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The Severed Snake." Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands.

The Severed Snake." Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands

By Michael W. Scott.

Durham, North Carolina: Carolina

Academic Press, 2007

Pp: xxxiii + 379

Price: US$45

In this book Michael Scott has given us the first major ethnography of the island of Makira (specifically, the Arosi speaking people of that island) and one of the most sophisticated studies of a Solomon Islands society yet accomplished. The book is an important contribution to Melanesian studies and will quickly enter the canon of mandatory reading for anyone working in Solomon Islands.

Given the geographic and cultural significance of Makira as one of the six major islands of the Solomon Islands, it is surprising that it has attracted so little anthropological attention. The only previous work of any sustained depth is that of Anglican missionary Charles Fox, who resided there from 1911 to 1924. Comparing this book to earlier generations of Pacific ethnography, this volume demonstrates how far the 'state of the art' has come in recent decades. By tackling a broad range of topics in terms of their significance for local cosmology, Michael Scott here reminds us of the value of a holistic approach concerned to link disparate facets of life in terms of the cultural logic(s) that connect them. The title of the book, The Severed Snake, refers to a mythic story that narrates the origins of Arosi matrilineages, while its subtitle, Matrilineages, Making Place and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands, references key areas of daily practice examined for evidence about Arosi modes of social thought.

Although the book is not presented as a comprehensive study of Christianity, readers will find considerable analysis of the articulation between indigenous and Christian cosmologies. Scott finds Christianity 'embedded in virtually every aspect of Arosi people's lives' (35) and so analyzes Christian and Christianizing features when he finds them. This strategy, it seems to me, marks the evolution of anthropological accounts of Christianity, from those that tried to ignore its presence, to those who saw it as a foreign imposition, to current recognition that Christianity (in the Pacific at least) is thoroughly indigenous.

While it is pitched on a high theoretical plane, exploring issues of cosmology and ontology, the book presents richly contextualized accounts of historical events and daily practices in which Arosi reproduce and negotiate understandings of social existence. In terms of its theoretical ambitions, the book aims to rethink the 'Melanesian model of sociality' that has evolved since Marilyn Strathern's influential The Gender of the Gift (1988). Others working outside Papua New Guinea will be inclined to agree that this model has achieved a kind of uncritical acceptance that tends to reproduce itself in Melanesian anthropology today. In the author's view, the tendency to see the Melanesian social world composed of inherently 'relational' persons creates a disinclination to recognize the force of more stable social categories. This project offers a critical reformulation that aims to reincorporate cosmogony and ontogeny into models of Melanesian and Pacific sociality.

The lineage of writing on Melanesian sociality has been built on a thin record of linguistic or cognitive data. Michael Scott, to his credit, is clear about his interest in developing models through interaction with the evidence of everyday practice. Although given to the habit of making generalizations about cultural totalities (e.g 'From an Arosi point of view, at the core of each Arosi person stands an unchanging matrilineal essence concretely imagined as an unbroken umbilical cord.' p. 27), Scott is nonetheless committed to grounding his assertions in practice and good old-fashioned ethnographic empiricism. As he puts it, '... one can come to understand Arosi ontology and cosmology through the close observations and analysis of everyday problems and practices.'(p. 5)

By so doing, this study finds convergence in multiple forms of discourse that surround the core Arosi concept of auhenua ('autochthonous'). Glossed as something like 'person/thing+land', unpacking auhenua is a means for interpreting Arosi ideology linking persons to land. For the Arosi it is matrilineages, in their materiality and historicity, that connect people to land and to each other. Much of the book, then, is concerned to tell us about ways that people think through the problems posed by historical circumstances that destabilize idealized models that postulate a finite number of discrete, spatialized, non-overlapping descent categories.

Among the significant implications of this book is the insight it brings to the complex and contested discourse of land. In researching knowledge about the valuable coastal lands of Makira that have attained commercial value in contexts of national development, Scott uncovered a complex duality in which surface statements asserting that genealogical knowledge 'has been lost' exist alongside more private claims of ancestry and ownership. In the course of his fieldwork, Scott was able to tap into this vein of guarded knowledge about original landowning auhenua for coastal lands. However, because such knowledge can be dangerous if voiced outside the lineage (where it might cause ill feeling and/or be contested), it is normally kept secret. The result is a normative social order in which parallel realms of ancestral knowledge and the cosmologies that underwrite them co-exist, maintained by cultural proscriptions and speaking practices.

Although Scott keeps his sites focused on the local, there is much here about issues relevant to the dramas of national development (and devolution). In addition to its insight into the epistemological bases for land conflict, it also provides a richly contextualized account of the transformative effects of colonization and Christianity. Scott tells us of the struggles of some to reconcile Arosi (poly)ontology with the 'fundamentally incompatible' ontology of Christianity (p. 35), meaning basically Christian monotheism. Such struggles have been the subject of ethnographics of Christianity elsewhere in the Solomons and Melanesia. This study, however, offers a framework for thinking comparatively about the distinct histories of Christianization described in the growing body of work on indigenous Christianities. This framework is particularly useful, it seems to me, in interpreting and analyzing the many 'ethno-theologies' being fashioned by indigenous churches and their local theologians.

In sum, The Severed Snake is a major contribution to Melanesian and Oceanic anthropology. It has much to offer anthropologists working on the cultural foundations of social life in Melanesia. Although its theory-laden language will limit use for more general teaching purposes, this is a sophisticated and well researched study that has much to offer anyone concerned to understand indigenous modes of thinking (and being) in the world today.

Geoffrey White

University of Hawaii
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Author:White, Geoffrey
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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