An old movie reinforced for me one of the major differences between the United States and Papua New Guinea.
During one of my last nights in Madang, I watched the black and white film, "I Shall Fight No More Forever," the story of the Nez Pierce. While it fell prey to some typical faults of portraying Native Americans in cinema, like using white actors with bad wigs who spoke only English, the movie did have some redeeming qualities.
The movie correctly placed most of the blame for the conflict on the shoulders of the whites. The murder of an Indian by a rancher started the cycle of violence. The government's decision to force the Nez Pierce from their valley home, in violation of a previous treaty, raised the stakes. And the ranchers opening fire during a truce meeting escalated the conflict to war. I don't know for certain about the historical validity of each of these events, but it is safe to assume the whites were the aggressors.
The main characters were portrayed as humans, facing dilemmas, using judgment, and sometimes making mistakes. Chief Joseph is shown as a tragic figure, as a peaceful man forced by circumstances to lead his people in war. He knows the odds, and he's not optimistic.
Meanwhile, his counterparts, the commanding cavalry officers, have serious reservations of their own. They have established friendships with Joseph and clearly would rather drive the ranchers onto the reservation. Bound by orders from Washington, they pursue the tribe.
The outcome is never in doubt. Despite Joseph's tactical brilliance in planning his tribe's movements and executing diversions and despite his people's heroic efforts, their elusive trek through the mountains of Idaho and Montana is ultimately futile. At best, they can avoid moving to the reservation, but returning and living in their valley is beyond their power. Trapped along the Canadian border, some escape, but many surrender, including Joseph, who makes his famous pledge.
This sad story is just a part of a tragic chapter in American history. Here, land was taken from its rightful peoples by force, coercion, and deceit. The native people were subjugated, mistreated, forced to live on unwanted tracts of land, and continuously assaulted economically and culturally. It's a shameful legacy.
The story of Chief Joseph doesn't apply to PNG. While it has some horror stories of its own, the native people still control the land here. Ninety-seven percent of this country is controlled communally by the traditional group. It's one of the few places left on the globe.
When I first arrived and was told this, I didn't realize the implications. My friend emphasized the power that resided with the population, but I didn't understand, because the situation in America is so far removed.
I saw only the limitations this put on business and government, which can't assess property taxes because the land isn't registered. No wonder it cooperates so eagerly with foreign companies in mining, logging, and oil projects. Corporate taxes and mineral rights are its main sources of revenue. Commercial activity is more difficult because only three percent of the land can be bought and sold. Instead, long term leases need to be made, which aren't as secure for investors compared with outright ownership. That's one of the reasons why the Land Department is promoting Vision'96, an effort to have people register their land voluntarily.
Back then, I thought land registration would be progress. Now I know what damage it would mean to the people's economic independence, and hence political freedom. If you consider the basic material needs of life--food, water, and shelter--you'll find villagers here are wealthy. The land provides all of these, and everyone has a share. Trees give shade and can be used to build huts. Gardens grow basically all year. The diet is bland but filling. Rain water is collected, and suffices for most of the year. With a minimal amount of work, all these things are available.
While subsistence living compares poorly to Western living in strictly monetary terms (mundane items from home are luxuries here), it's freeing in a sense. How many people in America would quit their jobs if they could afford it? It's like everyone in PNG has won the lottery. And they have, geographically. Nature provides very well for people here. Mortgages and rent payments aren't a fundamental concern here; elaborate fiscal schemes for retirement aren't necessary. People's right to land is their security.
Not that there aren't problems. Translating that natural abundance to monetary gains is precarious. People aren't experienced at managing money. A cynic might argue that there's little incentive in straining yourself for extra income when you'll be expected to share it with your clan.
Economic development is hindered partly by wages, which though considerably less than in America are higher than in other nations. People here aren't desperate for work, so wages aren't desperately low. My host father, trained by the army in explosives and road construction, could get a job, but for the wages offered he'd rather live in the village, making a small income from selling cacao and dried coconuts.
Other threats to the sustainable environment include a rising population and environmental damage, whether caused by logging, mining, overgardening, or inadequate waste disposal. Because natural resources are so abundant, conservation isn't always valued as a priority.
One of the main problems is people, especially Americans, take for granted what they have. People everywhere look at pictures in magazines and see images on television and in film and covet all the modern technology they don't possess. If Native Americans were impressed by aspects of European technological superiority 200 years ago, consider people here. The Highlands were first visited in the 1930s. Somewhere in Chimbu Province, the wheel was introduced in 1948, and the fax machine arrived in 1987.
Some tribes still choose to remain isolated, but faced with these kinds of changes it gets harder and harder to remember what's important-- to value the lifestyle you have.
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