TUMBY BAY - Five years ago I worked closely with Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin when he was finalising the chapters of his landmark book about one of the tribal diaspora in Simbu, The Flight of Galkope.
Sil (pictured) had trekked throughout his ancestral lands speaking to all sorts of people, especially those in the men’s houses, about their history and writing it down.
He then contrasted and correlated those recorded oral histories with the short and incomplete written histories of the modern era to produce a marvellous book.
It contained what Dr Bill Standish called stories that “link Galkope clans to those from Gembogl to Gumine and Kup to Koge and show Chimbu men’s thinking from ancestral times to troubled life in the 21st century”.
What Sil was doing during his arduous treks was recording what is known in the trade as ‘oral history’.
In most cases an oral history is not a stand-alone record. It is typically a useful supplementary method of filling in historical gaps in written history, especially if a particular aspect requires elucidating and other data is not available.
It is also a useful method of recording the points of view of groups that otherwise might be ignored in conventional histories.
Unfortunately in Papua New Guinea there is a real dearth of written history, particularly since independence.
In most cases the only available history is in an oral form.
This means, of course, that history is a fragile resource. As people die, much of history is lost.
What replaces it is a mishmash of vaguely remembered detail (usually second or third hand), misinterpreted or dubious data, biased opinion, fabrication and, in some cases, outright lies motivated by vested interests.
Examples of manipulated oral histories occur in landowner negotiations with resource companies.
I’ve been involved in indigenous heritage work since 1975. It is a loosely defined discipline that combines anthropology, archaeology and history among other things. Its most familiar form in Papua New Guinea is social mapping.
In that time I have developed a deep distrust of oral history. This is because I have heard too many permutations of what I know to be the truth, or at least what I have good reason to suspect is the truth. I have become wary and sceptical.
Just recently I’ve been arguing with a group of people near where I live about a purported massacre of Aboriginal people that can be irrefutably and demonstrably proven to have never happened.
These people have closed minds however. They think that the mixture of myth, local legend, invention and mischief they have heard over the years is true and no amount of cold hard facts can convince them otherwise.
I’ve run into this sort of thing while undertaking social mapping in Papua New Guinea, mostly in relation to the interactions of Europeans and Papua New Guineans in the early colonial era.
In some cases I have wanted the stories to be true as much as the people telling them to me, but this would have serious implications for my integrity and I’m not prepared to step over that line.
I guess everyone is entitled to their point of view however and they can believe what they want.
It takes a very scrupulous researcher like Sil Bolkin to sort the chaff from the wheat and. where this is not possible. to carefully explain the shortcomings of the data.
If Papua New Guinea’s history, as seems to be the case, is going to be largely oral, even in the 21st century, those interpreting it in the future will be faced with an unenviable task.
I have heard the argument that social media is taking up some of the historical slack but from what I read on the internet I’m not inspired to believe this is the case.
Social media in Papua New Guinea, as everywhere, is so full of misinformation, bias, propaganda and outright untruth that it resembles oral history more so than it does real history.
It’s going to be quite difficult for people in Papua New Guinea at the end of this century to know what really happened in the past.
Some of Papua New Guinea’s biggest crooks will probably be regarded as founding statesmen and angels in human form.
There is something deeply sad about that possibility.