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True transgressions: refusal and recolonization in the narrative of a Papuan migrant `bighead.'.

Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

- C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, 1959

As C. Wright Mills has written, to make sense of an individual life it is first necessary to understand the history of a society, but the history of that society is impoverished if it does not include and account for the life of individuals.(1) A number of feminist social historians and ethnographers since the 1970s have been concerned with deepening this proposition at both ends by destabilizing received notions of how histories and individuals are socially made, and by whom. Oral history has had wide appeal to feminist scholars since the Second Wave, and despite the interpretive and epistemological difficulties of reading women's words, oral narrative has much to contribute to a feminist "sociological imagination."(2)

In recent years, feminists theorizing the "political" have criticized ethnographic and social historical understandings of politics as a male-biased construction and argued for a more inclusive understanding of politics. Part of the project of writing women back into cultural accounts entails treating their practical activities as socially and politically consequent. In particular, postcolonial feminist work on women's life narratives suggests that a cross-cultural variety of women's oral accounts might be seen as discursive locations for contesting power. In this view, one's stow can be an act of insurgency that subverts the social order and points toward cultural alternatives. Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith, for instance, are concerned with the potential for women's autobiography to constitute new subjectivities and dislodge what they see as universalizing or masculinizing tendencies in more orthodox interpretations of culture and the individual.(3) More importantly, they suggest, female autobiographical subjectivity may engender cultural consciousness raising and social transformation. Chandra Talpade Mohanty has argued for conceptualizing collective selves and consciousness - constituted through storytelling - as political practice by women of color and Third World women.(4) In her view an expanded understanding of politics thus enables a feminist reading of how narrative selves are manufactured in opposition to dominant masculine paradigms.

The work of scholars such as Mohanty informs my analysis of the individual biography and oral narrative of Stella Seliok, a migrant woman from the rural, westernmost interior of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Tabubil, a multinational mining township in the mountainside not far from where Stella grew up. Born in the 1950s, Stella has experienced the colonial pacification of her region, the arrival of European missionaries, and the more recent penetration of European capital in the countryside following political independence in 1975. The narrative she shared with me in Tabubil reflects on these imperial interventions and how Stella has confronted them. Her story invites a critical consideration of the manifold ways in which a subaltern female subject may challenge and collaborate with structures and relations of domination, because Stella is neither the victim of these structures and relations nor the critic one might wish or expect. In this article I consider the contributions Stella's story makes to recent debates in life history, and in particular to recent feminist debates on subaltern women's narrative as a potential site for contestation.


Stella Seliok describes herself in neo-Melanesian pidgin as a bikhet meri, or recalcitrant female, and she is defined by kinspeople as a rabis meri, or rubbish woman.(5) Displaced by choice from a conventional life of subsistence cultivation in a rural village, she is among a small minority of women who migrated to find wage work in the township. Stella's life is, I will argue, a condensation of historical transformations that have occurred in the Western Province of PNG over some three decades.

A single mother in her mid-thirties working as an orderly in a workers' barracks in Tabubil, Stella lived in a shanty settlement of migrant kinfolk at the edge of town at the time we first met in 1989. During the year that followed, Stella shared her life story with me when I visited the township on field breaks from Golgobip, the rural village of Stella's birth where I was doing ethnographic research.

Stella was born in 1956 into a small hamlet by the headwaters of the Fly River in the northern region of the Western Province, where her people, the Faiwolmin (Min) lived.(6) At that time, women and men throughout the Min region cultivated subsistence root crop gardens at upper- and lower-montane altitudes to accommodate high annual rainfall and staggered harvests, men hunted wild pig and tree marsupials throughout the region, and considerable time was spent away from the scattered hamlets of villages like Golgobip. Boys were inducted into manhood through a protracted cycle of male initiation rites in men's ritual houses (haus tambaran)(7) throughout the region. The secret to successful horticulture, hunting, and warfare, this knowledge was the key to the social and ideological reproduction of Faiwolmin life.(8) Among indigenous groups in this area of PNG, men were made through this process, in which they learned important traditions concerned with land, labor, kinship, and locality, to name a few.

By the late 1950s, the interior of the Western Province was one of the few remaining areas of PNG yet to be brought under Australian colonial power. Widely regarded by European explorers and colonists as bereft of natural resources, this "last frontier" remained a backwater for expansion until 1963, when itinerant patrol officers established an administrative subdistrict station at Olsobip, a lower montane village a day's walk from where Stella grew up. The colonial officer (kiap) brought with him new laws, imposed standards for health and education, introduced cash crops, casual labor, trade goods and teachers, rifles and rollbooks, latrines and notions of hygiene, along with litigation and the creation of lawful and unlawful custom, all within a short period of time.(9) He and his assistants also enlisted local populations to assist in the consolidation of rule through the establishment of a rural infrastructure - built with native hands for Australian money and locally coveted trade goods.(10)

Australian colonizers were challenged by the physical mobility of mountain subjects and with problems of imposing law and order on a population lacking a chiefdom or stable hierarchy of leadership that could be restructured to colonial ends. Faiwolmin were apprehensive, hopeful, and intimidated by turns at the arrival of white men whose goods and services seemed like possible pathways of opportunity. Both sides to this encounter - Australian and Faiwolmin - were male dominated. Officers established local liaisons and appointed male leaders through local male interpreters, albeit with limited effect. Attired in newly introduced and much coveted red lap-laps (waistcloths), these bosses, soon to be conversant in tok pisin, the colonial lingua franca, drafted male laborers who enlisted sisters, wives, and daughters to work for them at the construction of the government subdistrict headquarters in Olsobip. Local men were paid by the government, and local women by kinsmen, if at all. Parents in rural villages like Golgobip sent their sons to board with relatives at Olsobip station where they attended primary school but seldom sent daughters. Fearful of losing them at puberty to lustful boys, Faiwolmin see young women as crucial to horticulture, pig husbandry, and eventual marriage and motherhood.(11) In general, the colonial encounter of women and youngsters was mediated by Faiwolmin kinsmen. The kiap delegated authority and responsibility to village elders under a system of indirect rule and a colonial policy of noninterference with the lawful practices of subjects. A gendered system of paternalistic rule, noninterference conferred powerful prerogatives on male subjects as guardians of the "traditional," as we will see.

Meanwhile, Montfort Catholic missionaries had arrived in PNG from Quebec late in the 1950s to establish a Fly River mission.(12) By 1968 they had expanded the diocese to the Min zone, where they opened a parish headquarters in 1976. In the years prior to national independence, relatively prosperous missionaries slowly supplanted the authority of the colonial state. Faiwolmin men regarded the priest and his Mission as a probable benefactor for small business projects and rural development. Women welcomed the emphasis on monogamy, relaxed pollution taboos, and a Mission model of marital partnership.


Stella Seliok's girlhood imagination and youthful brio took root at this historical crossroad of colonialism and evangelization in a hinterland of European expansion. The final years of Australian occupation, 1963 through 1975, were marked by an increasingly dense European presence in the Faiwolmin region. Stella recalls watching the kiap on patrol through the scattered hamlets of Golgobip, his retinue of carriers transporting the equipment of Australian rule in heavy metal patrol boxes suspended on long poles. Stella remembers the officers' efforts to enroll local children in Olsobip Primary School during the 1960s and Stella's disappointment at her parents' refusal to let her go. She remembers sitting in the cool rapids of the Fly headwaters with female age-mates, sharing stories about a hoped - for Australian helicopter that would bring them European panties, bras, and husbands, while airlifting them to an imagined life of the nascent PNG class of urban bureaucrat.

Now, one time we girls went and sat in the Fly River down at the hot place at Kuapinal [a bush encampment not far from the patrol post]. We sat down and I said: "We are sitting on a stone in the river and a helicopter is coming toward us." I was joking with them. "A helicopter is coming . . . BBB . . . BBB [Stella imitates the sound and motion of a helicopter] BBB . . . BBB . . . and it is coming to land on this stone. OK, some really nice, young boys-o -oh, oh -these young boys from town have bought some fine, fine dresses and fine panties and bras. . . . "OK, come on, you're our wives, you come wear these clothes and jump into the helicopter and we're going . . . we're going to [Port] Moresby now, Moresby, or Wewak, or Vanimo, or some place else. Come on."

I said this to the girls. "OK, let's jump in. Now, your boyfriend bought something for you, wear it" and to the other girl, "your boyfriend bought something for you, you wear it. Now we'll sit down in the helicopter and go to Kuapinal." BBB . . . BBB . . . BBB . . . all the parents are there. Oh! these girls are sitting in a helicopter. How are they going to take us? We laugh.

We went with our boyfriends. We got married, we had children, and later we came back to our village. We came back and said, "Oh, our parents, we were sitting in the river when a helicopter came to get us. We hopped in and took off. . . ."

The iconography of Stella's girlhood imagination encompassed a widening radius of social relations over the decade of consolidation and expansion. By 1968 a base camp for Australian geologists surveying the mountains for minerals had been established at Olsobip, and exploratory forays by helicopter, accompanied by the Olsobip patrol officer, had already detected traces of copper ore in the confluence of two rivers to the west of Faiwolmin territory.

The vehicles for Stella's deliverance were imagined and very real: the helicopter and the man in Western attire from a faraway and more "developed" region of PNG, would deliver her - she hoped - from a lackluster life of root crop cultivation under the surveillance of village elders. But the patrol officer was never an end in himself; with him came lingerie, store-bought food, running water, and the probable conveniences of a modern home. Stella's material desire was engendered by a gently rising tide of colonial trade goods - steel knives, hatchets, matches, commercial tobacco, store-bought food, to name a few - that were highly sought after and much discussed by Stella's relatives. Stella's material desire was sensualized in the image of the longwe man - someone from far off, outside her endogamous ethnic group. She explained it to me this way:

If you marry in the village, all the time you are going to go to the garden, garden, garden, your skin will be slack and dirty. You work in the garden all the time and clear the garden and it's hard work and it rains and you carry the child and carry other things and come to the house. And it is hard work to make the fire and hard work to cook the food and cook, cook, cook . . . [in Golgobip] all the women work hard. All the men do is burn trees. Cut and burn the trees. . . .

I did not want anyone from my own village. When I was small I knew I did not want anyone from my own village and now too; I won't. That was my one big thought. I wanted to marry a man from somewhere else.

As she approached adolescence, Stella's desire for an ethnic Other had an increasingly erotic character, regarded by villagers as annoying and inappropriate. Her desire was tantamount to a refusal to reproduce herself socially as an ethnic Faiwolmin, since in-marriage was the traditional means by which men policed their ethnic borders and kept women in. Traditionally, marriage was by arrangement of elders and the consent of partners. Marriages could, and can still, dissolve informally. But partners are not chosen from outside the ethnic and linguistic region, and when women married into neighboring villages it was generally by arrangement as well.(14)

During the late colonial period, the Olsobip District was recruiting groups of local villagers to assist in the regular clearing of the station grounds. Stella arrived with kinsmen for a colonial labor draft, and a PNG colonial official from a distant ethnic group of Highlands Engans, registering workers for eventual payment, took an immediate liking to her, noting her name on his skin. Sharing this stow with me many years later, Stella sighed to recall her fine looks and the authoritative sexiness exuded by the Engan:

So I gave them my name. I was still a small girl. This man, this kiap, got everybody's name and last he came to me and he said: "What's your name?" this man from Wabag [capital of the Enga Province]. And I said: "My name is Stella." So he wrote my name in the book, the roll book, and after that he wrote my name on his skin. He wrote my name on his skin, and, please . . . when I was younger I was really pretty . . . no breasts yet . . . I was really young. Aiiii . . . I was the finest girl around. My stomach was not too big and I was small but tall. I was full of life, and I said: "No worries, you can write my name on your skin."

We worked and we got food - rice and meat and soap and smoke - from the kiap. Some women only got a small amount but to me he gave a lot, this kiap. Oh, he was tall and handsome. I did not know anything about smoking but he would give me tobacco and I would give it to my relatives.

Staying at Olsobip with relatives, Stella watched and waited for the officer; over a fire in the evening, she and female relatives speculated on his likely moves and motives. The officer's generous gifts of food and trade goods were a cultural signal of sexual interest in Stella, who entered the house of the officer while he was out early one evening. Stella made the initial move toward marriage: in PNG a match frequently begins when a woman joins her fiance were he lives, often with his parents, and assumes the tasks of a wife. Here, there were no in-laws, pigs to tend, or gardens to grow; Stella recalls proper European rooms, one especially for beds, a veranda, a table and chairs, her first glance of toothpaste, an air of composure and quiet mastery. However, the kiap soon determined that Stella was too young to marry, since she had not yet begun menstruating.

So, you know men. . . . He said: "I thought you were grown up, but you are too small. No problem, I am going to look after you and you can eat fish from Kiunga [district headquarters] and you will grow up." He said: "You are not big enough for me to touch. We will just sleep here only." And then he went and showed me the hot water and the cold water. I got a toothbrush and washed my teeth. I was still small. My mother and father had not known about washing their teeth. He showed me how to wash my teeth and to comb my hair . . . I was not clear yet on washing my teeth with the Colgate. . . .

When elder kinsmen back in Golgobip caught word of Stella's elopement, they dispatched a posse of angry men to Olsobip. There they tore Stella, kicking and crying in protest, from the station and into the bush where they planned to force her to return to her natal village. Away at the time, the kiap chose not to oppose the men. Australian colonial noninterference respected the apparently peaceful application of traditional marriage rules. By local custom, Stella was legally a child and therefore a hostage to fortune among the Faiwolmin, who had already marked her as the eventual second wife of an older man. Stella resisted the angry rebuke of her captors, and escaping the posse, she was again caught and returned to the detachment of increasingly irate kinsmen.

They came to get me and bring me back. They came and got me and we went on the road, and sorry . . . I was a small girl, and they really ruined me. . . .

They did not say anything. "Where did you want to go? is what they said. "You found cock and where do you want to go?" They said that. "We have plenty of cock here." I did not say anything in reply. I just cried and called out. I said: "I have not had my period yet; I am not a big girl, I am not the size of you, I am a small girl." I cried and I cried. . . .

I was afraid and I was ashamed. I was very ashamed. . . . I said to them: "Why did you do this? I am your sister. . . . We used to walk together, eat together, sleep together."

On a secluded mountain path, Stella was beaten, vilified, and raped by several young men determined to make a cautionary tale of her insurrection. Village elders on this journey turned a deaf ear to Stella's cries for mercy, and she remembers that when they returned to Golgobip, the elders retreated to the men's house.

Sexual assault and rape are neither common nor an unusual form of discipline among Faiwolmin,(15) but fugitive females are not common either. Stella's rape broadcast a warning to her generation of girls, although it was never discussed publicly and was deniable to colonials and missionaries. By capturing and raping Stella, Faiwolmin men sent two messages simultaneously. The patrol officer was put on notice that Faiwolmin were not sexually available to the colonial state or to ethnic "others." Nobody from Golgobip, including Stella, reported the incident to the government station. And Stella was put on notice that her transgressions would not be tolerated. In violating norms of kinship and clanship by raping a close relative, Stella's age-mates reminded her that she was utterly without protection. Faiwolmin men were resisting colonial penetration and privately making an example of a native daughter.


A resolute bikhet by this point, Stella refused marriage to the Golgobip man selected as a spouse and eventually fled the village for Telefolmin, two days journey by foot over a steep and precipitous range of mountains. There, evangelical Baptists have been a powerful regional presence, with approximately four churches, twenty-five additional preaching centers, and two Bible schools as of 1965.(16) A Christian revival movement was gaining force by the early 1970s, and born-agains, especially women, were having ecstatic experiences, prophecies, and revelations in which they were convinced to reject traditional, indigenous beliefs and practices as anti-Christian. Originally Catholic, Stella did not need much convincing and soon distinguished herself throughout the region as divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit (spirit meri), with prophetic visions and oracular powers.(17) Her spirit would talk to Stella and authorize her to do God's bidding. This often entailed exposing kinsmen's deeply held cultural beliefs and practices as the work of the devil. Describing spirit meri to me, Stella recalled the sensation as talking like a white man:

It could happen to anyone. . . .Your skin moves and you are going to speak differently. Not [an indigenous language] or pidgin or English; you are united with the spirit of God and the spirit of God gives you this language. If you are a woman, how are you going to know the white man's language? God gives it to you. Hey: you've seen my picture of Jesus here; it's like that. He goes into your heart. And if you believe, you can't lie or drink or look at men or envy or whore around. . . .God will lead you to this good kind of talk.

Stella knew from her spirit that secret activities carried out in men's cult houses throughout the area were the source of sickness for many women, a conviction actively encouraged by Baptist brethren. Stella's mounting suspicion and a charismatic etiology of women's sickness inspired her to raid a men's initiation house in the Faiwolmin region, not far from Golgobip, in pursuit of sorcery materials that were the suspected cause of multiple maladies. There Stella found food scraps and human detritus that she maintained were sorcerers' work. From a Baptist perspective, Stella had exposed a dangerous heresy at the heart of traditional beliefs and practices of Min groups, such as male initiation, the process through which boys were socialized as men throughout the entire region in secret meetings closed to the public and closely guarded against women. Women enter male initiation houses on pain of violent retribution. Thus, despite support from local born-again Baptists, Stella's raid of the men's initiation house unleashed a tide of male outrage throughout the Faiwolmin area, and she was threatened with severe punishment if she returned to the region again. She then moved to Telefolmin where she married first one, then another Baptist man and had three daughters with her second husband. Marriage between her ethnic group and this culturally and linguistically related population is the outer limit of acceptable marriage for Faiwolmin.

By this period, migrants were leaving the rural village sector for neighboring Tabubil, where a multinational copper and gold mine in the construction stage was attracting Min in pursuit of wage work. Stella settled in Tabubil permanently in 1985, now a single mother joined by her three young daughters from Telefolmin. She eventually secured employment cleaning a women's residential barracks, where she was sweeping and scrubbing for a low wage when we met in 1989. By this time, Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML), "the Company," was in full production. A prosperous, Australian-dominated, quasi-colonial township drew white families on annual contracts for well-paid employment; and a highly racialized, ethnic, and international hierarchy constituted social relations throughout the area.

Stella celebrates her position outside the village as emancipatory and continues to castigate kinsmen for their treatment of wives and sisters. Her modest purchasing power in town means that Stella is economically independent of kinsmen; unlike other Faiwolmin women who pursue the remittances of migrant men, Stella shares her paycheck selectively and is not accountable to a spouse or brothers. But Stella also expressed detachment from her job as an orderly in a residential workers' camp and described the work there as dull and repetitive. This contrasts with Faiwolmin men whose paid positions are described with a sense of importance, if not pride.

A variety of evangelical Protestant groups have taken root in the township, and Stella belongs to a migrant diaspora of Baptists from around PNG with a common commitment to salvation through Christ. She continues to bear witness in prayer meetings, has occasional dreams and prophecies, fears the opprobrium of township life, worries about moral backsliding, and lives with graphic images of Satan shoveling screaming sinners into a fire with a pitchfork. For Stella, membership in an evangelical sect has been a source of kinship and community with non-Faiwolmin, an alternative cultural space, and a moral and cosmological platform for social criticism of her natal ethnic group.

Stella used the common pidgin term stori to describe our talks and visits. A noun meaning "story," it is also a verb of process that captures the active character of her recollections and the presentist interpretation of Stella's life as Christian allegory. Whereas to stori is not an inherently subversive practice by Faiwolmin women, to stori against cultural knowledge is an inherent challenge to Faiwolmin men in particular and Faiwolmin identity in general.(18) Stella's narrative is structured allegorically with references to the Book of John and Revelation, for instance, with strong millennial overtones from the latter. There is a dramatic rupture between her pre-Christian "past" and a Christian "present" (Baptists representing, in this view, the true Christians). This religious discipline is also a means through which Stella subjects herself to internal violence, as her relationship to Christ suggests.

He is white. I've dreamed about him, and he is a handsome man. . . . Long hair, ya. One time when I was dreaming, I saw him and he said to me-I was dreaming and he said to me - "OK, give me your hand now, give me your right hand." So I gave him my right hand and he took it and he looked at it and he said: "AH! You steal, you whore, you watch the men, you're no good" [she imitates Jesus thrusting her hand away]. He throws off my hand. OH, MY LIFE. I'M NO GOOD IN YOUR EYES. I'm no good and you gave me this dream. Oh Jesus, I'm no good, I'm no good in your eyes. . . .

As a Baptist, Stella does not imagine herself in the present as the "finest girl around," the beautiful object of the colonial officer's gaze. Rather, she describes herself as a rabis meri, a penitential but corrupt rubbish woman.


Stella's sexual rebuke is a silent but social story, one well-known but seldom shared among Faiwolmin, a story made more real and painful for Stella by its public deniability. For this and other reasons, the most difficult stow for Stella to tell is that of her gang rape in girlhood. The narrative moments of this telling were marked by elipses, denial, and evident regret. Stella initially told the story of the patrol officer without recounting her rape. "It didn't happen," she told me once; "It happened," she said later, "and I could not stop it." The fuller story emerged over time, and despite Stella's disgust with kinsmen and a rational representation of herself as their victim, she was laden with guilt for the retributive violence of her rape. As she explained it to me and to herself, she was stubborn and promiscuous before coming to Christ, but only God should punish her. She has simultaneously opposed and internalized secular and ecclesiastical representations of herself as a rabis meri. Stella tells the stow of the whore who wept at Christ's feet and was forgiven by him. Sometimes, she would tell me, she was that whore, but at other times, she would say she frankly didn't know.

What role did my presence play in the construction of Stella's narrative? Partly, Stella says she found in me an understanding ear for her opposition to, and isolation from, kinsmen. She wanted and liked to imagine a sympathetic audience for her stow and she knew she would not find it at home; primarily because Stella's relationships with kinswomen were either distant, mutually critical, or guardedly sympathetic. Kinsmen generally decried her for being promiscuous, dishonest, and bikhet. With Faiwolmin and with Baptist brothers alike, sexually frank conversation would not have been appropriate. Finally, Stella also enjoyed preaching to me with millennial passion about the end of the world.

Her story might have had different silences and inflections had she shared it with someone else, and my ethnographic research would have been very different without a serious attempt to locate Stella's experiences in the context of colonial and capitalist transformations. But our relationship is not constitutive of Stella's life and stow in the same way as the imperial interventions she has encountered since girlhood. These interventions, Stella's responses to them, and responses to her responses, have left the strongest thumbprints on her subjectivity. Nor are we "mediums for each other's story," as Mexican flower peddler Esperanza has been for anthropologist Ruth Behar.(19)

Stella tells her life as a conversion stori; Baptist migrants and the Bible-their organizing text-have been Stella's narrative entryway to her telling her stow autobiographically.(20) Stella's social silencing-her reputation and dismissal as a bikhet and a rabis meri by members of her ethnic group - is an act of violence to which she repeatedly submits and resists.

From a practical and an ethical perspective, ethnographic research and writing would have been simpler if I had followed the advice of Faiwolmin elders and left Stella alone. As the late Quebecois parish priest in Golgobip village expressed the matter to me privately, she and her stow are not relevant to my "findings," a historical ethnography of social transformations in the region. Most Faiwolmin would undoubtedly agree. But this stori cannot be absorbed into a wider account of the metamorphoses of Min, because Stella disrupts a singular understanding of how global processes are confronted in specific locales and deepens our understanding of the internal ruptures of these transformations. Stella may be an outcast, but she is also the product of a time and place, and it is worth analyzing why a Catholic priest, clan cousins, kinswomen, and village elders would consign her biography to the trash can of history.


Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expres-sion of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.

- Karl Marx, "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," 1844

Resistance can be alienating and submission can be liberating. Such is the paradox of the dominated and there is no way out of it.

- Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 1992

Stella's story highlights (a) the social and historical constitution of an individual female subject; (b) the processes by which she has simultaneously challenged and been complicit with various contexts and structures of domination; (c) the complex relationship between memory and agency; and (d) the historical contradictions of sex and gender in her milieu. How has Stella been historically and politically constituted as a subject? To what extent can her activities be regarded as resistance? Let me briefly consider various approaches to these questions and make some tentative suggestions.

In the aftermath of Australian colonial rule, Faiwolmin women have found little voice in public discourse, as we have seen. Neither landowners nor ritual leaders, women workers are marginal to the mining sector; and Catholicism, which has historically served a powerful quasi-state function in rural villages, does not allow females past the altar rails. A Marxist social historian might argue that Stella represents the negative and reactionary potential of working-class politics, because she does not inspire men to social action.(21) Where, after all, was Stella in 1988 when Papua New Guineans working in Tabubil stormed the Company golf club and burned it to the ground? She regards herself as largely outside insurrectionist movements in Tabubil and sees workers there as a sexually rapacious, drunken mob. To see Stella historically and politically, it is necessary to widen the lens of politics to include a range of practices and the internally uneven, contested terrain in which historical subjects are situated. One must look not only at the arguments of a class, a clan, an ethnic group as a whole, vis-a-vis a church or sect, a company, a colonizer, a state but also at the struggles between actors for legitimacy in the context of these interventions.

From this wider angle, Protestantism has been a vehicle of social criticism for Stella, who has voiced opposition to cultural practices and the traditionalism of Faiwolmin over the years. Her religion is both the heart of heartless conditions and an area for maneuver within the contexts of colonial, Christian, and capitalist transformations. Stella's stridency is a response to cultural forms of domination, including the social and sexual violence broadcast by the haus tambaran with its imprimatur on male cosmological knowledge and cultural production. As a Baptist, Stella has challenged the privileges of membership in the men's house and with it claims on women, land, and labor. Her vision lacks organized, oppositional specificity from a straightforwardly materialist or class perspective; Stella sees the devil enshrined not in the mine(22) but in men's houses, amid pig skulls and sorcery bundles, and looks forward to the punishment of the pagans promised in Revelation.

In this context of rapid metamorphoses, one might expect the white man, the Company, or "development" promised by the state in return for mineral extraction to be the object of her chiliastic passion. But as Stella sees it, the crises of her life have been engendered by her transgressive sexuality and defiance of gender norms, which have been heightened, of course, by the transformative currents of colonialism, Christianity, and capitalism. The violence Stella experienced at the hands of kinsmen in the colonial period had the unintended consequence of making Stella more subversive of local norms rather than more submissive. But as a renegade in a class alone, she is also tormented with doubt, shame, and ostracism: Stella has simultaneously refused and accepted dominant ideologies of a woman's place in the world. This is the social and psychic context for her credulity as a Christian, what E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class, refers to as the "chiliasm of the defeated."(23) It is not surprising that kinsmen regard Stella's rage and refusal as mad nor that Stella is a bikhet meri and rather suggestible.

In a critique of The Making of the English Working Class, Joan Scott suggests that religious movements and imagery often coincide with revolutionary movements. She cites historical and ethnographic evidence to show that visionary religious sects can lead both women and men to social action.(24) This is apposite for understanding Stella's rage and refusal, but one must still ask: What is Stella resisting - when? and why? and why not? The sexualized imagery she uses of Christ suffering for the temptations of Eve, while certainly political, does not offer a challenge to the new materialism or individualism of the culture and political economy of the township. Stella regards neither the Company nor organized religion as an "old boys" club, nor is her millennarianism a serious critique of Australian rule or of the culture of late-twentieth-century multinational capitalism. Rather, religion is a powerful criticism of the masculinist culture of exclusion that has characterized Faiwolmin tradition and an accommodation with the materialist values and individualism constituted by Christians and the Company public culture.

Stella has come a long way since the kiap wrote her name on his skin and she left Golgobip. Since then, her subjectivity has been increasingly solitary; cut off from ties of kin and clan, she contemplates the wages of sin in sinful circumstances. Neither a traditionalist nor a radical manque, Stella has sought the power and perquisites of the more Western life she imagines; a husband and a wage have been the hoped - for pathways from the mountainside toward the petit bourgeois pleasures of the urban housewife. She would like passbook savings, her own house, supermarket commodities and convenience foods, an abstemious spouse and clean kids. These dreams are frustrated in daily life, but they are not forgotten; they contain a kernel of social criticism and considerable submission to the disciplines of Christianity and the capitalist work space.

In her formation as a modern subject, the two most important figures in Stella's life have been Jesus Christ and the kiap. Each has contained the kernel of emancipation for Stella, and each has signified her acquiescence to new relations of dominance. Threatened by her attempted collaboration with the colonial power, kinsmen exerted paternal dominance through the rape. The colonial encounter enabled Stella's insurrection, simultaneously a Malinche-style accommodation with Empire. Years later, when the local landscape was recolonized by consortium capitalism, Stella sold her labor to an Australian boss in exchange for the small wages that emancipated her from horticulture and pig husbandry. She continues consciously to oppose paternal authority by reproducing it in a different register through submission, first to the kiap, then to the pastor, and eventually to the Company boss. The paradox of the dominated is that to resist she must also submit.(25)


As Chandra Mohanty has observed for written life-history narratives of Third World women, subjectivity is marked and "mediated" by social relations of class, color, caste, sexuality, and so forth.(26) The narrative subjectivity of Third World women departs, she has written, from the individualized subject of Western feminism.(27) Pluralistic in consciousness and often explicitly concerned with a collective engagement in revolutionary struggles, women's tales, testimonials, and writing differ from the autobiographical subject of Anglo-American feminists, Mohanty argues, by invoking a multiple agency that works through a logic of opposition.(28) This may be characterized by what Gloria Anzaldua calls a multiple "mestiza consciousness,"(29) for instance, and is a condition of the subaltern subject whose very presence is "in some sense resistant."(30) A subversive subjectivity may be covertly encoded in taletelling or testimony in nonrevolutionary times, argues Mohanty, and may constitute a "communal (feminist)" subjectivity in the process of authorship,(31) because Third World women and their narratives share a common subalternity vis-a-vis masculinist structures of power.

Mohanty's insight restores a complexity to the subaltern female subject of much ethnographic and historical writing and demands analysis of the daily activities and choices they confront. How does the formation of an individualistic and solitary Stella intervene in this debate? Is resistance "encoded in memory" and agency in Stella's day-to-day practices, as Mohanty argues? Does she remember against the grain and "outside" the dominant? Do her image and self-images celebrate an "unsuspected" way of seeing, or the decolonizing subjectivity Watson and Smith suggest can be constituted autobiographically?(32) Stella complicates this formula for postcolonial subject formation in several ways that challenge such binary oppositions as Third World Woman/Western Other, Decolonizing/Colonizing, and poses difficulties for historical and ethnographic analysis.

First, the interpretive materials Stella uses to remember are not invented whole cloth. Evangelical Protestantism, for instance, is the moral and cosmological structure for seeing and reshaping her past; Stella's rage takes the form of penitence and shame, fear of the future and forgiveness for the boys who raped her and the men who have taunted her. Her memory is engraved with images of colonizing, evangelizing, and the difficulties of the single woman's life in a modern mining township. A subject subjected, Stella has submitted to new forms of dominance in order to revise her life script and stake a claim to her own social difference. A kiap could deliver her, she imagined, from the drudgery of a woman's life in the village. A pastor promises deliverance from the hardships of survival in a prosperous and grossly unequal European enclave society. A modest wage and purchasing power at the supermarket bring a measure of prestige and independence to Stella's days in the township. Stella has made herself with found material: a patrol officer, a new religious group, the mining center and squatter settlement, to name a few, but she has also been made by these same forces.

Second, the external has been internalized in complex ways that move beyond a distinction between internal and external, coercion and consent, Third World and Western. More interesting, really, is the relationship between them.(33) To make sense of Stella biographically, as Mills suggested, we must make sense of the history of the society that produced her. Her narrative enabled Stella to reimagine herself as a Christian individual-not as part of a community of like-minded women insurgents, but as a woman apart.

Thus in an Althusserian sense, Christian religious ideology has "interpellated" Stella as a Baptist subject. For her, God is the almighty and ultimate "Subject" in relationship to whom Stella sees herself - and is seen in the eyes of the religious community - as a subject subjected to him.(34) The proof, as Louis Althusser would argue, is in the obedience of the subject herself. God will save those who recognize him and who see themselves in and through him. But nobody understands better than Stella that there are no guarantees for mercy nor any proof that she has been a good, obedient, and duly penitent Christian. Such is the "feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual" described by Max Weber in the Protestant Ethic. How does Stella imagine herself through the Almighty? As she has said, Jesus Christ can see right through her, and "I'm no good in your eyes." Her relationship to God - as a born-again, rather than, say, a Catholic - is direct and intimate not mediated by a priest or congregation. Stella sometimes addresses Christ rhetorically in the second person singular as she narrates her story. She cannot even be cleansed in the confessional but is left to wait for her probable punishment. That the kiap she once lusted for is a source of retrospective pleasure compounds Stella's guilt. That she backslides and sins in the township, occasionally acting like a "whore" and a rabis meri only makes her subjection more intense.

This Christian cosmology sets punitive standards for sexual behavior and speaks to issues of color and culture as well. Christ the savior is another longwe man - from a distant place, Stella thinks maybe he was born in Canada - marked by whiteness and by his cultural difference from and implied superiority to PNG. There is no notion of "noninterference" in this religious system: subjection and salvation demand that PNG subjects renounce cultural self-determination. This seems like a small price for Stella, who has experienced that cultural-ness as a cutting feature of male dominance. From a nationalist perspective, certainly, this form of Baptist ideology, in practice, might be seen as an imperialist conceit. But cultural nationalism does not flourish in the context of Baptist fellowship where dislocated migrants come together. Belonging neither to a village, a clan, nor an ethnic group except nominally, the religious diaspora is Stella's only imagined community.


Stella's story may create a certain restiveness in the reader, as it has for me, and it is worth considering why. Stella recalls welcoming the colonization of her kinspeople through roll calls, rifle blasts, census patrols, magistrates, and labor drafts. Rather than run from these, as some Min did, Stella remembers the first historical opportunity for primary school, small commodities, and a European-style man in colonial khaki were very much to her liking. Missionaries and the introduction of shame and fear through the sanction of hell were a welcome relief from local cosmology, and wage slavery has been Stella's reprieve from a gardener's life. She prefers the Baptist preacher to the tambaran man, the Australian boss to the village elder. She is not a subaltern subject talking against the state, organized religion, the Company, and their myriad dislocations. Far from Mohanty's communal feminist subjectivity or E.P. Thompson's conscientized working-class English man, Stella's practical sense is rather different: individualist, resolutely materialist, literalist, at times opportunistic, Stella wants more things for herself.

Perhaps, as Carolyn Steedman suggests, theorizing why people want things, and the lived effects of material want, remains a central difficulty for feminist and social historical analysis. Women driven mad by unfulfilled desire are a "sad and secret story," she writes,(35) calling for serious consideration of the political culture that produces them. For Stella, an individualist, materialist sensibility has converged with a frustrated, fairy-tale hope for deliverance through marriage and outward mobility.

Julie Stephens has argued that a feminist resolution of the problem of women "making history" in India is often based on a rejection of - and opposition to - the West and the Western. The Third World Woman is identified by her resistance of Western practices and categories in a discourse that reproduces Orientalism in an nationalist register.(36) This lays claim to an authority of experience for the Third World Woman, whose historical and cultural location can be ambiguous. Stella's account demands a historical feminist reading and resists an oppositional location or a unitary conception of cultural production and resistance.(37) In this sense, she speaks another truth to some of the classic and most celebrated popular life narratives of struggle. Unlike, for example, the speaker in I, Rigoberta Menchu, an Indian Woman in Guatemala,(38) a manifesto of revolutionary peasant organizing against a repressive state, Stella is not fighting against genocide for the defeated, the land, or the culture she loves, nor engaging the Bible and Marxism to mobilize against an internal colonizer. Unlike Domitila Barrios de Chungara, the militant Andean wife and mother who narrates Let Me Speak! A Testimony of a Woman of the Bolivian Tin Mines,(39) an account of her struggle with companeros for better living conditions in the tin mines, Stella is not engaged in any such struggle nor does she speak in the first person plural of "my people" and a tradition of cultural refusal. We do not read in her account the uneven history of proletarianization in the Puerto Rican countryside and a worker's testimony of party organizing, as we do with Don Taso, whose ultimate disenchantment with socialism and embrace of evangelical Protestantism was a disappointment and surprise to Sidney Mintz.(40) Nor do we find a detailed description of the ratlike conditions of miners such as those recalled by Juan Rojas in June Nash's I Spent My Life in the Mines,(41) whose Bolivian life histories and family autobiographies are a window into how workers think about class.

The travails of a politically motivated subject testifying for cultural self-determination and against political and economic repression are absent from Stella's story. She expresses solidarity neither with "a people," a class, a nation, an ethnic group, nor community of like-minded women. But the social and historical determinations confronted by Stella Seliok, Rigoberta Menchu, and Domitila Barrios de Chungara, among others, are complex and entirely different from one another; an abstract inventory of Third World women and their common subalternity marginalizes Stella as a residual rabis meri.

Subjects do not always resist as scholars and feminists might wish or expect. But their actions are consequent nonetheless; and these may be culturally, socially, and politically meaningful responses to the social inequalities they confront. The search for an authentically oppositional Other threatens to erase the biographies of a Stella or to dismiss them as inauthentic. Stella is no less an actor because she is not fighting new frontiers of neocolonial and capitalist expansion, and she is certainly no less complex. The challenge remains to recognize historical actors like Stella, who confound feminist and anthropological images of what the subject should be.


Earlier drafts of this article were presented at the Culture and Resistance Lecture Series at the Center for Humanities, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., November 1994, and at a panel on Culture and Political Economy at the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, November 1996. Thanks to the fellows at CHUM; participants at AAA; students in my "Ethnographic Life History and Autobiography" class at Wesleyan; and to Fredrik Barth, Micaela di Leonardo, Jane Margold, Rayna Rapp, Bill Roseberry, Peter Schneider, James Scott, and Betsy Traube. Thanks also to anonymous readers for Feminist Studies for detailed suggestions.

1. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 3.

2. For a discussion of different approaches to feminist oral history and difficulties in writing "by," "for," and "about" women, see Daphne Patai and Sherna Gluck, introduction to Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. Daphne Patai and Sherna Gluck (New York: Routledge, 1991), 1-7. Feminists writing from a variety of disciplines have cautioned against letting experience speak for itself. See, for instance, Patai and Gluck; Joan Scott, "Experience" (21-41), and Christina Crosby, "Dealing with Difference" (136-144), both in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992); Julie Stephens, "Feminist Fictions: A Critique of the Category 'Non-Western Woman' in Feminist Writings on India," in Subaltern Studies Six, ed. Ranajit Guha (London: Oxford University Press, 1992), 92-121.

3. Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith, "De/Colonization and the Politics of Discourse in Women's Autobiographical Practices," in De/Colonizing the Subject, ed. Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), xx.

4. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, "Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism," in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 36.

5. Throughout this text, foreign words appearing in italics are from neo-melanesin tok pisin, or pidgin English, a lingua franca in PNG.

6. This is a census estimate. Papua New Guineans do not generally celebrate birthdays, and Stella does not know the actual year of her birth, although she can identify age-mates born around the time when she was.

7. Haus tambaran is pidgin for men's ritual houses, and I am using it as a convenient gloss. There are, however, a variety of terms in the Faiwol language to describe both the houses themselves and the stages of initiation through which a boy passes en route to adulthood.

8. Ritual knowledge and male initiation among Min groups is well documented in the ethnographic literature. For those groups culturally and linguistically close to the Faiwolmin, see, for instance, Fredrik Barth, Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975); Dan Jorgensen, Taro and Arrows: Order and Entropy in Telefol Religion (Ph.D. diss., University of British Columbia, 1981).

9. For a discussion of colonization among the Faiwolmin, see Nicole Polier, "When Australia Was the Big Name for Papua New Guinea: The Colonial Constitution of Faiwolmin Subjects," Journal of Historical Sociology 8 (fall 1995): 257-77.

10. The imposition of colonial rule met with mixed results and reviews from indigenous subjects. For a discussion, see ibid.

11. The educational system in PNG is the product of Australian colonialism and European missionaries. The access of girls to primary education has historically been an issue in mostly rural PNG, divided along fault lines of gender and generation. Parents concerned that too much formal education promotes bikhet ideas and behavior in girls past primary school also fear that schooling will distance girls from the subsistence sector, where they are badly needed. For a discussion, see Eileen Wormald, "Rhetoric Reality and a Dilemma: Women and Politics in Papua New Guinea," in Women and Politics Worldwide, ed. Barbara J. Nelson and Najma Chowdhury (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 560-75.

12. Georges Delbos, The Mustard Seed: From a French Mission to a Papuan Church, 1885-1985 (Port Moresby, PNG: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, 1985); Nicole Poller, The Mines of Min: History, Gender, and Social Transformation among the Faiwolmin of Papua New Guinea (Ph.D. diss., New School for Social Research, 1992).

13. Richard Jackson, Ok Tedi: The Pot of Gold (Port Moresby, PNG: University of Papua New Guinea, 1982), 44-45.

14. As a village elder in Golgobip expressed it to me gently but emphatically, if a local woman left the village to satisfy her curiosity about a wider world, as I was doing, she would be rounded up and met with sudden and severe punishment. He was articulating a mature cultural relativism about that wider world, on one hand, and naturalizing the local legitimacy of male dominance over kinswomen, on the other. I did not fully grasp the dimensions of that dominance until I met Stella, however.

15. Barbara Jones, Consuming Society: Food and Illness among the Faiwol (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1980).

16. Australian Baptist Missionary Society, "Responsibility in New Guinea" (unpublished report, 1965). For a discussion of the cultural consequences of Rebaibal, or religious revival, for Telefolmin, see David Hyndman, Ancestral Rain Forests and the Mountain of Gold (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 134-36; Dan Jorgensen, "Life on the Fringe: History and Society in Telefolmin," in The Plight of Peripheral Peoples, ed. Robert Gordon (Cambridge, Mass.: Cultural Survival, 1981), 59-80.

17. Stella's choice was a compromise and a standoff with kinsmen; but for her, the choice was not a satisfactory one.

18. As Susan Gal, in "Between Speech and Silence: The Problematics of Research on Language and Gender," in Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, ed. Micaela di Leonardo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 175-204, has argued, gender relations are partly constructed through culturally legitimated expressions for women and men. Among the Faiwolmin, men take the floor publicly and exercise a monopoly on certain forms of knowledge and its transmission. Women and men compose song, women express themselves privately through the exchange of anecdotes and compose mourning narratives in public performances of weeping.

The past is not inert in Stella's stori but is actively reworked in the present, and the listeners can momentarily imagine how things might have happened differently for Stella. She uses her scriptural knowledge to stori about her own life and create it as a narrative, in the context of a multi-ethnic born-again diaspora of migrants who stori as part of Christian practice. For a discussion of the connections between gender, speech, and power, see Gal.

Writing of the Solomon Islands, Roger Keesing argued that Kwaio women's apparent "muteness" is constituted in a political context that includes both Kwaio men's linguistic dominance and the gender bias of the ethnographic encounter itself. Kwaio women found a voice in private visits with a female ethnographer, in which they felt free to express themselves in sympathetic, same-sex company. Faiwolmin men's sexual and linguistic dominance has subdued but not silenced Stella; the liberated zone of our semiprivate encounters enabled her to speak. What women subjects say about themselves, as well as what they do not, needs to be understood in the context of an internally differentiated social landscape. See Roger Keesing, "Kwaio Women Speak: The Micropolitics of Autobiography in a Solomon Islands Society," American Anthropologist 87 (March 1985): 27-39.

19. Ruth Behar, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 14.

20. For a contrasting view, see Behar, 331.

21. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966); cf. Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 68-90.

22. Cf. Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

23. Thompson, 382.

24. Scott, 77; see also Taussig.

25. Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

26. Mohanty, 33.

27. See, for instance, Sistren with Honor Ford-Smith and Gloria Anzaldua, cited in Mohanty, 35; and Rigoberta Menchu, I, Rigoberta Menchu, an Indian Woman in Guatemala, ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, trans. Ann Wright (New York: Verso Press, 1984).

28. Mohanty, 38.

29. Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands, La Frontera (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987).

30. Rosalind O'Hanlon, "Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia," Modern Asian Studies 22, (February 1991): 189224, cited in Mohanty, 38.

31. Mohanty, 35.

32. Watson and Smith.

33. The opposition between consent and coercion is especially facile, and false, as Bourdieu has argued, with respect to women's experience of what he calls "symbolic" violence - that is, the internalization and legitimation of precisely those forms and relations of dominance. For discussion, see Bourdieu, 171-72.

34. See Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation)," in Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 180.

35. Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (London: Verso, 1987), 22.

36. Stephens, 100-5.

37. For a similar point about the need for specifying resistance culturally and historically, see Lila Abu-Lughod, "The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power through Bedouin Women," American Ethnologist 17, no. 1 (1990): 41-56.

38. See Menchu.

39. Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Let Me Speak! A Testimony of a Woman of the Bolivian Tin Mines (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978).

40. Sidney Mintz, Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 210-53.

41. June Nash, I Spent My Life in the Mines (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

Nicole Polier is a cultural anthropologist who has taught, most recently, at Yale and Wesleyan. Her publications include "A View from the Cyanide Room: Politics and Culture in a Mining Township in Papua New Guinea" (Identities i [1994]); "When Australia Was the Big Name for Papua New Guinea" (Journal of Historical Sociology 8 [1995]); and The Writing on the Skin (Verso Press), to appear in 1999.
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