When repatriation is not "giving back": Evidence from a meeting with the Hua of Papua New Guinea

Brooks, Joseph
Brooks, Joseph
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In the 1970s, the linguist John Haiman spent seventeen months among the Hua of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, during which time he documented and described their language. Currently, the Hua corpus consists of a grammar, a Hua-English dictionary, and hundreds of recorded texts. In June 2012, I visited the Hua community in PNG in order to lay the groundwork for a project to modernize the documentation by repatriating, robustly annotating, and archiving all Hua legacy materials. The community’s negotiation of the proposed work directly impacts two ethical issues considered central in language documentation: community engagement and the outside linguist's responsibilities to meet the expectations of the community. Several scholars have highlighted how the diverse cultural contexts in which documentary linguists work entail different community expectations about the relationship between the researcher and the researched, as well as about the nature of the linguistic fieldwork itself (c.f. Czaykowska-Higgins 2009; Rice 2011). Research anecdotes from the interior and periphery of Melanesia have enriched this discussion by challenging assumptions about the universal applicability of certain ethical standards (Dobrin 2008; Holton 2009). In Melanesian cultural terms, the primary responsibility of the linguist is arguably to fulfill obligations attributed to the role of a powerful outsider who benefits from local knowledge. The material and intellectual profit the outsider makes from the linguistic work is desirable as long as the linguist recognizes their debt to the community by maintaining an interdependent relationship fueled by exchange. In this paper, evidence from my visit with the Hua supports the position that the world’s moral diversity necessitates an understanding of the roles of “local community” and “outside linguist” in a way that is fundamentally culturally relative. A history of interactions with outside academics adds complexity to community expectations with respect to those roles. Forty years after Haiman’s presence in the community, the Hua are now acutely aware of the potential value of their cultural heritage to outsiders. They conveyed the attitude that their language is unique local property, but also an object to engage the linguist in a mutually beneficial relationship. This explains the Hua community’s almost disinterested response to hearing legacy recordings and to the notion of repatriation. Instead of interpreting repatriation as an act of “giving back”, the community representatives seized upon my linguistic agenda as a means to initiate a relationship more binding than they perceive previous relationships with outsiders to have been.
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