Final Analysis – Gulf District, Kerema Station, Volume 15, 1936-1937

Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.

My assigned volume centers around village, plantation, and native labor inspections; tax collection; and census taking and updating. Patrol Officers held Court for Native Matters, recruited new A.C.s, and distributed prizes for village contests. Topics discussed include exploration, geography, people, local conditions, infrastructure, economics, and politics. Patrols were made by whaleboat or canoe and every report remarks on the harsh weather of the rainy season; flooding and erosion are mentioned often. Many references are made to local flora and fauna, as well as matters of health, illness, and disease. A selection of native vocabulary is included in report number 8. My finalized list of key terms are as follows:

Inspections; Court for Native Matters; Census; Plantations; Payments; Housing; Fences; Taxes; Politics; Weather; Erosion; Gardens; Disease; River conditions; Investigations; Canoes; Whaleboats; Swamps; Rituals and customs; Religion; Nutrition; Land Surveys; Trade; Indigenous vocabulary.

By considering things like what the document was, what it was about, what it was created for, and how might it get used in the future, I applied a version of a subject analysis method known as Langridge’s Conceptual Analysis to write my aboutness statement. I have learned that an effective aboutness statement requires both conciseness and objectivity and should always avoid qualitative language. Ultimately, a strong aboutness statement reflects a thoughtful analysis that results in the identification of prioritized concepts using standardized language. (Library of Congress, 2016, 13) Learning about the relationship between the quality of representation and the quality of information retrieval was what really helped me with the key terms selection process. This was rather difficult at first, as I struggled with finding a balance between being too general and too specific. I wanted to ensure that this volume could be accessed from a variety of access points, but keeping the concept of exhaustivity in mind helped me select the best possible terms.

One of the many things I learned during this Practicum is the fact that there is no such thing as a neutral process of representation. According to Jane Zhang, representation is a construct that is “always influenced by both the object represented and the subject doing the representation.” (Zhang, 2012, 48) Both while reading the patrol reports and performing my subject analysis, I did my best to keep in mind the fact that representations are always socially constructed and culturally defined. Although it has been argued that all representations are misrepresentations, I believe that I was able to offer a much more balanced representation by identifying and acknowledging my own personal biases. As an aspiring historian with interests in topics like race, gender, and power, I came to this project with extensive knowledge about colonialism but very little about Papua New Guinea. Although I was able to identify many familiar themes, I quickly realized just how unique Papua New Guinea’s colonial experience was as compared to my areas of expertise. Knowing that I had to acknowledge and neutralize my anti-colonial stance, I was able to gain a more neutral perspective by learning about the personal histories of the patrol officers. Many of the assigned readings also helped me check my bias by reminding me that many indigenous people willingly participated in the colonial project as a way of achieving upward mobility. (Brown, 2001) Although they were effectively sustaining colonial domination through their roles as carriers, interpreters, or local police, I had to keep in mind that these positions also offered colonized people unprecedented opportunity. In many ways, this course helped me better understand that there is no single form of colonial rule and there is no one universal colonial experience.

Foucault famously mused that knowledge is power. In Imagining The Other, Regis Tove Stella builds on Foucault by arguing that the production of representation has been manipulated and controlled by those in dominant positions of power (Stella, 2007, 3). Stella goes on to explicitly state that true and absolute representation is impossible, as “the field of representation is always a contested space.” (Stella, 2007, 12) This concept directly applies to the patrol reports because the contents of the reports were deeply influenced by their author’s Euro-centric social, cultural, economic, moral, and political value systems. Regardless of any established intentions, the institutions of Papua New Guinea were never neutral due to the explicit and implicit biases deeply embedded into the colonial system as well as its administrators. I found evidence of bias in the second report in my volume, in which Officer Rutledge described the Moviavi tribe as hopeless savages who were “admittedly bright but morally and physically lazy and tremendous chewers of betel nut.”

Much like representation, knowledge organization is a social construct. When considering issues like knowledge control and the access and availability of information, I find it comforting to remember that socially constructed systems are neither infallible nor static; they can and should be changed for the better. This course introduced me to cognitive justice, the radical concept that the West can and should value non-Western knowledge equally because different conceptions of knowledge can co-exist. I do believe that the sharing of knowledge is an important step in decolonization. Historically, academia has perpetuated colonialism, but this Practicum has helped me realize that it could easily be used as a force for decolonialism. I feel proud to have contributed to the decolonization of Papua New Guinea by preserving and disseminating formerly privileged information. Research methods used in Papua New Guinea have a complicated legacy, but Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies provides an excellent framework on how academia can begin incorporating indigenous people and knowledge in ways that are more “respectful, ethical, sympathetic, and useful.” (Smith, 2012, 9)

Over the course of this very short five-week project, I found myself intrigued by so many different ideas and concepts. This course has inspired far too many tangential Google searches to count! Although I have read police reports professionally, this was my first time working with “grey literature” as an information source academically. I found the perspective to be fascinating and I would love to use similar sources in my future research endeavors. The assigned readings and videos also provided great information that served as context for the reports. I learned so much in an extremely short amount of time, but I would have loved to know more about the role of women as both traders and objects of trade between natives and kiaps, a complicated relationship examined in the film “First Contact.” Similarly, Appendix 5 of August I. K. Kituai’s My Gun, My Brother included a brief mention of the treatment of women by kiaps that left me wanting more. Ultimately, I do think that the bias present in the Papua New Guinea patrol reports makes them more useful as tools for learning about their authors rather than their actual subjects.

PNG Patrol Report: Gulf District, Kerema, 1936-1937

Works Cited

Brown, P (2001). “Colonial New Guinea: The Historical Context.” In Naomi McPherson (Ed.), In Colonial New Guinea: Anthropological Perspectives. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Congress, L.O. 2016. Library of Congress Subject Headings: Online Training Module 1.3.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

Stella, R.T. (2007). Imagining the other: the representation of the Papua New Guinean subject. Honolulu: University Of Hawaiʻi Press.

Zhang, J. (2012). Archival Representation in the Digital Age. Retrieved from

One Comment Add yours

  1. RUKMINI RAVI says:

    Hi Lea,

    I love how you put so much effort into your post. It was really interesting for me to learn about Langridge’s Conceptual Analysis from your post – I always learn something new from you so it was great to read your comment on that. Additionally, I loved how you wrote about representation and neutrality because that is something I mentioned as well.

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