Last week, an exceptionally powerful typhoon, Cyclone Zoe, swept across two tiny islands in the western Pacific, Anuta and Tikopia. Most news accounts identified these islands as part of the Solomon Islands, which has political control over them. But they are not geographically or culturally part of the Solomon Islands. Rather they are an isolated outpost of Polynesia.
The news of the devastation on these islands lashed by the 240 mile-an-hour winds will probably fade pretty quickly. Natural disaster stories in faraway places don’t linger for long. And the total population of Tikopia — about 1,300 — is smaller than the enrollment in the average American high school. The story does have one unusual twist: Although the island was physically devastated — crops washed away, villages buried in sand, trees flattened — everyone or nearly everyone survived. The Tikopians sat out the storm in the mountain caves of the extinct volcano from which their island was formed.
Tikopia is not a frequent tourist destination like Tahiti or a storied place like Pitcarin Island. It has no resources of interest to the outside world, and it is not especially picturesque. But Tikopia does have a special claim to our attention. A New Zealand-born anthropologist named Raymond Firth visited the island for a year beginning in July 1928, and his account of that visit, We, The Tikopia, published in 1936, is one of the great classics of ethnography.
Firth died last February at the age of 100; his legacy, a record of the lives and times of a small population of a seemingly insignificant island. In We, The Tikopia, however, Firth brought the art of anthropological reporting to a new height. The book is framed as a study of kinship on the island, but even in the first few pages, it transcends its technical subject. Few readers can have left the book without regarding men like Pa Fenuatara and the Ariki (chief) Taumako as close acquaintances, if not friends. We, The Tikopia has a Middlemarch-like quality, a combination of intellectual seriousness and sympathetic observation of the gamut of human life. Firth didn’t stint on telling us of the loves and animosities in the community, the cantankerous old folks who gradually warmed to him, and his own foolish bursts of temper. On one occasion he displayed his command of local idiom by telling some rowdy youths, “May your fathers eat filth!” (Or something like that…) only to be discreetly corrected the next morning, “Friend it is good that you should learn to speak our tongue correctly. When one curses, one does it thus______.” He had inadvertently slurred his hosts.
The Tikopians had occasional contact with Western ships, but in Firth’s day they had not yet found the value of money. Handed coins by sailors, some Tikopians threw them away saying, “Useless bits of iron!” One showed Firth a halfpenny and asked him, “Friend, is this money?” The Tikopians, however, were not blind to the outside world. When Western ships introduced rats to their island, they sent an emissary by canoe to the Europeans on a distant island with the message, “Give us your long-tails!” And thereafter they controlled the rodents with cats. The islanders also found metal fishhooks and knives to be a distinct improvement over locally made bone and stone implements. The Tikopians were intensely curious about the outside world and every young man’s ambition was to venture abroad and see it for himself.
When Firth visited, Tikopia had been under spiritual siege by the Christian missions for several decades, but with only modest success. The mission ship stopped by once a year, and the native missionary who lived on the island full-time had been more or less drawn into Tikopian life. Yet the western part of the island, called Faea, had officially converted at the behest of the Ariki Tafua, who sent his son to the beach with his war club. “He whooped in token of his warlike purpose,” and proclaimed, “If there be a man of Faea who does not go to the rotu (Christian service) I will enter his house, seize him by the wrist and drag him there.”
The Tikopians saw power in Christianity, but not all for the good. They blamed a former bishop of the Melanesian Mission for a particular hurricane, and attributed the deaths of several pagan chiefs to the bishop’s enmity. Some Tikopians improvised their own accommodations to the new religion. In one instance, a medium enrolled his invisible spirit helper in the local church.
The paramount chief on east side of the tiny island, the Ariki Kafika, was a proud pagan determined to maintain the indigenous fertility rituals, the work of the gods. But because the cooperation of all four chiefs was needed to proceed, he had to pursue a policy of subtle diplomacy with his rival, the nominally Christian Ariki Tafua. Firth himself navigated a delicate course of staying on good terms with both men, despite the rivalry.
We, The Tikopia is a grown-up book that engages a tough anthropological problem. The Tikopians explain and justify almost everything they do on the basis of their kinship with each other. From birth to death and everything in between — work, play, politics, property, marriage, and religion — Tikopian life is framed by the obligations and prohibitions of kinship. But what does “kinship” really mean? Anthropologists still debate that question and We, The Tikopia still stands as one of the deepest explorations of the topic.
We, The Tikopia was only the first of nine books Firth wrote about these islanders. As his official obituary in Anthropology News put it, those volumes may add up to “the greatest record of a nonliterate people” we have — or indeed that we likely ever to have. Firth went back to Tikopia in the 1950s and, among his later books, is an account of what happened after all the Tikopians became Christian.
A year ago, Bridget Basile, one of my graduate students, wrote to Sir Raymond to tell him on how much she and her classmates had gained from their study of his work. Firth wrote back expressing his surprise — and no doubt gratification — that his books were still being read. He had cause to be surprised. Anthropology these days rarely consists of selfless portraits of other peoples in their own worlds. Instead some contemporary anthropologists write about themselves, treating their private ruminations as more interesting than the lives of the people around them. Other anthropologists freely “interpret” the world around them and offer ethnographies that sail off into the imagination, leaving the humdrum natives back on the shore.
Firth saw all this coming. In the early 1970s, at the supposed end of his long career, his valedictory essay warned against anthropology turning its back on the core project of rational inquiry based on real people and plain facts. He scanned the horizon and saw the storm clouds that would bring anthropology’s own destructive typhoon.
No people are so remote that we cannot learn their language, or they ours. Cultural differences divide us no more than we want to be divided. Firth was of that now-vanished generation of scholars whose response to the discontinuities among human societies was to take careful note of the details and to trust that they would lead to a sensible explanation. He was a daylight anthropologist, unlike his often crepuscular successors. His books are not reveries on the themes of sex and death, but meetings with intelligent men and women, good and bad, getting on with the stuff of life. That is ground where we all can meet.
Ships with emergency supplies are on their way to Tikopia and Anuta, and we can expect that these resourceful people, currently surviving on green coconuts, will soon begin to rebuild their battered lives. They would receive some emergency help in any case, but I don’t doubt that the outside world will come to the assistance of the Tikopians with an extra measure of urgency. All over the world there are people who have read Raymond Firth’s books and who feel some special connection — indeed some kinship — with the Tikopians.
That is what ethnography, at its best, can do. It opens our eyes to the profound human connections that are all too often blocked by time and distance and language and all those imponderables that sweep together as “cultural difference.” The most humanitarian among us may transcend these barriers on sheer goodwill, but most of us need a guide: Someone who has the patience, the breadth of spirit, and the fluency of speech to allow us to enter imaginatively into the lives of people living lives so unlike our own.
The Tikopians have once again weathered a terrible storm. Perhaps they still feeling the persecution of that angry Melanesian bishop who sent the typhoon in the 1920s. For all their afflictions, however, the Tikopians are fortunate in having had long ago as their friend, their guest, and their ethnographer, Raymond Firth.
— Peter Wood is a professor of anthropology at Boston University. He is the author of the forthcoming Diversity from Encounter Books.