Public talk examines gift-giving practices of Papua New Guinea

Posted: December 3, 2016 9:30 a.m.

Dr. Susanne Kuehling examines kula ornaments during one of her visits to Papua New Guinea.
Dr. Susanne Kuehling examines kula ornaments during one of her visits to Papua New Guinea. Photo Courtesy of Neddy Daniel

An elaborate and time-honoured gift-giving custom from a remote region of Papua New Guinea is the research focus of Dr. Susanne Kuehling, associate professor in the department of anthropology .

Kuehling will share her first-hand knowledge with the Faculty of Arts Open Mind discussion series, December 6 at the MacKenzie Art Gallery.

Kuehling has done extensive research into the practice of the kula, which involves the reciprocal exchange of shell valuables. This tradition is still practiced in the remote islands of the Massim region of Papua New Guinea, but faces serious challenges to its survival.

When Kuehling visited the island of Dobu in 2009, the elders, chiefs, and kula masters told her that they were about to give up the custom.  
“Although kula is still considered extremely valuable among the islanders of the Massim region, 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,” explains Kuehling.
“Kula is still practiced, in spite of the changes brought about by the cash economy and new technologies in the island world,” says Kuehling. “Helping the elders to promote and re-activate kula required the consensus and input of all the kula communities. So in February and March 2016, our team of anthropologists and kula masters conducted a boat expedition of the Massim region, discussing kula rules and documenting shell ornaments.”

The multi-sited expedition yielded many insights about the contemporary dynamics of this traditional practice, which Kuehling will discuss in her December 6 talk entitled “Cruising the Kula Network: First Results of an Extraordinary Expedition.”

Says Kuehling; “The talk will present the first results of our research and provide an updated look at kula dynamics and the contemporary challenges facing this complex exchange system.”

One clear finding, reports Kuehling, comes from the active engagement of kula practitioners themselves.

“The multi-sited approach was very successful; it empowered the islanders to reflect on the future of kula and our documentation of the shell valuables supports their interest in maintaining it as a cultural practice,” she says.  
Born in Germany, Kuehling completed her doctoral research at the Australian National University, wherein she spent 18 months doing field research on Dobu Island, a small Island that functions as a key station for the kula exchange.

She has published a book, entitled Dobu: Ethics of Exchange on a Massim Island (University of Hawaii Press, 2005) and a number of articles on kula, personhood, morality, and gender.

Her current project was developed during visits to Dobu Island in 2009, 2012, and 2015 and is funded by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.  
Event:     Cruising the Kula Network: First Results of an Extraordinary Expedition to Papua New Guinea
Date:       Tuesday, December 6  
Time:       6:30 p.m.
Location: MacKenzie Art Gallery, 3475 Albert Street, Regina (Shumiatcher Sculpture Court – Second Floor)

All are welcome and refreshments will be provided.