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Torres Strait: Cultural Identity and the Sea

For the people of Mabuiag, the westernmost island in Torres Strait, heaven is not straight up; it lies on Kibu, an island to the northwest. When Islander die, their spirits sail to Kibu at sundown with the prevailing winds. The local Anglican Father regularly visits the ancestors in this mythical sea space.

Belief in a marine afterworld is Melanesian custom. In Torres Strait, personal and cultural identity are as dependent on the sea as the local marine hunting and fishing economy and rhythm of daily events. Like some of their Aborigine neighbors to the south on Cape York and the coastal Papuans to the north, islanders do not regard land and sea as separate spheres, or define the sea strictly in terms of fisheries or potential purely economic resources. By contrast, Western maritime idioms are devoted almost exclusively to the realms of law, politics, and economics. Material values and categories scarcely begin to convey the totality of Islanders' relationship to their "home seas."

A Sense of Place

Mabuiag waters conceal a non-European history. As "Island time" overtakes the visitor, a temporal sense of history recedes. For Islanders, "where's something happened is more important than "when" it happened. What first appear to be undifferentiated patches of coral and salt water are Islanders' exclusive marine domains - a vast, intricate water library where history dwells in places, not in time, and all the sea is named. Islands, reefs, channels and the resources they contain belong to Badu and Mabuiag people because mythical ancestors like Sesere, Zigin, and Wad caught turtles, dugong, or fish there. These things belong to a time of unwritten language not taught in any textbook. Nearly all folk tales start with this special sense of place. Islander history survives through the continuous occupation and use of islands and reefs and the crisscrossing of home seas.

Torres Strait occupies a strategic position in the annals of maritime history and exploration. Members of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Strait in 1898 were impressed by Islanders' profound knowledge of local natural history and the ways they partitioned and named sea space, which ran counter to European "freedom of the seas" claims and designations of fishing grounds as "common property." As a primary sea lane between the Pacific and Indian oceans, its peoples have long been exposed to outsiders. Traders, pearl shellers, and missionaries had already overrun the area, introducing wage labor, disease, and Christian fellowship. Pearlers had destroyed food supplies and denuded some islands, stolen women and shanghai'd young men as "food for the fisheries." York Islanders in central Torres Strait reputedly buried their women in the sand with only their noses showing whenever foreign vessels were sighted.

Some important impressions concerning the status of this sea-based society can be gained by, first, considering Torres Strait's relationship to the government of Queensland, Australia; second, by focusing on demographic patterns and recent economic pressures; and finally, by interpreting the persistence of a burial custom which is an indirect but vital link in Islanders' identification with their marine homelands.

Queensland is Australia's "Deep North," with a reputation for racial discrimination. As Queensland's protectorate, Torres Strait Islanders and their elected leaders are political pawns, captive to the DAIA's (Department of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement) "company store" mentality. At the DAIA-run store on Mabuiag, for example, residents get credit but no paychecks. They sign a ledger book for their goods. Precious little cash changes hands on the island. The government stocks shelves with soda pop, sweet biscuits, lollies, sugar, flour, and rice. (Torres Strait has one of the highest Type II diabetes rates in the Pacific).

Colonial policy has ostensibly sheltered the Islanders from abuses by outsiders ever since Queensland annexed the territory in 1879. This act gave the government control of the east-west shipping passage and facilitated containment of non-whites. After the federation of Australia in 1901, Islanders became subject to "protection," and not until after World War Two could they marry or travel to the mainland without DAIA approval. The twentieth century symbol of iron-hand paternalism is the Torres Strait Islander's Act of 1939. Though formalizing "indirect rule," it stipulates that Islanders have no traditional homeland or sea rights; rather they are allowed to inhabit the area under the supervision of Protectors (now called Managers).

A formal movement to repeal the Act is underway, but even if it is abolished, Islanders will continue to hang in political limbo without any legislation comparable to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 to recognize their hereditary rights. Nonetheless, recent Aborigine successes in pressing their land and sea rights claims through the courts offer encouragement to Islanders who have long sought to obtain official titles to their homelands and seas. A major test case is emerging. Since 1982, a group of Murray Islanders in Eastern Torres Strait has spearheaded a campaign in which the High Court of Australia petitioned the Queensland and Commonwealth governments to recognize their territorial rights.

The post-war economy and development prospects in the area make it imperative that the government address the question of Islanders' hereditary sea tenure claims which are being increasingly fragmented. University of California geographer Bernard Nietschmann, in his documentation of Islanders' valuable resource management traditions, identifies a constellation of pressures that threaten Mabuiag waters and subsistence territories, Local pearl shell, beche de mer, trochus shell and hawksbill carapace continue to attract outside markets, but today this list of export items must be expanded to include lucrative stocks of crayfish, prawns, and barramundi, as well as possible oil and natural gas deposits. Crayfishing boats from northern Australia and Taiwanese trawlers frequently venture into Islanders' waters to pirate prawns and other resources. Local turtle and dugong populations are particularly vulnerable to interlopers. Also, diffusion of outboard motors among Islander communities increases the danger of locally-induced overexploitation. Fishing is intensifying as part of the wider dispute over the international sea boundary between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Although the countries signed a treaty in 1978 to settle this conflict, the governments continue to ignore Islander rights to lands and home reefs, slicing them up in new jurisdictional patterns. A "protected zone" is supposed to be renegotiated in 1988 to continue restrictions on deep sea mining and commercial marine exploitation.

A Sense of Place, Once Removed

Shifting social organization and demographic changes make it difficult for Islanders to observe and enforce traditional sea rights and boundaries, especially beyond home reefs. A majority of the growing population of 20,000 Islanders reside, not in the Torres Strait, but on the Australian mainland. Strict containment policies relaxed after the war and a surge of wage labor opportunities in Qeensland encouraged Islanders to migrate to Cairns, Townsville, and Brisbane. Children must leave their home island to obtain standard secondary school education. Professional credentials in teaching, nursing, or office management similarly must be obtained on the mainland. Because of Queensland's "bandaid" health care approach in the Torres Strait region, people are forced to leave their home islands to give birth to their children and receive primary health care. Chronic health problems demand permanent relocation to medical centers on the mainland or Thursday Island, the region's administrative center.

Traditionally, home island residence is the foundation for group affiliation. Marriage fosters alliances between islands and across generations. Birth on a home island is necessary to establish territorial rights within a clan. In much of the Western Torres Starit, and particularly among the Mabuiag population, formal marriage unions are being replaced with de facto arrangements. This is due to the high cost of marriage: inflation in bride price, the heavy expense of weddings and the loss of federal social benefits given to unwed mothers. Children of such arrangements do not obtain their father's name or land and sea rights within his clan. Recently the Anglican Church has instituted home island baptism for children born out of wedlock, thus providing an alternative path for affiliating with a community.

The Anglican Church, which took over from the London Missionary Society in 1914, plays a key advocacy role in Australia, promoting Islander rights; it is perhaps the integral social force on Mabuiag. Under the Anglicans, and paradoxically, partly as a result of previous missionization to stamp out paganism, Christian weddings, funerals and other festive occasions gradually took on a distinctive Islander style, incorporating beliefs from the mythical past.

The cycle of events surrounding death is a major arena for expression of ethnic identity and home island ties. An annual ceremony with sacred dancing to commemorate the dead predates missionary influence. Underlying beliefs are still the basis for a secondary mortuary rite unique to the Torres Strait - the tombstone opening. The ceremony is the culmination of a long period of mourning and preparation by relatives. The tomb is not actually opened but a newly installed engraved headstone is unveiled. If the spirit of the deceased cannot join other ancestors on the island of Kibu, it may return and cause much mischief among the living. Ghosts can't get through the locked gate of the afterworld without the key - the tombstone ceremony. Today, in-laws dig deep into their pockets to present the deceased's family with an engraved headstone, brought all the way from Brisbane, shrouded in hundreds of yards of colorful cloth and money envelopes. In the words of Sam Passi, and Islander at Queensland University; "Making a tombstone was a new thing we added into our custom. Now we've got to carry on and nobody will stop it. It's become our custom and we're going to treasure it." Tombstone openings communicate a sense of self for contemporary Islanders. The ritual, with its extensive preparations and burdens, also highlights some of the difficulties people face by simultaneously trying to become part of modern Australia and maintaining access to resources and sacred space on their native islands.

The ability to carry on traditional burial practices is greatly complicated by recent island depopulation trends. Out-migration makes the quest to establish legal titles to clan estates of freeholdings problematic. Families can only exercise control over land and sea rights if children have island residences and if relatives can be guaranteed proper secondary mortuary rites. Moreover, the ability of communities to press their case for autonomous home islands as distinct Australian ethnic minorities depends on the power of cultural symbols contained in these ceremonies, along with valid connections to their heritage and earlier inhabitants. Grounding cultural renewal in an appeal to tradition is a strategy Islanders currently share with groups in other parts of the Pacific.


Can indigenous Torres Strait Islanders still be Islanders on the mainland? How are they to reconcile accommodations to life on the mainland with the pull of the sea, always calling them home?

For the Islanders the worst way to die is sarup, to be lost at sea. Europeans pushed them into dying this way. As the pearl shell was used up in shallow waters, divers were forced to go deeper and deeper into places like the Darnley Deep, beyond their home reefs. People still lament this time. The tombstone celebrations could not be properly performed - the spirits of the dead still restlessly wander.

It is difficult to isolate the sea from the context of Torres Strait Melanesian culture. Subsistence, trade networks, political alliances, social ideology, birth and death - all these things flow from it. This inter-connectedness may ultimately prove to be incompatible with the overlay of westernization. Australian courts will never be able to reduce indigenous sea tenure claims to straightforward allocations of fishing rights. As in the tombstone ceremony, Islanders will have to imaginatively refashion tradition in order to maintain it.

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