Past visions, present lives: sociality and locality in a Torres Strait community

Lahn, Julie (2003) Past visions, present lives: sociality and locality in a Torres Strait community. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Abstract

This thesis explores dynamics of sociality and local identity on Warraber Island in the Torres Strait. I argue that Warraber residents' representation of themselves as a distinctive collectivity needs to be understood in terms of indigenous conceptions of relatedness and difference and with reference to local moral terms of communal life, in particular a valorised striving towards the idealised vision of moral relations known as gud pasin. This value is informed by a dense network of cognatic connections existing among Warraber residents – encapsulated in the local discourse of “ol wan pamle” (all one family), in addition to shared identification as a Christian community. Warraberans envision the past through ideas of temporal rupture, indexed to the arrival of Christianity in the region and linked to the positive transformation of Warraber life. This forms a reference point in local thinking about ancestors. Warraberans depict their ancestors as both 'natives' and 'foreigners' linked respectively to the pre-Christian period and the marine industries of the post-missionised colonial era. These temporal associations, and their implicit moral inscriptions, generate poignant areas of ambiguity concerning personal ancestry, and also prominent pre-Christian sites and dance performances thought to be associated with head-taking and sorcery. The image of the sorcerer is itself contentious, appearing partly as a moral Other, and partly as a source of local power. Such dynamics of difference appear as integral to contemporary social life on Warraber. Differing Christian affiliations, ancestral emphasis and perspectives on the past certainly contain potential for contestation. Productive activities are markedly gendered and family networks involve strong personalised loyalties that compete with broader social obligations. However, the value of gud pasin is shown as ultimately valorising inclusiveness, generosity and a concern with community harmony. Moreover residence on Warraber Island emerges as an important context for common experiences that help distinguish the population as a distinctive, emplaced community within the diversity of Torres Strait populations. Intense attachments to Warraber Island are communicated in local notions of 'belonging' to place. This is characterised by knowledge and familiarity and also by birth and residence. In this context, the marine realm continues to be a central component within Warraber collective identification and notions of local distinctiveness. Warraberans represent themselves both in historical and contemporary terms as incomparable marine workers, hunters and fishers. Transactions in marine products, whether related to generating income or for consumption, continue to be a focus of Warraber life and are inextricably woven into the practice of familial relations, whereby marine resources are transformed by human activity into a ‘currency’ of relatedness shaped by moral understandings that inflect the landscape as much as the conduct of sociality.

Item ID: 1128
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Dynamics of sociality and local identity, Warraber Island, Torres Strait, Idealised vision of moral relations, Gud pasin, Dense network of cognatic connections, Ol wan pamle, Christian community, Ideas of temporal rupture, Arrival of Christianity, Local thinking about ancestors, Head-taking and sorcery, Dynamics of difference, Inclusiveness, Generosity, Concern with community harmony, Local notions of 'belonging'to place, Transactions in marine products
Date Deposited: 25 Oct 2006
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1601 Anthropology > 160104 Social and Cultural Anthropology @ 0%
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