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Women's gift-fish and sociality in the Torres Strait, Australia.

'It is a truism that people are always conscious of connections to other people. It is equally a truism that some of these connections carry particular weight--socially, materially, affectively' (Carsten 2000:1).

'The reproduction of social relations is never automatic, but demands work, resources, energy' (Weiner 1992:4).


This paper examines the distribution of women's line-caught fish on Warraber Island in the Tortes Strait, exploring the complex and often disjunctive relationship between the demands of public ideals and individual strategy (Riches 2000:676). (1) In doing so, I address the 'paucity of information on the vernacular formulation of the ethic of sharing and its day-today practice' (Peterson 1993:870). Douglas, in summarising the central insight offered by Mauss' classic The Gift, suggests that there is no such thing as a 'free gift': 'a gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction' (2002[1990]'x). On Warraber, it might equally be said that there is no such thing as a free fish--fish that are given away always remain socially entangled, but do not necessarily always act to enhance solidarity. The movement and consumption of 'girl-fish' are rather indicative of the state of relations between a giver and a receiver (and their households). They also constitute a statement, one that speaks less of the generosity of the giver, but rather of the giver's commitment to meet the social expectations of their community. As a result, the provision of gift-fish by Warraber women can be considered an expression of local 'moral economy'.

The continuing relevance of the moral economy idea to forms of indigenous Australian sociality is borne out in a number of recent contributions that variously stress the centrality of 'sharing' to Aboriginal notions of personhood (Macdonald 2000); explore conflict as an outcome of the intersection between commodities and cash, and kin relations (Austin-Broos 2003); and identify indigenous strategies for avoiding requests to share (Saethre 2005). Throughout this literature, the movement of resources according to the local terms of relatedness under the guise of 'sharing' emerges as a defining feature of indigenous moral economy. On Warraber, this kind of sharing takes place in specific areas of life; the moral economy exerts a stronger influence in some aspects of productive activity. For example, not everything from the sea is shared; instances of sharing women's line-caught fish can be distinguished from commercial marine activity where people do deal in commodities.

In common with many indigenous Australian communities, economic activity on Warraber has various components: state, market and customary (Altman 2001:4-5). The state provides local housing, health and educational facilities and residents receive regular unemployment, parenting and disability payments. Alongside these payments, Warraberans pursue a range of marine based activities for commercial, ceremonial and subsistence purposes. These areas are not entirely independent of each other; all three state, market and customary components operate in marine activities, for example, where welfare cycle impacts can increase people's subsistence production. Marine-based subsistence activities for example, assume a regular, and for some families, an often crucial food source especially during the second week of the fortnightly welfare payment cycle when cash is scarce (called dragin wik, literally 'dragging week').

Warraber is surrounded by extensive reefs that yield a plentiful variety of marine biota. While marine-related pursuits can be impelled by immediate economic needs, they also form a critical underlying component in Warraberan characterisation of their lives and identity as primarily sea-oriented. But marine labour and the distribution of its products are perhaps the most important and practical everyday contexts in which Warraber residents enact their ideas concerning the moral terms of relatedness and sociality. The giving and receiving of fish caught by women illustrates both the social embeddedness of the individual generally, and the generational aspects which characterise the practice of fish-giving and fish-receiving. Warraber residents reference their productive marine activities to notions of 'family'-based relatedness, involving the occupants of several dwellings contributing their labour and its products to particular kin. These transactions are understood as basic expressions of sociality in terms of kin relatedness as well as constituting a strong indication of the state of these relationships.

Being a resident at Warraber carries the expectation of attention to pamle ('family'). To 'belong' to Warraber, a person must have a pamle to contribute to in daily life, or exercise an entitlement to claim a share of the labour of others. Giving and eliciting the products of marine labour constitute a fundamental Warraberan mode of being in relation to others. Belonging to Warraber as a community entails a commitment to participating in these kinds of transactions on a highly regular, indeed daily, basis. And Warraber residents actively gauge the extent to which the actions of those giving and receiving reflect adequate attention or inattention to pamle members--both their own and others--in addition to local ideals of sociality, usually framed in terms of gud pasin, a term used to refer to correct moral behaviour.

Acts of 'eliciting' and notions of 'entitlement' have parallels with the notion of 'demand-sharing'. In common with the contexts described by Peterson (1993) and later synthesised by Peterson and Taylor (2003:110) the Warraber community possesses 'a universal system of kin classification requiring a flow of goods and services to produce and reproduce social relationships' (in which gift-fish are prominent). And everyday sociality contains an emphasis on 'polite indirectness in interaction that certainly makes open refusal difficult'. But fish are not generally provided in relation to 'direct verbal and/or nonverbal demands' (these rarely occur); sharing is not 'passive' (kinfolk do not directly take fish for example); and in situations where sharing is withheld or deemed insufficient, there is often 'rancour', which may involve a refusal to consume fish that has been provided (Peterson 1993:860, 868, 870). Moreover, 'elicitation' and 'entitlement' also have generational dimensions. The character of fish-giving and fish-receiving carries different emphases across the life-span where the greatest obligation to give falls to able-bodied married females and the greatest likelihood of receipt assumed by elderly women of ascending generations. Finally, fish distribution is locally understood as both an instance of generosity and obligation and demonstrates a person's general desire to engage in morally correct behaviour (or correct past failings in this regard). These features of Warraberan fish-giving and fish-receiving are discussed below in relation to the practical realities of the pressure to distribute these products according to Warraberan terms of familial relatedness and their commitment to the communal terms of moral life.


Warraber Island is geographically situated at the centre of the Torres Strait, a region flanked to the north by a short strip of southern Papua New Guinea coastline and to the south by Cape York Peninsula, the north-eastern tip of Australia. Twenty communities in the region contain more than 6,000 Torres Strait Islanders, with many more now residing on the Australian mainland (Arthur 2003:2). (2) Warraber has a resident population of more than two hundred people living across fifty dwellings.

Warraber households consume a combination of store-bought and marine gathered foodstuffs. Main meals are consumed in the evening, with preference for fish or chicken with rice and vegetables (in particular sweet potato, potato and pumpkin). In an average week, fresh fish would likely be eaten as part of an evening (or lunchtime) meal on four or five occasions. As well as bearing primary responsibility for preparing meals, women on Warraber are expected to regularly gather marine foods--mainly fish--for consumption in their own household and to make a contribution to a broader familial network. Though supplemented by men's sporadic efforts at spearfishing and turtle hunting, fishing is an established part of women's duties on Warraber, and given suitable weather and opportunity, a part of each day will generally be spent trying to catch fish. If necessary, small children are left with relatives to allow this to happen.

The marine biologists Johannes & MacFarlane (1991:112) assert that on Warraber: 'most fish are taken by underwater spearing', an activity carried out entirely by men. But if fish catches from male spearing and female hand-lining were compared over the course of a year, it is far from clear that the total male catch would necessarily eclipse that made by women. (3) At the level of individual catches, spearfishing can produce far larger numbers of fish than are usually obtained through women's hand-line fishing, and this makes spearfishing especially useful for provisioning a ceremonial feast. However, male fishing is carried out irregularly due to competing demands of paid employment, work tied to unemployment payments (CDEP), and income generating marine activities. (4) Commercial marine activities are predominantly carried out by men, who target such species as crayfish-kaiar (Panulirus spp.), trochus-kabar (Trochus niloticus) and beche-de-mer or boiath (Holothuria and Thelenota spp.). (5) By contrast, women's fishing activities do not generally provide a source of income. Women catch fish for consumption rather than for sale, whether to outside buyers or others in the community. The regularity of women's fishing makes it the most consistent source of the fish consumed in an everyday fashion by Warraber households.

Women are usually restricted to fishing on Warraber's surrounding reef, where they are able to walk (and wade) to fishing locations. Though dinghies are plentiful on Warraber, off-shore fishing requires men who are available and willing to act as pilots and drivers. Consequently, women's participation in fishing from boats tends to be restricted to weekends and periods outside men's working hours. Women fish using hand-lines in a range of environments--small lagoons (moi), from the beach, from the island's single jetty, or in deep water (malu) over the reef edge (thara) which is marked by piles of wave-heaped coral (thaiwa). Apart from bait, little equipment is required: a plastic bucket carries handlines, sinkers and hooks, a knife, bait and any caught fish. Hand-line fishing occurs most often on Warraber's extensive fringing reef and on an incoming tide, when fish follow the cooler water flowing back into the lagoon. But specific locations are chosen for a variety of reasons.

Tidal and wind conditions are relevant, as are the known habitats of particular species of fish. (6) For instance, wanakuboi (Black-Spot Tuskfish) are caught from a particular stretch of Warraber's northern beach, and mathai (Golden Trevally) are found in a lagoon (called Mathaiaumoi) on the southern part of the reef. Another common factor influencing a woman's choice of fishing site is her available time. Some sites increase the chances of quickly catching a sufficient quantity of fish by shortening the walking distance and allowing more time for fishing, though the trade-off tends to be a catch of less-favoured species. Individual women also develop their own preferred places on the reef and return to these on a regular basis. The sites can become associated with them, and others will give them precedence in access. Nonetheless, individuals or families do not assert 'ownership' over these locations; the reef as a whole is regarded as a communal possession, its resources accessible to all Warraber people.

Warraber women take pleasure in the challenge of fishing and the respite it provides from the demands of village life. Young girls learn to fish in two ways--by accompanying their mothers, parents' sisters, and grandmothers during more social occasions, and by practising their skills fishing with other children. The stratified nature of age relationships meant that adult women often choose fishing companions of the same generation (sista) who belong to a similar married or unmarried category (oman or gel). When young women accompany the elderly, the latter regularly require them to provide assistance such as bait or untangling lines, which detracts from their own enjoyment. For younger unmarried women, fishing forms a legitimate means to avoid a range of home chores. They usually fish in groups, enjoying the social aspects of the activity and tend to move some distance from the village, away from the gaze (and demands) of older adults. There are many combinations of women in fishing groups, but they usually comprise friends who might also be close relatives or affines. Neighbours in the same multi-house pamle network (households sharing surplus food) also fish together; these women were likely to be sisters or sisters-in-law.

Older married women also acknowledge enjoying the relief from housework and from caring for children. It is reasonably common to see married women (who have school-age children) fishing alone. Such individuals tend to be more intent on catching fish than socialising. With the demands of children and a husband, married women often face constraints on their time, and with serious fishing children are considered something of a hindrance. Opportunities to fish must be seized while older children are at school, with younger children passed to a carer for the duration. Under these circumstances, married women suggest they often feel reluctant to wait for other fishers to organise themselves. And local fishing lore stipulates that fishing by oneself ensures a higher catch--one person makes less noise and there is only one source of bait attracting the fish. A woman fishing alone may also be concerned to catch a particular species of fish, needing particular concentration for signs of fish aggregation. In this situation the social atmosphere of group fishing is viewed as not conducive to the focus required.


Women's fishing activities provide significant quantities of marine food, often more than is required in their own dwelling. As at other locations in the Torres Strait and the Pacific (eg Eves 1998:37-9; Fuary 1991a; Kahn 1986), Warraber Islanders place a great significance on the distribution of food outside one's home. While the choice of fishing companions can illustrate a wide range of relationships including friendship, distribution of caught fish is not as flexible. There are strong expectations to give a share of fish to particular sets of relatives and affines as well as to elderly neighbours.

When women fish together, an initial distribution of the catch takes place within the fishing group itself. This is restricted to women who do not live in the same house, and therefore do not share a kitchen. The aim is to make each individual's bucket less unequal by comparison with others (not necessarily equal). When a woman gives one or more in her fishing group a portion of her larger catch, she tends not to give away the biggest or best species but rather chooses a range of fish--balancing size (larger, smaller) against variety (more and less desirable). The receiver inevitably exclaims she is being given far too much, highlighting the generosity of the giver. A woman sharing her fish in this way may sometimes stipulate that a certain fish is intended for a particular individual in the receiver's ascending generation (who is also likely to be in the giver's own ascending generation)--such as a parent, auntie, in-law or childhood foster-parent.

Following any sharing within the fishing group, individual women face social pressure to distribute fish long before they reach their home. When a woman returning from fishing carries her bucket through the village, passers-by are always curious to look inside, especially other women and children. Children strain over each other to see into the bucket and identify the types of fish caught and the quantity. Adults are equally curious but their inquiries are more subdued and tend to ask in a casual manner, kesem a? ('Did you catch any?'). Warraber women are generally reluctant to become a focus of others' attention, most importantly from male affines, a situation that involves embarrassment (sem, shame). (7) Responding to queries as to how the most significant fish in her bucket was caught, women will express a measure of satisfaction in a successful catch. However, they are also careful to be self-effacing and to embellish their mistakes and difficulties--the other, better fish that eluded capture, the weather and water conditions that made it difficult to attract and hook fish. Not only is bragging generally

disliked (other than in jest), but boasts about one's skill and catch invite requests for fish, perhaps above and beyond what might be regarded as reflecting an established obligation.

If close female kin such as parental affines, or even an elderly neighbour are encountered, some will inevitably request fish: 'do you have any fish for me?' Asking directly for fish in this way is at times softened through humour, or an offer is enticed by complaining about particular relatives who have not been contributing to their household or in speaking sentimentally to appeal to a sense of the obligation due to kin of the woman's ascending generation. Women rarely refuse outright, but can demur and dissemble, perhaps noting the lack of fish at their own home, or their outstanding debts to other close kin. In the case of younger unmarried women, if any older female kin from their household is present they will usually move to take charge of the situation, fending off queries and requests while urging the returning fisher to return home quickly.

If they can, women will avoid these kinds of public encounters entirely, both in order to evade being the focus of attention, being asked or expected to offer fish or even to have the catch identified and tallied. Few women returning from a fishing trip would pass by a crowd lingering outside the local store, for example. But this often involves taking back-roads or routes through the village where a minimal number of onlookers and houses are passed, or even returning from fishing after sunset, when many residents are inside their homes rather than out in the street. This strategy can be difficult, depending on where a woman lives in the village, but some effort will always be made to choose paths that pass the least number of households that she knows will expect a share of fish.

The preferred situation is to take control of fish distribution by first returning home, then choosing the fish to distribute to particular households and individuals free of scrutiny or pressure. In this way, the receivers are unable to scrutinise their portion in relation to the total catch, except perhaps by obtaining information from others. To this end, young children are often used as fish 'couriers', able to respond to queries regarding a woman's total catch with a shrug. But, the most difficult aspect facing a Warraber woman in distributing her catch involves the competing demands from the close kin of her husband (i.e. her affines) and the expectations of her own cognatic kin. These dilemmas involve the expectations of a broad multi-house network, called a pamle (family).


The term pamle or 'family' is used throughout the Torres Strait and appears to be a core expression in discursively asserting and delimiting forms of relatedness (e.g. Beckett 1983:206; Davis 1998:62). On Warraber as elsewhere among island communities in the Torres Strait, pamle is a multivalent concept relying on context and intent for its precise meaning. Fundamentally, the concept represents an assertion of kin connection, which may or may not be able to be traced in genealogical terms by those using the expression. In this sense it is capable of signifying narratives of collective identification at a very broad level, such as envisaging Warraber residents as being one related collectivity or 'all one family' (ol wan pamle): 'mipla ya blo Warraber, mipla blo wan pamle' (We Warraber residents are all related). Pamle may also refer to extended networks of kin-relations of various kinds, such as an individual's cognatic kindred or more bounded groups within a cognatic kindred, such as those sharing a patronym (particularly relevant in the context of land inheritance).

Two generations of descendants of a conjugal couple are also referred to as a pamle, i.e. a relatively shallow cognatic descent group, and this provides the most common focus of everyday relationships occurring in Warraber social life. The members of this 'family' are spread among a number of houses, often in relatively close proximity, generating daily inter-house sociality including circulating habitation (particularly by children and young adult offspring) and cooperation in labour and food distribution. A nuclear family--a conjugal couple and their offspring--is also referred to as a pamle, but its import is generally sublimated to this multi-house 'family'. Nevertheless, it clearly represents the source of a future cognatic descent group, and it is interesting that the word pamle is in widespread use on Warraber and elsewhere to indicate marriage (Ai pamle oman naw; I'm married now), pregnancy (Yu parole?; are you pregnant?) or one's parents (Shnukal 2004:81).

The term 'family' has been used to refer variously across the Tortes Strait to a cognatic descent group or a more undifferentiated personal kindred, delimited both by generational depth, patrilineal emphasis and optation (Beckett 1983:206; 1963:193; Davis 1998:62; Fuary 1991a:228). (8) Importantly, the existence of kindreds and cognatic descent groups can be a matter of perspective:
 which perspective one takes depends on the kind of person
 one is. Crucially, it will depend on whether one has
 lived long enough ... to imagine oneself as a generative
 (ancestor-like) source of relatedness. In this respect,
 perspectives can change gradually and according to context.
 (Astuti 2000:93)

Parents, for example, can imagine themselves the generative source of their own small group of descendants, but in other contexts as subsumed among the descendants of a larger cognatic descent group with origins further back in time (Astuti 2000:93).

Against this breadth of variation and contingency surrounding the Torres Strait pamle, Beckett argues 'the only stable and regularly effective kin group is the nuclear family ... children form, with their parents, the stable core of a domestic unit' (1963:194). (9) Keesing (1975:97) similarly regarded the 'nuclear family' as providing the key form of enduring corporation in the absence of descent groupings which in combination with the periodic 'mobilisation' of kindred, assumes the necessary 'functional load' of social organisation. Kinship-oriented studies of cognatic societies have also often emphasised the centrality of the household, as an analytical strategy to overcome the problem of locating structural principles in such 'undifferentiated' societies (Carsten & Hugh-Jones 1995:18; Howell 1995:150). On Warraber, pamle as a conjugal group--the nuclear family--has an important relation to the constitution of households, but the distribution of excess fish often takes place among a number of houses that effectively operate as a multi-house network.


On Warraber, the term aus ('house') refers primarily to an erected structure, a physically constructed dwelling-place in which people reside. However, in the form aus man ('housepeople') it also reveals the intimate ideational connection between a conjugal couple and their home. A prominent Warraber ideal, explained in terms of Christian values and parental prerogative, is that a couple should marry prior to living in their own dwelling or sharing a private sleeping space. (10) The local Island Council, staffed by Warraber people, practically enact this view by allocating government-funded houses to married couples only (with the number of children influencing the size of the house). A conjugal couple, then, can be said to be at the centre of the sociality that surrounds a dwelling, because it is this status that has literally created the house that contains them. With very few exceptions, Warraber dwellings have at least one conjugal couple that resides there permanently; this may be the couple who established the house originally--in that it was built by or for them--or they may have inherited it from another couple (usually their parents).

Residential arrangements of Warraber dwellings are always focused around these conjugal couples but sometimes include additional kin including young children from a closely related house (usually a sibling's child), young adults from a neighbouring island or from the same island (where they are fighting with their parents), or a defacto couple (sometimes with their own children) whose relationship is not approved of by their parents. While the contours of Warraberan household composition are subject to change through the movement of these additional kin, the core conjugal group rarely, if ever, changes. Moreover, it is the conjugal couple and their children who are most important in establishing and maintaining relations with multiple dwellings of closely related individuals.

Local ideas of familial relatedness are reflected both in dwelling composition and movement between particular dwellings, but also in the spatial arrangements of dwellings. House placement is a matter of sentiment, and older couples ideally like to have their children's houses clustered around their own. At the same time, parents tend to favour their male children in providing the closest house sites, as male children will inherit land ownership from them. The same tendency was evident among the Meriam of eastern Torres Strait some decades ago where 'first degree patrikin live on the same section; those more distantly related are generally residentially dispersed' (Beckett 1963:195-6). Those people in a position of ownership will try to allocate proximate house-land to their children or seek other landowners to bequeath 'house places' nearby.

Where land is available to realise parental preferences, settlement takes on a clustered effect with houses belonging to elderly couples surrounded by the dwellings of their married children and grandchildren. This arrangement can be understood as a multi-house 'domestic collectivity' and constitutes al, emplaced dimension of pamle composition at Warraber. However, proximate house sites are not always available and so arrangements of this kind are not necessarily discernible solely in terms of proximity. Land scarcity in the older section of the village, in particular, has meant that some newly built houses on the settlement outskirts are separated from those of their closest kin. Houses may also be separated by streets, small gardens and house-yard boundaries marked by coconut trees. Under these circumstances, people's intensity of movement between houses, the relative time spent socialising among sets of houses alongside the frequency of contributions of labour, food and money to one another make inter-house collectivities most clearly visible. In all cases, the degree of activity is markedly increased within a particular multi-house grouping. The individuals who make up these domestic collectivities (ideally as residents of a number of contiguous houses) comprise the most practical everyday expression of 'family' (pamle) on Warraber.


Women's fish-catches tend be directed primarily both to the ascending generation of their own pamle and that of their husband. Warraberans explain this emphasis as reciprocating the earlier physical and social nurturance received by the individuals in this generation (in particular parents, aunties, mother's brothers). These individuals are viewed as having nurtured them to adulthood, an idea communicated locally through expressions like lugaut (look after) and gromape (raised) or more directly as 'dempla bin pidi mi' (they fed me) (compare Battaglia 1990:75-77). This ethic in fact extends to all older members of the community, who are seen as responsible in a more general sense for creating (nurturing) the physical and social community to which the younger generations now belong. Clearly women are unable to meet this level of expectation, and actively prioritise certain people over others.

Women are principally expected to provide their affinal relations with fish, of desirable size for their species and of a favourable type in relation to their overall catch. In particular, women distribute fish to the parents of their husband, their husband's unmarried and married siblings, and to these respective households. Given virilocal emphasis in post-marital residence, a married woman's conjugal home is likely closest to her husband's family, and these kin constitute an important part of the everyday multi-house pamle network in which she participates. Proximity is important--any elderly neighbours who are not strictly 'familial' kin for example will still often be included in gifting fish because of the existing notion of caring for 'older' residents.

Fuary (1991a) notes that at nearby Yam Island, a married woman is expected to turn her attention to her husband's family, to work with other female members of that family, and to ensure that all her productive labour should be consumed by her affines. (11) Local ideology on Warraber does emphasise the woman's attachment to her husband and his closest kin. However, there is a continued expectation from the woman's kin that she will also distribute fish to them. This may be less of an issue for women who reside away from their natal island, that is, those women marrying into the Warraber population. In this situation, the numbers and range of resident kin and affines who expect to be included can be substantially reduced. But in-marrying women from neighbouring islands inevitably have close ascending kin at Warraber, reflecting the considerable movement and inter-marriage between the islands over a long period, producing substantive genealogical overlaps. More than half the married women living on Warraber are from that island and thus are living in proximity to their kin. Some of these women are also living adjacent to their own parents.

Claims to women's productive labour by particular multi-house networks exhibit some flexibility beyond a woman's responsibility to her own husband, children and husband's parents. Much of the demand placed on a woman's labour and her own voluntary participation depends on the availability of other women, including the number of daughters already present to help a woman's parents and in-laws, the demands made on their labour, and the size of her own conjugal family and locality (which domestic collectivity she resides closest to). One woman from Warraber who married a man also from Warraber lived across the road from his parents and regularly gave fish to her in-laws. In addition, she visited her parents almost daily and sent fish to them as well. However, her labour was also requested from an elderly woman living next door to her affines who had no grown-up daughters (only sons). Her labour and distributive capacities were regularly stretched by the expectation that she contribute labour and fish to four houses, including her own, where she had five children to care for. Her husband often assisted her by spearing fish while crayfishing commercially in order to supplement her own efforts. Women often juggled the demands they faced and would avoid some if this was possible without substantially upsetting kin.

Attachments generated in childhood often continue to adulthood and these are also visible in distributive practices, as is the particular importance of 'mother's brother' (wad-wham) relationships. For example, one widowed woman with children was regularly given fish by her daughter and by her son's de facto, who was living with them. Another woman who was not her daughter, also frequently gave her fish because she was close to the woman's parents and because the old woman had periodically looked after her when she was a child. This widowed woman, Mati, lived next door to her elderly brother, David, and his family. Mati's children also gave excess fish to David, their MB, on a regular basis, who took an active interest in his sister's children--particularly after Mati's husband had died. The children would also reside in his house for short periods after fighting with their mother. These children gave fish to David because of their own relationship with him, because he was their MB, but also because David and Mati continued to have a very close relationship. Because David lived next door to Mati, the households always knew when fish were caught, either by seeing the fishers bringing their catches home, or by smelling the aroma of cooking fish.

In another situation, one married woman regularly gave fish to a household comprising unmarried women who had fostered her husband when he was growing up. He had no surviving parents, so the married couple's labour was regularly directed towards these women. In this house, containing three generations of unmarried women, the granddaughters and daughter also provided fish for the house. A married woman living next door, whose parents were long deceased, also gave her excess fish to these women, the eldest of whom was too old to fish anymore. In all these examples, proximity and sentiment, age hierarchies, as well as kin relationships all influence the extent to which fish are distributed to particular persons. At the same time, the behaviour of the receiver of an individual's gift of fish can also provide an indication of the condition of their relationship.


Informants state that the act of distributing food beyond the home constitutes a demonstration of concern and respect for others, in effect illustrating an individual's willingness to engage in correct social behaviour, gud pasin (literally, 'good fashion'). The shared value of gud pasin forms the fundamental basis for comprehending food distribution at Warraber. Food eaten in the presence of others must be shared, whether a packet of potato chips eaten outside the local storefront, or a meal that is served with a casual visitor present in the home. Denying or withholding food from another person was interpreted as a denial of basic sociality, an act of bad pasin. The inadequate distribution of food, or the perception thereof, formed a regular basis for tensions in the community, mainly expressed through gossip, but at times extending to the chastising of individuals considered at fault.

At Mabuiag Island in western Torres Strait, subsistence production and consumption has been described as governed by 'obligation to kin' (Fitzpatrick-Nietschmann 1980:222). Warraberan women certainly felt that others harboured expectations about the distribution of their fish and were also always mindful that careless distribution could lead to others' displeasure, even anger. Fuary (1991a:203) notes that 'redistribution of marine products helps facilitate and maintain the ideal of harmonious group interrelations' at nearby Yam Island. Equally it can be a source of conflict. Distribution is painstakingly considered, as arguments or malicious gossip will likely ensue if performed without due care. The importance of fish and of sharing food in general produces a close monitoring and interpretation of the dispersal of a woman's catch.

At the same time, as Eves (1998:38) notes in a Papua New Guinea context, 'the morality of sharing is bound up with whether others have knowledge of the items or not.' If receivers never see the total catch, they can only assume that they are being given the portion that adequately reflects their relationship to the fisher. Distribution then is not entirely rule-bound; rather than a strict stipulation of orders of priority, women often have room to negotiate their response to requests--who they give fish to, and in what quantity, is rarely if ever a given.

At Warraber, the ways in which food and other products were hidden from or shared with the members of one's community reflects a certain tension between gud pasin as an overtly affirmed social ideal and gud pasin as an actual social practice. The muted but always present disjuncture between the ideal and practice always has the potential to create suspicion or resentment and regularly creates friction or stress in relationships between older and younger women, particularly affines.

As an act of socially approved gud pasin, a delivery of fish is rarely refused. But fish that are given by disliked individuals are placed in the home freezer. Few if any will be thawed and consumed. On Warraber, frozen fish are regarded as vastly inferior to freshly caught fish and as a consequence, are rarely eaten. Fuary (1991a:203) suggests the advent of large deep freezers on Yam Island had a marked effect on distributive practices, in that marine foods no longer need to be eaten or given away shortly after harvest. Freezers at Warraber do not play any role in fish distribution; rather they allow the disposal of fish that will not be consumed. In this way the fish can be disposed of at a later date (usually after some weeks or months), when its origins will be less obvious.

Household rubbish heaps are in clear view of neighbours and visitors may note or comment on a discarded gift-fish. There is also a concern that scavenging dogs could retrieve a fish and carry it into public view, where it will once again be remarked upon. The delay in disposal enabled by home freezers reduces the chance of openly or publicly repudiating the gift-fish, an act that would constitute bad pasin. On one occasion, I saw a mother put a fish given by her married daughter into a freezer because she was angry (wail, wild) with her for failing to provide her with fish for a number of days, despite having gone fishing several times. She suspected her daughter of withholding fish in order to consume them at home with her husband and children. Her anger at such neglect did not prevent her receiving the gift-fish, but did result in a refusal to consume it.

Refrigerators (rather than freezers) are sometimes used to store fish, though strictly short-term, one day or so at most. Warraber fishers say that they may store fish in refrigerators when other relatives already have fish or more desirable foods like turtle. If a fisher returns home after sunset, evening meals are likely to have already been prepared, both by their household and those of other kin. Particularly choice fish will then be stored in the refrigerator for household consumption the following day and these tend not to be distributed as they are no longer regarded as fresh (tidei pis, today's fish) and therefore constitute an inferior gift. As a result, such fish are sometimes cooked before being delivered to a relative. These gift-fish are regarded somewhat sceptically by the receiver who (often rightly) suspects it has not been freshly caught.

If a woman is avoiding relatives or in-laws due to a minor dispute, she may not present fish to them. Just as some individuals are renowned for being demanding in their requests for fish, particular women are regarded as being 'greedy' fishers, reputedly retaining marine foods rather than passing them on to others, and storing excess fish in their refrigerator to consume the next day. In fact, rumoured accusations of 'greediness' do not always indicate a woman is retaining fish, but often simply reflect a current dispute or ill-feeling. Some older women are particularly quick in assessing a daughter-in-law as 'greedy' or 'lazy'. Such criticism suggests she is insufficiently solicitous to her in-laws; the spectre of 'retaining food' serves as a damning synonym for poor conduct towards kin.

The moral imperative to share is implicit in terms like pamle--the multiple households that are expected to distribute money and food to each other. For Warraber residents, the notion of 'looking after' (lugaut) ascending levels of kin forms the practical enactment of expectations of 'sharing' (seya or sermaut) with others (including food, money and labour). Nevertheless, some younger married couples residing in their own houses may attempt to justify disregarding the expectation of 'looking after' elderly kin by arguing that their own 'house' (aus), i.e. nuclear family, requires their focused attention, an attitude that inevitably evokes censure from others as bad pasin. Warraber people understand an emphasis on one's own nuclear family (spouse, children) as being in tension with the local values of 'sharing' (often expressed in Christian terms), particularly in failing to meet the expectation of looking after elderly relatives. An adherence to the latter practice is deemed a fundamental expression of gud pasin.


This paper has addressed women's distribution of gift-fish at Warraber as an important dimension of moral economy operating in the Torres Strait, providing 'a picture of the implications and the lived experience of relatedness in local contexts' (Carsten 2000:1). Fish distribution is revealed as a core context for responding to the pressures of moral expectations. Local representations of communal relations at Warraber involve a vision of sociality that elicits a practice of morally-sanctioned behaviour, described as 'gud pasin'. The regular sharing of foodstuffs addresses the nature of community life, generosity, and obligation to kin.

A key conclusion is that women's distributive practices reveal the tension and ambiguity always present in the muted but real disjunction between the ideal and practice. Women seek space from scrutiny in order to shape the distribution of gift-fish to suit the strategic implications of their awareness of being positioned within a range of competing demands.

In his suggestion that the conception of 'demand-sharing' represents kin demands as an independent variable, Riches (2000:676) attempts to draw attention to the interrelation between public ideals ('notions') and individual strategy ('action'). However, demand-sharing certainly does seek to take account of the subtle interplay of expectation, accounting and strategy in transactions between individuals. I have attempted to highlight these kinds of processes within the everyday practices of sharing fish at Warraber, which are reminiscent of similar contexts in Australian Aboriginal society.

Peterson (1997:89) refers to strategic calculation as a feature of the presence of the demands of an extensive range of kin, leading to 'socially created scarcity'. Too-numerous social demands leads to efforts at calculation:
 Calculation is undeniably part of the everyday practice of demand
 sharing as the evidence of concealing alone makes clear; but, for
 demand sharing to be a pervasive social practice, it has to be a
 part of the habitus and of moral education in the management of
 interpersonal relations. (Peterson 1997:189)

A Warraberan woman's need to retain sufficient fish to meet the consumptive demands of her household and the multi-house networks to which she belongs is also reminiscent of Weiner's (1992:17) argument against the overly simplistic representation of gift economies in terms of an overriding 'norm of reciprocity'. She argues instead that the practice of 'keeping-while-giving', that is, retaining certain valued possessions while offering others up to the world of exchange, is a core social concern involving careful practices of strategic accounting of one's place in a layered maze of social relations (1992:141).

Weiner's most powerful evocation of this idea relates to objects which acquire value through their closeness to god, ancestors, or myths of origin. But it is clearly also relevant to the strategic distribution or retention of mundane or everyday items including fish, in instances where women must strategically manage the moral claims made on the (finite) products of their marine labour by relatives, neighbours and the social judgements of their community.

The Warraberan practice of gift-fish is neither a clear-cut example of demand-sharing, nor an instance of exchanging inalienable possessions. Nevertheless, it illustrates the inherent tensions between local communal values and individual means. These are inevitably mediated by instances of strategic calculation (or relational accounting), aimed at simultaneously demonstrating a commitment to the local terms of moral community, skilfully managing the expectations of wider kin, and meeting the immediate needs of one's own household.


The field research for this paper was partly funded by an Australian Postgraduate Award and grants from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Thanks to Oceania's editor, Neil Maclean, and two anonymous referees who provided useful suggestions for revising the manuscript. Special thanks to Phillip Winn whose commentary on several drafts assisted me in clarifying some of the ideas I raise in the paper.


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Julie Lahn

The Australian National University


(1.) This paper is based on fieldwork at Warraber that began with doctoral research during 1996-7 and continued with return trips to the island every year since. The most recent visit occurred during November 2005 where I attended a tombstone unveiling.

(2.) At the 2001 national Census of Population and Housing, Tones Strait Islanders numbered 43,574. This figure includes persons identifying as Torres Strait Islander, and as both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal (Arthur 2003:2).

(3.) If fish catches from men's intermittent netting were added to the total male figure, this would seem more likely. As far as I am aware, such data have not been generated at Warraber. Certainly Johannes & MacFarlane (1991) do not cite research of this kind.

(4.) See for information on the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) scheme which provides wages for unemployed Torres Strait Islanders in return for their involvement in local activities that are meant to contribute to their individual development of 'workplace' skills or to community development.

(5.) For a review of these activities in the Tortes Strait see for example, Altman et al. (1994), Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority website (, Johannes and MacFarlane (1991), Williams (1994); in an historical context Beckett (1977) and Ganter (1994).

(6.) Fish that are commonly caught by women at Warraber include Blue Tuskfish (bila), garfish (mathakoi; zaber), Black-Spot Seaperch (tanik), Honeycomb Cod (takam), Smudgefoot Spinefoot (kurbim), Blackspot Tuskfish (wanakuboi), Golden Trevally (waitpis), Bream (snapa), Giant Trevally (gaigai bulzi), Queenfish (kabar), Coral Trout (withi) and Stripey Seaperch (tanab).

(7.) Affines attract naming prohibitions and cross-sex affines avoid unnecessary interaction.

(8.) Scott and Mulrennan (1999:153) avoid the use of 'families' altogether, referring instead to eastern Torres Strait Darnley Island 'social identities' as variously reflecting 'households, patronymic groups, clans and island communities'. It is likely though that each of these terms would comprise differing expressions of the term 'family' (pamle).

(9.) See also Fitzpatrick-Nietschmann's (1980:196) discussion of buai.

(10.) See also Lahn 2004.

(11.) Fuary (pers.comm. 2001) says that in practice a woman will, however, give fish to her own parents in addition to those of her spouse.
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Author:Lahn, Julie
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Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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