Culture, Exchange, and Gender: Lessons from the Murik

Essay Excerpt

The work of Mauss and Levi-Strauss on exchange systems suggests that cer­ tain kinds of communal traditions and institutions are especially prevalent in (but not unique to) Island Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania. We propose that this prevalence can be explained by historico-geographic  factors that are consis­ tent with an unusual emphasis on an ethos of communality among the stateless, food-harvesting peoples in this part of the world. Reconsideration of exchange systems from this point of view reveals that, where there is an emphasis on an ethos of communality, representations of masculine authority, association, and identity are acutely brought into question by feminine powers of birthing, nursing, and sexuality. To show how this is the case, we review features of the communal traditions and institutions of the Murik, a fishing and trading people who live at the mouth of the Sepik River. The topics included in this review are feast making, mothering, culture heroine and hero myths, sibling relationships, trade partner­ ships, canoe building, and the war cult (6).

Michael Meeker is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego

Kathleen Barlow is Professor and Chair of Anthropology and Museum Studies at Central Washington University

David Lipset is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota

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