The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea by Annette B. Weiner

Chiefdoms are an essential part of the villages of the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Chiefs were several different forms of decorations on their bodies that allow them to augment their physical appearance and claim their chiefly rank by one of their ancestors. They are enforced to follow several food taboos that prohibit them from eating certain foods that are thought to weaken the body. One of the reasons these taboos are reinforced is because they are thought to strengthen the body and make it more attractive, and therefore, influential (Weiner 101).

One would expect that there only be one chief per village, but here, there are several chiefs that vary in rank. Chiefs are part of chiefly matrilineages and therefore only have utmost power over their hamlet only (Weiner 104). The origin stories make clear that there has always been rivalry amongst chiefs, and each chief always searches for a weakness in another in order to take advantage (Weiner 101). However, ranking does not equate to political power in the village (Weiner 102). According to Scupin (141), political power is the ability to achieve personal ends despite opposition. A person may be legitimate to become a chief, but if he does not acquire power, he will not be a powerful chief. Therefore, chiefs must work to establish power in their interpersonal relationships (103).

Important and powerful chiefs must also have some kind of sorcery knowledge in order to demonstrate control over the village and the growing cycle of yams. The most dangerous spells are those that control the weather because they can also control the yam harvest season. By knowing spells for this, it creates fear in the villagers, and therefore, respect. However, chiefs can also be vulnerable to sorcery’s effects (Weiner 109). Another way to control the yam harvest is by special stones that were inherited from chiefly ancestors. When they are upright on the ground, the yam harvest will turn out good; if they are turned down, the yams will die (Weiner 99). The ruin of the growing cycle of a yam harvest is feared by everyone, since it would cause a disruption in fertility, social relationships, and power (Weiner 110).

A right chiefs acquire is the ability to marry more than one wife (Scupin 183). Polygyny allows a chief to enlarge economically, since he would receive several annual yam harvests from the matrilineal kin of each wife. Since each wife would have her own personal yam house, the matrilineal kin of each would compete against each other to see who produced the most yams for the season. This competition benefits he chief, since the political currency is measured in yam production. With several full yam houses, he would be ideally powerful (Weiner 105). However, low-ranking chiefs tend to either be monogamous, which is marriage to only one woman (Scupin 138), or have up to six wives (Weiner 106).

The distribution of women’s wealth, which consists of skirts and banana-leaf bundles and occurs on the last phase of mourning during yam harvest season, shows the potential power of matrilineages. In the latter, a woman “owner” does this by collecting the most baskets of skirts and bundles, and is essentially called a “wealthy woman” (Weiner 117). When a woman needs to collect a large amount of bundles, her husband has to help her by selling his own valuables and purchasing bundles for her. This happens especially when one member of his wife’s matrilineal dies because her brother gives them yams every year. This is one of the ways in which the accumulation and collection of women wealth is associated to yam production. Therefore, men are shown to work for women in their yam gardens and in their purchase of women’s wealth (Weiner 122).

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