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.

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

46 responses to “Cutting Up a Pig With a Founding Father”

  1. But did you eat the brains? Fascinating micro-political stuff, Don. I’ve long heard that PPG is the most linguistically diverse place in the world. 3k languages or so? What do you call Kissinger in Bouganvillian?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      No brain eaten. I hadn’t thought of calling it “micro-political,” but that’s what it is. Thanks for the phrase.

      And PNG is the most linguistically-diverse place (as another commenter noted below), though not with 3k languages — more like 800-900. On Bougainville, with presently fewer than 200,000 people, there are about 14 languages, so there’s no “Bougainvillean.” Fortunately, there is a lingua franca known as Melanesian Pidgin or Tok Pisin, and it’s widely spoken. So when you end up in another language group’s area, you’re usually all right.

      The Nagovisi numbered about 7000 when I was there. To the south were the Baitsi, with their own language and culture. There were about 450 Baitsi. Now there’s a “micro-language” for you.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Very interesting. Of course now I’m very curious about those cuts, their names, meanings, and customs about who gets assigned what. Did you write about that in one of your papers?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      No, but I think in my notes somewhere there are the names and a drawing of which ones they are.

      I was mostly a means-of-production fieldworker.

  3. dwoz says:

    In keeping with your topic, that carved pig looks like a flag!

    In the world of feasting, there are but two rules…don’t give your guests trichinosis, and don’t make a calamity out of the damn thing when you serve it.

    Even a New England Biker Pig Roast demands that.

    This was a fascinating story, and well-woven too.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Dwoz. Most people I’ve been around in PNG cook the hell out of pigs, although I’ve been told that some Highland groups (on the main island) aren’t always careful and you can get “pik bel,” (a tok pisin term) which is a necrotic enteritis caused by Clostidium perfringens. Now you know.

      I had some medical people visiting on Bougainville in 1970, and one of them was a PNG medical guy. He wouldn’t eat pig, even when he was able to see how long it was cooked. I don’t want pik bel, he said. Well, who does? But he wasn’t at risk in that place.

  4. Gloria says:

    This made me smile. What a great memory.

    Except, I have to say, all of the paragraphs in the middle that had pictures of butchered pigs bookending them were not read as thoroughly as the other paragraphs because it kind of made me queasy.

    But I enjoyed reading this nonetheless. I learned a few things about Papua New Guinea that I never knew. Actually, I admit, prior to this piece, the only thing that I knew about Papua New Guinea is that it was an island nation.

    Thanks for the read!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      You’re welcome. I did wonder how many butchering shots to use. In case anybody’s wondering, they are not from that day. The whole pig with the single cut down its back is from 1969, and the one with the strips laid out is from 2001. I don’t have any images from the party in question.

      I did wonder about how many butchering shots to use. It’s hard to know the audience’s tolerance, and I admit I occasionally have to suppress my high-school gross-em-out tendencies. I do have some butchering images that I think are quite beautiful, though not as beautiful as this Soutine:


      which is in my local (and very fine) art museum — the Albright-Knox of Buffalo. Every time I walk past that painting, I think of Bougainville.

  5. Ok, you win… Your pig story is better than mine. Lots of people hit pigs in cars. There is probably only one living American to have cut up a pig with a genuine Founding Father.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Hey, I didn’t think it was a contest. Not zero-sum. Yours is different and worthy – but you knew that.

      Think of mine as a sequel to yours (what do we do with that pig we found alongside the road?) and in another universe where what happened in 1973 gets positioned in time after 2010. Easy.

      Richard Cox will show us how to do it.

  6. EarleyDaysYet says:

    There are 860 discrete languages in Papua New Guinea (only the Eastern half of the island of New Guinea). That’s separate languages, not including sub-dialects. The saddest part of all this? Somare started out as a man seeking to build a nation that could hold its own in the world, and is now an ageing figurehead twisting “democracy” into corruption, nepotism & dictatorship. Yes, we were in PNG when independence was declared – my father was Somare’s pilot on occasion. I despair at what he’s doing to the country now.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks for putting out the language count so I didn’t have to.

      You are too right about what’s been going on in PNG. I chose not to include anything about it, because I did want to talk about those heady early-mid seventies days. It really did seem as though, when independence came, it would all be different.

      There was a yearly meeting at UPNG called the “Waigani Seminars,” and the last year I attended, which was that year, the “mystical development gurus,” as I used to call them, were there. Ivan Illich, Rene Dumont (who wasn’t very mystical), and others. If any reader wonders what I mean by mystical, a compelling portrait of such a guy is in Norman Rush’s “Mating” — the Denoon character. Spot on.

      Anyway, the atmosphere at Waigani that year was wonderful. It’s true that the audience was overwhelmingly the educated young people, who at that point had no special political or other power, and it’s also true that there were few or no rural villagers there. But the excitement was palpable.

      And as you point out, it pretty much came to nothing, which is very sad. I ran into Somare at the Moresby airport in 2001 on my way back from Bougainville, and although I could have spoken to him — I would have asked if he remembered what I’ve written about here — I didn’t do so. I hesitated too long, and then he was gone. I hesitated because I didn’t want to talk about why I was there (on a tourist visa, having gone to Bougainville at a time when outsiders were discouraged from going there, having entered the Panguna No-Go zone, and so on) but more because I was fearful of being dismissed (random guy in airport collars Prime Minister) and because I didn’t want to reexamine my good memories.

      Would that it was truly early days yet for PNG. There’s hope for Bougainville, though, and that’s where my heart and allegiances lie.

      • EarleyDaysYet says:

        I’m actually glad to hear that Bougainville might find its way – so much of what’s been going on makes me angry & sad & actively hostile. I actually wrote Somare an email to which his Press Secretary (his daughter) replied, saying that I was defaming him. It was a nasty email. I may have trouble getting a visa in November! (My PNG niece’s bride price ceremony & wedding are happening near Hagen.) I should clarify: my parents are Australian, & were working for SIL (dad as a pilot, mum as a teacher/anthropologist) in PNG. I grew up in PNG (Madang, Aiyura EHP), the US (NC & VT), Irian & (barely) Australia.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          May I ask how you happened on this posting? Are you a regular TNB reader, or did it pop up in a search?

          I got to know a MAF pilot named Hal Morton, who was the chief MAF guy on Bougainville when i was there. Maybe you know him? Last year I set out to track him down, and succeeded in finding him in retirement in Australia. We exchanged a couple of emails.

          Not long ago I read “Many Adventures Followed,” by Roger Young. You probably know that book.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I’m very fascinated by this exchange. It is so reminiscent of the charismatic, pan-African leaders of the 60s who turned into kleptocrats and dictators, including Mugabe, Houphouët-Boigny and Sékou Touré (that’s not to count late-arriving thugs such as Bokassa and Mobutu Sese Seko). It takes charismatic and ambitious leaders to fight colonialism and establish a nation, and I suppose it’s just human nature that those alpha male types drift into an oblivion that they have replaced national oppressors with personal oppressors. Yet another reason why Mandela’s example can’t be overstated.

        • EarleyDaysYet says:

          @Don: I’ve not heard of TNB before – I get a daily Google search email with all mentions of “Michael Somare” in the preceding 24-hour period, and there you were! 🙂 I don’t know many MAF folk myself, but my dad ran into most of them at various landing strips & airports around the place – I’ll pass on those names & see if he recognises them.

          @Uche: Mandela’s example is one that resonates. I was watching on TV when he was released, & I remember saying to my dad, this speech will end with South Africa either taking an enormous step forward, or going up in flames. He could have turned that country on its head, but chose a peaceful path. Having lived with Boere Afrikaners in London, I know many do not appreciate the extent of that sacrifice.

          What grieves me so much about PNG is, there were no battles for survival, no wars of or for independence, no oppressive regime to overthrow. it’s important to remember that in the 1940s most people in the Highlands didn’t know there was a world outside their valley and the neighbouring tribes. Every people group had their own language, there was no trade with the coasts, they thought the 1st white men they saw were returned ghosts of their own people. In 35 years, all this disparate groups were suddenly lumped into a nation & set loose. Too fast? Too soon? Not soon enough? Colonial paternalism notwithstanding, how do you take a country largely living in the Stone Age (less so on the coasts & islands, where trade had already begun to create Tok Pisin and a familiarity with “the world”) & provision it for successful competition in the global sense? There are no easy answers, but what Somare is doing now is NOT related to that dichotomy: it is corruption & profiteering of the most blatant kind. And PNG will suffer for it.

        • dwoz says:

          This is indeed a rich topic, Uche…

          I think that the motivations of the heroes-turned-despots are commonly “pure” for a long time…the social pressures and external influences that inspire revolution and/or political uprising and upheaval don’t simply go away once the new regime is in place…

          Thus there remains a need for vigilance to the “original vision” for quite a long while, because those same external forces (i.e. transnational mining syndicates and the like) are still there, waiting for the proper moment to re-establish their previous hegemony.

          But then, the siege mentality becomes ingrained, and succession becomes too “dangerous” to the original vision.

          Cuba would be a great example. Batista rules over abject poverty of the population, while external entities (US based companies) own the vast majority of the natural resources. He literally prostitutes the entire country. In comes Castro, and the siege begins. and never ends.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Ah, the Google search emails — I have three going, myself, including “Solomon Islands,” and “Bougainville.” They’re awfully handy.

          Certainly it’s true that PNG didn’t emerge from battles for survival, and the other more brutal aspects of colonialism. It wasn’t too pleasant in colonial times (I was there towards the end, but many people I talked to had of course seen earlier times) but on the scale of serious oppression, PNG got off fairly lightly. By this I don’t minimize what happened there, but it wasn’t like some other 19th and 20th century colonies.

          I think much of what went wrong in PNG came from the enormous corrupting power of overseas interests, after independence. In this I don’t excuse PNG people (at all levels) from their own responsibilities, but it’s not easy to resist logging and mining interests handing out what are to them petty cash payments but to the people, are breathtakingly large sums of money.

          This is a bit different subject, but have you ever seen Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly’s “Joe Leahey’s Neighbours” and “Black Harvest?” They raise extremely difficult questions. Exceptional docus.

        • dwoz says:

          Google search emails…another bit of fodder for the re-contextualization discussion of last week, Uche?

        • EarleyDaysYet says:

          Oh dear God, don’t get me started on the Leahy brothers. We were there 75-77, 84-88, 91-94. I was only 5 when we first left, so the political issues were not even on my radar. When we returned, after 5 years in the US & a year in Oz, we were in Madang. My mum was a teacher, & worked in Arnhem Land with an Aboriginal group before my folks married, so were raised with an absolute multi-cultural awareness that not wveryone lives like us, or dresses like us – myths & legends & creation stories from Greek, Roman, Native American, Aboriginal viewpoints were all part of the background of our childhood. We were taught rudimentary Tok Pisin & social/cultural mores before we went to PNG, then lived with & were taught by a tribal group in Madang until we were fluent. I can still remember being *horrified* at the idea of employing nationals to cut our grass or clean our house, & just appalled when a man in Steamships (a grocery store) responded to my father with, “yes, Massa?” Then I met the Leahys. Then I saw the old B&W footage. Later I saw the docos, showing some old white guy living it up in Paradise while black people scurried about at his whim & were treated as children.

          Ugh. It still pisses me off just thinking about it. A guest of the Leahys asked me to exercise his horse for him at the Goroka show – a massive polo horse. It bolted on me, slipped on the wet grass & landed on me. Multiple breaks, 4WD to hospital, where I was told that the Leahys were telling everyone I’d bullied the “horse boy” into letting me ride the horse. They sacked the boy to back up this story. We did not get along well after that.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Too true about the Leahy brothers. “First Contact” is appalling, and your horse story beyond appalling. I can see it happening, though. Fire the “horse boy” and get it all wrapped up tightly.

          But Joe (Mick’s son) seems to me another matter, which is why I mention the other two docus.

          That’s a great childhood you describe. I grew up in a multicultural environment (neighbor island Hawai’i) but our own household wasn’t particularly multicultural. I picked all that up outside the house. You didn’t need to, obviously.

          And yes, Steamships, BP, and the others (even some of the Chinese stores) — I always really hated to go into them with my village friends because I knew I’d be singled out for special treatment, and they wouldn’t. It was always awkward. Fortunately, we went to town only every few months.

          If you’d like to read a piece of fiction along those lines, it’s here:


          It was originally published in Green Mountains Review, a literary magazine. It’s autobiographical only in the largest sense. It’s built on some incidents separated by years and others that, because it really is fiction, never happened at all.

          I shouldn’t need to say that, but I’ve found that because I write ethnographic fiction, readers commonly ask “Did that really happen?” because they know I’m an anthropologist and that I spent time among the people I write about. When I write something about upstate New York, nobody ever asks that.

  7. Irene Zion says:

    Very interesting story, Don.
    You have really lead a complicated life, haven’t you?
    We’ll need to hear more about that.

    (Great job on the pig. Our Thanksgiving pig was just hacked at and there were no hidden meanings in the hacking process.)

  8. Very, very interesting essay here. But I have to know: did you bottle the hooves in vinegar? That’s how we roll in my birthplace.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Nope. No pig feet for us, pickled or otherwise. They went directly into the rubbish — or so I assume. It must be clear that my mind was addled during much of this party, and, lucky for me, I didn’t have to help clean up the next day.

      I don’t think I’ve ever actually been offered a pig foot to eat. If I were, I’d give it a try.

  9. Zara Potts says:

    I love your work. I love that you know how to cut up a pig!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Z! You missed being the first commenter. But now that you’re back in NZ — you are, aren’t you? — I’ll expect to see you at the top.

      I’ve never field-dressed a moose, but give me a dead one and I’ll get the job done. How different can a moose be from a big pig? Then I can run for public office.

      • Zara Potts says:

        I know! I hate not being the first commenter.. but now I am back in NZ, this will be remedied!
        I would vote for you anyday. Pig, moose or not…

  10. Jessica Blau says:

    Amazing story Don. I’m impressed!

    Didn’t Irene also write about cutting up, or serving, a pig? I think she did. If we ever have a big TNB bbq, you and Irene will have to prepare the pig. I’ll make mac n’ cheese or something equally lame and middle-schoolish.

    I’m going to have google PNG now to read up on the history–you’ve made me quite curious.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      She did, but the posting didn’t make the move to TNB 3.

      A TNB bbq would be something, wouldn’t it? We’d just need a site with deep enough dirt to dig an earth oven. And the right kind of stones, too. Although, true, on TNB as is we have enough dirt and stones for anything.

  11. Greg Olear says:

    Loved this, Don.

    How cool that someone you know, and that you shared this experience with, has his mug on currency.

  12. Don Mitchell says:

    Glad you liked it.

    I have some Kina banknotes, but not the 50 K one. That’s too bad because I was hoping to use an image of that banknote sitting on my desk. I looked and looked, but only found 20 K notes.

    I do actually have a 100 kina gold coin somewhere (he’s on that one too – I grabbed an image from the net), but I couldn’t find it. I wanted to make the posting on the 4th and didn’t have much time to look for it.

  13. Slade Ham says:

    I remember one Christmas when I was 7 or 8, my uncle did the whole pig thing. I remember it sitting in it’s entirety on the island in the kitchen, carved up however you guys know how to cut up a pig. The memory is quite vivid, and my mouth is starting to water even as I type this. He did it well.

    My uncle didn’t know any Founding Father’s though, which gives you a significant leg up in the coolness category.

  14. Don Mitchell says:

    I take coolness wherever I can get it. It can be hard to come by.

  15. Matt says:

    Someday, Don, I want to sit at your table while you whittle up some animal, feast and drink and hear you tell all of your stories. ‘Cause these are just fascinating.

  16. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m actually quite shy in person, but I could write them down and hand them to you.

    I thought for a while I’d be in SD in September, but it’s not to be. Too bad.

  17. […] explosions, tsunami waves (albeit only once), women working molten metal, the transit of Venus, and founding fathers whose faces grace currency butchering […]

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