It’s the Fourth of July. Independence Day, so I’ve been thinking about 1776 and all that. Last night I saw a silly TV ad featuring Ben Franklin and other mythic Revolutionary figures pounding the Bud and partying. All this started me thinking about Founding Fathers.
I’ve only known one actual Founding Father.
Michael Somare, the current Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, was also first Chief Minister when PNG became independent, in 1975.
In 1973, at a party during which political talk and South Pacific Lager flowed freely, he and I carved up a pig and laid it out to be served, because nobody else knew how to do it.
I was out of my Bougainville village, visiting Port Moresby, the capitol city. I hadn’t met Somare before the party, which was held at the house of Alexis Sarei, a Bougainvillean ex-priest who was beginning his own political career.
Alex was hosting a party for the Bougainville students at the University of Papua New Guinea, and Somare was the guest of honor. The students included Ephraim Makis and perhaps a dozen others.
Political change was in the air, athough I don’t think any of us expected independence to arrive as swiftly as it did. Everyone thought Australia would hang onto Papua New Guinea as long as it could, not least because of the extraordinarily profitable copper mine in the center of Bougainville Island that enriched not just its multinational owners, but the colonial administration. After 1975, it became the newly-independent government’s main source of revenue, a situation that continued until angry Bougainvilleans rose up against both the mine and their national government. The result was more than a decade of secessionist fighting. Many Bougainvilleans died, including some of the young men at that party.
Michael Somare and some others had founded the political party Pangu not long before the pig incident. Although Somare’s home turf (the Sepik region) was nearly a thousand miles from Bougainville, he was trying to build a national movement. So it made sense for him to get to know the Bougainvillean students and activists.
One of the Bougainvilleans who was also most likely at the party was Father John Momis, a Catholic Priest and PANGU party member who was elected to the colonial House of Assembly as one of the Members from Bougainville. John eventually left the priesthood, had a long and extraordinarily varied political career, and was, last month, elected President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. In that same election, Alex Sarei returned to Bougainville from Los Angeles, and was elected to the Bougainville Assembly. Leo Hannett, who was probably at the party, was also elected to the Assembly.
But what about the pig? How did I come to be perhaps the only living American to have cut up a pig with a Founding Father of any country?
More than anything else, the pig story touches on the paths we all took to get to that house in Port Moresby. Michael Somare was probably ten or fifteen years older than any of the Bougainvilleans, which meant that he had spent more time in what I’ll loosely call “traditional” society than they had. The Bougainvilleans at the party mostly left their rural villages in their early teens, and had been in the education system – high school, the University of Papua New Guinea, the technical schools, ever since then. Before they left, and certainly home on holidays, they would all have all seen pigs being cut up. But as it happened, none of them had actually done it.
But because I had spent years in a traditional Bougainville village, learning their ways, doing my research, helping with animals and feasts, I had.
When the pig was ready there was much alcohol-fueled discussion about what should be done with it. As I remember, no one had given any particular thought to the last stages of prep. In the end the Bougainville students were not prepared to attack the pig, which lay on its stomach on some banana leaves.
You have to remember that this was a colonial environment. As a outsider, I was wary of doing anything that might be taken the wrong way. So you’re not going to let us cut up our own pig? wasn’t something I wanted to hear, and neither was “So you think you know our customs better than we do?”
But I did know how to cut up a pig. Michael Somare seemed to be looking at the pig as if he knew what to do, too. I had my big clasp knife in my pocket, so I went over to him and said that a couple of village lads like us ought to be able to cut up the pig.
I pulled out my knife and opened it. He looked at me and asked me if I really knew how, and I said I did. He went and got a butcher knife from the kitchen, and the Founding Father-to-be and I carved the pig and set it out to be eaten. Somare didn’t care in what style we cut it, so I showed him how to cut it in the style of my Bougainville region, the area called Nagovisi (and because I’m doing foundational political figures here, I’ll say that the two Presidents of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville before John Momis – Joseph Kabui and James Tanis – were both Nagovisi). This gives me enormous pleasure because in the old days the Australians regarded the Nagovisi as bushy and cranky – a people who would never amount to anything. I knew that was not so, and it’s been proven not so over the years since then.
The lesson here is obvious but does have some subtleties. The subtlety has to do with the practical aspects of having been enculturated in a particular socio-cultural context. I’d made it my business to learn about cutting up pigs, and the students had not. Even back in my village not everyone knew how to cut up pigs. I knew the names of the strips (although after all the South Pacific Lager that we’d knocked back I’d have been hard pressed to name them) and I knew which were considered more prestigious. None of this made me more a Bougainvillean than any of the students. It just made me somebody who’d learned something useful from another culture.
The names and the symbolic meaning of the strips that Michael Somare and I cut the pig into had meaning only in Nagovisi. I took a little ribbing from the students, and got a little praise, too. I was pleased with myself – I admit that.
All that really happened at that party was that I showed I’d mastered a particular technique used in one part of Bougainville that none of the students knew or would ever have any reason to know. They were already far down their paths of becoming the architects of a new country, which meant they were learning politics, economics, literature – even war. They wouldn’t be learning any new village skills.
And the Founding Father? Michael was older. He had spent longer in the village than they had. Michael was starting something new, but he had knowledge of the old ways – beliefs, social relations, economics, the spiritual world, kinship. He knew those things, yes. And he knew how to cut up a pig.
So did I.