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Village Videos and Custom Chiefs: The Politics of Tradition

My first exposure to that quintessential hero of American pop culture, Rambo, came in 1988 while I was in Buala village on the island of Santa Isabel, Solomon Islands. Although I had missed out on the first epic Rambo movie, fortune would allow me to catch up on this latest film phenomenon by seeing the second Rambo film, Rambo, at a village video open to anyone willing to pay the 60 cents admission price (about 25 cents US). The video showings run almost nightly on a VCR powered by a gasoline generator in a small house built out of corrugated iron and thatch. Inside, several rows of benches and the earthen floor accommodate an audience of 25 to 30 people. So it was that in 1988, while I was in Buala researching local recollections of World War II, my wife, four-year-old son, and I decided to see firsthand this new addition to village life. Here, after all, was a kind of latter-day cultural invasion not unlike that brought on by the military forces that flooded the Solomons during World War II with new kinds of people, technologies, and images on a scale unknown before or since.

Running regular video showings in Buala village is a tenuous business. Village house do not have electricity, and the only source of video cassettes are rental stores in the national capital, Honiara - a 45-minute plane trip away on the neighboring island of Guadalcanal. Despite this, the enterprise has proven to be a novel and successful business in a society where the only avenues for participating in the cash economy have been through agricultural projects or, in a few cases, government employment. Since Buala villages is also the site of the island's provincial capital, it boasts the single greatest concentration of wage earners with income for entertainment activities such as video-going and occasional drinking parties. Only the expense of video recording equipment has limited competition in this new area thus far.

A regular feature of daily life, video showings are attended mainly by the community's large population of teenagers and preteen adolescents. The youthful age of the videogoers reflects the demographic composition of the island's burgeoning population and the keen interest of most young people in Western images, especially dress, music, dance, and sports. This interest goes well beyond mimicry, however; it has spawned new varieties of Solomon Island music and dance using Western instruments and forms. (Of course, the West enjoys no monopoly in local imagination, as indicated by the fact that Sylvester Stallone has only recently succeeded Bruce Lee as the cinema hero of choice among Solomon Island moviegoers.)

Will Rambo Change Santa Isabel?

Even though the penetration of Western popular culture into remote corners of the globe is now a familiar storyline (see Iyer 1988), encountering Rambo in this context could not help but seem incongruous. From the time I began my acquaintance with Santa Isabel in 1975 - colonial rule in Solomon Islands ended in 1978 - I always projected the image of a large, fertile volcanic island hardly touched by major developments in infrastructure or resource extraction. Roughly 150 miles long and 30 miles across at its mountainous center, Santa Isabel has so far provided its inhabitants (now numbering more than 16,000) with a favorable land base on which to pursue a robust subsistence lifestyle. Most food is grown in shifting gardens and most house are built from materials gathered in the forest.

With just a few short roads and only a couple of tractors to drive on them, Santa Isabel inhabitants generally move about on foot or in canoes along the coast. One grass airstrip serves the small planes flying back and forth to Honiara; most of the traffic along this route is by way of small ships. Since Buala village is the center of provincial government for Santa Isabel, it is also the epicenter for developments in transportation and communication services. The island's airstrip sits just offshore on a lagoon island, and the planes that flew from the national capital three times a month in 1975 now fly three times a week. Buala was the first place on the island to receive electricity when a diesel engine was installed during the 1980s to generate power for the government offices and hospital located there. And the presence of a new white satellite dish looming over the rooftops of government offices testifies to the fact that, as of 1990, Buala now has telephone and fax service as well.

Even though I had grown accustomed to finding new signs of change on each visit, the appearance of VCRs and violent images fresh from American movie screens amidst the island's quiet tranquility was nonetheless unsettling. Villages separated from the national capital and the metropolitan centers beyond by decades of economic almost instantaneously. With plans for the introduction of television to the Solomons underway (Lie 1990), the pace with which these images circulate is likely to quicken even further. Does the appearance of VCRs and televisions portend radical changes for island society, or is this simply an intensification of the traffic in ideas that has always been characteristic of the region? What will these technological innovations do to the cohesiveness and integrity of village society? Does the electronic circulation of global pop culture in rural villages affect people's control over the development of ancestral domains?

Remaking a Society

There is cause for both optimism and pessimism in answering these questions. On the one hand, Santa Isabel communities have already demonstrated their strength and resilience throughout a century of colonization and Westernization. On the other hand, the combination of spiraling population growth with new pressures for large-scale exploitation of the island's natural resources poses new and possibly overpowering challenges to local ways of life.

Although Santa Isabel may be far from the major centers of world commerce, it is anything but an isolated or unchanging society. The entire population embraced Christianity around the turn of the century after years of great crisis and turmoil caused by intensified warfare and raiding. Shortly after Christianity established itself on the island through the work of the Melanesian Mission, colonial authorities imposed new basis for national independence in 1978. In all of this, Isabel people have actively participated in remaking their society by incorporating ideas and practices from the Anglican church, the British regime, and elsewhere. Historically, it has been local leaders, in the person of chiefs, church priests, and government officials, who have mediated the incorporative process. As new centers of power and prestige based in church and state institution began to affect Santa Isabel life, local priests and headmen emerged as new kinds of chiefs capable of articulating a vision for the future while still grounding their authority in knowledge of shared history and genealogy (see White 1991).

Even though the island's 100-year colonial history has seen residential patterns and ceremonial life change markedly, the communities involved have nonetheless largely managed to reproduced ancestral forms of identity and value centered on attachments to land, locale, and lineage. Attitudes toward change in the Melanesian region combine a strong degree of localism with expansive desires for new knowledge and technology from the outside. These attitudes are related to the extreme cultural diversity characteristic of Melanesian - small groups of a few hundred or a few thousand people who share the same language live in close proximity to groups with distinctive traits of language, culture, and history. (In the Solomons, for example, more than 60 languages are spoken.) This environment breeds a kind of cultural pragmatism that values local identity while actively seeking out and incorporating new knowledge. But present trend sin population growth and economic change are taxing the ability of local communities to deal with outside forces on their own terms.

Small, even tiny by Asian standards, the Solomons is large within the Pacific context: 10,640 square miles of land accommodate about 340,000 people, giving a relatively favorable population density of about 32 people per square mile. These are, however, two important qualifications to this picture. First of all, population averages mask unequal distribution; some islands have five times more people than other islands of comparable size. Secondly, the population is increasing rapidly and has one of the world's highest birthrates, currently estimated at 3.5 percent (Solomon Islands Statistics Office 1988). The present population has more than doubled in the last 25 years, and by the year 2020 will tripe again to surpass one million.

The high birthrate has produced a remarkably young society: 47 percent of Solomon Islanders are under the age of 15. As would be expected, these figures translate into growing problems of education and employment for young people - as they do all over the Third World. Within the context of the largely rural, subsistence-based societies of the Solomons, these trends pose especially acute dilemmas for cultural continuity and integrity. Two interrelated processes are evident: (1) pressures to accelerate the growth of the cash economy through large - and medium-scale development projects and (2) increasing urbanization as people unable to find a niche in the subsistence economy seek wage-earning opportunities in town.

At the present time, the Solomons is the most rural society in the South Pacific region, with 84 percent of its population living in rural areas (Connell 1983:43). However, the most recent census data (1986) show a significant trend toward greater growth in the urban and surrounding centers from elsewhere. The proportion of the population residing in Honiara and its peripheral towns increased from 12 percent in 1976 to 16 percent in 1986. During this period, Honiara (the only clearly urban center) grew at an annual rate (6.8 percent) that was twice the national average - more than 30,000 by 1986. (To put this in perspective, there was no town called Honiara until World War II when the Japanese began building an airfield there and the Americans landed to drive then out.)

At the present birthrate, population growth is rapidly outstripping the ability of the land to provide resources for the subsistence lifestyle that most Solomon Islanders have always known. Even on the relatively sparsely populated island of Santa Isabel, people living in the more densely settled districts report a scarcity of the kinds of wood and leaf needed for house construction. Another important barometer of these trends is the rising number of land disputes - a problem regarded as acute by many local observers. Conflicts over land have been exacerbated by prospects for selling land rights to commercial mining and forestry interests, and are now being addressed by political leaders at all levels.

Land, Chiefs, and Custom

As much as nay single issue, it is land disputes that are fueling current interest in re-creating a "chief system" that, it is hoped, might be capable of applying customary knowledge and practice to resolve such conflicts. Beginning prior to national independence in 1978, people in Santa Isabel and elsewhere in the Solomons began voicing desires to find a place for "traditional chiefs" in modern government (White, in press) - a recurrent theme in parliamentary debates and one explicitly addressed by national committees examining constitutional reform (Ghai 1990). For more than 15 years, encouraged by developments at the national level, Isabel leaders have been attempting to institute a Council of Chiefs that will give governmental recognition and authority to local leadership based in "custom."

Marked by a large, islandwide ceremony in 1975 to install the then Bishop of Santa Isabel, Dudley Tuti, as paramount chief, a general movement has been under way on the island to formalize roles and powers for chiefs in government. Led primarily by Tuti and a former member of parliament, scores of meetings and festivals have furthered efforts to legitimize and support chiefly leadership. Expressions of support have come from both the national and provincial governments; for example, in 1984 the Isabel Provincial Assembly passed a Council of Chiefs Resolution to recognize a Council of Chiefs and empower it "with respect to matters of tradition and custom." What do such matters consist of? The first two of ten points listed were: (1) power to settle disputes in customary law and (2) customary land, reefs, and sea. Among several duties listed: "Reviving and promoting traditions and customs," "improving communication between elders and young people," and "taking an active involvement in the setting of land boundaries and the settlement of land disputes."

There is an obvious and important connection between these duties. "Reviving and promoting traditions" will require that young people take an interest in local culture. In particular, if the knowledge of local history and ancestry - the basis for collective identification with the land - is to be reproduced, storytelling, feasts, and ritual celebrations will have to contend with newer pursuits. Thus, for example, at a village church-day feast I attended not long ago, the custom dancers performing in the village plaza who are normally the center of attention on such occasions were competing with "fundraising" card-game activities under way in an adjacent house. People crowded in to play and watch betting games, all to the accompaniment of recorded rock music and some beer drinking. On the other hand, the electronic gadgets that bring a taste for rock music and Rambo may also be put to use in the service of custom, as in the now-popular tape-recording and videotaping of custom stories and performances.

Both the regulation of land problems and communication between elders and young people apply to the perceived role of chiefs in managing a community's relations with outside forces of change. As much as anything else, the creation of a Council of Chiefs has encouraged collective talk about some of these problems, including land issues and the "generation gap" created by a rapidly developing youth culture that, among males, now includes a taste for blue jeans, hightops, earrings, breakdancing, and Rambo films. During recent years, the paramount chief and others have convened meetings all over the island to talk about the dilemmas of economic development as well as the problems young people face adjusting to village life after leaving school. In response to one such meeting where the chiefs expressed concerns about village youth, one of the island's two members of parliament requested and received a grant of $2,000 from a foreign ambassador to assist in the purchase of musical instruments for a village youth group (Solomon Star 6/90).

The other, dominant topic of discussion at meetings of Isabel chiefs is that of land and resource use. For example, an attractive new source of cash income for people living along the coasts of Santa Isabel has been in selling baitfish rights to national fisheries boats. Not only has this sparked disputes among reef owners, but people in several areas belatedly realized that certain species were being fished out, with none left over for local newsletter, featured an article airing complaints about these problems from an Isabel man who is both a retired government worker and a priest, he was quoted as speaking as a "Traditional Chief in the Tataba Bay area on Santa Isabel." By speaking as a chief in this context, this man underscored his legitimacy as a spokesperson for local reef owners, fulfilling the role of guardian of clan lands expected of "traditional chiefs" (Link May/June 1990).

As the central government has encouraged planning for mining and forestry development following independence, all the major islands in the Solomons have received increased attention from foreign-owned corporations. In 1987 a district meeting of Isabel chiefs convened in Buala to discuss, among other things, the question of opening up customary lands for gold prospecting. With government blessings, representatives of a gold-mining company had been asking landowners for permission to begin surveying the district - the most densely settled on the island. In this context, the ability of the emerging organization of chiefs to create a forum for collective discussion of the issues proved important. The local member of parliament, together with the paramount chief, convened a meeting much like the "development seminars" they had been organizing in each district. Local leaders at that meeting spoke to both sides of the issue - some were willing to invite company surveyors in; others were adamantly opposed. However, most agreed that they lacked adequate information and, more importantly, the knowledge to evaluate that information. Who provides and packages the information? Those at the center: national bureaucrats and overseas consultants. One of the most educated of the local leaders, also a primary-school teacher, gave a speech pleading that he did not have sufficient grasp of the issues to make decisions that might permanently affect his descendants. He posed the problem in terms of outside forces pressing in upon his community and argued that the only prudent path was to "close" the community to that sort of development. In the end, his more conservative, protective stance was adopted by most people at the meeting.

A recent case of conflict between the Isabel people and commercial interests holding title to many of the plantations around the island further illustrates the potential uses of the "chief system." A dispute arose in 1988 when, following the death of a wealthy Chinese businessman who had owned many of the large plantations on Santa Isabel, the provincial government expressed its desire to buy back some of the properties. This, local leaders thought, was an important opportunity for local groups to purchase valuable plantations on land designated as "alienated lands" outside the domain of customary lands. One of the island's members of parliament at that time said that the return of these valuable coastal properties was so important that perhaps the provincial government should use its entire budget for the purpose, essentially closing down government for a year. The properties, however, were tied up in a legal maneuver that bound them to the entire estate with holdings on other islands. When this was announced, Dudley Tuti, an otherwise mild-mannered man, told me that he, as paramount chief, had threatened to close off the plantations to further development by any foreign buyer if some arrangement was not worked out to give local purchasers a chance to buy back some of the land. Ultimately, through negotiations in which the paramount chief and Isabel government leaders represented the interests of Isabel people, discussions with financial and business interests in Honiara and overseas produced an agreement acceptable to Isabel Province and a new buyer for the estate.

Lest this example of local leaders organizing to revive traditional chieftainship seem too distant or remote from the hard political and economic concerns of the international arena, consider the fact that this same paramount chief and his parliamentary advisor were about to visit Fiji in 1987 to learn about their "chief system" when the democratic government of that country was overthrown by a military coup supported by the country's Great Council of Chiefs. The Isabel team decided it best to cancel that tour. However, the national and provincial governments of the Solomons continue to look for ways of legislating new involvements for "traditional chiefs" in the workings of democratic government. In the meantime, Rambo III, which opened to sellout crowds in the Honiara movie theater in 1988, can now be seen at the Buala video.


Connell, J.

1983 Migration, Employment and Development in the South Pacific: Country Report No 16, Solomon Islands. Noumea: South Pacific Commission.

Ghai, Y.

1990 Constitutional Reviews in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. The Contemporary Pacific 2:313-333.

Iyer, P.

1988 Video Night in Kathmandu. New York: Vintage books.

Lie, R.

1990 Television in the Pacific Islands: An Annotated Bibliography. Honolulu: East-West Center Institute of Culture and Communication.

Solomon Islands Statistics Office

1988 Solomon Islands 1986 Population Census Report 1. Statistical Bulletin No. 3/88. Honiara: Statistics Office.

White, G.M.

1991 Identity Through History: Living Stories in a Solomon Islands Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (in press).

in Old Lives for New: The Discourse of Chiefs in a Melanepress sian Society. The Contemporary pacific 4(1).

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