Notes on a Tobian Dance
Prepared for George Mason University Synergos Seminar:
"Culture as Semiotic"
Draft: Please do not quote without author's
NOTE September 2002: I have lightly edited the original text. Descriptions of Tobi (aka Hatohobei) and its people refer to conditions as they were in 1967-1968 and 1972-1973 when I lived on the island. Unfortunately, the film referred to in this paper is missing.
If all goes well and the projector works, I propose to show a snippet of unedited film of a dance, which my wife Mary shot in 1972 on Tobi, a Micronesian island. The two of us were completely innocent of any formal training in film theory or practice. This footage, then, falls within the great tradition of bad ethnographic film, a tradition marked by extreme naïveté. One simply uses the camera like an eye, pointing it at whatever seems interesting. Of course this process involves a constant sequence of decisions about what is interesting and what is not, which in turn presupposes assumptions about the world and about film. But in our case, these assumptions were largely unconscious. In other words, we shall look at a fragment of an anthropological home movie.
At first glance there seem to be two possibilities here. We can talk about the film or we can talk about the dance. If we talk about the footage as film, we can discuss the conventions which governed its creation, about how and in what ways it works or fails to work, and from there we could go on to a discussion of ethnographic film in general. There is a considerable body of literature on this topic and, in a way, it might be the sensible one to pursue. Certainly the three previous papers could be nicely integrated with it. Realism is, after all, what the ethnographer strives for in his descriptions, no matter what medium he uses, including film. And if I understand them correctly, all three preceding papers made the point that a conventionless realism is, at the very least, a very chancy proposition. As an anthropologist I have no trouble accepting such statements; doctrinaire positivism has long fled anthropology (at least my kind). On the other hand, I do want to arrive at understandings that have as their subject more than just my understandings themselves. It seems to me that an overly self-reflective approach can rapidly become self-defeating, especially if one's object is to understand the behavior of a culturally alien people.
This brings me to the second thing we can do with that footage. We can accept its premises, view it as though the camera were our eyes, and try to talk about what it records. If we do this, our topic changes from an inadequate film to an eloquent and very complex statement about men and women and the way they are together. In order to see that statement, though, the viewer will have to engage in a process very like the famous suspension of disbelief which is so often demanded and which, in their analyses at least, semioticians reject.
If I can get past the film the rewards will be great for I shall be able to deal with the dance, a much more sophisticated text than the film itself. And yet, I find that I cannot really do that. I cannot simply plunge ahead and begin the decoding of the dance. I must first establish the grounds upon which the reasonableness of my interpretation can be judged. That is, since I am dealing with a culture known only to a few, I must embed my interpretation of the dance in what is conventionally known as background material. This is more than simply a pro forma exercise.
My position is that the "meaning" of a performance like a dance can only be found in the relation of the dance to its context. In this case, broadly speaking, the context is Tobi itself, the island, the people and their society. In a narrower sense, the ideas expressed in the dance are part of a larger ecology of ideas, each related in important ways to others and all of them forming a kind of ideology of social relations. Before making statements about the dance's meaning then, I must outline what I feel to be salient contextual elements. This leads me to a third alternative, a compromise. Since, in order to convince others I must first convince myself, I shall present some material on how I, as a psychologically oriented cultural anthropologist, approach expressive behavior, such as dance. Admittedly, I again find myself attempting to explain my understandings and thus in danger of disappearing into a kind of infinite regression of mirrors. This time, however, the object of my understanding is not a home movie but a much more organic, coherent and unself-conscious production, created not by my wife and me but by my informants. This direction of understanding-outward, beyond the boundaries of self, class and society, is one of the distinguishing hallmarks of anthropology and is both its strength and weakness. For example, lacking the easy familiarity with our material of, say, French film critics with American films, we are forced to examine how we come to know that which we think we know about our informants' productions. My point here is that by focusing on the dance and not the film, I hope eventually I will be able to make statements not about the structure of ethnographic films but about Tobian (and, by extension, human) social relations. In this paper, meant to be read before the film is seen, such statements will be made only incidentally to the main work, which is to lay the ground for them by providing the kind of context that I, as an ethnographer, find necessary. Yet the object remains classically anthropological-to comprehend the ways of people other than ourselves.
It is interesting to notice that the basic information on Tobian society and culture that I must provide is precisely the material we would all share if this were an American dance done by Americans. Assuming my audience's total ignorance of Tobi and its people, I must decide what, out of all the information available, I should present. The decision is not an easy one. It is as easy to bore people with too much information as to frustrate them with too little. Preferring to err on the side of offering too much if I must err at all, in the next few pages I present material on the island and its tiny community. Three considerations guide my choice of material: experience, common sense and theory. The first grows out of the many occasions in which I have presented Tobian topics; there are certain questions that arise no matter what the topic and no matter what the audience. Common sense also tells me some material to include. Of course what common sense really consists of is a set of assumptions, presuppositions, value orientations, nuggets of conventional wisdom and other items to which we are all heirs as participants in our culture. It is important to minimize reliance on unexamined common sense. However, since this paper is addressed to other Americans, and since its topic is not American culture but a Tobian dance, I can afford to relax my guard a bit and get on with the job. The theoretical considerations that guide my selection of background material are complex and arise from many sources. I shall pick up this thread later, for now I simply want to indicate that general notions current in anthropology about the integration of culture dictate the presentation of much of the following.
Tobi is a coral island. Its dry land area is approximately 60 hectares and its greatest natural elevation is less than 4 meters. It is located in the extreme southwest of the Republic of Palau. The island lies in relatively rich fishing grounds. Tobi's location is fortunate-in addition to relatively productive waters, it lies in an area of moderate to high rainfall and infrequent storms. However, the island possesses no lagoon. It is thus one of the simplest and most symmetrical landforms known, a low coral island totally encased by a fringing reef. A schematic drawing of the island shows it to be composed of a series of five concentric circles. At the center is a fresh water swamp, partially converted to taro paddy and crossed by an elevated causeway. Next is an area of higher ground, covered with an intermixed growth of scrub, useful hardwoods, medicinal plants and coconut plantations. It was here that the majority of the island's buildings were found. The only exceptions were a few rough shelters in the taro grounds, and the canoe houses that were located on the beach side of a narrow strip of slightly higher land that separates the beach area from the interior. A fine sand beach circles the island, broken only in the north by a few meters of coral rubble. Last is the reef itself, which follows and exaggerates the contours of the land. The island lies on a north-south axis, and is roughly triangular in shape. The village is situated on the southwestern shore. In 1969 it was composed almost entirely of thatched structures that have since gradually given way to plywood and tin. It is here that the reef is narrowest and, in an area of generally northeasterly seas, it is here that the ocean is usually calmest. For these reasons the Japanese, during the years in the 1930s when they mined phosphate on the island, constructed a pier and accompanying channel out across the reef to the open sea. The pier is now all but gone, a victim of storms and American bombs, but the channel, partially sanded in, remains and provides a useful access to the sea.
The Japanese occupation that began in the 1920s was the most sustained contact the Tobians had experienced with non-Tobians. Until then the island had apparently been nearly as remote socially as it is physically, and its physical remoteness is considerable.
The closest affinities to Tobian language and culture are found on Sonsorol, Pulo Ana and Merir, small islands lying to the northeast about halfway between Tobi and Palau. All these islands seem to be linguistically and culturally related to the low island societies of the so-called Yap empire. It is reasonable to suppose that the ancestors of the present populations of the Southwest Islands of Palau (Tobi, Sonsorol, Merir and Pulo Ana) originated on one or more of the low islands to the east.
In 1968, Tobian society was located in two settlements, one on Tobi itself and the other in Palau. The Palau settlement was born in the early years of the century, and has come to assume a greater and greater importance for Tobians. By 1968 most people had spent some time in Palau during the course of their lives and an increasing number of people spent almost all their time there. Communication between the two settlements was dependent on the small government copra steamer which visited Tobi and the other Southwest Islands three or four times a year. In this paper I focus on the settlement on Tobi with its shifting population, in 1968, of 60 or so people.
Tobian society contained six, unranked matrilineal exogamous clans that served to regulate marriage. Land was owned in most cases by individuals although a few plots were jointly owned by siblings and the reef is held in common. Leadership rested with the chief, who led by moral persuasion and example and with the magistrate (elected in accordance with the wishes of the Americans), who served in most cases as a spokesman for the chief. There was an elementary school and a small dispensary, but no store or other commercial establishment. What little cash income existed was acquired from copra, which was sold to traders who came on the government ship three or four times a year and sold the few items of manufactured goods the islanders purchased. The island was then still largely self-sufficient in food and in fact may have been a net exporter. With every ship that left Tobi after its four or five hour stay, baskets of taro were sent north to the settlement in Palau.
Tobians organized daily life primarily around households. Households, in turn, were organized around kitchens. The kitchen area of a house site included a ground oven, a small hut for shelter, a cleared area for pounding taro, and a place for the cleaning of fish. Depending on who was on the island, different kitchens were in operation at different times. There were always fewer kitchens being used than there were home sites occupied. Houses without functioning kitchens became satellites of those with them. Households whose kitchens were being used daily became centers of sociability and influence, drawing in food from a large number of people.
Tobian society in 1968 exhibited a number of cleavages. Three adult generations each had had remarkably different experiences in life and all three had very different orientations toward the present and the future. The existence of both nuclear and extended families divided and subdivided the population through descent and marriage. Two political factions contested every leadership and salaried position available and disputed the control of other valued resources. Furthermore, due to the persistence over a number of generations of long term, unresolved interest conflicts over land, marriage and political office (conflicts which cross-cut one another in bewildering profusion), virtually every adult Tobian was at the same time both allied and opposed to everyone else.
The most profound of all the cleavages that divided Tobian society is that which existed between men and women. Yet, at the same time Tobian society's most elemental cohesive force was the bond between men and women. It is my contention that in order to understand the dance on the film, we must come to terms with this paradox.
Male/Female Opposition on Tobi
Tobian society in 1968 was characterized by a rather stringent sexual division of labor. The productive efforts of men and women tended with few exceptions to occur with others of the same sex. Women gardened together and men fished either alone or in small groups. The division of labor was not as rigid in practice as it is in other Pacific societies. Men were not forbidden to garden (although I have never known any to do so). Women gathered clams from the reef, took part in community-wide fish drives, helped their husbands in spear fishing (women walked along the reef edge at low tide and their husbands tossed speared fish to them to carry) and joined turtle hunting patrols on the beach at night. Men alone fished from canoes, used spears and fishing poles. Women spent their time gardening, tending children and cooking; men spent their time fishing, making coconut toddy, and tending fishing gear, especially canoes. Both sexes shared responsibility for the many chickens and few pigs that were raised.
There was a pervasive, if muted, sexual stratification on Tobi. Men, all agreed, ran the place. This was rationalized through the Tobian understanding of human (or at least Tobian) nature. First of all (and simplifying matters considerably), they held that learned fear is crucial in self-control. Self-control is, in turn, important in face of the great number of antagonisms between people that were known to exist in this small and mutually dependent society. Tobians felt that only people who have demonstrated great maturity by accumulating a history of self-control (which translates into the maintenance of a pleasant surface under any and all provocations) were competent to manage their own lives. Everyone else was a potential danger to themselves or their society. Thus everyone else had someone "in charge" of them. This guardian system was quite complex and I shall not elaborate on it here except to note that it placed every woman in a subordinate position. Each had some adult man as a monitor of her behavior. Women, along with children and young and senile men, were simply too volatile (which to a Tobian translated as being the same as "foolish") to be allowed to run their own affairs. Thus on the cultural level there was a clear-cut hierarchy of the sexes. On the social level, that is the actual relations existing among the Tobians, the hierarchy was much less clear-cut and there were many exceptions. The system as it was lived was rife with hypocrisies and pretense, but as it was thought was quite clear. The contrast between ideology and practice arose out of the demographic and other constraints under which Tobians lived.
All Tobians strongly valued independence and personal autonomy. Yet only a small class of people (the adult man) was granted them. Only adult men were conceived to have the requisite amount of the necessary characteristics of self-control and "true intelligence." By 1968 several senior, competent women after long struggles finally managed their affairs with only the most cursory reference to their male "guardian." It was not surprising that they and other women resented men, especially when the flagrant disconfirmation of male supremacy was a daily fact of life. On the other hand, this same "in charge" system also was responsible, I think, for a large part of the resentment which men felt toward women.
Tobians tended to resist being forced into nurturative roles. They often feared that somehow advantage was being taken of them. This fear was learned early and reinforced often. At the same time, genuine dependency needs, also with roots in early childhood, continually drew people together. Close emotional relationships were therefore usually brief and intense. They generally were fragile attempts to construct emotionally rewarding situations which failed as each partner attempted to achieve a dominant, non-nurturative role (in short, as each tried to be "in charge") while avoiding having to depend on a basically unknowledgeable and untrustworthy other. These statements are generalizations that held true to a greater or lesser degree for all Tobian dyads. They were most true, I think, for cross-gender relationships, especially lovers and spouses. Even though the sexual violence characteristic of Truk, Palau, and other Micronesian societies was not present on Tobi, a kind of emotional warfare between the sexes, bitter and protracted, did exist. Furthermore, this warfare was exacerbated by contradictions at the cultural level.
The "in charge" ideology proclaimed men masters of self-control and thus free to pursue personal autonomy and independence. At the same time, beliefs about nutrition and the sexual division of labor continually subverted this self-image. Indeed, these beliefs forced all Tobians into complementary roles of both nurturance and dependence. The underlying reality was that no Tobian, either male or female, could escape relations of fundamental mutual reliance with people of the opposite sex.
Tobians believed that it was necessary for one's health that a full meal be eaten at least once a day. Tobian eating patterns were typically Micronesian. In the morning, yesterday's food was eaten on the way to garden or sea. During the workday, light snacks of whatever was available were eaten. In the late afternoon or evening a meal of a variety of foods was consumed. This large meal was almost always eaten in the company of others. It was the only kind of eating which counted as "real eating." Such a meal, once a day, was thought to be necessary for good health. It had to consist of at least symbolic amounts of the two food groups. One of these included all food from the flesh of living creatures. The other included all vegetable foods. Tobians believed that people who were unable to achieve "real meals" on a regular basis ran the risk of becoming ill. A central social fact of Tobian life was that each sex only produced one of the needed food groups. Good health and life itself, Tobians thought, depended on these two being brought together. This bringing together took place at the kitchens and was presided over by the women. This socio-sexual organization of production and consumption was culturally reflected in Tobian public ideology and civic morality. Ignoring as anomalies such exceptions as net-casting women and taro-gardening men, the point was made again and again in speeches, songs, myths and dances: "MEN BRING FISH AND WOMEN BRING TARO." There were several occasions in which people transcended this opposition, however, and one of them was the dance on the film. At this point I think it is time to describe that dance, in a general sort of way at least. No doubt this description will bias the way in which the film is viewed but in case the projector does not work I do not want us to be left without a text.
A Christmas Dance
Twice a year on Tobi, at Christmas and New Year's, a set of dances was performed. Several series of statements were made, now by the women dancing their dances and then by the men dancing theirs. The statements dealt, in a metaphorical and ritualized way, with the relations between the sexes. They culminated in a thinly disguised dialogue between the sexes in which the full consequences that Tobians felt would result from a breakdown in relations between the sexes was symbolically discussed. This final dance was the only Tobi dance in which people of both sexes took part and it is the one on the film.
With fishhooks, cakes of soap, packs of cigarettes, small packages of cooked food (of both types) and even on occasion, a live rooster dangling from their waists, the women formed an inward facing circle and danced. While dancing they sang a song in which they mocked the pretensions of the men and demeaned their contribution to the island. At the same time the men, exaggerating the effects of whatever alcohol they had managed to consume, called out insults to the women, defaming their beauty, chastity and generosity. The women's song labeled the men lazy, stealing louts. Here was the closest people came to expressing the negative component of their feelings about the opposite sex. However, the people were not left long to face each other across this wall of hostility and resentment. As the women's dance got bolder and bolder and more and more sexually explicit, the men, one by one, broke loose from their group on the sidelines and ran up behind the dancing women. If the man was particularly bold, he might continue his catcalls. He began to mock the dancing of the woman behind whom he had placed himself. As the song of the women reached a crescendo, the two began to fit their motions to one another. All the while, he was "mocking" and she was seemingly oblivious to his presence. The man then reached out to the woman and while still "parodying" her movements, carefully untied one of his "presents." That is why this dance was called the "present dance"-the items hanging from the women were presents for the men. And while he untied the gift, his partner (for, no longer the victim of his parody, that is what she had become) pretended he was not there. Yet as you will see in this film, she subtly lifted her arms if they were in his way, slowed down a bit for him, and in general helped him to free his present. One after another the men came out until all the presents were gone. The hostility and resentment was shown to be only a part of the relations between men and women, and the truth of men's dependency on women, and the cooperation of both sexes in it, brought home.
The only manifest rule that governed this dance was that men were forbidden to take presents from "relatives," that is, women forbidden them sexually by incest and exogamy regulations. In other words, women gave presents in the dance to men who (setting aside pre-existing marriages) were potential spouses. This dance points up nicely the nexus of sexuality, food, hostility and dependence that was at the heart of Tobian life. It does this because, like all dances, it was a form of richly expressive, symbolically laden behavior.
Dance is notoriously difficult to interpret. I take it to be a type of ritual behavior. As such it partakes of the peculiarities of ritual, several of which are important to my understanding of this particular dance. First of all, ritual sequences are always set apart from ordinary behavioral sequences. This set-apartness can be achieved in several ways; for example, by reversing ordinary flows of events, role behaviors, normative evaluations or other culturally constituted phenomena. However it is done, setting ritual apart allows it to express ordinarily unacceptable sentiments. Furthermore, because ritual context is set apart it often has no consequences in ordinary life. This feature makes ritual of great use to Tobians.
It was very difficult for Tobians to speak unmetaphorically about emotionally laden topics in an abstract way. Most such discussions took place in a highly ritualized context and in a very metaphorical way. I have already indicated the hostility and resentment that tended to characterize people's feelings about the opposite sex. If a man simply said one day that all women were greedy and grasping, everyone nearby would think of his female kin-his wife, mother or sisters. Everyone would wonder what had gone wrong in his relationships with those particular women, and soon word of the statement would reach them. If his relations with them were not tense, they soon would be. If the man were to dance that idea, however, he could express the same sentiments with impunity. In performing one of the dances in which the expression of hostility toward women was an element offered him by his culture, he was merely following the rules.
This then is the dance, its context and the beginnings of an approach to understanding the relations between them. I hope that in our discussion after the film, we shall be able to decode the dance, or at least talk about how this might be done.