Ceremony as Resistance


New Caledonia is a French colony in the Western Pacific, today labeled Territoire d’Outre Mer (TOM). The indigenous Melanesian inhabitants, who call themselves Kanak, number about 85,000 (approximately half the total population) and speak 28 austronesian languages.

Both oral and written sources indicate that close relations between far-flung societies or groups of people are a fact of contemporary life and were a part of life before colonization. By Melanesian standards, Kanak civilization is comparatively homogenous. A century and a half after christianization and colonization, Kanak ceremonies (coutumes, or “customs”), reception ceremonies in particular, remain a fundamental feature of Kanak societies. These ceremonies, which are the dynamic expression of Kanak social life, are performed in several parts of the country and are characteristic of Kanak civilization as a whole. They can take different forms depending on the types of relations they express and actualize. Reception ceremonies in classic form--originally performed for regional relations between local societies of Hoot ma Whaap1--are often transformed today according to their contexts of relation, and are used in the struggle for independence. They give voice to the idea that the Kanak, as the land’s first occupants, are hosts to those who came later.

Colonization and Resistance

The arrivals of the Catholic priests (1843) and the colonists (1853) are, today at least, interpreted according to an idiom of Kanak reception ceremonies--as newcomers respecting their hosts and their hosts’ way of life. In reality, however, the colonists confiscated the best tracts of land and expelled their inhabitants, confining a mobile population to reservations. Compulsory work for the colony was also enforced. Under these conditions, although there was no systematic slaughter of indigenous people as in Australia and the United States, the Kanak population dwindled dramatically until the first decades of the 20th century.

From the first decades after Christianization and colonization, the Kanak resisted, most famously in popular uprisings. The French dealt with them ruthlessly, burning villages, killing villagers, and making spectacular public use of the infamous guillotine. Elders remember these public executions (and their mandatory attendance) with great emotion and transmit their memories, in various ways, to the younger generations.

Only after World War II could most Kanak participate in local New Caledonian politics. A fledging Communist Party was quickly suppressed. Kanak reclamations were mostly conveyed through Catholic and Protestant loyalist organizations, which soon merged to become a unified political party, Union Calédonienne, in which Kanak and progressive colonists collaborated. Its moderate stance is apparent in its slogan, "two colors, one people." Kanak aspirations for dignity and participation in decision-making seemed, at first, to make headway, and Kanak participation in local political institutions was on the way. But the local colonial "right," controlled by the rich colonials and reinforced by a wave of European immigrants (including many ex-colonials from Algeria), forced a powerful backlash. They used racist slogans openly, calling a local government with Kanak ministers "Planet of the Apes." To this day, the level of overt racism among a large part of the European population of New Caledonia is staggering.2

Referencing radical left-wing politics, small militant groups called for independence starting in the late 1960s and the word "Kanak" was coined. A landmark year in the struggle for independence, 1975 was marked by the cultural festival Melanesia 2000. Created by Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the event mixed traditional and modern elements. The foundation of FLNKS (Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste) in 1984 to bring together a fragmented political independence movement was another milestone.

The assassination of a pro-independence leader in 1981 was the beginning of a new phase for this previously peaceful movement. Kanak aspirations for an independent Kanaky took a forceful turn and colonial repression was brutal between 1984 and 1988. In 1988 the French state, the loyalist leaders (with their own agenda, distinct from that of the state), and the Kanak pro-independence leaders signed the Accords de Matignon agreement, opening a transition process aimed at readjusting the economic, political, and cultural balance between the Kanak and the colonists. At Jean-Marie Tjibaou’s insistence, the agreement mandated regional councils, generally called conseils coutumiers for each of the recently created aires culturelles Kanak (Kanak cultural areas). These councils were made up of Kanak dignitaries (coutumiers), mostly men of considerable status or knowledge, and were devoted to defending, asserting, and promoting Kanak culture and societies as well as ways of living and relating to the country. After a transition period, a self-determination referendum was scheduled for 1998.

Jean-Marie Tjibaou was later killed, but the peaceful transition process continued. Unfortunately, the loyalists insisted that the wording of the 1998 referendum postpone the question of independence for more than 10 years. A new agreement mandated that the regional councils be federated in the Sénat Kanak, or Kanak Senate, which would be consulted by political authorities in matters regarding the Kanak and the environment.

The Independence Movement

The independence movement’s political aspect, riddled with divisions, was and still is federated within the FLNKS. Party divisions and personal ambitions are cleverly used and richly funded by the loyalists and the French government. The movement’s cultural aspect, on the other hand, enjoys a common aim, stressing that all Kanak have a specific culture with certain common traits. The Nyêlayu language, spoken in Arama, Balade, and Belep, contains an expression considered equivalent to "culture": wado ma weeng, or ways of doing and customs. The phrase came to be in the 1970s when many Kanak thought it better for the future of their children to become, culturally, as French as possible, but simultaneously realized that the colonial social system deprived a majority of Kanak children of the opportunities offered white children. This cultural trend emphasizes Kanak culture’s dynamic nature: It looks from the past into the present and the future.

The predominance of the political or the cultural aspect of the independence movement varies according to circumstances and strategy. An explicit division of labor exists between politics and culture; between les politiques, the politicians, and les coutumiers, the dignitaries. But the two arenas also overlap, and the loyalists have been doing their utmost at the highest level of the new cultural institutions to control the Kanak Senate.

The Hoot ma Whaap Council is made up of dignitaries from the dozen local societies of the far north of New Caledonia, not all of them pro-independence, but all of them agreeing that Kanak culture should be respected and developed. The Council considers itself part of the cultural aspect of the Kanak movement. In its priorities, this new institution has stressed the teaching and writing of the treasured local languages from primary school onward and the reorganization of local societies on what it considers authentic lines. Such a platform involves several interrelated projects. First, "administrative chiefs" nominated by the French authorities must be replaced with representatives of local societies, called teâma, who are more in tune with classic Kanak social organization. Second, confiscated land must be given back to its original inhabitants--no small task considering the complexity of the principles of land tenure and the differences in local situations. Third, the country must be mapped, putting into written and topographic form the memories and experiences of thousands of people, with names and limits that chart their universe and social life. Fourth, written expression must be found for "Kanak law." Finally, Kanak ceremonies must be promoted.

Ceremonies were so vital to and valued in Kanak culture that they weathered the worst periods of colonization, but not without transformations or losses. Most of these ceremonies have to do with the life cycle of people or plants, local social organization, restoring peace, or receiving people or groups. Ceremonies associated with the building of the greatest round houses--the architectural figuration of local societies--were more or less strictly prohibited in the Hoot ma Whaap area until the second part of the 20th century. Regional ceremonies were also prohibited or frowned upon by the French. The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s marked a great revival in round house building. Regional ceremonies also made a comeback, especially in the 1990s, thanks to the Council; the last such great event in the north of Hoot ma Whaap had taken place in the 1950s for a teâma’s funeral.

Contemporary Ceremonies

In the Hoot ma Whaap area, each of a dozen local societies is either Hoot or Whaap. Written colonial historical sources mostly stress war between these societies. War, however, was but one aspect of a complex regional organization—a network locally conceptualized as a system of Pathways (Daan) and Passages or Doors (Phwâ) linking the local societies, often called Houses or Great Houses (Mweemwâ). The dynamics of regional relations in this network were the circulation of groups, people, messages, violence, valuables, and ceremonies. Today the peaceful aspects of these relations remain, but jokes are sometimes made about previous enmities between Hoot and Whaap societies.

In recent years, the Hoot ma Whaap Council systematically organized large reception ceremonies as an indispensable opening to important events during which the Kanak wanted to stress the uniqueness, originality, and value of their social and cultural procedures, and their indigeneity. Most important were the events in 1993 during the United Nation’s Year of Indigenous Peoples and the 150th anniversary of the first Catholic mass celebrated on Kanak soil, and the events in 1994 for the reception of the French High Commissioner during the context of negotiations over the transition process. These events were supervised by the dignitaries of the Council, who decided whether, where, and when the events would take place. The Council also managed messages of invitation through the complex Kanak procedures and network of Pathways. Thus informed, each local society, whether host or guest, arranged for the organization of the ceremony, including the coordination of men’s and women’s work: fishing, hunting, gardening, gathering money (through the organization of festive events), and, in the preliminary stages before the ceremonies, getting together in a ceremonial way. The hosts also erected the ceremonial buildings and organized food and shelter for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of guests.

Large reception ceremonies are indispensable preludes to important regional encounters for which endings are also marked by a formal separation. Both reception and separation, like many of the Kanak ceremonies, are performed between two ceremonial sides, and are achieved through several sequences involving the exchange of valuables and solemn speeches made in a Kanak language. The relations between the two parties are both actualized and expressed through the exchange and in words. This classic form of reception and separation has been extended for more than a century to relations with the Catholic Church. It has now become the norm for meetings with delegates of the colonial authorities and the international community.

These extended contexts of use imply some changes in the classic ceremonial forms. Whether in their classic forms or in their modified ones, however, the reception ceremonies are an indispensable part of social relations which clearly and spectacularly express important aspects of these relations and the aspirations of those who perform them.

Thousands of representatives from the whole of New Caledonia as well as several countries of Oceania and Southeast Asia gathered for the celebration of the UN Year of Indigenous Peoples that took place in Poindimié, to the South of Hoot ma Whaap. The date chosen by the organizers for the main ceremonies—September 24--was that of the annual celebration of Kanak Mourning, which commemorates the victims of French colonization. The date coincides with Caledonian Colonial Day; while colonial forces celebrate, the Kanak mourn.

Like the representatives of other Neo-Caledonian "cultural areas," the Hoot ma Whaap people were to arrive as a ceremonial unit in Poindimié. In preparation, the Council decided that the region’s delegations would first gather in Bondé, one of their villages, where a regional encounter would take place for a couple of days. Their delegation would then proceed to Poindimié. The Arama delegation’s arrival in Bondé demonstrated the classic context and form of the reception ceremony. The delegation numbered about 20 men and women, who left Arama in the morning and drove to Bondé. A few kilometers before arriving, they stopped on the roadside. Their stopping-place was, in the traditional Pathway from Arama to Bondé, a Passage through which the Arama people enter the Bondé area. The delegates dressed in special garments, including an abundance of vegetal items, and Kanak weapons were distributed to selected men. The group was arrayed in a long rectangular procession and marched in a special step, accompanied by loud breathing/whistling. The dignitaries of Arama, including the orator who rehearsed the most difficult presentation speech, led the procession. Preceding and flanking them, the weapons-bearers advanced in warlike attitude. The procession was rehearsed several times before the group set off again. On arrival in Bondé, this well-synchronized and impressive procession marched toward their hosts on the reception ground. The hosts--several dozen men and women--awaited them, standing stretched along several lines, their feet stamping the ground. The procession stopped, and the orator recited a speech.

The arriving group’s presentation served as its ceremonial passport within the regional network, expressing the Arama identity. This relational identity was expressed first through a description of the group’s Pathway to its hosts, then through the organization of its society, or Great House. When this speech was over, a long series of ceremonial exchanges of valuables, food, and speeches were performed between the arriving group and its hosts: both orators made rhythmical speeches and several formal exchanges took place. Arama could then be integrated into the ceremonial group, called House, which included both the hosts and their guests.

A few days later, the representatives of the Hoot ma Whaap House drove away from Bondé down the East Coast of New Caledonia toward Poindimié. At their arrival, the delegation of men and women numbered about 150. A few kilometers before getting to Pondimié, all the vehicles stopped at the Passage by which the Arama people enter the Poindimié area. Special costumes were donned, weapons were distributed, and the procession was rehearsed. After driving to Poindimié, the procession marched toward the main ceremonial grounds and stopped in front of a crowd of hundreds--some, the Poindimié hosts, others, members of delegations that had already arrived from other parts of New Caledonia. Just behind them stood a massive Great House built for the ceremony. The orator for this arriving Hoot ma Whaap House first proclaimed the Pathway leading to Pondimié then described all Hoot ma Whaap. Along with the ceremonial exchanges, he then made, in Kanak French, several speeches in a rhythm similar to that of Kanak speeches. The central topic: the solidarity of the Kanak in their struggle for the recognition of their culture and an independent Kanaky.


In a modern context, the spot chosen for the rehearsals was, in both cases, an important part of the traditional Pathway. The Pathway is an expression of enduring relations between societies. Changes in the scope and context of relations between societies, however, entailed several transformations. Classic reception procedures such as that described for Bondé concern relations between Hoot and Whaap societies. But the one in Poindimié enacted the arrival of the whole of Hoot ma Whaap to another cultural area that included representatives of other New Caledonian cultures as well as representatives of other countries. In this wider context, the speeches were as much a statement about relations with other parts of New Caledonia, for which the name Kanaky was used, as they were a statement about relations with the colonial power.

A few months later, when the Catholic Church wanted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first mass in Balade, on Kanak soil, it first had to get approval from the local Kanak authorities, among them the Council members. In meetings set up to authorize and prepare this celebration it became clear that many local people considered the Church an instrument of colonization. They decided that a clear separation would be kept between the Church celebration and the reception and departure of delegations according to the "Kanak system." Some delegates mentioned, during the reception’s formal speeches, the Church’s role in helping make the Kanak stronger. At the Catholic ceremonies, the Bishop offered apologies for the Church’s wrongs against to Kanak culture, and the Council, along the lines of a Kanak peace-restoring ceremony, redistributed the speech throughout New Caledonia.

In 1994, also in Balade, the Council received the French High Commissioner. Standing in a line in front of a Great House, dressed mostly in vegetal garb, the dignitaries faced the uniformed civil servant and his aides. Their dialogue offered a striking contrast in dress, in attitude, and in the type of eloquence displayed by the orators. One of the Council’s aims was to reverse of the consequences of a similar reception, said to have been performed on September 24, 1853, in the same place, during which a French admiral took possession of New Caledonia. The ceremonial speech evoked the admiral’s reception by Kanak ancestors and its dramatic consequences for the Kanak. It offered a new start, with the colonists behaving as guests and respecting their indigenous hosts. In an optimistic vision of the future, the orator called for a life together in "an open House for all those who are here and are going to live with us." The sentiment was clarified during later conversations between the High Commissioner and the Council: "Give me my land back so that I can receive you." Here again, Kanak interpretations of historical events clearly challenge the colonial point of view and reverse it in an attempt to make it conform to Kanak cultural procedures and attitudes.

The movement for an independent Kanaky’s two faces--the political and the cultural--lie at the root of the movement’s reflections, actions, and strategies. Most journalists and specialists on New Caledonia, however, concentrate on the movement’s political aspect. Developing from the very beginning of the resistance to colonization, the movement’s cultural aspect encompasses its political aspect, both historically and in the stress it puts on what is shared by all Kanak: their culture. The Kanak are consummate practitioners of la politique (politics and politicking), but perfectly aware that it is an imported form of power over social relations, and not a universal approach toward them. In contrast, Kanak culture is perceived, first, as indigenous. It founds and gives deep meaning to a fundamental aspiration: the reorganization of the country, based on an explicit recognition by all involved of the fact that the Kanak were the first inhabitants of the land, and, as such, are hosts to all those who arrived later. The reception ceremonies express this idea, both in words and in action. Rooted in traditional oratory, ceremonial idioms, and local cultural concepts expressing classic Kanak social relations, these ceremonies display enough flexibility--resilience, adaptation, and innovation--to be adapted to different types of relations, whether new or classic.

1. As an anthropologist, I have worked since 1992 in the far north of the main island of New Caledonia, in a region of Grande Terre locally known as Hoot ma Whaap. From my base in a village called Arama I studied social relations both within and beyond the region.

2. People of Asian origin also suffer this discrimination.

Denis Monnerie is a professor of ethnology at Marc Bloch University, Strasbourg, France. His Ph.D. dissertation was on Mono-Alu and the Northwestern Solomons. He spent three years doing fieldwork in New Caledonia, in Arama, and in the Hoot ma Whaap area, and was a member of the CNRS/EHESS research team ERASME, founded by Louis Dumont and later headed by Daniel de Coppet and André Itéanu.

References & further reading

Monnerie, D. (2002). La terre et les hommes, l’indépendance et la politique. Consensus et confrontations en Nouvelle Calédonie. Ethnologie Française (Special Issue outre mers: statuts, cultures, devenirs) 4:32.

Mwà Véé (1995). Special Issue Mélanésia 2000. n°10 (Revue de l’Agence de Développement de la Culture Kanak, Nouméa).

Tjibaou, J-M. (1996). La présence kanak. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Tjibaou, J-M & Missotte, P. (1978). Kanaké. The Melanesian Way. Papeete: Les Editions du Pacifique.

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