Professor investigates culture of voyaging people

Julianna Frantz

No phones, no roads, no airport, no electricity . welcome to the island of Taumako.

Late last August, Richard Feinberg, professor of anthropology at Kent State, left for Taumako, located in the Solomon Islands’ remote eastern province of Temotu. Here, he spent the next three months researching the all-but-lost voyaging culture of the Taumako people.

Feinberg is the principal investigator of the Vaka Taumako Project, started more than a decade ago by then Crusoe Kaveia, paramount chief and master navigator.

Marianne George, one of the co-principal investigators for the project, said that one of the goals is the documentation of the knowledge and dissemination of it for the benefit of Taumako people and others who wish to learn about it, and to do so without violating the intellectual property rights of the Taumako people.

“It gives us a chance to look at the process of cultural revival and understand how it is connected to social, economic, and political issues, as well as memory, both individual and collective,” Feinberg said.

George contacted Feinberg about the project more than three years ago and he spent those next three years getting the project funded.

Feinberg said the Vaka Taumako Project received approximately $100,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation in 2007.

“It was wonderful working with Dr. Feinberg in that he is so very experienced and skilled at fieldwork, research, write-up and publication,” George said. “He showed concern and respect for his hosts and the community.”

While on the island, Feinberg divided his time between building canoes and attending meetings about the project, discussing various issues.

“We spent a great deal of time working on the voyaging canoes, making rope from tree bark, making sails and carving the mast,” Feinberg said.

There are very few places left where people still build traditional voyaging canoes and navigate without a magnetic compass, global positioning system or other instruments familiar to people in the West, Feinberg said.

Feinberg plans to return to Taumako at the end of spring semester.

He said it is important that he returns to observe the Taumako navigators at sea; to see how they figure out where they are in relation to where they want to go; and to examine how they make decisions about what to do in difficult situations — where those decisions could be a matter of life or death.

For now, he teaches classes and is working on writing his first article based on data he collected while on the island.

“We plan to present our findings at professional meetings and describe them in professional journal articles,” Feinberg said. “We may also write a book based on our experience.”

George said for the global community, the navigational knowledge of the Taumako people stands as an example of stone-age knowledge that is superior in many ways to modern knowledge.

Feinberg said that if the revival is unsuccessful, critical information will be lost forever.

Contact regional campuses reporter Julianna Frantz at [email protected].