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The carnival of custom: land dives, millenarian parades and other spectacular ritualizations in Vanuatu.


Independent since 1980, the Republic of Vanuatu (the former Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides) is a parliamentary democracy, whose constitution claims to represent both 'Christianity' and 'kastom' (custom in English). The Church and Christian values, plausible sources of inspiration for the creation of aesthetic forms, do not seem to have much influenced contemporary ni-Vanuatu artists; at least not obviously (Watt 2003), except negatively in occasional allusions recalling the missionaries' excessive zeal against kastom. However, the exaltation of Christianity and the idealization of what the Melanesians designate by the term kastom are governed by interdependent processes. For the glorified vision of an ancestral tradition untarnished by colonial alienation, valued as a last bastion against the perverse effects of globalization, corresponds perfectly to the representations of a Christian humanism for which, as a last resort, God originally created kastom. Nowadays, even though kastom or the Church have become open to criticism, God and Jesus on the other hand remain untouchable figures. (1)

Based essentially in Port Vila, the capital, the country's artistic avant-garde, both that of the old and of the new generation, is presupposed to be Christian. However, there are few modern artists who do not draw part of their creativity from customary style (Regenvanu 1996, 2003). But the fact remains that the creators of 'modernist' contemporary forms only occupy a tiny space in the kastom repertoire.Most 'artists' in Vanuatu do not consider themselves 'artists' but man blong kastom (in Bislama) or coutumiers (in French). (2) For it is somewhat paradoxical that kastom has here been raised to the level of art: an art of living in harmony with the values of the past revived in the present. (3)

This aestheticization of a 'kastom people', to use Babadzan's term (1988), its transformation into a sublimated image through a deritualization of the ceremonial acts, formerly strictly cult-related, of the groups forming it, simultaneously reveals and conceals the political dimension of the collective identification aspects subjacent to this process. This theme of 'the aestheticization of the political' (Benjamin 1971), today part of the generalized aestheticization phenomena in which, through its de-aestheticization, art is reduced to its exchange value, is, as in so many other places in the global village, extremely topical in Vanuatu. Halfway between the classic systems of culturalist propaganda conveyed by ethnonationalist movements and the culture business in the globalized world, the valorisation at various scales of a national customary heritage in Vanuatu appears to be a paradox. Situated between politics and commercialization as a commodity, kastom is seen here both as the target and the remedy for the main ills brought by westernization, just as the spirit of Christianity is considered to act as its safeguard. (4) It is certain ambivalences of this aestheticization of kastom that I wish to clarify in this article. My analysis will concentrate particularly on the peculiar aspects of the historical transformation of great ritual ceremonies into neo-traditional artistic performances, whose novelty resides in their quality as objective mediums for the representation of new collective identities.

There is plainly a great deal of disparity in ni-Vanuatu citizens' degree of proximity to or distance from the daily life stipulated by kastom, that is to say, essentially one with a domestic mode of production (Sahlins, 1976) peculiar to the village social organization of the inhabitants of outlying islands or of certain of their zones where the rapidly developing money economy still remains secondary. But none of them is unaware of the aesthetic and spiritual events with which the quintessence of the cultural identities they symbolize is associated. These customs promoted by different agents to the rank of cultural symbols are also those repeatedly shown in tourist brochures to encourage visitors to discover the 'real Vanuatu' from its eminently spectacular angles, even though kastom, or rather kastoms in the plural, cannot be reduced simply to the category of the 'performing arts'. The most famous of these regular events include in particular the Gol land dive in the south of Pentecost Island, the Rom dances on Ambrym, the initiatory sand drawings in the northern central islands, the Nekowiar ceremonies and the cargoist celebrations of the followers of the John Frum cult on Tanna. Since the 1970s the organization of 'festivals of traditional arts', found in all the Pacific States, has been added to these.

The importance and the diversity of the secular or religious ritual practices, in an archipelago of 80 inhabited islands in which over a hundred languages are spoken and where dozens of different churches which are the never-ending source of a multitude of syncretisms are present, make determining definitive general trends or unique convergences in the realm of ceremonial organization and its political or religious justifications uncertain. Hence the interest represented by the aestheticization of ritual processes for the anthropological study of the drastic contemporary cultural changes. In the following pages, I shall reserve the term 'neo-ritualizations' for the big ceremonial carnivals and other folk festivals whose traditional referent has been replaced by a celebration of the kastom theme itself, as the official value of a regional, national, even pan-Melanesian cultural heritage. Expressions of a spiritually powerful material culture, an immaterial heritage of quasi-universal significance, encouraged by the state and commercially exploited by the tour operators, these high kastom masses are simultaneously represented as autonomous, autochthonous popular arts and traditions. The 'Gol land dive' ceremony or 'Gol dance' on Pentecost Island and the annual ceremonies of the John Frum millenarian movement on Tanna will provide two examples on which to base our analysis. (5)


One could of course include in this category of neo-ritualizations in Vanuatu public life all kinds of neo-customary events, sometimes even anti-customary or neo-pagan ones. The innumerable formal aspects of the staging of kastom on a state level, the collective explosions of Pentecostal fervour during neo-evangelist days in the islands or Christian Crusades in an urban setting, the increase of witchcraft phenomena in Port Vila, the 'custom villages' turned into theatrical productions for tourism, the sacrificial consumption of dozens of tons of kava every day, are just so many examples. However, unlike the latter, the former neo-ritualizations are not the occasion for any fundamental protest. The politics of tradition are always more often denounced locally as abuses of kastom for political or economic ends. But these political stands against the instrumentalization of kastom never seem to denigrate 'true' kastom, that which it would be blasphemous to manipulate. For, in Vanuatu, with the persistence of interregional tensions and the massive emergence of a middle-class and an underclass in urban areas, kastom is more than ever seen as the ultimate factor of unity, in contrast to the divisions politics are thought to provoke.

Some of the big celebrations of customary art in Vanuatu are based on complex preexisting ceremonials, other have been created more recently. But in both cases, their rediscovery or reinvention can be historically dated with accuracy. The craze for this type of neo-ritualization has remained strong since they were first officially promoted for purposes of national construction in the context of the process of accession to independence which began in the 1970s. Because they are meant to unite the Vanuatu people despite their cultural diversity, these spectacular ritual expressions are seen as beneficial to the spirit of Melanesian values for which the big ceremonial events are thought to be the main vector. It is generally acknowledged that these neo-ritualizations should be preserved for they represent the essence of a kastom increasingly threatened by acculturation pressures, commercialization and all kinds of attempts at political manipulation. Another significant characteristic is that their preservation is also linked to the technical aspects of their reproducibility and distribution for the peculiarity of this tip of the kastom iceberg is its visual quality. It is therefore a matter of a tangible essentialization for, since the renewal of interest in them, these ritualizations have been continuously filmed, photographed and sketched; these revived ceremonies could neither have received huge media coverage nor have been valorised without this picturesque dimension or their filmic interest.

On the southern island of Tanna, on the other hand, festivities of another kind have been going on without interruption since 1957. The annual commemoration on the 15 February of John Frum for the followers of this supernatural figure is also related to the preservation of kastom. Yet these celebrations, just like the cult surrounding them, do not appear to have any traditional aspect (traditional in the sense of pre-colonial): hoisting the American flag, military parades, bush theatre or hip-hop kind dancing are at the centre of the show. Nevertheless, the history of these ceremonies is presented by the followers of this millenarian movement as being at the very origin of the 'saving of kastom' undertaken by John Frum. Initially conceived of as an act of resistance against colonialism, then, after independence, as a sign of opposition to the sovereign state, these festivities have been the victim of attempts, by the country's authorities or other official representatives of the cultural sector, to disempower them through a process of folklorization. Nonetheless, since the year 2000 these endeavours at institutionalization have failed. The analysis of these celebrations' recent history highlights the originality of these ceremonial forms. By incorporating various external influences to which they are opposed, they accompany the constant intensification of acculturation pressures, by introducing a ritualization of the insurmountable cultural contradictions provoked by the same changes.

But should one for all that make a distinction between these two types of ceremonial events? Assimilate the first to a folk caricature of its traditional or pre-colonial version and the second to an aberrant form of ritualization of modernity or at least of those of its influences which prove to be of insurmountable alterity? Is it pertinent to consider certain big neo-ritual performances as imported techniques, state commissions motivated by political imperatives and encouraged by the financial greed of tourism companies, international firms and medias, in order to contrast them with others said to be spontaneous or part of purely local collective identifications, aimed at appropriating foreign power, with the indigenization of the cultural contradictions created by acculturation pressures (Sahlins 1992)? In short, are the first products of ideological mystifications while the second are spontaneous and authentic and express a spiritual fervour invariably shared in the present as in the past?

This kind of 'variable geometry' interpretation seems difficult to apply for two reasons. The same actors can be found in both types of performances. The media interest in and coverage of certain neo-rituals formerly considered as 'pathological', because they served as vehicles for political dissidence, is growing. The instrumentalization or the abuse of these neo-rituals is similarly disparaged in the different cases: religious expressions stemming from an established common cultural heritage, they would seem to be used for the sole profit of outside speculators. The participants do not see these ceremonies as false rituals but as rituals which have been diverted from their former reason for being. Their original motivation has disappeared behind the decontextualized performance, the essentialized identities they present. These neo-ritualizations make the participants themselves, their culture as an essence, the subject of the production. There is therefore no longer any religious referent other than the simple ritual staging of the officiants by the participants (locals or visitors) and vice versa: the rite is celebrated as the object of a collective subject itself transformed into a thing through this effect of mirror inversion. By taking famous ethnographic examples from the regional traditions of the islands of Pentecost and Tanna, I shall try to go into these different points.


The Nagol is a very colourful ritual performance. On the Melanesian scale, it appears just as emblematic as the ASARO Mudmen of the Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea or the Laulasi shark-callers in the Solomon Islands. The authors of the travel guide 100 Things to Do Before You Die: Travel Events You Just Can't Miss (Teplica & Freeman, 1999) have no hesitation in listing this 'spesol (special) kastom' among the hundred most spectacular attractions in the world. Both an agrarian and an initiation ritual, the Nagol (Gol, N'Gol or Nangol) means the 'body' in the Sa language of Pentecost. On this occasion, the men of Pentecost Island defy death by jumping into empty space, from a tower (nagol) thirty metres high, with vines tied to their ankles to break their fall.

An origin myth illustrating the theme of relations between the genders corresponds to this ritual associated with yam cultivation. Though, originally, a woman was the first to dive, the prohibitions regarding her female descendants concern both the stages of the tower's construction and the dive. The Nagol's sexual connotations are explicit: the anthropomorphism with which the tower is endowed evokes a bisexual human body; the different varieties of yams, whose growth the Nagol encourages, are related only to the male body. This emblematic splitting into two phallic symbols, the tower and the yam (the male tuber par excellence) also lends an initiatory dimension to the performance of the dive for the youngest divers and exalts the mature power of the warriors. Though the ritual's origin dates back to a pre-colonial period, the construction of a tower, however, is a more recent creation. Despite its stone-age, vegetable Eiffel Tower appearance, it would seem to have been first built when white people distributed machetes, (6) a fact which in no way detracts from the technical skill represented by the building and the stability of such structures.

The Nagol has been a somewhat marginal subject of study for ethnologists. An omission all the more surprising as this ritual seems to be almost unique of its kind. Bonnemaison (1996: 136) claims that formerly it also existed in the south of Malekula and on Ambrym but without producing any evidence. Very little is known about its pre-colonial origins apart from vague memories conveyed by mythology and oral tradition. It is very likely that with the arrival of Christianity this practice was gradually limited to a few villages, which had remained heathen, in the south-east of the island. Nonetheless, even if there was an interruption or a considerable decrease in the practice of this traditional activity, the construction techniques and the ceremonial practices were handed down. After Tattevin's first descriptions (1927), there are no other written observations available before the 1950s (Anthonioz, 1953, 1954; Johnson & Johnson, 1955; Rousillon, 1956; Simpson, 1955). Our aim is not to fill in these ethnographic gaps but to examine the Nagol as a form of revivalism, whose contemporary history cannot be separated from the political, legal and economic stakes of today.

The first shots of a Nagol go back to the early 1950s. The historical context of colonial rediscovery follows on from the repression of pagan minority groups on the pretence they had been organizing anti-missionary and anti-white activities. Described by the colonial administration as a Cargo cult, this unrest seems in fact to coincide with the organization of a Warsangul initiatory ceremony (7) during which very large quantities of goods are ostentatiously accumulated. These events were nonetheless forcibly repressed. The alleged leaders were arrested and imprisoned on other islands. In 1952, a proposition was made to the ringleaders: in exchange for their freedom, the French Resident Commissioner, Pierre Anthonioz, suggested that they organize a Nagol ceremony on land belonging to Thevenin, a colonist who had settled on Pentecost. According to Jolly, 'The land dives in the colonial period ... are important in constituting the land dive as a tourist spectacle in the postcolonial period' (Jolly, 1994a: 116) or more widely as a 'kastom converted into colonial spectacle' (Jolly, 1994b: 47).

While Thevenin was the first to transpose the Nagol into images, the atmosphere of this ritual show was rapidly exploited by professionals. In 1954, the Johnson couple would produce no less than 1600 photos of it (O'Reilly, 1958: 56). However, the Johnson couple are themselves only mere precursors of much broader and more intense media, then tourist, exploitation. It is, therefore, not only the tourist history of this neo-ritualization which commences in the 1950s, but without any doubt a process of culturalist mediatisation which will see many new developments. The Nagol's filmic qualities will encourage its commercial use and the instrumentalization of the image of the ritual officiants and their communities. With the parallel increase in nationalist demands in the 1970s, then with independence, the question of the representation of the performers' collective identity and the politico-economic justifications underpinning it, gradually raised the Nagol to the rank of a state symbol, an emblem of the state's measures in favour of the promotion and protection of Melanesian values. But before this point was reached, it was necessary to correct the Nagol spectacle, adjust the image of the performers in a colonial show, promote a collective indigenous identity and its cultural expressions from a sensational angle by linking their origin to the dawn of time.

David Attenborough, a trained naturalist, later a documentary maker for the BBC, is in a way the British equivalent of the French Jacques Cousteau: a kind of modern hero of media ecology, knighted by the Queen for his decisive contributions to the invention of the environmentalist film. One of his first productions concerned the islands of the Pacific. In the series 'People of Paradise', Attenborough (1959) reversed the dominant pre-war trend, continued, for example, in the Johnson couple's documentaries on the inhabitants of the mysterious islands of Melanesia. Where the latter's productions focus on a world of cannibals and head-hunters, Attenborough from then on identified this region of the Pacific as a world endowed with an unspoilt natural environment where societies preserved from the white shadows hanging over the South Seas for more than a century continue to exist. The series' third episode, devoted to the 'Gol dance' on Pentecost Island, immortalizes this swing towards identifying the 'natives' of Melanesia and their cultures with their paradise-like environment: a pure world, inhabited by indigenous peoples uncontaminated by the ills of civilization.

Exit blackbirding, forgotten colonial rule and the Christianization of peoples formerly in decline after contact with white men. Attenborough was thus the first advertising man to promote what is today the Vanuatu tourist office's main slogan: 'The untouched Paradise'. With regard to the Nagol in particular, this film, as Jean Rouch points out, 'which has no ethnographic pretensions, is a very valuable document on an authentic ceremony. This sequence should be taken and edited separately with an ethnographic commentary by a specialist'. A vain hope for henceforth such authenticity will become the affair of film specialists, specialists of images used to mediatise social relations between men and constituting the subject of a universal, visual memory for which the 'real' and the 'authentic' are obvious filmic facts, just as 'the aesthetics of forms' among the same peoples will become the prerogative of collectors then of museum curators. As announced by Guy Debord's premonitory visions: 'The whole life of societies in which modern conditions of production reign, promises to be an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that used to be directly lived has retreated into a representation' (Debord, 1967: thesis 1).

Another series of major transformations would affect the Nagol with the arrival on Pentecost of Kal Muller in the 1970s. Before acting as an ethnologist, this photojournalist under contract to the National Geographic magazine was looking for 'civilizations scarcely touched by civilization' (Muller, 1970; 1971). For personal and commercial reasons, he was fascinated by the Nagol for this exceptional practice was seen to combine both an 'authentic' ritual and 'pure spectacle' (Muller, 1975: 111). After several months on the island, Muller made friends with the chief of Bunlap, the only village not yet converted to Christianity. He took many photographs and shot a lot of film, with the population's approval. One of Muller's business partners stated that at the time: 'In Bunlap, the people know very well that their traditional way of life will not last much longer and they appreciate one of Kal's fundamental principles: that the films are a way of preserving, for the performers, their children and grandchildren, as well as for potential audiences who are interested, customs which otherwise are destined to be forgotten' (Gourguechon, 1974: 310). 'Kal is for kastom and against the entry of the New Hebrides into the European system' (ibid: 311). To reinforce the traditional side of the Nagol, he excluded from his film everything reminiscent of European influences. The traditionalist make-up favoured by Muller would be scrupulously applied, then kept, thus inaugurating a 'cosmetic recreation of kastom for tourist spectacle' (Jolly, 1994a: 144). (8)

Muller's adventures on Pentecost did not end there. During his stay, he took chief Bong of Bunlap on an excursion to the Big-Nambas of Malekula, with the intention of introducing him to other groups who had retained their traditional practices. He codified the Sa language of south Pentecost and opened a school for the children of Bunlap in their native language. But, at the chief's request, he also opened a cooperative because the villagers wanted to be able to buy consumer goods. With Bong he set up another company to exploit the film rights on the Nagol. So when Jolly arrived in the field for the first time, she was suspected of wanting to shoot her own film in order to compete with the association between the chief of Bunlap and Muller (Jolly, 1994b: 9). Finally, to prove his attachment to kastom before leaving, Kal himself made a dive, thus enacting a Hollywood fantasy worthy of the Tarzan films.


But things went too far. A few months after Muller's departure, Bong began to organize 'traditional activities' in his village for tourists, building for the first time on Pentecost a hut for them (Gourguechon, 1974:312; Jolly, 1994a: 140). At the very beginning of the 1970s, impressed by the Bunlap pagans' success in commercializing kastom, the Christian villages in the south of the island were tempted by the power of kastom revival: 'Many reckoned it was a good thing to be able to get money by following kastom by turning this rite [of the Nagol] into a profitable spectacle for tourists' (Jolly, 1994a: 138). Finally, the church itself came to recognize the beneficial aspects of revealing traditional practices in order to create emblems of a specific cultural identity. Henceforth, the Nagol was no longer only worthwhile on a commercial level, but also on a political one. Thus, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II's tour of the New Hebrides, the inhabitants of the Anglican and English-speaking village of Point Cross, were persuaded to organize a Nagol in their village, in her honour, in February 1972. Tragically for them, this historic visit took a dramatic turn: that day, a young diver from the village lost his life, when the vines broke as he neared the ground. The calendar of kastom had not been respected: in February the vines fixed to the divers' ankles are still too damp for the dive to be safe.

This accident has had a considerable impact on the subsequent history of the Nagol. The period of the archipelago's demands for political sovereignty up until today has been marked by a drastic increase of the monetary economy's influence and a rise in the amount of consumer goods available even in zones still remote. The main consequence of this performance which went wrong was the start, on Pentecost but also over the whole country, of a phase of protest against the mercenary or politically illegitimate exploitation of kastom. At least three types or levels can be distinguished in this protest--local, national and international--each very different from the other but all drawing on the same ideological heritage for their claims. The use of kastom for commercial purposes can be a good thing, but only if its principles are respected by recognizing the customary owners' rights over their land as in their various indigenous cultural activities, productions and expressions. On the other hand, when foreigners misappropriate, for their exclusive profit, the gains obtained by exploiting a cultural heritage defined as an ancestral legacy, condemnation is immediate. The ensuing protests tend more and more to focus on appeals to courts, the promulgation of laws, the application of regulations, the implementing of identity policies and the constitution of economic interest groups. All legal measures are used both imported and those inherited from the colonial system.

Locally, then, the Point Cross accident brought older lines of conflict to the surface once more; but new ones too, about the evils of certain ways of instrumentalizing kastom. The pagan kastom people of Bunlap put the blame on those who reinvent kastom locally while no longer respecting it, that is to say Christians and members of political parties who play with kastom without applying its rules. In other groups who have more recently begun to practise the Nagol again, conflicts arise from an unequal division of the profits. For example, people realize that not all the men get the same amount and that women get less (Jolly, 1994a: 144). The year following the accident the tensions surrounding these sensitive questions lead to the first legal proceedings. Their conclusions are particularly enlightening as the Nagol ritual is legally recognized as 'work' and the 'tribal' group is authorized to claim the exclusive rights on a collective production, as long as it can prove the reality of the cultural identity shared by the group managing its own creations, in accordance with the laws of the country. All considerations are henceforth centred on the assertion of the group's identity and the protection of its image. (9)

On a national level, with regard to the ideological repercussions of promoting Melanesian values in the post-colonial context and for purposes of national edification, defending kastom against uncontrolled exploitation of the Nagol encourages new political stands. It is not only the Nagol's technological mediatisation which is contested, but also the ceremonial organization itself. The monetary value of a ritual which has been transformed into an economic venture tends to dominate its cultural interest and heritage value as a vector of identity and spirituality. (10) As chief Telkon Watas of Bunlap points out: 'When the Nagol was still a real kastom, it had value. But since becoming a business, it no longer has any. People have taken advantage of this sport. And I have to say that we, the ni-Vanuatu, have only ourselves to blame for having once again let kastom go under' (Tiona, 1995).

The official institutions of a henceforth sovereign country will thus have to moralize and specify the limits of the Nagol's commercial exploitation inside the nation-state's borders. A first decision was taken in 1990 by the Pentecost Island Council of Chiefs. During a Nagol performed in Port-Vila for an Australian fiction film the Council opposed this relocation. In 1992, the court settled an attempt by some Pentecost chiefs to organize the Nagol on the island of Santo. In 1998, when a new attempt was made to perform land dives on a regular basis in Vila, the chief of Bunlap declared: 'As one of the Nagol's customary owners, I do not want our identity to be sold elsewhere. If the Nagol is sold on Pentecost, I no longer wish to have anything to do with it, but if they want to perform it on Vate, these problems will grow and will not be simple to resolve' (Tiona, 1998). Although the 'reasons adduced' in the 1992 hearing (decision of the Port Vila Court's civil division, 10 July 1992 in the Re the Nagol Jump, Assal & Vatu v. The Council of Chiefs of Santo case) had been clear on the substance, the customary and constitutional principles on which the exclusivity of intellectual property over the Nagol is based for the inhabitants of Pentecost (even for those in the north of the island where traditionally it is not practised), the decision's conclusions were much more circumspect. (11)

On the international level, in today's context when Pacific societies are very involved in matters of indigenous property rights, a neo-ritualization such as the Nagol is directly part of the preservation of a national heritage and interests programmes for the protection of humanity's world heritage responsible for implementing UNESCO's international convention (Paris, 16/11/1972)/the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. The Nagol serves the state's interests and, in return, the state protects the performance and image of the Nagol as an inalienable cultural resource. After having become a source of work locally, then a business on a national scale, the Nagol remains an indispensable pretext for denouncing the abusive commercial use of neo-customary spectacles and defending the intellectual property of TKEC, Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture, against the greed of foreign firms. The Nagol's legitimacy as a Vanuatu exclusivity relies henceforth partly on the bureaucratic procedures which control its practice and promote its image. The agents responsible for organizing, promoting and commercializing the neo-ritualizations, as with everything concerning kastom, are, under Vanuatu law, legally divided into three categories: the customary owners who exploit their TKEC in accordance with kastom, the non-customary authorities who manage, in agreement with the latter, the intellectual property of the TKEC (State ministries or agencies, cultural centres and associations, etc.) and the non-customary operators who exploit the TKEC in a non-customary manner, legally or not (bio-pirates, ethno-pirates, and other ethnophagic profiteers).

Without going into the details of recent evolutions in the matter of the right to intellectual property (controlled by the World Intellectual Property Organization, one of the United Nations' specialized institutions) of indigenous peoples, (12) let us just emphasize the fact that TKEC is a recent legal and political creation which is not recognized by the World Trade Organization's international treaties. (13) The expression was used for the first time at the World Forum on the Protection of Folklore (organized by WIPO and UNESCO at Phuket in April 1997). At the close of this congress, the expression Traditional Knowledge (TK) was preferred 'to that of folklore', (14) in order to be able to extend this category to other expressions of indigenous culture: naturalist knowledge about plants, fauna, medical treatments, food and other domains coming under the category of 'biogenetic'.

[TK] is variously defined as innovations and practices in the context of conservation and equitable use of biological use; 'heritage of indigenous peoples'; traditional medicinal knowledge in the realm of health policy; expressions of folklore within a framework of intellectual property protection; folklore or traditional and popular culture within a construction meant to protect culture; 'intangible cultural heritage'; and indigenous intellectual property (Torsen, in Mahara, 2004).

TK was completed by the reference to TCE (Traditional Cultural Expressions), during the Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Indigenous Cultures in the Pacific Islands Symposium (SPC/PIFS/UNESCO, Noumea, 15-19 February 1999). The first joint mention of TK and TCE was in the Draft Model Law for the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture 2002, officially signed at the Conference of Ministers of Culture of the Pacific Region (SPC, Noumea, 2002), a legal charter which encourages the countries of the Pacific to adapt TKEC to their national laws and regulations. TK's area of application is thus enlarged to cover both 'biogenetics and tribal wisdom', with the aim of protecting the Pacific peoples 'from the increase in the demand for these resources which is threatening both indigenous peoples' bio-cultural property and their spiritual and cultural values' (Mahara, 2004).

The Vanuatu authorities have been particularly receptive to the TKEC rhetoric as 'a foundation for the identity and community life of a large majority of the country's inhabitants' (Regenvanu, 2006). They generally brandish the Nagol as the symbol par excellence of TKEC. It must be said that the world industry of games, trends and leisure has had its influence in the person of Alan Jack Hackett, the inventor of bungee jumping, who has never made a secret of the fact that he was inspired by the Nagol. However, after his first rudimentary jumps, Hackett quickly registered technical exploitation and intellectual property patents and transformed bungee jumping into a lucrative business estimated today at 80 million dollars. The developments of the bungee jumping business lead the Vanuatu authorities, in October 1995, to issue an official protest voiced by the Prime Minister. Afterwards the matter was lengthily debated in parliament. In 1996, it precipitated Vanuatu's membership of WIPO. Though no financial compensation was obtained, this provided the government of Vanuatu with a marvellous forum for its demands as they were widely reported in the international press and among cultural experts.

To complete this brief chronology of the Nagol in the era of the exploitation of the world's cultures by multinational firms, it remains for us to mention two of its latest developments. In the 1990s, the interest of commercial film crews, production companies and travel agents for the Nagol grew. The disruption caused among the inhabitants of Pentecost by an inflow of money and by the misappropriation involved in its distribution increased. In 1995, the Vanuatu government threatened to ban the Nagol. For, to the extent that the tradition had been turned into a commercial attraction, its cultural significance was being lost while the image of the Nagol, of the inhabitants of Pentecost and of the Vanuatu people in general was being deformed. Finally, with the aim of controlling this situation, the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS) decided in January 2006 to establish a 'moratorium' on the making of commercial films and audiovisual production activities organized by foreign firms on Pentecost and concerning the Nagol. Thus, by taking the initiative of this moratorium, the VKS was attempting to convince all the parties involved to join it in 'the elaboration of a coordinated plan for managing the Nagol ceremony in order to preserve its cultural meaning and guarantee the transmission of traditional knowledge to younger generations; [...] to ensure that the considerable cash revenues generated by the commercial activities related to the Nagol were properly channelled into sustainable development appropriate to the needs of the communities of this region' (Moratorium--ban--on commercial filming of Nagol, VKS, 1 January 2006). (15)


If, from the point of view of colonial history, the fate of different islands was commemorated in the same way as the individual destinies of missionaries are sanctified, one would have to reserve the name of 'martyred island' for Tanna. Christianization there was particularly authoritarian and repressive. At the end of the 19th century, the Presbyterians established Tanna law, a theocratic regime they used to encourage the systematic eradication of all the beliefs, institutions, dances, rituals and ceremonies inherited from the 'days of darkness'. In fact, at the turn of the 1930s, they had almost achieved their aim. This historical reality is, however, in sharp contrast to the contemporary image of Tannese society and of man Tanna's identity. From the capital Port Vila, Tanna is often represented as a 'sanctuary of kastom', a refuge for preserved ancestral traditions. (16) Tourist brochures peddle this destination as the 'Last island'. With its Yasur volcano, wild horses, tribal zones where penis wrappers and fibre skirts are still worn and secret cults, Tanna is presented by travel agents as an invitation to plunge into virgin nature, to leap into a total bio-cultural adventure nevertheless accessible to the great majority of people. Lastly, for a few relatively well-informed visitors or tourists, Tanna is above all the homeland of the John Frum cult, a Mecca of the Cargo cult and of strange beliefs in American gods who provide jeeps and refrigerators for the faithful.

At the end of the 1930s, in a deserted region south-west of Tanna, at Green Point, John Frum's spirit took on the appearance of a man for the first time, that of a person of mixed race dressed as a European but, nonetheless, speaking the local language. He began his activities with a series of millenarian prophecies: the missionaries and Europeans would be driven out of the island, this would transform the world and John Frum's return would establish permanent abundance and prosperity. He advocated the destruction of former customs and the rejection of all goods which came from white men. With the Europeans' departure, man Tanna would return to 'true' kastom, that recommended by John. The most spectacular consequence of these visions was that, in 1941, all the faithful abandoned the Presbyterian church and proclaimed themselves followers of their new hero's message. This politico-religious movement owes a large part of its success to one of its predictions: the announcement of war in the Pacific and the Americans' arrival, more than a year before the allied troops landed in the New Hebrides. For many Tannese people this historical episode confirmed the idea of a mythical alliance linking them to all-powerful America. This connection was considered the preliminary step in a return to the sources of their new identity. John Frum thus became the symbol of this rebirth of the power of kastom. This cult also presents an edifying example of a 'return to paganism': former influential members of the Presbyterian mission played the role of architects in the adapting of their Christian heritage to a 'neo-pagan' inspired path.

The reference to John Frum's American identity began in the village of Sulphur Bay, in the east of the island. Sulphur Bay, or Ipekel, became the headquarters of one of the main branches of this cultic movement. John Frum, a friend of Rusefel (Roosevelt), is supposed to have landed nearby, in a wooden plane, and left his children there, spirits called 'kaoboe' (cowboy). These sons of John Frum exist in all the villages affiliated to the movement. The kaoboe, in their visible form, always appear dressed in uniforms; and one communicates with them using flowers as telephones and aerials connected by vines. The kaoboe are tutelary spirits which became a central element in the John Frum doctrine of Sulphur Bay. They were at the top of the new social order and the ceremonial innovations it introduced. Amerika lo, or kaoboe law, which protects kastom, was to take over from Tanna Law and its regime based on Christ's commandments. This new order precedes the awaited return of John Frum, an event which is 'to change the world' (Tabani, 2008).

Whatever representations man Tanna may have had of America before 1942, the real Americanophile turning-point of John Frum's followers had its main origins in Sulphur Bay and the neighbouring villages after the return of the voluntary workers from Port Vila where they had been employed on U.S. military bases. Over and above the technological power and the material abundance they had discovered and the presence of many 'whites with black skin' in the ranks of this army and their generosity, man Tanna learned from the Americans new forms of organization and discipline. These were a crucial source of inspiration for the John Frum movement. Under the kaoboes' tutelary supervision, each John Frum village has to form, from among its men and women, a team (tim) made up of a dozen or even several dozen members. The biggest teams are sometimes divided into several subgroups. They are responsible for various community tasks and for forming a choir to dance and sing John Frum hymns at Sulphur Bay every Friday night. Each team is led by a bos (boss) or kapten (captain) who receives his visions from the kaoboe. Each team also has gad (guards) or polis (police). There are two or three of them to a team in charge of making sure festivities and ceremonies run smoothly. The most valiant men of each team have the honour of taking on the role of ami (army) and participating in the Tanna Army's annual parade on the 15 February every year. There are twenty-six teams. Their participation in the weekly Friday ceremonies is seen as a symbol of the 'unity' (uniti) of John Frum's people.

In the new symbolic order inspired by the kaoboe, everything American, and more specifically anything reminiscent of the U.S. Army, is considered as particularly efficient and legitimate. This infatuation takes on its full significance on the 15 February, the day of the Tanna Army's parade. This is by far the most important public event on Tanna. (17) The annual 15 February ceremonies (or lafet blong 15 febuari) have taken place without interruption since 1957 and without any major modifications since 2000. The framework remains the same each time with its big ritual moments, its banquet and its extensive festivities marked by dances, singing and pantomime performances. But over the decades, lafet has become much more sophisticated and successfully adapted itself to the times. The brief description I give here corresponds to the observations I made in February 1999 and 2000. The 2006 and 2008 versions, in which I also took part, were very different.

The star attraction of the show during the 15 February celebrations is provided by the military ceremonies. They begin early in the morning after a John Frum mass. They are inaugurated by the raising of the flag in front of the John Frum headquarters which everyone attends in full dress. According to their importance in the movement, like Soviet generals, they wear all sorts of bogus medals (badges of political parties, of Green Peace, medals from New Caledonian agricultural shows, etc.) and U.S. insignia. Concentrating hard on their honorary role, they attend all the rites and festivities in total silence. Dressed in khaki uniforms with little black 'U.S Army' headbands, they stand in front of a first detachment which comes to salute the flags. Like that of the following detachments, their drill is perfectly synchronized. The flags are carefully unfolded, then slowly raised. Thousands of spectators attend the scene in total silence. After saluting, the detachment reforms before leaving and dispersing.

A big crowd then stirs when the imminent arrival of the Tanna Army's main detachment is announced. The gat (guards) restore order in the spectators' to-ing and fro-ing. They too wear uniforms and threaten spoilsports and children making too much noise with their sticks. The Tanna Army is late. It begins its march at the foot of Yasur volcano, on the banks of Lake Siwi, less than two kilometres from the village square. The troop advances in quick time. The march is interrupted a few times for the formation to re-align perfectly. Two abreast, the men are led by a kapten, wearing a Texan hat, who shouts orders to them in an esoteric language with a military sound to it. When the triumphant troop finally enters the village, it is before an astounded audience that it parades beneath the flags to go and take its place in formation in front of the VIP stand. Wonder can be seen on all faces. The men parading concentrate hard on executing a complex and carefully codified choreography. Their faces are tense, their eyes staring straight ahead. Bare-chested, the acronym USA is painted in red on their chests and backs. Barefoot, all wearing the same jeans, they carry on their shoulders pointed bamboo poles, with red-daubed tips, which they beat in rhythm and that give the impression of being real rifles. Their feet hit the ground heavily which makes their march, punctuated by the bos's orders, extremely noisy.

This march of the Tanna Army's Ipekel detachment seems to have changed very little since its first appearance. In 1978 Bonnemaison (1996) also observed the presence of a cavalry. The most sensational innovation was without doubt, in 2000, the addition of a military band comprised of twenty men from Ipekel, playing bamboo flutes, beating saucepan-drums and led by a bandleader in uniform with a red beret and a staff to encourage the musicians. They added an extraordinary musical touch to the parade. Nothing on this occasion is fixed; any creative inventiveness which respects the predefined symbolic framework can find its place. Once these high points are over, the festivities become more relaxed and convivial. After a few galvanizing speeches made by the movement's leaders or their spokesmen, the ball is opened with a series of traditional ceremonial dances (nupu). Uniforms have been replaced by pandanus skirts and the chiefly families' multi-coloured feathers, with make-up and, as headdresses, plastic tinsel garlands. These inaugural dances are followed by a series of ceremonial gifts (kava roots, mats and tubers) left on the dancing place by the chiefs invited. These gifts are meant as a reminder of their attachment to the John Frum movement and/or to the spirit of kastom.

After the midday meal, the kastom dances give way, in the afternoon, to other kinds of shows. Folk troupes composed of men, women and children from all over the island take it in turn to act a long series of short scenes and perform choreographies, a bit like videos which are sometimes modernist sometimes traditionalist and usually amusing. Some performances are very simple: a row of women perform a few dance steps while singing Christian tunes and swinging their arms to the accompaniment of a guitar. Others are performed at a furious rhythm by groups of young people dressed in pandanus skirts with feathers in their hair, backed up by a ghetto blaster playing reggae rhythms. Certain shows are big productions (with dozen of actors participating, a large variety of costumes and scenic elements). Their allegorical content is usually based on historical (the arrival of the first white men, Americans during the war) or evangelical (the Apostles' lives and teaching, Satan's evil deeds) themes. They mix acting, sermons, songs and dances, a bit like a musical comedy. The festivities finish at the end of the day with a flag-lowering ceremony and a closing dance, identical to those which open the afternoon events.


The 15 February ritual ceremonies arose from the end of the repression of the John Frum movement in 1957. During the tension and confrontations which accompanied the gaining of independence in 1980, the Tanna Army momentarily abandoned its role as a caricature army to become the breakaway groups' militia. In this period, the 15 February celebrations were organized in support of the millenarian fervour underlying the beliefs in John Frum but also as an act of political resistance. The flag, first red then American, was a symbol used to differentiate themselves from the Christian villages' bell and the colonial administration's flags, just as the French flag was raised by John Frum's followers in opposition to that of independent Vanuatu. The colonial administrations' position with regard to the John Frum movement during and after the 17 years of fierce repression was to treat it as a cult of cranks, dangerous nevertheless because of its micro-nationalist overtones. Under the leadership of Walter Lini, the country's post-colonial authorities stressed the theme of a cultural disease among remote populations who show problems adapting to the contemporary world and, what is more, are manipulated by colonial powers. In short, John Frum's followers were not to be taken seriously or were not people one can associate with and the legitimacy they use their folklore to claim is mentally dubious (Tabani, 2000; 2002). In colonial times, journalists like Attenborough or Muller also went to Tanna but the picture's magic did not work there as it did on Pentecost. John Frum's followers are manipulators, they lack sincerity. It all smells of deception. (18)

The evolution in the perception of a collective identity of the John Frum groups, by themselves and by their Vanuatu co-citizens, accompanied the political institutionalization of this movement and its social normalization during the 1990s. After displaying a legalist attitude towards the first changeover government in Vanuatu and benefiting from a liberalization of tourism, Tanna became one of the country's most prized destinations. Henceforth a visit to the Cargo village would be part of that to Mount Yasur volcano. International film crews jostled with each other to attend the 15 February ceremonies. But John Frum also became, from the state's point of view, culturally acceptable and accepted. Prime Minister Sope came in person on the 15 February 2000 for the inauguration of a memorial. A stele indicates that this monument was erected: 'In memory of our ancestors' struggle to defend the beliefs of the John Broom movement against colonial law and the white man. The John Broom movement, in defence of the cultural heritage, traditional beliefs and kastom identity of the men of this place'.

Sope's official speech was, to say the least, comical considering that in the past he had been the main inquisitor of the John Frum movement which he esteemed reactionary and obscure, contrary to his own Christian, progressive convictions of 'Melanesian socialism' (see Sope, 1974; 1995). On this occasion, Sope publicly adopted the suggestions of anthropologists in the 1960s, by developing the idea that John Frum's followers were quite simply the precursors of nationalism in Vanuatu. (19) In the space of a few minutes, a subtle dialectic sidestep on their Prime Minister's behalf raised the John Frum peoples to the rank of nationalist heroes. Sope did not have the time to get parliament to vote a John Frum Day as a national public holiday as he had promised. The natural and spiritual forces of 'John-Jesus' would thwart this project. Despite its similarities with the former lafet, the 15 February 2000 was very different. These ceremonies were the last to take place in widespread unity. For many John Frum believers they should have been the last before the 'end of the world'.

On the 2 May a cataclysmic event occurred. The waters of Lake Siwi, at the foot of Yasur volcano, had reached such a high level that a natural dam gave way in the middle of the night. In a few hours the lake was empty, the water flowing towards the village of Sulphur Bay, the cult's headquarters, which was flooded. The repercussions of this catastrophe on an island scale had not seen their equivalent since the first appearance of John Frum at the end of the 1930s. In the following days, hundreds of people from all over Tanna and from other islands set out for the destroyed village. A new 'prophet', by the name of Fred Nasse, had been getting himself talked about of late and, what is more, before the disaster happened. But in the days after this fateful event, his following increased considerably. He ordered people of all origins and all denominations to remain together and be united on the site of the disaster because, now that the 3rd millennium had begun, the end of time was near. Everyone was to take part in the founding of a 'Noah's Ark', a new village named 'New Jerusalem', on Yenekahi mountain, behind Yasur volcano. Only those who took refuge there would escape the divine punishment reserved for all men locked in sin. This last judgement was going to take the form of an imminent explosion of the volcano which would bring about the island's total destruction.

As the end of the world did not take place, Fred's movement gradually lost its apocalyptic dimension to take on the appearance of 'therapeutic prophetism'. The insistence on the ark intended to take them to paradise gradually died out and was replaced by the image of a 'pirogue of the year 2000' (iea 2000 niko) and that of a 'ship of Unity' (sip blong uniti). Behind this symbolism can be seen an intention to replace the former Tannese social division of 'pirogues' (niko) by the introduction of a sole pirogue, the pirogue of Unity, supposed to refer back to the times of origin. The results of this symbolic revolution are particularly obvious in the internal politico-religious organization of the pirogue of Unity and in the increasing complexity of all the John Frum ceremonies. The splitting up of the Sulphur Bay John Frum movement into three unequal groups first influenced Fred's followers, who no longer sing and dance on Friday nights but in broad daylight on Wednesdays. The latter have also removed the saluting of the American flag from their protocol. The mythological references to America, which had contributed to the cult's glory in its former version, have been discredited since the American imperialist adventure in Iraq. For many Tannese, the Iraqis and other man muslam are merely legitimately defending their kastom.

The biggest repercussion of the break-up of the John Frum movement is the dispersal of its organization's ritual activities. Since 2001, the 15 February ceremonies have taken place in three different places and been conducted by three rival groups. It is thus the ritual undertaking itself which has corrected the media overexposure of John Frum's followers. This is an essential point. It is neither too much commercial exploitation nor an attempt at political normalization which caused these rifts. It is a real internal change of doctrine which put an end to the reasonable image of just another kastom movement which public opinion, both in and outside Tanna, had begun to form about the John Frum movement. The normalization process of the latter, first advocated by its cultic leaders, then accepted by most of the members of the political elite in Port Vila, was therefore thwarted by the widespread determination of people on Tanna to remain the masters of their own destiny. The supporters of the various trends of John frumism have spontaneously continued to do as they please with the ritual systems and mythological content at the roots of the collective identification mechanisms they have introduced since their Christianization. Fred's followers were the first to free themselves from the weight of external representations. The John Frum groups which have joined them have thus stopped giving the image of themselves which other people expected. For man Tanna the spectacle has been transferred to new activities encouraged by Fred: collective fits of possession, big apocalyptic meetings, the massive slaughtering of pigs and fowls for purely sacrificial purposes. They are not really folk scenes and all are unknown to tourists and forbidden to foreign film crews. The second Coming of John-Jesus will not be televised.

True to its image, the official 15 February ceremony continued to be performed in the village of Lamakara, a kilometre as the crow flies from the movement's former headquarters. Chief Isak Wan's group's organization--he is the heir to the historic John Frum leaders--is the best-known and so appears to be the most legitimate from the tourism point of view because it seems more reassuring for the audience. This commercialization of the movement as a commodity is being increasingly condemned locally, even among Isak Wan's followers. But even more so among rival groups who like to recall that in the past John Frum kastom was 'against money' and that one of their favourite slogans was 'no tourist, no money, no problem'. These protests increased further when chief Isak took the south-western John Frum groups to court to obtain the exclusive rights to the name of 'John Frum'. The criticisms expressed often refer to the negative example of the Nagol, whose problems are known to many. But even more so, it is Tanna's most imposing traditional ceremony, the Nekowiar, which is given as the most appalling example of kastom's commercialization.

However anxious the people of Tanna may be about the integrity of their principal customary ceremonies, the different John Frum groups, just like those who challenge their doctrine, unanimously agree on the necessity of preserving the 15 February celebration as a local, national, even universal heritage. The 15 February remains the most widely-shared cultural expression of man Tanna's contemporary identity. These ceremonies are at the heart of a collective 'raison d'Etre', they provide a medium for the assertion of a shared culture, a regular plebiscite for uniting and continuing to exist together in the global world, while exercising 'power' in it. When asked if this celebration was in danger of disappearing, a cult dignitary who had gone over to Fred's group, told me this:

If lafet stopped, it would really be a very bad thing. If someone dared to stop it, he would be dealing a serious blow to Tanna's reputation and to that of the whole country. Tanna is a small island but her power extends over the whole country. To abolish the 15 February would even be harmful to France, to Noumea, to Australia and to people from many other places on earth. Very harmful. Tanna is small but according to our myths (stori) it makes the world go round. It is small like the head of a match but its power extends over the whole world. Whether it be on earth or below the earth, man Tanna have a power. If someone wanted to abolish the 15 February celebration, to abolish the memory of our elders and of John Frum, something serious would happen. It has become a religion for us. Why should we abolish it? If it was to disappear, we would become idlers, we would be nothing anymore (Taniel Sarawe, Fatarepa, February 2004).


The question of the identities conveyed by these neo-ritualizations has become culturally strategic. If their political dimension escapes the majority of participants and spectators, their economic stakes are obvious to everyone. Some agents involved in these ceremonies, organizers, local participants or outside observers, are better informed than others about the institutional vocation of kastom's powers. However, the level of this awareness varies. What is particularly lost sight of among man Tanna or man Pentecost is the objectivization of the assertion of cultural identities conveyed by these mass ceremonial organizations. Although they have moved away from the Churches, the John Frums claim they defend the kastom created by God on the first day. Though customary chiefs of Tanna have sold the kastom of the Nekowiar to tourists, they, the followers of John Frum, claim to have saved it with their flags and parades. Man Pentecost are fully conscious of the extent to which the practice of the Nagol has been corrupted by money, robbing them of their image by presenting them as being ready to do anything, including selling their culture, to obtain rice or Toyotas. Nevertheless, in their eyes, even this betrayal cannot affect the true spirit of kastom or the archetypal image of the Nagol which was its most spectacular form of expression.

In short, what Melanesians usually emphasize is the Christian dimension of an idealized vision of man-before-the-Fall's kastom (Babadzan, 1988). Whether this Fall is situated alternately in a biblical or pre-Western past, it invariably originates in an implicit refusal to conceive of kastom in Vanuatu as a socio-historical construction by endowing it with a timeless and superior value over which no secularization process would seem to have a hold. The collective identities of a kastom situated at the roots of Melanesian values are part of God's creation. They are an essential part of a project whose purpose escapes men's control. Only foreigners who understand nothing about kastom or non-believers who have renounced God can consider them as mere products of colonial confrontations or post-colonial strategies.

I therefore come to the conclusion that it is difficult to radically oppose the 15 February ceremonies and those of the Nagol on the pretext that the officiants of the former are said to have used neo-traditional means to present an identity of kastom guerrillas while the latter are said to represent the perfect negative example of a 'cultural prostitution' venture (Keesing, 1989). There can be no doubt that the people of Vanuatu have retained a certain autonomy over the management and the means of their collective identifications but they are nonetheless bound by the representation of the past on which the representations of their contemporary identities are based. The past to which kastom refers apparently rejects the contradictions resulting from the colonial heritages. The context of its expression is today that of a sovereign state which, while striving to create a national spirit, comes up against the perpetuation of ideological elements from before independence.

In Condominium days, the missionaries tried to overcome ethnic frontiers in order to impose the idea of a people of God, whilst the administration's control relied on the instrumentalization of territorial divisions, with the 'indigenous populations' status as the only common identity horizon. At independence, the ideological priority for the elite who found themselves in a dominant position was to conceal their own filiation with the colonial regime and, for this, to insist on the positive references to their Christian heritage and the ancestral Melanesian values with which Christ's message is supposed to have harmoniously merged. The promotion of national identity through the uniformization of the management of cultural diversities in fact introduces a memory rivalry with the historicist constructions left by colonial domination. 'He, who controls the past, controls the present; and he who controls the present controls the future', recalled George Orwell. Political one-upmanship revolving round strategies of cultural identification constitutes, for a country classed among the 'least advanced' economically and financially dependent on its neo-colonial sponsors, one of the rare opportunities for making its voice heard in the United Nations concert.

The 15 February ceremonies on Tanna, the Nagol land dive on Pentecost and other traditionalist ritualizations in Vanuatu are, as a whole, now only incidentally rituals. They are the products of representations which, in their pictorially most accomplished form, can be projected onto giant screens in order to reveal a media reflection of the cultural life and the identity of those to whom they belong. The representation of an essentialized identity, in practice part of the exploitation of a reified culture, becomes inseparable from the capacities of its mechanical reproducibility. Observer and observed, officiant and spectator (close or distant), everyone takes part on his own level in a generalization of the aestheticizing of cultural diversity in which the ritualization of differences, identity politics and the commercialization of cultures tend to be superimposed when they have not already totally merged. Cultural specificity becomes the iconic medium for a specialization of identity (Babadzan, 2009) whose originality can be spontaneously captured by the image it diffuses and its exact reproduction. Thus, despite the growing tourist influx towards 'tribal zones', only a very small proportion of the thousands of tourists who crowd the luxury establishments of Port Vila will also go to the islands to attend the Nagol or the John Frum ceremonies 'live' (Douglas, 1996:194). However, when they see the photos of them in tourist brochures or in clip frames in their hotel lobby, they will know they have come to the country of 'primitive bungee jumping' and the so very burlesque 'Cargo cults'. If they forget, entertainment programmes will remind them of it once they have returned home. (20)

To go back to the telling example of the moratorium on the Nagol, let us note that the current situation of customary chiefs greedy for liquid assets is the equivalent of a total reversal of this ceremony's film history and of the image of disinterested natives who were the precursors of dangerous sports and other refinements of the leisure society. The association of TKEC and biogenetics can, on the other hand, be seen as a return to roots, minus the terminology, to the missionary representations of the 'native soul' or the ethnological ones of the 'primitive thinking' of islanders incapable of distinguishing the human being from his natural environment. Except that today the politically correct question of ascertaining how 'indigeneity is conceived' is open to positive discrimination. All kinds of experts have embraced the previous generations' old colonial representations, while applying the regulation make-up, filters and ideological travesties. These cultures are so singular (qualified successively as savage, primitive, autochthonous, indigenous, traditional, early) that exploitation of their TKEC would now amount to robbery: a stolen identity after a repressed identity under colonization.

The neo-ritualizations are indeed part of a colonial heritage, in the form of an indigenous reaction first conceived by the Melanesians themselves as a commercial revenge or as a political challenge to white men's hegemony. But it is a fact that today they can also be used by moralizing ideologies to denounce bad government or in attempts at hijacking kastom to serve the interests of politicians, local businessmen or big foreign predators. Henceforth, the commercial overexploitation of identities appears locally as a factor of political destabilization. This colonial heritage, positively inverted in a post-colonial context and a post-modern intellectual setting, is what distinguishes TKEC from the historical colonialist heritage of the nation-states of old Europe. The French myth of 'our ancestors, the Gauls', though it has been intensely used politically in the past, was not directly created for commercial interests (even if, long afterwards, the adventures of Asterix were exploited on an industrial scale). One thing is sure, the cultural identities on which the neo-mythologization of TKEC is based would seem to be very different from such illusions. They are an 'ancestral', 'ethnic', 'tribal' or, more modestly, 'traditional' resource whose sustainable development is far from having fulfilled all expectations.


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Marc Tabani

CNRS CREDO--Marseille


(1.) In an article by Bolton on the influence of the Church and women on politics of tradition, Ralph Regenvanu, the Director of the National Cultural Council of Vanuatu underlines the imbalance between the respective weight of the Church and kastom in the country: 'The single biggest issue facing the Cultural Centre is the version of Vanuatu history established by the missionaries, that is of the pre-colonial era as a time of darkness ... He sees the churches as having extensive influence in Vanuatu which is not balanced by the influence of kastom' (Bolton, 1998). Hence the Cultural Centres' deliberate strategy of associating Christian values with the revival of kastom. Thus the annual meetings of ni-Vanuatu VKS fieldworkers (fieldworkers workshop) invariably begin with a prayer: 'The acknowledgement of God through prayers in the fieldworker workshops draws Christian belief into the work of the Cultural Centre in the revival of kastom, affirming the idea that Christianity and kastom are compatible, declaring in fact that the Christian God supports the revival of kastom ... As a strategy, praying for the revival of kastom is a highly effective way of addressing the relationship between Christianity and indigenous knowledge and practice' (ibid.).

(2.) Alternative expressions for man blong kastom (custom men since man indicates both singular and plural in Bislama) are man-pies, man-place, or kastom foloa, 'follower of custom'. The positive connotation of these terms co-exists with the unpleasant use of the term man bus bushman--the antonym, during the colonial period, of a 'civilized person'. There are, of course, today 'kastom artists' who sign their plastic works but they are always the representatives of a group which gives them permission to reproduce the works; a group which in some circumstances collectively expresses certain of its cultural forms of a potentially aesthetic, and therefore commercial, nature (dances, rituals, songs, corporal techniques, technical skills).

(3.) Among Pacific scholars in anthropology, the kastom issue has become an endless debate. Kastomology, to borrow Babadzan's word (Babadzan, 2004), is now integrated into most theoretical analysis of culture change in Melanesia. Indeed, it becomes ever more difficult to survey exhaustively the anthropological literature on kastom and reinvention of tradition in Melanesia since 1982 (Keesing and Tonkinson 1982). Many disagree in speaking about kastom as 'invented traditions' because the word would encompass 'traditional traditions' and 'traditionalist traditions' (Otto and Pedersen 2005). However, nowadays traditionalist ideologies can make political use of any selected kastom, and even reject or deny other traditions that don't concord with Christianity (Bolton 1998). Traditionalism corresponds with deep transformations of indigenous cultural representations of continuity, links between the past and the present, and ideas about 'cultural revivals'. (For a commented review of literature up to 2000, see Tabani, 2002). The last main issues and critics on this debate have been raised by some leading authors, in the wake of Sahlins' (1999) attempts to replace the concept of 'culture' in the center of the anthropological debate, to deal with 'kastom as culture' (see for example Akin 2004, Robbins 2005 and Babadzan, 2004, 2006 and for an extensive case study in the Solomons, see Fraenkel 2004 and in New Caledonia, see Monnerie 2005).

(4.) During a political meeting on Tanna in June 2008, Edouard Natapei, then a minister, campaigned on the theme of the necessity of abandoning kastom when it appeared to be an obstacle to development. A proposition which to many present was the equivalent of a scandalous call to part with Christian values.

(5.) The material used to illustrate the case of the Gol land dive is mainly taken from various written sources--books, working documents, newspaper articles--but they have been extensively discussed with Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS) officials, as well as with inhabitants of Pentecost in Port-Vila and on the spot during a short research trip in the south of this island in 1995. For Tanna, most of the material is from my field research that is about 24 months spread over 10 visits, during four of which I took part in the 15 February ceremonies in 1999, 2000, 2004, 2008.

(6.) In 1927, the Nagol ceremonies described by Tattevin do not include building a tower. People dived from the branches of a banyan on which dive platforms were made. The rapidity (25 years) with which the base for the dives developed from the branches of a tree to the building of a tower is remarkable (see the history of the Gol tower's modifications according to pictorial reconstructions suggested by Lipp 2008, 225-227 & 234-235). To the extent that one wonders if these major innovations were not subject to other, outside influences. It is highly likely that among the many Pentecost men who worked on American military bases on the neighbouring island of Santo during the Second World War some saw the installations for the training of the American Air Force's third army's parachute battalion. Though high metal jump towers were not erected on Santo, the presence of control towers on pillars and of smaller wooden ones used for training parachutists seems attested (Lindstrom, personal communication). The hypothesis is bold but the question is worth raising. Lipp (2008), who devoted his doctoral thesis to the study of the Gol, does not seem to know its origin in an unsigned and undated article for the Societe Allemande de Psychohistoire, circulated on the web and entitled 'The Primal Jump as a Bungee-Jump' ( Lipp (2008, 395-396) rejects this hypothesis with no justification, attributing it to mere jokes made by Australian tourists.

(7.) M. Jolly (personal communication).

(8.) 'It is also notable that between the 1950s and 1970s there was a marked shift in the costumes of those performing the land dive--the earlier films often show the men diving in shorts and shirts and women dancing in Mother Hubbard dresses. The shift to a more purist aesthetics of kastom had both indigenous and exogenous sources, but was clearly marked in the period following the presence of the filmmaker Kal Muller in 1970. Many people claimed that he would not allow any deviations from kastom costume on the screen' (Jolly, 1994a: 144).

(9.) 'It is noteworthy that the question of the rights of the group has already been addressed by the courts and by French legal doctrine, essentially during the 'Bunlap Tribe' matters. The ritual ceremonies of a tribe from the island of Pentecost, in Vanuatu, had been filmed and broadcast in Europe without the consent of the people concerned. The chief of the tribe took action in France to obtain redress for breach of the right to their image of members of the tribe, and of their intellectual property rights over the ceremony. What also needs to be established is if the tribe is an organised group, in the sense of civil procedure law, able to take action. The Paris Court, in a judgement dated 12 March 1975, according to a French doctrine familiar with the co-existence of written and customary law, found that the tribe 'is an organised group of individuals of Melanesian race, enjoying religious and customary unity, heritage rights and a qualified representative in the person of its chief; its members have legal collective interests that the group is legitimately entitled to defend in the courts'. However, in its decision already referred to dated 20 December 1976, the Paris Appeal Court rejected the judgement on this point, considering that the tribe would have to prove that according to its customary status, as co-ordinated with the law of the New Hebrides, it could indeed claim to enjoy legal status' (Gautier, 1999: 8).

(10.) 'Before independence, a tourist had to pay 3700 Vatus (VT) to attend the Nagol. But today prices have risen to reach 7500 VT. A television crew has to pay 600 000 VT and everyone who wants to film has to pay 2 500 VT a camera' (Tiona, 1995). 'The Gaul Land Dive has become a business, an opportunity for earning money ... Over the last few years, the number of dives has increased and the ritual has become a competition ... The members of a council responsible for the Nagol activities are said to have embezzled money brought by foreign visitors whose numbers increase every year ... This practice would have made money for the community of southern Pentecost if the rights had been paid for ... The spirit of collective work has deteriorated and each village has decided to take charge of the Nagol and to organize it as it wishes with a sole aim: to make money' (Tiona, 1998).

(11.) 'The nangol Jump is an age old and sacred tradition or kastom associated with the island of Pentecost and of a particular part of Pentecost at that, the Southern region [...]. Traditionally and for centuries, the kastom ceremony of the Nagol Jumps were reserved to and performed only in those two villages by their kastom owners. Lately it seems that, for reasons more akin to commercial sense, than to customary values, the Nagol jump has been allowed to be performed in other areas of Pentecost more accessible to tourism. But it remains essentially a kastom ceremony of the Island of Pentecost. The Nagol jump or 'Land Diving' is the most traditional and spectacular of all the customs of Vanuatu [...] As a result Pentecost itself is known world-wide. It is its main tourist attraction. The kastom is deeply rooted in legend Therefore, I direct, in conformity with kastom, that the Nagol jumping should return to Pentecost. I do not go as far as saying that it must be performed solely in its traditional villages of Pentecost, as that may cause untold hardship to those who do not have access to tourism. [...] I do not order that the kastom shall never leave Pentecost, but what I do order is that on those rare occasions when it is allowed to leave Pentecost that it should only do so: 1. With the majority consent of the kastom owners taken on a vote, on the majority consent of all the local chiefs taken according to kastom. That all the kastom ceremonies and permission should be obtained and followed and that the final decision should rest with the Malvatumauri on a majority decision taken according to kastom; 2. That on those rare occasions when it does finally leave Pentecost, [...] that all the kastom owners and their clans would share in an equitable manner the [...] benefits' ... (Extract from the decision of the civil division of the Port Vila Tribunal, rendered 10 July 1992 in the Re the Nagol Jump, Assal & Vatu v The Council of Chiefs of Santo case. [1980-1994] Van LR 545).

(12.) See the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the annual general meeting of the United Nations on 13 September 2007.

(13.) See Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), Annex IC of the Marrakech Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization, 15 April 1994.

(14.) 'The term 'folklore' has been criticized for having negative connotations and referring to ancient traditions intended to be recorded or memorized rather than used or celebrated in modern life' (Torsen, 2006: 175)

(15.) Attempts to get round this moratorium have already led to one tragedy. In April 2008, as it did not apply to ni-Vanuatu professionals, the Australian production company Beyond Productions, acting for the National Geographic Society, is said to have bribed a young cameraman, Hardy Bill Ligo, working for the national television channel, to film the ceremonies for them. Too much risk-taking would seem to have unbalanced the tower which collapsed killing the cameraman instantly (Vanuatu Daily Post 17/04/2008).

(16.) An assertion contrary to the constant protests of PortVila's inhabitants about the young 'rascals' of Tanna who are said to be responsible for most of the delinquency in Tanna and to have no respect for any values.

(17.) The first flags, said to have been given by the Americans during the war, were hoisted for the first time in 1957, on the liberation of Nakomaha, the last of the John Frum leaders still in prison. According to chief Isak Wan, this ceremony marked the gaining of the freedom to 'wear marks of adherence to John Frum ... Even those who had none would soon be able to raise the American flag above those of the colonial powers. The Americans had [warned the Condominium authorities] that it was taboo to interfere with kastom, that is the real meaning of the flags. America forbade the colonial powers to imprison man-ples for following the customs of their culture: the kastom and culture of men-places (man-ples) belongs to them alone. Since then, everyone has been able to see that kastom is alive, that kastom is life [...]. The flag ceremony saved our kastom and our culture. If there had not been this ceremony, we would have lost our kastom and the government would have won. It is thanks to John Frum's promise telling us that America would give us flags to stop the colonial powers, that kastom was revived. When all the people of Tanna saw the flags flying, they understood that the Condominium authorities could no longer oppose it. That is the history of the 15 February' (Chief Isak Wan, Ipekel, 14/02/2000, see Tabani 2008 for further details).

(18.) It is therefore a very bad reputation the John Frumists will be given. Even the museums of the armies of Western countries do not want their old American jackets patched with Green Peace badges, their bamboo rifles or their flower telephones. Later, other exogenous voices will emphasize the avant-garde character of belief in John Frum (Lindstrom, 1993). It is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for all kinds of artists, aesthetes, writers and poets. More broadly, for all those who work in the West at fuelling collective imaginaries (journalists, filmmakers, singers, politicians, advertising men), the John Frum cult would seem to deliver a message of universal value. The content of this rhetoric has been particularly developed, in a prophetic tone, by Edward Rice, a special correspondent from New York. After a brief trip to the island in the 1970s, in his bestseller he echoed the spirit of John Frum. Seeing in this figure the symbol of opposition to 'global hegemony', he raises him to the rank of a post-modern icon. John is also said to be a precursor of the alterglobalist movement: 'John is trying to tell us as westerners to disconnect our minds from the American computer, to turn-off the airconditioned nightmare, to float with the mighty currents that sweep through the rest of the world, Africa, Asia and the Pacific' (Rice, 1974: 243).

(19.) 'The first time I came here, to Sulphur Bay, I was still at university and writing my book. I came to talk to old Mweles and the other elders of the John Frum movement. At the time, the Vanuaaku Pati did not exist, nor did the NUP or any of the other parties. None of them existed. There were only the John Frum and Nagriamel movements. And at the time, all the elders of these movements had already discussed independence, the very one we have today ...' (Barak Sope, extracts from a speech made at Sulphur Bay, 15/02/2000; for the complete speech see Tabani, 2008).

(20.) Over the last few years there has been a real media hype on 'paradise islands' inhabited by 'noble savages' in all sorts of reality shows: one day, after asking me my flight destination, the clerk at a bank counter in Paris airport where I was changing foreign currency exclaimed: 'Vanuatu ? The Koh Lanta country!' (Koh Lanta is the French version of the Survivors TV program).
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Author:Tabani, Marc
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Geographic Code:8VANU
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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