Exploring an elaborate gift exchange custom in Papua New Guinea

By Everett Dorma Posted: February 22, 2016 10:00 a.m.

Dr. Susanne Kuehling examines kula ornaments in Papau New Guinea.
Dr. Susanne Kuehling examines kula ornaments in Papau New Guinea. Photo courtesy of Mr. Neddy Daniel.

Dr. Susanne Kuehling, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts is currently travelling around the ring of islands of southeast Papua New Guinea, also known as the Massim region, as part of her research into kula exchange.

“Kula is an elaborate gift exchange practiced by the Massim people on these very remote islands in the south pacific,” says Kuehling.  “Although kula is still considered extremely valuable among the Massim, there is concern that the practice of kula exchange is at risk as younger generations of islanders increasingly focus on obtaining money rather than kula valuables.”

Kula ornaments are exchanged when the Massim islanders are visiting their exchange partners in neighbouring island villages. The host gives the visitor the kula valuable as part of his hospitality that must be returned when the host visits the original visitor’s village.

 Phot of bagi
A bagi ornament, photo courtesy of Dr. Kuehling.

Kula exchange items are either bagi, made out of red Chama oyster shells, or mwali, made of large rings of the white Conus shell. Bagi are received when the visitors travel in a clockwise direction around the ring of islands and mwali are received when they are travelling in a counter clockwise direction.

Each bagi or mwali has a unique name and design and its value is ranked according to size, color, and age which allow it to represent a specific level of obligation. Kula valuables are also used to balance social debts in recognition of social obligations within the extended family on each island, such as for mortuary feasts, marriage gifts, the use of land, compensation payments, etc. By creating these obligations, kula helps maintain relationships between people living on different islands as well as feeding valuables into the kinship networks, thereby helping to solve social issues.

This is the first of two expeditions to Papua New Guinea planned by Dr. Kuehling, who is fluent in the lingua franca of kula, the Dobu language, having worked extensively with the people on Dobu Island since the 1990s.  On this first trip Dr. Kuehling is traveling in a counter clockwise direction with kula masters from Dobu as they visit neighbouring islands and will document specific data about each kula piece as it is exchanged. Her colleague will film the expedition and interview the kula leaders on all islands involved in kula.

picutre of mwali
A mwali ornament, photo courtesy of Dr. Kuehling.

On her second trip to the islands, in 2018 she will travel in a clockwise direction to fill gaps in her data, collect information on the movements of bagi and mwali, and show the rough cut of films (for the schools in Papua New Guinea, Anthropology students, and tourists in the Massim).

Dr. Kuehling’s research is supported by Dobu islanders who are concerned kula may be given up by the current generation of teenagers and are considering nominating kula for intangible cultural heritage status with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO). She will discuss an array of options to increase the attractiveness of kula at a time of cell phones, facebook, and mass tourism. “Value is constructed in our minds, and if the young generation devalues kula and its circulating objects, there will soon only be money to solve social problems – yet money is very hard to come by in the subsistence economies of the Massim region, and even in towns, where hourly wages of $1.50 (3.50 Kina) are normal while food and rent costs are about double as high as in Canada”.

“Our research will assist in the UNESCO documentation and we will work closely with the kula masters to ensure indigenous intellectual property and copyright are recognized and aboriginal stakeholders benefit,” says Kuehling. “By looking at the ways the Massim peoples (re-)create, negotiate, and negate value with kula, this project will also provide insights into more general questions of homo economicus.”

In her Anthropology of New Guinea class (ANTH 248) as well as in her Intro 100, she teaches kula practice and the underlying principle of delayed reciprocity by using interactive games. Based on these activities, she won the 2015 Centre for Teaching and Learning award for excellence in innovative teaching.

Dr. Kuehling’s research is being funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).