T H E   N A G O V I S I 


The Nagovisi are one of three tribes of South Bougainville, a large tropical island west of New Guinea and north of Australia. Jill Nash and her husband Donald D. Mitchell are the anthropologists of Nagovisi, among whom they have done field work in several periods from 1969 to 1973. Jill Nash tells:


"Food production in Melanesia is the basis of all wealth and, in addition to its obvious life-sustaining nature, its connection to the small family-group, its political uses, and its connections to conspicuous display and consumption at large political gatherings cannot be ignored. Women, of course, dominate in food production."


Women are the garden authorities who cultivate sweet potatoes and other food stuff, and their husbands only help them in heavy tasks like clearing the land for a new garden.


"There is strong feeling that shared garden labour is almost as much a part of marriage as is shared sexuality." "Widows are sometimes denied assistance in clearing, to encourage them to remarry." Women work in their gardens three times a week, and husband's attendance is not always necessary. "One seventy-year-old groom (a former widower), who insisted on accompanying his aged wife on every garden trip, was the butt of many jokes."


"Every adult woman has the inalienable right to use some of her descent group's land for food gardens and to transfer title to her daughters."

Men are dependent on women's cultivation for food; women take pride in their gardening responsibilities. "Anyone other than a bride feels ashamed to ask another person - even a relative - for sweet potatoes." If a couple quarrels, the man will stop eating coconuts from his wife's trees, sometimes because she forbids him to eat them, and sometimes because he chooses to avoid them. A conciliatory act (usually the gift of a pig) is required. Usually the wife has to give the compensation. A refusal to eat anything from the garden would mean divorce.

To Nagovisi, a good marriage means to garden industriously, raise many pigs, and give big feasts. Because marriage is a relatively flux institutions, the signs of marriage are that the couple sleeps in the same house, the couple walks around together, and the man works in the woman's garden. They consider sex equally pleasurable for men and women.



The Nagovisi are comprehensively divided into two society-wide exogamous and totemic matrilineal moieties (halves), which are divided into numerous land-owning matriclans, which are themselves subdivided into localized, land-using matrilineages. The latter retain their localized character through uxorilocal residence (the practice, wherein a man, upon marriage, goes to live in the home community of his wife). In addition, the clans and lineages of the Nagovisi are the owners of other kinds of valuables, including shell money, and they were the focal points of most religious rituals and of much political influence. The shell money is kept as strands of shell disks or beads. Among Nagovisi the finest are heirloom jewelry, given from mother to daughter; the second best form is used in buying pigs, in marriage exchanges (if there were any), and in compensation for insult, injury, or death.

Nagovisi women share leadership with men; a strong matrilineage system having political functions exists, with women playing significant roles in decision making and ceremonialism. Nevertheless, they have a dislike of chiefs and communal efforts. "The Nagovisi indicate their opinion of leaders in the often repeated joke that the greatest 'big man' of all is 'ma', shit, because only that can make you leave your warm bed on a cold rainy night."

Jill Nash summarizes the status of women: "If all we want to know is that women in some societies are not under the oppressive control of men, that they can own property and exercise their rights over it freely, and that they can enjoy their work, even when it is not an exciting career, I can do no more than offer the evidence of Nagovisi women, for whom, I believe, all of this is true."

The Nagovisi are one of three tribes of South Bougainville.

The two others are interestingly different in their social organization. The Siuai are a typical Big Man society where matrilineal clans and lineages regulate marriage, land tenure, etc., but men make use of their own matrilineage property.

The Buin have a hereditary system of stratification, they dwell closest to the shore and outside contacts. Theirs is a male-dominated society with some polygynous marriages, and chiefs have slave-girls who serve as prostitutes during feasts. No stigma is attached to prostitution, though, and girls later marry. Men are brutal against wives, even infanticide has been practised. A sexual antagonism unlike among the Nagovisi is prominent.

Also feast giving, trading and war are more developed among Siuai and Buin than Nagovisi.