Crisis and Identity in Contemporary Papua New Guinea

From the Series: Crisis of Liberalism

Photo by Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi.

Despite decades of research to the contrary, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is often viewed by outsiders as either a world of Stone Age cannibals (West 2016) or, if you’re a professor, as the home of ontologically other dividuals (Bessire and Bond 2014). But PNG is a modern country with a vibrant democracy. Its transformations are distinct from those taking place in Europe and the United States, but still connected. In this piece I want to highlight some contemporary work on Papua New Guinea that shows how critical issues such as cultural pluralism, populism, religious fundamentalism, neoliberalism, and the changing role of the state are at play in Papua New Guinea today.

First: indigeneity. This cultural project has come late to Papua New Guinea, but its spread indicates a profound shift in how Papua New Guineans imagine themselves. Originally, indigeneity fit awkwardly in Papua New Guinea’s national politics. Independence from Australia in 1975 involved devolving power to the provinces, recognizing customary land tenure, and embracing a national ideology of “unity in diversity” in which distinct cultures were united by a shared set of underlying Melanesian values. As a result, rural people often made themselves legible to the state and corporations as “grassroots” or “customary landowners” rather than indigenous people. The state’s legitimacy rested on its promise to protect and develop grassroots Papua New Guinea.

In the past decade, though, indigenous identity has become increasingly attractive to Papua New Guineans. Partially, this is because cellphones and the Internet have connected them to global discourses of indigeneity. But, more importantly, many Papua New Guineans feel that the government is failing to deliver on its fundamental promises. For instance, they see the state as being allied with transnational mining companies and against its own citizens. Being indigenous allows Papua New Guineans to bring concerns over justice and human rights to international audiences (Kirsch 2014). Claims to indigeneity thus mark a refusal (see Simpson 2014) of the bargain the postcolonial state made with its citizens, and are a sign that Papua New Guinea’s fundamental national identity is in crisis.

Another such sign is the rise of evangelical Christianity. Mainline churches were tremendously influential in shaping Papua New Guinea, and the country’s constitution pledges “to guard and pass on . . . our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours now.” Papua New Guinea reconciled Christianity and kastom by creating a national culture that blended liberal democracy and religious pluralism with cultural pride and a commitment to development.

Today, however, some contemporary evangelical Christians have unyoked custom and Christianity. For these people, Christianity is a global and modern movement that rejects traditional culture as backwards, at best, and sinful, idolatrous superstition at worst. In 2013, for instance, then–Speaker of the Parliament Theo Zurenuoc attempted to remove traditional carvings from the facade of the National Parliament building in order to “cleanse . . . ungodly images and idols” as well as to “reform” and “modernize” it. In 2015 Zurenuoc received a rare first edition of the King James Bible from the American Christian leader Gene Hood and planned to install it in the Parliament House. The authenticity of the volume was later questioned, but Zurenuoc’s message is clear: religious pluralism is at odds with Papua New Guinea’s devotion to Christ, and it is only through this devotion that the country can achieve development and prosperity.

Papua New Guineans seeking to understand their place in the world have also taken up Judaism as a form of experimental identity work. In some cases, this means seeing themselves as descended from ancient Israelites, a view that helps them reconcile their sense that they are both Christians and not Christian enough (Handman 2016). This is part of a broader regional trend in Melanesia in which “Pacific Islanders . . . have actively engaged with Christian ideas, frequently producing critiques of states and state institutions perceived as hegemonic, ineffective, or corrupt . . . and legitimating [the critiques] by recourse to genealogies that are traced back to Israel” (Newland and Brown 2015, 253).

Moreover, philosemitism has become a way to think through the political economy of the Southwest Pacific as it shifts towards Asia. Today, as Papua New Guinea eyes potential development and business partners, many are dissatisfied with having to choose between their former colonizer, Australia, and Asian partners who are widely seen as lacking in integrity. As John Cox (2015) has shown, Israel seems an increasingly attractive third choice to Papua New Guineans, because it combines the best features of modernity and ethical integrity while still possessing a unique culture.

There is much more to say about the vibrancy of Papua New Guinea’s democracy. In the United States today, fears of economic and cultural decline have led to a culture in which the very idea of reliable and factual reportage is questioned. In Papua New Guinea, by contrast, a new generation of brave citizen journalists is demanding the transparency and accuracy that some in the United States seem eager to discard.

My point in this piece has simply been to show that the crisis of liberalism must be understood in expansive terms. Just as Papua New Guineans are not Stone Age savages, contemporary anthropologists who study the country are not savage-seeking exotophiles. We are seeking to understand a contemporary country as it exists in the present. To imagine that “we” have crisis while “they” have culture is to deny the coevalness of a country whose people are actively and successfully—perhaps more successfully than we are—navigating the crisis that marks our current moment.


Bessire, Lucas, and David Bond. 2014. “Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique.” American Ethnologist 41, no. 3: 440–56.

Cox, John. “Israeli Technicians and the Post-Colonial Racial Triangle in Papua New Guinea.” Oceania 85, no. 3: 342–58.

Handman, Courtney. 2016. “Figures of History: Interpreting Jewish Pasts in Christian Papua New Guinea.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, no. 1: 237–60.

Kirsch, Stuart. 2014. Mining Capitalism: The Relationship between Corporations and Their Critics. Oakland: University of California Press.

Newland, Lynda, and Terry M. Brown. “Introduction: Descent from Israel and Jewish Identities in the Pacific, Past and Present.” Oceania 85, no. 3: 251–55.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

West, Paige. 2016. Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. New York: Columbia University Press.