Tanna - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity has merged with—not replaced—the traditional concern with ancestors and spirits. Missionaries proscribed a number of customary practices, including dancing and kava drinking, and reworked local political and economic structures. The John Frum and other movements, drawing upon both custom and Christianity, have added further, syncretic elements to Tanna's religious life. In addition to ancestors, people recognize various spirits associated with particular places, such as the reefs and mountain peaks. The Polynesian Mauitikitiki (Mwatiktiki on Tanna) is also a popular culture hero. John Frum continues his work as a spiritual mediator to the outside world, particularly to America. The John Frum-Custom people of the southwest claim a special relationship with Prince Philip of Britain who is, they maintain, a son of the mountain spirit Kalpwapen.

Religious Practitioners. All men are in contact with their own ancestors. Kava drinkers, spitting out their last mouthful of the drug, utter prayers to surrounding ancestors buried on the kava-drinking ground. A few men and women are known to have particularly good contacts with the supernatural world by way of dreams and various ritual devices. These "clevers" diagnose illness, find lost objects, and so on. Most of the Christian denominations have ordained local pastors. The successful prophets of John Frum and other notable spirits also serve as religious officiants.

Ceremonies. All Tannese ceremonies consist of exchange (of pigs, food, kava, woven goods, and lengths of cloth), kava drinking, and dancing that lasts through the night. Most of them are associated with important events in the life cycle of individuals. The family of the person involved gathers goods to present to his or her mother's brothers, with an equal amount of goods returned when the exchange is later reversed. Two ceremonies, not tied to individual life cycles, function to maintain regional relations. In nieri , people of two kava-drinking grounds exchange different kinds of food such as yams for taro. The nakwiari, involving several thousand people, is the island's most spectacular ceremony and involves exchange of pigs and kava between two regions, after a night and day of song and dance.

Arts. There is little material art on Tanna. Island aesthetics focus instead on singing, dancing, and body decoration. Although people make panpipes and bamboo flutes, they use no musical instruments to accompany song or dance that, for rhythm, relies instead upon hand clapping and foot stomping. Women paint their faces in mosaics of color that reflect the decorative dyed patterns on the bark skirts they wear to dance.

Medicine. Island etiology cites maleficent spirits and ancestral displeasure to explain many illnesses. Also, an imbalance of body elements may cause disease. Everyone knows at least one or more secret herbal cures for specific ailments, and a few men and women are renowned as particularly astute curers or bone setters.

Death and Afterlife. Important men are buried on the kava-drinking ground; other people are buried in the village. Christian pastors typically officiate at burial. The traditional funeral, however, that takes place a month or so after death is the final exchange between a person's family and that of his or her mother's brothers. Ancestral ghosts go off to a land called "Ipai"; they may also remain close to their old homes, and they are often seen in gardens and the forest.

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