spirits. Under the influence of a charismatic movement, they discovered that God and His spirits were not new and foreign but old and familiar spirits clothed with new names.

In the following, I will introduce the nature of Timbunmeli's lifeworld. Although a lot has changed in Timbunmeli's lifeworld, underlying cultural premises about what kind of entities exist and how they relate to each other apparently have shown a strong resilience to change. These ontological premises are an intimate connection between spirits, humans, and the world; the possibility to change material appearances; as well as the immanence of the spirit sphere as part of people's lifeworld (see Falck 2016 for a detailed discussion). In the second section I show how the encounter between Whites and Iatmul societies might have brought about a feeling of inferiority in the 'self-assertive' society (Bateson 1958[1936]: 124ff.). Third, I present the interaction of Nyaura cosmology with Christian theology. Whereas the direct effect of missionization was a devaluation of the Nyaura spirit world, currently a revaluation process is taking place. I suggest that the way people appropriated Catholicism and especially the Catholic charismatic movement can be read as a struggle to regain their former self-worth. Fourth, I show how spirit beings presently undergo a reinterpretation in Timbunmeli--framed in Christian terms but based on ontological principles of the Nyaura lifeworld. During the process of missionization, people had consciously distanced themselves from their spirits after being convinced that they were evil. But those spirits persisted to be present in people's lifeworld and connected with their existence and thus have contributed to people now re-appropriating them as a legitimate force in their life-world. This process, I argue, was triggered by a charismatic movement that offered people a direct experience of the spiritual other. I will present a process that moves from the appropriation of Christian spirit beings to the re-assertion of Nyaura spirits as the powerful source of everything that is.


Timbunmeli village is situated on a hill at the southern end of Lake Chambri at the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Timbunmeli's approximately 650 inhabitants are part of the river people commonly referred to as the Iatmul in Anthropology. The term Iatmul is not a self-designated name, but was introduced by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson who in the 1920s and 1930s conducted research among communities who came to be known as the Central and East Iatmul. (4) Iatmul groups see themselves as being related in language, culture and descent, and trace their origin back to a mythical place called Mavimbit, situated in the Sepik plains. However, the West Iatmul's self-designated name is Nyaura--referring back to the Nyaura clan that founded their first village Nyaurangei (the place of the Nyaura). Nyaurangei split into two villages--Kandingei and Takengei--from where more Nyaura villages were founded. Men from Kandingei moved out to Timbunmeli island and founded a new Nyaura village there during the first half of the 20th century (Falck 2016; Gewertz 1983).

Water, wind and ground are the elements from which the Nyaura lifeworld was created. At the beginning of the Nyaura cosmos there was only water. Then a wind stirred up the primordial sea and slowly ground came up--kavak. (5) It was Kavakmeli, a crocodile. This primordial being split and from its body sky and ground came into existence (Wassmann 1988:12). (6)

From a hole in the ground near Mavimbit ancestral beings appeared. Those ancestral beings (kiparl, kipdu, kiptaugwa) started to wander the ground, making it firm and solid with their footfalls. They migrated into the world, formed the landscape, created villages and descendants, and named everything that exists--plants and trees, animals, things, natural phenomena and spirits (for Iatmul creation myths see also e.g., Bateson 1932:404-5; Moutu 2013:161; Silverman 2001:27; Stanek 1983:200-2; Wassmann 1982:65, 1988:12, 1990:24, 1991:50). When they died, their bodies became ground again and some turned into landscape features, like stones and mountains (see also Stanek 1983:251, 253; Wassmann 1991:85-6). Also human bodies are conceptually related to ground--it was from ground that their ancestors came and it is to ground that their bodies will return after death.

While human bodily matter conceptually relates to the materiality of the visible world, human spiritual matter, called kaik, relates to a different sphere of peoples' lifeworld called undumbunge, the place of the dead. Its materiality is conceptualized as being invisible and airy. It is from undumbunge that life--in the form of a person's lifespirit (kaik)--comes as a breath of wind that enters the womb of a conceiving mother and it is to that place that it--in the form of a spirit of the dead (undumbu)--returns as a last breath that a dying persons exhales. Nowadays the place of the dead is not only called undumbunge, but also 'heaven' or 'paradise'. It is a place of happiness and peace.

Spirits dwell in an invisible realm of Timbunmeli's lifeworld and everything that exists in the Nyaura cosmos relates to it. Spirits are vital for people's well-being, power and material success. If people's relationship with the invisible gets disturbed, misfortune, sickness, death or environmental destruction may be the consequence. Human existence in Timbunmeli is conditioned by an intimate connection with the invisible--life without it is impossible.

With that, the Nyaura cosmology conforms to Miller's characterization of 'an underlying principle to be found in most religions', namely that: 'materiality represents the merely apparent, behind which lies that which is real' (Miller 2005:1). Bateson (1958[1936]:230) has noted: 'It is said secretly that men, pigs, trees, grass--all the objects in the world--are only patterns of waves.' Silverman (2001:22) states that spirits in Tambunum (East Iatmul) inhabit a concealed world. Humans would live on the surface of reality. Also Harrison (1990:55), mentions the 'idea of two "paths", or basic orders of being' among the neighbouring Manambu: 'the world of outward, phenomenal appearances in which ordinary men and women live, and the hidden but more "real" order peopled by spirits and ghosts'. Bateson (1958[1936]:237), too, noted the idea of different realms of existence that are called 'iamba' in the Iatmul language--roads. He says:
'I was told that human beings, wagan [wagen] kurgwa (witches) and
windjimbu [miunjumbu] (wood spirits), have all of them separate
'roads'. But some informants were inclined to think that there were
only two 'roads', that of human beings and that of spirits; others
again discriminated three roads, that of wagan and kurgwa, that of
windjimbu, and that of human beings. I was told in pidgin English that
wagan were 'behind true', i.e. that though invisible they were yet
present in some mysterious way which we might express by reference to
the 'fourth dimension' or to another 'plane of existence'. The word
iamba (road), as applied to these spiritual beings seemed, although the
roads were described as means of instantaneous transport, to be also an
equivalent of 'planes of existence' (underlining added to mark Iatmul

The different roads of humans and spirits occupy the same existential space of Timbunmeli's lifeworld and are not exclusive domains--they are interconnected and can be bridged. The kaik of a person may leave its body at night and enter the sphere of spirits, experienced by humans as dreams. It is then able to communicate with dead relatives or nowadays biblical figures. Likewise, spirits may enter the visible sphere by slipping into a material form, like bodies of humans or animals, carvings, stones or trees. When a spirit slips into a human body, the human kaik is overpowered by the entering spirit and human consciousness disappears. It is not the person who is acting, but the spirit possessing it. Similarly, things change their beingness when enlivened by a spirit. When a thing is used by a spirit in Timbunmeli, it becomes that respective being; without the spirit using it, it is just an empty hull.

Since the connection to the invisible is crucial for people's lives, people have developed different techniques to communicate with invisible beings and materialize their powers. Traditionally, magical spells and offerings were means to communicate with and influence spirits. Today, also charismatic prayer sessions containing spirit possessions and the mobile phone (see Falck 2016) are means of connecting to the invisible spirit realm.

Each clan has a powerful 'headspirit' (het spirit, wagen) that has subordinated spirits under it. Until recently, people had an active relationship with wagen spirits. They were called upon by knowledgeable men, healers and sorcerers to get assistance in times of rituals, fights, illness and revenge (see also Spearrit 1982:110; Wassmann 1982:48-50, 1991:40-2 about wagen cult (wagen mbangu) in Kandingei, and Bateson 1958[1936]: 136-8 for East Iatmul). Their place was the men's house. There they were bound by magical spells to house posts and other carvings. When activated through spells, they could slip into human bodies to talk to people.

When telling me about the usefulness that wagen had for their fathers, Timothy said: 'Wagen are a good thing.' Stephen tuned in: 'It is like a wireless or something like that. Just like the mobile phone now.' If one wanted to know how family members in other places were doing, one just had to ask a yanonyang (shaman) who could access a wagen. He could have told them how their family was doing.

Today people feel that their access to wagen has become difficult. Whereas wagen still exist in the Nyaura cosmos, people have lost their knowledge about how to safely access, activate and control them. While wagen spirits are still part of the Nyaura's lifeworld, people cannot actively engage with them anymore without being at risk of severe consequences. Attempts to re-engage with wagen have often led to sickness and death since men do not know the correct words and names that have to be used.

Whereas wagen spirits are nowadays withdrawn from people's daily lives, spirits of the dead (undumbu) are most present. To a certain extent we can say that they have stepped into the void that the wagen have left. Currently, people are very interested in getting access to what they call 'the road of the dead' (rot bilong indaiman). Thereby, the road of the dead does not only refer to a different realm of existence, but, as Bateson has mentioned, also to 'means of instantaneous transport' on which the living and dead can not only exchange messages, but on which the dead could also deliver help (helpim) to the living. Although spirits of the dead have communicated with the living also in the past, via bamboo and canoe divinations, (8) today they also slip into human bodies and thus offer a direct bodily experience with the spiritual. Today people ask spirits of the dead during spirit possessions for guidance and help--sometimes more often than once a week (see Falck 2016). Whereas the dead seem to have always had an important part in people's lives, what has changed in current practices is that today the recently deceased have acquired a new importance while the access to wagen has become difficult. This process has to be understood in the context of cultural loss and the influence of a charismatic movement, which I will present in the following.


Today Timbunmeli is a Christian community--with mainly Catholics, but also AOG and a few SDA and SSEC followers. (9) Although the Catholic mission had already started to work in the Sepik region in the 19th century, the mission work in Timbunmeli became strong only during the 1980s. In 1988 a new church building was inaugurated and, as the pastoral worker Iven remembers the important day for the village's history, people received the three sacraments of baptism, confession and marriage on that day.

With the conversion to Christianity profound changes took place. New spirits were added to people's cosmology--God, angels and saints. They were perceived as being more powerful than local spirits and furthermore they were said to be good spirits, while people's own spirits, they learned, were evil spirits that tricked them into sinful behaviour. To change, people abandoned their former practices and started to pray to God and His spirits for help and support.

The idea of receiving assistance from the spirit world is nothing new, but is now mainly attributed to the spirits of the dead and God. In former times, people could ask different sorts of spirits (wagen, undumbu, wanjemook, and miunjumbu) for their help and support and connect with the spirit world via visions and dreams, rituals, chants and seances. Also, the idea of punishment for wrong doings or ill behaviour from the world of the spirits is in line with biblical stories about God's revenge for human disobedience. The concept of nglambi describes a baleful condition of guilt that if not counteracted with an offering to spirits, will take a fatal end in illness and eventually death. Today, misfortune, illness and death are also interpreted as punishments for sinful behaviour from God. Moreover, the living condition of people today is considered to be a punishment for the fall of mankind. God has created men from the soil of the ground to live in paradise and look after his creation. But Adam and Eve (people's ancestors) did not follow God's instructions and sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, meaning having sexual intercourse, and with that brought about the fall that now separates people from the good life--the original sin, like nglambi, hovers over their lives. This becomes especially obvious in the statement of the local church leader, who said: 'Sin is hiding the road. [...]. If we would be united, became one with God, straighten ourselves, change our ways--then the missionaries would open the road, and we would live alike.'

I suggest that a motivation for people to take on the new religion was a feeling of inferiority or 'humiliation' in the light of supposedly more powerful God and His followers. But why, one could ask, did the main conversion to Catholicism only happen in the late 1980s and mid 1990s? Missionization had already begun in the 1920s (1) and the mission station on Chambri Island had already been built in 1957. In the 1960s some people from Timbunmeli already converted to Catholicism, but the mission work did not become strong until the 1980s. I suggest that the sense of inferiority that led the Nyaura in Timbunmeli to become increasingly interested in the Christian God, evolved in a context of other changes that impacted on the Iatmul's position as the 'princes of the Sepik' (Gewertz 1983:124). I further suggest that we also may have to take the re-settlement of the Nyaura to Timbunmeli island into account for understanding religious change.

It is possible that strict rules and intricate structures that held the complex religious system of the Nyaura together already underwent a slackening during the first half of the 20th century when some men moved from Kandingei to Timbunmeli Island to found a new village. Only men from some of Kandingei's clans resettled to Timbunmeli--it is likely that already here some of the knowledge, practices and rules still in place in Kandingei got lost in the transition. One example of change is the complex systems of totemic names, which is connected to ownership of land and water resources in Kandingei, but has lost its central significance in Timbunmeli. While totemic names are still given to the living, they are not connected to land on Timbunmeli itself, where land and water resources are available in abundance. Today, some children do not have a totemic name and their fathers are unsure about the repertoire of names they are supposed to choose their children's names from (see Falck 2016).

However, I am not suggesting that the Nyaura already then had consciously distanced themselves from former practices. On the contrary, from conversations with my interlocutors I have the impression that much had been done to establish a strict order in Timbunmeli based on the model of Kandingei. Often men have told me how their fathers and grandfathers worked hard to drain the swampy ground after they arrived on Timbunmeli to make it inhabitable. While the village was yet small, two men's houses (Timbumbi [nyame moiety], Kanjimbk [nyoui moiety]) were built and approximately during the 1950s the first initiation took place. Transgressions of customary rules were punished and the power of the wagen was feared. Deborah Gewertz (1983:141) mentions that the secluded location of the Chambri Lake was attractive to the Iatmul settlers:
'If life in the lake region initially appealed to the Iatmul as an
escape from Japanese-Allied crossfire, after the war it became a means
of remaining insulated from the new Australian administration. The
Iatmul and Chambri who lived there [islands in the Chambri Lake] were
not as closely observed as were their river-dwelling counterparts
(i.e., not until St. Mary's Mission was built on Chambri Island in
1957). Thus, they could hold their ceremonies in peace: scarifying,
initiating, divorcing, practicing polygyny and, sometimes, allowing
their young men to earn the right to wear black paint in the
traditional manner--through the taking of a head, or through the ritual
slaughter of an infant acquired from neighbouring people.'

However, by the late 1950s the influence of the colonial administration and mission was also felt in Lake Chambri. Fighting and head-hunting had already been forbidden since the 1920s (see also Wassmann 1982:50) and was slowly abandoned. Only their grandfathers, men told me, had taken part in the prestigious head-hunting raids. That head-hunting had been an important cultural practice is stated by Bateson (1958[1936]: 140-1): '[...] we can clearly see the general position of head-hunting as the main source of pride of the village' (ibid.:141).

The Iatmul, whose raids had been feared by others, had to cope with this change in their political-religious domain. Simultaneously, the regional exchange system, in which Iatmul hegemony prevailed, had started to change. As Gewertz (1983:37-40, 104, 106) described, the Iatmul were not only military dominant, but had also functioned as middle men in the regional barter market system that had evolved from trading partnerships under Iatmul influence. While the Chambri were producers of specialized commodities such as mosquito bags and stone tools (see also Garnier 2015:79), the Sawos produced sago but also acquired feathers and shell valuables through inland routes from their producers downriver. The Iatmul managed to become central in the regional trading network by trading the shell valuables that they acquired from the Sawos to the Chambri from which they acquired mosquito bags and stone tools:
'The Iatmul were entrepreneurial geniuses, well-accustomed to
transforming their advantageous geographic position into military and
economic supremacy, partially by articulating Chambri commodities with
Sawos valuables. Their position on the Sepik River allowed them to
continue in this entrepreneurial role after the European intrusion, as
missionaries, patrol officers and explorers willingly provided them
with goods in return for safe passage (Gewertz 1983:115).'

But with the introduction of cotton and nylon mosquito nets as well as steel by the Europeans, the items that the Chambri produced became obsolete. Initially the Iatmul, due to the location of their villages along the river, had a better access to European goods and could retain their central function in local barter markets. However, as Gewertz describes, soon communities such as the Chambri and Garamambu started to migrate out and sell their labour to Whites. Also, the Chambri started to sell artefacts and crocodile skin to Europeans. They had their own access to European commodities and money now (ibid..115, 131, 154, 190). Gewertz writes about the Chambri: 'They thereby (by adopting a pattern of circular migration) acquired from Europeans what they had heretofore acquired from the Iatmul--the valuables necessary to pay for prestige, and, also necessary to pay taxes' (ibid.:115). We can assume a shift in power relations--the Iatmul lost their hegemony, not only slowly in access to European goods, but also in military power due to the pacification of the region and the overpowerment by Japanese and Allied military forces during WW2, (11) as well as in spiritual power due to the devaluation of their spirits and religion by the influence of the mission.

We know that the Sepik River area is best understood as a regional political-economic system (Gewertz 1983; see also Harrison 1990:18-24) and can also be considered as a cultural area in which communities have always influenced each other (Mead 1978). Along vast trading relations people exchanged next to material items, such as mosquito bags, stone tools, tobacco, shells, sago, fish, etc., also non-material culture such as ritual, magic, totems, myths. Thus, we can assume that Sepik cultures have always influenced each other's cultural repertoire. We also know that Iatmul societies are known for their name disputes (e.g. Bateson 1958[1936]; Silverman 2001; Stanek 1983; Wassmann 1982, 1991) in which the totemic repertoire of clans was challenged. We can assume that the Iatmul were used to incorporating new cultural items into their own cosmology and adapting it. In fact, the adaptability and readiness to appropriate new things has been commented on before (Mead 2002[1938]:21; Silverman 2001:22). However, when we look at the literature we find that the Iatmul were described as being dominant in their relations with other Sepik societies (Gewertz 1983, Gewertz and Errington 1991:3). Also, their cultural items were perceived as being superior by others, and the Iatmul perceived themselves as being superior (e.g., Gewertz 1983: 8, 110; Mead 1978: 73; Metraux 1975:202, 1978:47). Harrison (1990:20) states that the Manambu imported many non-material cultural items from the West Iatmul, who were perceived as being especially powerful.

I suggest that we can assume a shift of the Iatmul self-perception with the arrival of white people--who were perceived as being more powerful (see also Silverman 2001:23-4, 2005:87). In here, we can find a case of 'humiliation' as argued for by Robbins in the Urapmin case. While the Urapmin 'understood themselves to be important players in a regional ritual system' (Robbins 2004:15), the Nyaura understood themselves as being superior in the regional system at the Sepik. When this system changed under the influence of Western intrusion, the Nyaura superiority changed into inferiority in light of the perceived superiority of white people.


In an article, Sahlins (1992:24) describes the driving motor for processes of change as being the stage of humiliation or disgrace that people feel in the face of a supposedly superior foreign culture:
'To "modernize," the people must first learn to hate what they already
have, what they have always considered their well-being. Beyond that,
they have to despise what they are, to hold their own existence in
contempt--and want, then, to be someone else.'

Others (e.g., Mead 1978, Telban 1997a:324nl0, 1997b:26, 2009; Tuzin 1997) have described the Christian mission's initialization of the public display and/or abandonment of secret men's cult regalia in the Sepik region and with that their disempowerment in the face of a new deity and in the eyes of everyone. In Timbunmeli, people themselves took part in the devaluation of their fathers' practices after being convinced that their spirits were evil and that Christian practices were more powerful and successful than their own. Timbunmeli's current leaders actively initiated processes of change by taking on a new religion and discarding their old practices and beliefs. As young men, the current generation of male leaders distanced themselves from their fathers' practices that aimed at communicating with ancestral spirits and they turned to the Catholic mission instead. As a result, the older generation died without passing on their knowledge about how to control their clan spirits to them and the ability to safely access them got lost.

Some of the secret shrines were sold to artefact buyers and tourists, others destroyed. One man told me how he, as a young man who had joined the mission work, went into a men's house (geggo) and destroyed a carving that represented one of his clan spirits. He wanted to prove to his father that the Christian God was much stronger than the 'false God' (god giaman, wagen) of his father. He ascribed the reluctance of his father to share secret mythological knowledge with him to this incident and his involvement with the Catholic mission.

The lack of interest to learn from the elders has resulted in an abandonment of male initiation and other rituals contributing to the loss of secret knowledge. The last male initiation took place in the 1980s and the last men's house fell apart in the 1990s. Today men in Timbunmeli are no longer able to activate and control the spirits necessary for building and inaugurating a men's house, let alone carrying out an initiation ceremony. Every now and then, I heard talk about men's intention to build a new geggo, but since no one really knows anymore how to look after the powerful spirits, men are afraid that mistakes might lead to death. Therefore, it is planned to involve the parish priest in the opening of the new men's house--he would be asked to bless it and with that provide protection from spirits that men do not know to handle anymore. The new geggo would not contain any kastom (ancestral custom or law that contains spiritual agency). It would only be kalsa (culture)--without the involvement of magic and ancestral spirits, but with the involvement of prayers and the blessing by the parish priest. The initiation ceremony, too, would be accompanied by the blessing of the church and the marks of the crocodile that decorate the skin of initiated men would only be a sign of upholding one's kalsa. (12)

As Sahlins (1992:24) has argued, 'humiliation is double-edged'--it can lead to cultural self-consciousness and the re-invention of culture: 'The people have discovered they have their own "culture." Before they were just living it. Now their "culture" is a conscious and articulate value. Something to be defended and, if necessary, reinvented' (ibid.:24-5). In Timbunmeli not only cultural self-consciousness and a reification of culture is prevalent, but as we will see later, currently also a re-appropriation process is taking place propelled again, I would argue, by a notion of 'humiliation' due to disillusionment. Although Timbunmeli men say that in former times, ancestral spirits (wagen) were often used to bring harm to others and are identified with a time of wars, head-hunting, and sorcery threats, they nevertheless regret that they are left without the ability to access them. Those spirits gave strength and power to men and communities and people believe that their forefathers were more powerful than they are today. Often I would hear men say that their fathers and forefathers were powerful men, Gods of the ground (god bilong ground), whereas the current generation would live ignorantly (stap longlong). Leslie, remembering his father Kaiban, said: L: My father, I use to say, he was a God of the ground. Everything he said would come up. My father had that kind of wisdom [save]. [...].
I: He was a man of the kastom.

L: He was a man of the kastom.

I: Was he man of the church, too?

L: Oh, the church, no. His belief was, his belief was of all sorts of
things. And he said 'Who are you? I, too, I am God.' He had a big
wisdom. He had a great power. [...] I do not know what kind of thoughts
my father had and he did not pass all of this on. [...]. We did not
want to, or it was something that belonged to God, or. I do not know.
They were the Gods of before [the knowledgeable men]. The God that we
are looking for now [the Christian God], he is hiding. He is on the
ground, it was these people, ya. They had the knowledge [save] to break
the ground, and go, go, go, go [in it] and only the head would be
visible. They had the knowledge to break a tree and go inside and stay
there. You would not be able to see them. [...]. They held the power to
hide. And, you see, he [Kaiban] had all this kind of power.

Although people had actively distanced themselves from the practices of the past, today the notion arises that they might have lost more than they have gained by doing away with their secret knowledge and practices, leaving them powerless and in a state of decay. The notion of 'humiliation' that has led the Nyaura to distance themselves from their past, has returned with people realizing that the desired development and betterment of their living conditions did not occur after they had changed their practices and denomination.

Although people know that other countries do have an advanced economy, technology and better functioning political systems, inequality between Westerners and Papua New Guineans is not attributed to unequal power relations in the world system alone, but is tangled up with moral and racial connotations that often make people perceive Whites as being superior (see also Bashkow 2006; Lattas 1998). People say that they are sinners, they are not unified, they do not listen to authorities, and they do not master their instincts and desires. If they would change their behaviour, change would come upon them.

However, while listening to the priests' sermons or reading the bible, people found similarities between bible stories and their own myths and integrated them coherently: The wind that stirred up the primordial sea in the Nyaura creation myth is considered to be the breath or wind (kundimuk) of God who used magical spells (sibbukundi) to create the ground. Today God is referred to with the local term 'Kavak'--in reference to the mythical being Kavakmeli from whose body sky and ground came into being. If thunder and lightning brightens the sky, it is God who is demonstrating His presence; when an earthquake shakes the ground, it is God who is moving. The first ancestors of humankind are called Adam and Eve. While Timbunmeli's oral history has the first beings originate from the ground, also God formed Adam from the ground that He created (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). Like the Christian God blew the 'breath of life' into Adam's nostrils (Genesis 2:7), the Nyaura believe that a person receives her/his lifespirit, the kaik, from God as a breath of wind. The kaik of each person is understood as a part of the divine and the divine as part of each living person (Falck 2016:139-41). After death, God takes the lifespirit back to stay with Him in heaven. However, while Christian theology understands heaven as an abstract, transcendental space that is removed from the human world, in Timbunmeli heaven is understood to be a place on earth. It is conceptualized as an invisible place that is part of the same existential space that humans inhabit and whose beings are intimately connected with each other. People have appropriated Catholicism into their local cosmology, in which spirits have always played a central role.

In prehistoric times, the middle Sepik region was covered by an inland sea (Swadling 1990, 1997); it is likely that the aquatic environment has influenced the local creation story. However, we cannot eliminate the possibility that the local creation story may also have been influenced by that of the Christian Genesis and because of that bears similarities--after all the Society of the Divine Word started to work in the Sepik area already in the mid-1890s (13) and had by 1913 established a mission station in Marienberg, by 1932 in Timbunke, and by 1957 the St Mary's Mission Station on Chambri Island had been built (Garrett 1992; Gewertz 1983; Huber 1987, 1990; Peltier et al. 2015). Contacts between Iatmul and Europeans already took place in the mid-1880s. In 1885, Otto Finsch travelled 50 km upriver on the steamer Samoa. In 1886, the steamship Ottilie entered the Sepik as far as the West Iatmul village of Japandai (Sapandei) and its launch reached as far as 550 km upriver. In 1887, the vessel Samoa again, carrying also two missionaries of the Rhenish Missionary Society, journeyed upriver and had contact with the West Iatmul villages Yensemangua, Korogo, Sapanaut and Yamanambu (Claas and Roscoe 2009:333-4; Schindlbeck 2015:110). Claas and Roscoe (2009:337) state:
'In 1886 and 1887, Europeans made at least four journeys far up the
river and back, while three of them, along with 20 other foreigners,
spent over three months in the interior. When all was done, in fact,
some 40 Sepik villages and many more than 3000 villagers had
encountered and engaged Europeans for the first time.'

Later more expeditions followed, among them the Hamburger Sudsee-Expedition 1908-1910 that travelled 436 km up the Sepik in 1909 and the Kaiserin-Augusta-Fluss-Expedition 1912-1913 (Adolf Roesicke and Richard Thurnwald were part of this expedition) that also entered the Chambri Lake.' Then, the ethnographer Adolf Roesicke spent a prolonged time in Nyaura territory (Claas and Roscoe 2009; Peltier et al. 2015; Schindl-beck 2015).

However, while one might wonder whether the local creation story has been influenced by the biblical genesis, people in Timbunmeli see it differently. Recognizing similarities in the traditions of the Catholic Church with their own, some people suspect that the Catholic faith really is something local. They share the idea that in the past missionaries have taken something meaningful from them, confused them with metaphorical messages and stories, and now hold secrets to the truth hidden from them (see also Lattas 1998; Lawrence 1964). The hidden truth is suspected to contain secret knowledge about ways towards a better life, among them information about how to receive money from the dead.

People started to doubt whether their former practices really were wrong and whether their local spirits really were evil--after all they had helped and supported their forefathers and gave strength to men and their communities.

In September 2013 two leaders of the Catholic Chambri Lake parish came to Timbunmeli to run a workshop to strengthen the Catholic belief. Bernard, a man from Aibom, and Jeffrey, a man from Chambri, had received training from the Catholic Church to run the workshop in the Chambri Lake communities. Male leaders, also from Timbunmeli's neighbouring communities Mali, Changriman and Paliagwi, as well as women from Timbunmeli community attended the workshop that was held in Timbunmeli's Elementary Class room. On the second day, the topic of magic and sorcery (15) was addressed. Bernard asked whether people in Timbunmeli thought that black magic had its good side. The workshop participants seemed a bit hesitant to reply to the question so Bernard raised it again. Then participants started to come up with examples that showed the benefit of magic. Rain magic that involved spirits now called nature, was given as an example. Bernard interrupted: 'It is not good. Because it does not call the name of Christ.' Rex, a Timbunmeli man, replied: 'But God is present in the nature? Rain magic is working.' Bernard: 'If it [magic] does not involve the name 'Jesus', it is wrong. You have to integrate God. You have to pray first, and then you can turn back to the kastom.' Rex: 'But maybe God is present in the nature and our dialect [language] can touch Him when we do sibbukundi.' Nikki, the Catholic Church's KST (Kommuniti Stia Tim = Community Steering Team) chairman of Timbunmeli, jumped in saying: 'God is present in the nature! Because if not, how would God have been here when there was no Christianity yet? The nature is His blessing to us! Everything [that He created] is good.' While Bernard tried to deliver what he had been taught by the mission, the leaders in Timbunmeli did not agree. Bernard said that he understood that this part of the workshop would be hard for many because it meant that one had to give up one's kastom. Nikki stood up again and said into the room that he found what he had heard very difficult. He had been brought up with the kastom. It was in him. If one would demand from him to get rid of it, he would find it hard, 'because I would have to get rid of a part that is in me.' In a break that had followed the discussion, I stood together with Nikki and Rex outside of the Elementary Class room. Nikki, being clearly upset, said about the lecture he had received:
'It is fighting in my stomach. Because I grew up with the kastom and I
believe that it is a good thing. It can help us! God made
everything--how can this something be wrong? God was already here when
our ancestors lived and they had not received the talk of God yet
[meaning the mission had not arrived yet].'

Also Rex said that everything was created by God and with that also their kastom. But people should only use it in a good way. He, too, did not agree. After the workshop was over, men still talked about what they had been told and how they did not agree with it. The next day, Sunday, I was sitting with three men from Timbunmeli, Jack, Timothy and Stephen, in front of the village's church building, talking about the workshop and waiting for the church service to begin. The men believed that their kastom had its good sides; that wagen and spirits of the water and bush were good and had helped people; what was good, should be kept, and that what was bad, such as making others sick and kill them, should be abandoned. Stephen, one of the pastoral workers said: 'The spirits are nature. God created nature and He gave this something to us.' God had also created the Chambri Lake for people to use and live from. The men looked at the lake. It had looked different in former times, Stephen said. Timothy and Jack filled in that all sorts of birds, colourful waterlilies, and grass-islands had pleased one's eyes then. Everything had looked nice. Not anymore. Answering my question what the men thought about the reasons for this change, Stephen answered: 'I find that all sorts of new fish are here now and they destroy everything. And also the ground is getting short now. Maybe we did not use everything that God gave us in the right way and now He sent this change to come to us.' Jack added: 'Like a sort of punishment.'

The men were confused and dissatisfied with Bernard's answers and teaching. They wanted to ask the parish priest, who would give a sermon on that day. But when the pastoral worker Iven raised the questions that had led to a discussion with Bernard the previous day, the men received the same answers from their parish priest. Iven asked: 'If I use magical spells (singsing long kawawal (16)) to get water and rain to come, is it a blessing of God or not?' After having asked the parishioners what they thought and who collectively answered with 'no', the priest answered that this would be a heathen thing to do. People should not do that. The evil spirit (spirit nogut) had a big power, too, and could bring rain. He went on (paraphrased):
'You should not follow the bad spirits [spirit nogut] whom the
ancestors followed before. God made all the spirits, but some turned
away from God and they are destroying us [wok long bagarapim mipela].
They do not want us to get the good things that they have already lost.
If you talk to God, He can make it [bring water and rain]. You cannot
use magic.'

The priest went on with giving an example from the bible in which Jesus drove out a devil from a man (Mark 1:21-26, Luke 4:31-35). The evil spirit told Jesus to let him alone and asked him whether he came to destroy him. But Jesus answered: 'Be quiet!', and the evil spirit left the man's body. 'If you are with Jesus, you are not afraid of the spirits of before', the priest said. Those who believed in spirits of the bush and water and other spirits of before and believed that they could send sickness, those would not truly believe in God. People should not use magic. They could write an intention letter (intention leta) to God, they could give an offering (ofa) to God--there were different prayers that they could pray, there were many different ways to receive God's help. 'You cannot use the things that the ancestors used. We follow the wisdom (save) of God. We read the bible', he finished.

No one dared to start a discussion with the priest and his answers received no resistance. But people were not convinced--for them their former practices and beliefs were right. This notion is supported by a charismatic movement that had started to influence religious life in Timbunmeli during the 1990s. At this time, more people in Timbunmeli got baptized and converted to the Catholic mission. Spirit possessions became a central feature of religious practices.


The charismatic movement is not a unified worldwide movement and has many different faces. However, its origins can be traced to protestant renewal movements in the USA emphasizing personal encounters with God at the beginning of the 20th century. The Catholic Church started to embrace the charismatic movement in the 1960s as a new form of spirituality that enabled parishioners to experience a close relationship with God (ICCRS 2015). Characteristic for the worldwide charismatic movement is the baptism in the Spirit through which followers receive divine graces--such as the gift of healing, the gift of prophecy, the gift of speaking in tongues--that empower them to live a spiritual life in close relationship with God.

In Timbunmeli, the Catholic charismatic movement was appropriated during the 1990s as a way to connect people with God and His spirits and master powerful prayers (see also Telban 2009 for a different Sepik society). In seminars guided by charismatic prayer leaders in the 1990s, Timbunmeli villagers were baptized in the Spirit and assigned spiritman (male spirits) and spiritmeri (female spirits) that from then on were their patron saints and bestowed them with gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, healing, prophesy). During this time, the charismatic movement had many followers in the Chambri Lake communities. But, in the aftermath, rivalry and conflicts came up between leaders and those who had received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The movement came to a halt. However, elements of the charismatic movement still persist in Timbunmeli today. Those who had received a gift (present) from the Holy Spirit still nurtured their presentman (m.) or presentmeri (f.) with prayers.

Whereas before the priest or those that were able to read the bible functioned as mediators for God's word, now people were able to actively engage and communicate with the spirit world in a more direct and personal way. Via new forms of prayers, faith healing, talking in tongues and consultations of spirit mediums people started to employ spirits of God for their concerns. Private prayer groups evolved during which spirits were floating (floatim) and possessing (usim) people.

Although the Catholic mission regularly visits the community in form of a Polish priest, most religious activities are organized by Timbunmeli villagers themselves, and in fact many activities go unnoticed by the Catholic Church officials and moreover against what they teach. People themselves perform what they call 'the work of God' (wok bilong God). I argue that people in Timbunmeli have appropriated Christianity in a way that serves what I have called an existential intentionality elsewhere (Falck 2016)--their strong desire to communicate with the invisible, the source of their well-being, power and material success.

Whereas the communication with the spirit world has always been a vital issue for people, nowadays charismatic prayer sessions (as well as new technologies see Falck 2016) provide new means to do so. The work of the Holy Spirit/God is considered to be a means to get closer to the truth--in spirit possessions people see hidden places, and find out about and reveal things that have been invisible and unknown before. Possessed by spirits of God people can heal others, talk out on causes of death, find sorcery bundles, talk prophecy and deliver messages from God's spirits.

In former times, this function was filled by shamans, the yanonyang (yano = blood, nyang = child), who could feel the truth in his body parts, and the sibbukundi (sibbu = magic) who could use his magical skills also to heal people. Today people doubt that the few men who claim to be a shaman really know what they are doing and also sibbukundi (magical language) is unknown by most. Today only a few men master the craft of magic and sorcery. But those who do are both feared and appreciated for their knowledge. (17)

People accept that not everything in their belief and practices can be understood; some things are hidden and only known to a few. Only those who cling to their belief will finally become initiated, as the local church leader told me, into the secrets that surround Catholicism. Here, a correspondence to the male cult is obvious that in former times gave meaning and direction to people's lifeworld. Initiated men gained access to the secrets of the cult. However, also initiated men had only fragmented insight into secret knowledge--not everyone knew everything but there were specialists for different spheres. Women, at least ideologically, were without access to the secret knowledge of men. The belief in and the sensual experience of something that they could not fully understand or explain has always been part of people's lives. Now, within the situation of cultural loss, today's generation struggles to regain a meaningful life and holds on to their Catholic faith. The desire to believe is strong and during my fieldwork people recurrently reminded themselves to hold on strongly to their belief (sanap strong long bilip)--the slogan of the Catholic year 2013, the year of faith.

Not only saints and angels float or possess people today, but also spirits of the dead take control over villagers' bodies--they are currently re-interpreted as being spirits of God. I also noticed how a spirit of a dead man, called David, suddenly was identified as being Saint David (Sanktu David) when his actions attracted more and more villagers in Timbunmeli. This move can be seen as a struggle for official recognition of local spiritual practices within the Catholic Church. By attributing Sainthood to common dead people, villagers legitimize being possessed by spirits of the dead and following their prophecies and instructions as part of the Catholic charismatic movement. Also, their spiritual repertoire receives the same status as the Catholic range of spirit beings--they become equal. Therefore, this move can be understood as part of a re-interpretation process that allows people to redefine access to their spirit world and reconstitute their power and self-worth.

This process is accompanied by a re-appropriation of the spirit world that is now fitted into a Christian framework. Traditional spirits are currently re-interpreted as spirits of God. Today spirits of the dead are called 'souls', 'saints' and 'angels'; spirits of the bush and water are termed 'nature' that was created by God; and He, the source of everything, is currently re-interpreted as being the most powerful ancestral spirit there is. Wagen spirits which had become a synonym of Satan during the process of missionization are currently slowly re-appropriated as meaningful with some having the suspicion that the most powerful wagen might be God himself.

I have produced a schematic table (see Fig. 1) to better show the process currently taking place. The table is differentiated into three phases, called 'pre-mission', 'missionization' and 'post-mission'. However, I would like to point out that while the table gives the impression of three homogenous phases that can neatly be separated, the situation in the village has to be understood as being more heterogeneous and dynamic. For example, the current situation which would fall into what I have called 'post-mission' is still under the influence of the Catholic mission. I suggest calling it a post-mission situation to reflect the dynamics that are taking place despite and also against the influence of the Catholic Church. This phase has to be understood as an ongoing process on which, as I have shown elsewhere (see Falck 2016), different people with competing intentions, take influence. Also, the phase called 'missionization' rather reflects the viewpoint of the Catholic mission than the actual situation in the village. The elders and the younger generation then were in conflict about whether or not their traditional spirits really were the evil projected by the Catholic Church. Traditionally, spirits were not understood as either being bad or good, but usually would be considered harmless unless triggered by people's doings. People could make a spirit revengeful via wrongdoings, or activate it to harm others with sorcery. I have reconstructed the 'premission' situation from what people have told me as well as from earlier studies undertaken in Iatmul societies--however, missionization was then already part of Iatmul lives.

Today, in what could be called a post-mission situation, people feel left behind, saying that they are living on a back-page, far away from the benefits of development and service. On videos that they watch on DVD players powered by generators, or the mobile phone, people see the way of life in other places that seems to be much easier than their own life and they are much concerned to find ways to bring about change to their community. While many see education, employment, and marketing of local products as ways to improve their lives, others try to induce change by turning to God and the Catholic faith, which they have appropriated in a way that meets their concerns. They pray to God and His spirits who are believed to reside in an invisible part of people's lifeworld and who can be influenced by people's actions to help them in their undertakings.

If we can assume that a devaluation of their own cultural repertoire took place, then the adoption of Catholicism may have been important for the Iatmul to regain their position as the 'aristocrats of the Middle Sepik' (Metraux 1975:202). Thus, the current presentation of the Catholic belief as being inherently their own, can also be understood as a way to regain their former self-worth.


In this article, I discussed Nyaura ontology and cosmology under the influence of Christianity. I suggested that people have consciously adopted Christianity as a way to bring about change. However, in my assessment, no radical change in the sense of a break with the past as promoted by Joel Robbins' influential work can be identified. Rather people have accommodated the new doctrine to their own understanding of the world.

I have used Marshall Sahlins' and Joel Robbins' theories of cultural change and their suggestion to take a feeling of 'humiliation' as a serious factor in processes of change to analyse the trajectories of cultural change in Timbunmeli. After being overpowered by Whites and disempowered in their relations with other Sepik societies, villagers turned to Christianity. However, like Sahlins suggested, humiliation can be double-edged. In Timbunmeli humiliation returned and lead villagers to re-orient themselves towards their past to find meaning for their changing living circumstances.

Therefore, I suggest that we need to take into consideration that cultural change can also involve a re-appropriation of local cultural items after some time of experimenting with new categories and meanings. While villagers actively tried to distance themselves from their past and to take on a new culture, their past continued to influence their orientations and interpretations as well as their relationship to the world.

In an article, Robbins (2003) argues for looking at the adoption of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity as a project of discontinuity rather than continuity. Pentecostalism tends to accept local cultures' ontologies, but at the same time starts a fight against the spirit beings that these ontologies entail (ibid.:223). This paradox, so Robbins argues, leads to anthropologists being 'likely to be impressed by how well the traditional ontology has held up in the face of the Pentecostal onslaught' (ibid.). He goes on arguing:
'With their attention drawn in this direction, they [anthropologists]
may not take the full measure of the extent to which people's changing
relation to their traditional ontology--a change Pentecostalism has
wrought by introducing its own ontology and situating the traditional
one within it--has made change rather than continuity the real story in
particular cases.' (ibid.)

Robbins claims, 'For when one takes seriously what Pentecostals understand themselves to be doing, one discovers that most often they are trying to change. They are involved, that is, in personal and collective projects of discontinuity framed very much in Christian terms' (ibid.:230). Robbins suggests that anthropologists should attend to the 'face of rupture with the local and of discontinuity with old practices' (ibid. :224).

Although I agree with Robbins in the sense that people in Timbunmeli, too, are involved in a project of change that is indeed framed in Christian terms, I would like to add that emphasizing rupture for the sake of making a strong theoretical claim does not correspond to people's lived reality. In Timbunmeli, no radical break with their past can be identified as Robbins described it for the Urapmin case. People in Timbunmeli appropriated Christianity and especially charismatic Catholicism in their own terms--in continuity with their own ontological premises and practices. This becomes especially apparent in current practices aiming to communicate with spirits that I see as fundamentally related to the Nyaura way of being-in-the-world that is intimately connected with the invisible sphere of spirits. In fact, we can say that the spiritual other is immanent in the single person. Each person is related to ancestral beings via maternal and paternal bodily substance, but also via names and a spiritual substance called kaik (see Falck 2016:44-75, 139-49). We could thus suggest, that the spiritual other is not only immanent in people's lifeworld, but also in the person. If we consider this possibility, we will come to understand people's practices that aim to engage with the spiritual other, which today are the Christian Trinity, souls and Catholic saints and angel figures, under a different light--namely as means to (re-) engage with and to (re-)legitimate a part of themselves and their world that during the process of missionization had become a distant other/God.

Additionally, an important point to make is that people in Timbunmeli themselves identify continuances between Catholicism and their own cosmology. So, replying to Robbins' statement (2003:230 see above), when one takes seriously what the Timbunmeli understand themselves to be doing, one discovers that their attempt to change is founded in personal and collective projects of continuity though now framed in Christian terms. Although people have experienced a break with the past in the sense that they have lost a lot of traditional knowledge, they nevertheless orient their current practices and beliefs towards their past to find a way to master their future.


I am sincerely grateful to the people of Timbunmeli community for allowing me to conduct research in their village as well as for their ongoing support. I also thank my supervisory team Ton Otto and Michael Wood as well as Borut Telban who read and commented on my take on Robbins' theory of cultural change and the notion of humiliation. An early version of this paper was presented at the ASAO 2017 conference in Lihu'e, Hawai'i, February 7-12 and I would like to thank the panel organizer Roger Lohmann and the participants for stimulating discussions and comments. Furthermore, I would like to thank Laurie Bragge for his comments on my paper and for sharing his insights from his time as a patrol officer at the Sepik with me.


(1.) Tok Pisin for 'The water is a person'. In the following Tok Pisin terms will be presented in italics while terms from the local vernacular will be presented in italics and underlined.

(2.) The data, on which this discussion is based, were collected during my time as a PhD student at the James Cook University (Cairns, Australia) and the Aarhus University (Aarhus, Denmark) 2012-2016. I conducted tieldwork in Timbunmeli village from December 2012 to January 2014 and November to December 2014. My research was made possible by a Postgraduate Prestige Scholarship the James Cook University provided me with, as well as by funds from the Moesgaard Museum.

(3.) Central to Sahlins' model of change is the 'structure of the conjuncture'. Sahlins (1981) suggests that people act upon circumstances according to their own cultural presuppositions (p.67). But, 'nothing guarantees that the situations encountered in practice will stereotypically follow from the cultural categories by which the circumstances are interpreted and acted upon. Practice, rather, has its own dynamics--a structure of the conjuncture--which meaningfully defines the persons and the objects that are parties to it' (p.35). Thus, what might have started as reproduction of cultural categories might end in their transformation.

(4.) Bateson took the name of a clan in Mindmbt village and used it as a collective term for the river societies.

(5.) The term kavak is used when referring to the first ground that came into existence. The common term for ground is kipma.

(6.) The splitting of the ancestral body is mirrored in the social stratification of Nyaura societies into nyame (ground, mother) and nyoui (sky, child) moieties.

(7.) Kiparl is a term that specifically refers to ancestral beings that came up from the ground (kipma) and that were involved in the creation process. Some of my interlocutors equated those ancestral beings with wagen spirits (see also Stanek 1983:253, 453). Whereas the expression kiparl seems to be used when reference to the mythical past is made, the term wagen is used when people talk about the acting or communicating ancestral being. I would like to borrow Stanek's definition of wagen as a term that refers to the 'present, acting, appearing ancestor' (Stanek 1983:253, my translation) in opposition to all other terms that refer to the ancestor as a category, which in case of the Nyaura in Timbunmeli would be nyaik, or gwaak.

(8.) During a bamboo (Falck 2016:101-5) or canoe divination the spirit moves a bamboo or canoe and men can ask questions about the circumstances of its death. The spirit answers the questions with 'yes' or 'no' by moving the bamboo or the canoe (see also Silverman 1993; Telban 2001, 2009; Telban and Vavrova 2014).

(9.) The denomination of the adult population (292 people) of Timbunmeli Island is as follows: 220 Catholics, 56 AOG (Assemblies of God), 6 SDA (Seven Day Adventist), 6 SSEC (South Seas Evangelical Church), 2 Israel Ministries Church, 1 Four Square Gospel Church and 1 Revival Fellowship.

(10.) Two men from Kandingei called Yaua (Nyaura clan) and Nyaga (Possuko clan) were said to have been taken to Sek (Alexishafen near Madang) by a German missionary to receive training in the mission school.

(11.) Gewertz (1983:133-7) describes how a group of Iatmul and Chambri men turned against other Sepik societies and Australians during WW2, raping and pillaging their neighbours and also killing white men. She says that the Iatmul then were 'reestablishing themselves as Sepik warriors' (ibid.:137). However, at the end they were stopped and the 'Iatmul living on the Sepik River never did acquire the abundant cargo that the Japanese propaganda had promised. Instead they frequently found themselves caught in the crossfire between Japanese and Allied Forces' (ibid.).

(12.) Already in 2012 there was talk about building a new geggo, but until I left the village in January 2014 no action was taken. When I returned in November 2014 and February 2017, men were still talking about building a men's house, but were afraid of negative consequences.

(13.) 1896 in Tumleo Island near Aitape; 1908 Yuo Island; 1908 Boiken (Gesch 1985:20).

(14.) Also the Crane Expedition had contact with Iatmul villages in 1929 (see Webb 1997). For more German, a German-dutch, and American expeditions that travelled up the Sepik see for example Schindlbeck (2015 with a focus on collections done for museums).

(15.) Note that in the local vernacular there is no differentiation between good and evil magic--both are summarized under the term sibbu (sibbukundi = magical language). In Tok Pisin however, people differentiate between sorcery, black magic, black power and singsing (a term which is used, though not exclusively, to refer to magic that is not harming others).

(16.) Singsing long kawawal = chanting of magical spells to/of ginger. When magical spells are chanted in Timbunmeli, a knowledgeable man sings them over the leaves of a ginger plant. He sends his spell off by blowing his mouth breath over the leaves.

(17.) During my fieldwork in Timbunmeli there were four men who were renowned for their sibbukundi. Papmangawi died in October 2013, Mavak died in February 2014, and Sambang, a man originally from a different Nyaura community called Korogo who had lived in the village for 15 years, left the village in 2016 after sorcery allegations and a violent assault let him fear for his life. Today there is only one commonly accepted shaman in Timbunmeli, a man who returned to the village in 2013 from his life in towns.


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Christiane Falck

Georg-August- University Gottingen

James Cook University

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Date:Mar 1, 2018
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