Malekula - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. The basic organizing principle is that of a common "place." Ancestral "place" commonly coincides with patrilineality, but there is plenty of room for ascription when suitable. Rights to "place" can be gained by adoption and long-term contiguity and commensality. Mission villages in Mewun and Seniang usually include residents from several "places." Members of a "place" are exogamous and cooperate on work teams; they also pool their resources for bride-wealth and funerary contributions. Members of a "place" will also share rights to unique artistic creations (dances, artifacts, songs, etc.), said to be given to members as gifts from the spirit world. These cultural artifacts can be bought and sold between "places." The emphasis on "place" seen in South West Bay apparently is significant throughout Vanuatu; not only is it noted by anthropologists in other parts of the archipelago, but the newly invented (postindependence) pidgin word for "citizen" is man ples (or woman ples )."

Political Organization. The traditional political system operated through a combination of personal and positional power. A men's graded society developed in all three South West Bay ethnic groups. By earning his way up the ladder of ritual position (each position involving payments and bestowing ritual privileges on the aspirant), a man could reach the top grade, at which point he became a spiritually powerful and feared person. High-ranking men were likely to have several wives, often obtained from different ethnic groups, and great wealth in pigs. Laus men still have a graded society, or nimangi. A shadow graded society also exists for Laus women and was described for Mewun and Seniang in traditional times. Since missionization of Seniang and Mewun, official political power in the form of chiefdoms has been rotated every year or two among various members of each "place." Prior to independence, Mewun and Seniang were each represented by an assessor, who officiated at the trials of small offenses but called in the British or French district agents in cases of major disputes or crimes. Outside the official realm, power is held by big-men who are empowered by their ability to control large networks of kin and affines and by their speaking talents. In general, postcontact power is much more diffused among socially prominent citizens, political representatives, and church officials than it reportedly was in earlier times.

Social Control. The most frequent causes of intragroup conflict are land disputes and adultery. In Mewun and Seniang, such disagreements are settled by long discussions monitored and guided by elected chiefs. Adultery is frequently punished by fines, levied on both parties, or by public service, such as caring for communal grounds or repairing public property. In Laus, disputes are still settled by big-men, just as they were in Mewun and Seniang prior to missionization.

Conflict. Until the arrival of Europeans, warfare was an integral part of life in South West Bay. Members of a descent group usually remained at peace with one another, but war could break out between different kin groups within Mewun, Seniang, or Laus. Aggression between members of these cultural groups was also common before missionization. Disputes between groups nowadays are most commonly over adultery or land. When these disagreements do occur, the cases are tried by chiefs from the involved communities. Very severe crimes, such as assault and battery, are tried by the national court system and guilty parties may serve prison terms. Whenever possible, disputes are settled by reciprocal exchanges of goods or services. The object of all locally tried court cases is the reduction of ill will between the parties, so all court proceedings tend to involve a great deal of negotiation rather than arbitrary legal sanctions.

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