Malaita - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In bush areas, a fierce egalitarianism based on achievement rather than rank traditionally prevailed. However, in some coastal areas (e.g., Lau and Mararnasike) ideas of hereditary rank had some currency.

Political Organization. A pervasive ideology on Malaita distinguishes three leadership roles: that of "priest," who acts as the religious officiant of the descent group (see below); that of "warrior-leader" ( ngwane ramo), a bounty hunter and fighting leader; and that of a secular leader (in the Northern Malaita dialect, ngwane inoto/inito'o ). Characterizations of the latter range from a hereditary chief ( araha in Maramasike) to a smallish big-man in the most politically fragmented bush areas, such as Kwaio and Northwestern 'Are'are. Other areas combined an ideology that the senior agnate of a descent group acted as its secular leader with a recognition of de facto leadership achieved through entrepreneurial success. In Lau and southeastern 'Are'are, hereditary leaders commanded prestige and had considerable authority in peacemaking and other intergroup relations. The colonial government appointed headmen as agents of administrative control. Partly in counter to this, in the Maasina Rule movement Malaitans put up a hierarchy of chiefs to lead them in an anticolonial struggle. The Leaders were imprisoned in 1947, then released and incorporated into the process of gradual, indigenous-led participation in government, culminating in national independence in 1978. Today, Malaita (including Polynesian outliers) forms the Province of Solomon Islands, with a premier and a Provincial Assembly. Interest in "custom" remains strong, even in relatively Westernized areas, and "paramount chiefs" are being given legitimate status, even in bush areas where riant big-man systems prevailed.

Social Control and Conflict. Blood feuding was endemic on Malaita, with larger-scale warfare infrequent but dramatic and culturally celebrated in epic chants of ancestral deeds. Using bows and arrows, clubs, and spears, warriors challenged one another in direct combat or sometimes launched attacks in force against an enemy group in a fortified refuge, led by a shield-bearing fight leader. More often, killings were stealthy executions to gain vengeance, often on behalf of another group, to collect a bounty of valuables and pigs. Cannibalism was apparently practiced at least sporadically everywhere on Malaita; it seems not to have been primarily motivated by a quest for spiritual power, or even for protein, but rather represented a relegation to animal status of enemies or of social offenders (such as adulterers) whose conduct took them out of the bounds of human society. In Northern Malaita, sorcery accusations were a common cause of killings; in central Malaita, sorcery was a less-central theme, and seductions were the most common cause of killings (a puritanical sexual code enjoined the execution of adulterers and often led to the killing by their own kin of young women whose sexuality had been invaded, even by a proposition). Curses and other insults also triggered brawls and killings. Principles of collective accountability in blood feuding often led to the killing of a substitute victim, a close or sometimes distant relative, if the seducer or sorcerer could not be killed himself. A cultural distinction was made (at least among the Kwaio and 'Are'are) between powers of productivity (and associated magic and ritual) and powers of destruction (warfare, theft, vandalism): a kind of uneasy tension existed Between groups whose primary commitments were to stability and prosperity (and whose safety lay in their capacity to put up blood money against transgressors) and groups whose ancestors incited and supported killing, theft, and destruction (and whose living was consequently too unstable to allow sustained productivity).

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