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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

Native Informants

Native Informants

After all is said and written, the information came primarily from the natives. Much was missed and much was miswritten through an inadequate knowledge of the native language on the part of the recorder. The settler and the trader can make themselves understood by carrying on a conversation with a limited vocabulary interspersed with English words. It is probably the apparent success of such a restricted vocabulary which has brought forth statements that if one knows one Polynesian language, one can understand them all. However, when it comes to inquiry into the details of religion and social organization, no man can understand all the local words and idioms used in a dialect other than the one he knows. I know this from personal experience. There are sources of error. A native may misunderstand a question and thus give the wrong answer, or he may deliberately give the wrong answer, an individual form of humor. The stranger who is arrogant or patronizing is very apt to be told strange stories which form excellent material for magazine articles but have no foundation of truth.

It is a fundamental rule in ethnological inquiry to ask no leading questions, yet much of the recorded material has been obtained as the result of such questions. The Polynesian is naturally friendly, and when he realizes that a certain answer is desired he may supply it as a matter of courtesy, even when he knows page 32it is wrong. He may even chuckle inwardly, as at an obscure joke. When Captain Cook visited the Island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, he saw a native with a shark-tooth implement, which reminded him of a similar tool in New Zealand. He knew that the New Zealand implement was used to cut up human bodies in preparation for cooking. On inquiry as to the use of the Hawaiian instrument, the Kauai owner confirmed Cook's inference that it was so used In Hawaii. However, asked if they ate the human flesh so carved, the native denied it vigorously and expressed horror at such an idea. An older man, probably amused at his companion's expressions of horror and seeing the humor of the situation, gave Cook the required answer by stating that they did eat human flesh. Cook made other inquiries and concluded that, beyond doubt, the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands were cannibals. Cook was a careful observer, but this is one instance in which he was supplied with erroneous information. It is true that the Hawaiian shark-tooth implements were used to cut up human flesh, but it was in connection with the funeral custom of stripping the flesh from the bones before they were deposited in burial caves. Cannibalism was never customary among the Hawaiians. There were, at most, only a few cannibals in the course of their history.

When Polynesians are convinced that the inquirer is in sympathy with their traditions and customs, they are ready and even eager to tell what they know. There is, however, an inhibiting factor that may be present with some prospective informants. It is the idea that the white man is going to write a book for which he will obtain a vast sum of money in which the informant does not share. Why should he give up his time to be pestered with questions, if he receives nothing for it? This brings up the question of paying informants. While I understand it has been the practice in the United States to pay Indian informants at some established rate, it is a somewhat doubtful procedure in Polynesia: When it becomes a business arrangement, there is danger that the informant may be tempted to increase his output by localizing his knowledge of other islands, even drawing upon his imagination to correspondingly increase his income. Sometimes this situation cannot be avoided, and the collector must exercise his judgment in rejecting the extraneous, a difficult decision if the author wishes quantity in his description of a vanishing culture.

The plan I have tried to follow during field expeditions is to call, or sit in at, a meeting of the people and explain to them that the object of the inquiry is to put their history, traditions, crafts, and customs on record for the outside world to appreciate. The collecting of information becomes a community project, which the people strive to make as complete as possible. They will indicate the best informants, or the best informants will indicate themselves. The policy is to elevate the inquiry above the plane of western commercialism and conduct it on the Polynesian system of giving gifts of food or goods to those who deserve them. Materially the two systems may appear identical, but psychologically they are vastly different.

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The individuality of informants has to be considered. It must be remembered that religious rituals and ceremonies were abandoned some generations ago through the substitution of Christianity. Similarly, many social customs were abandoned through the change of religion and through the passing of authority from hereditary chiefs to the officials of foreign powers. What the present day informant has to divulge is that which has filtered down through several generations of people who never took part in the ceremonies they described orally. Each generation dropped something of its own culture and probably added something from outside sources. In choosing between informants, those to beware of are the persons who can give the most complete story of the forgotten past. They have usually traveled and have added the tales of other islands to their own. They have also acquired a wider knowledge of English, hence are more apt to gain the ear of inquirers than the conservative stay-at-homes whose local knowledge is not vitiated by outside sources of information. The dangerous informant is the one who can answer all questions and the good informant is the one who says he doesn't know when he doesn't know.