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Why was she buried there? Snippets into buried women’s histories

Part 1: Bloodlines. Timelines. Storylines

Why was she buried there?

To be honest, I never thought of asking this question.

She had three husbands. With each husband she had a daughter.

Her family today are large. Her name did not die. She lives on.

Her daughter’s daughter married a man from a foreign place.

I don’t know where she is buried.

Why was she buried there?

The journey to the new village was hard.

She had decided to go because she was unwell; unable to care for her family.

Her brothers arrived and carried her.

The doctors said she needed to go on a boat to a leprosy hospital.

Never returned. I don’t know if her grave is marked.

Her mother had three husbands.

Memories of that disease inherited by her daughter, a reminder of her love.

Bloodlines. Timelines. Storylines.

Why was she buried there?

Pain carefully concealed in the secrets in our lives.

Return to safety? For power? For vengeance from the grave?

She asked to be buried there. Made people promise to bury her there.

To look down and defy the violation of her body.

Her story is part of mine; it is not along my line.

What reasons for burials are ours to tell?

Bloodlines. Timelines. Storylines.

Why was she buried there?

Her father’s line wanted her back.

Her husband had neglected her.

He sent money over time and over space.

She was left to care for his children. With her sisters and mother’s line.

When time came for their reunion, it was too late. Their marriage was lost in the years.

Only those who were there might know.

A blow of words. A blow of a fist.

She bled inside and eventually collapsed.

All night, their storylines crossed. Who will bury her?

As dawn drew near, her sister, her mother’s sister’s daughter spoke.

“If you cannot decide who will bury her, I will bury her. Next to my husband”

When I awoke, her father’s line had taken her.

Why was she buried there?

Her mother and father wanted her on her father’s land.

Her father’s care replaced her husband’s absence.

Her body stilled; her love could not reach her children concealed behind her husband’s face.

She was buried on her father’s land, among her people.

Over time and space, we gave to witness this land. She is asleep.

Awaiting the future when her children will seek her love awakening in that land.

Why was she buried there?

She was about five years old. Still a baby.

Her father and brother went fishing and never returned. Taken by the sea.

She had no choice. Wherever she was buried.

Her mother returned to the now well-established new village.

I do not know exactly where her mother was buried. I never saw this grave. I was away.

Her mother was buried on land where she had spent most of her life.

Why was she buried there?

She must have fallen to the ground before she could run.

Perhaps she still clutched the garden soil which took her fall.

He appeared out of nowhere to strike his blow.

A tiny figure of strength, her mother’s sister’s got away.

Her fall hit the pages of the national news.

I don’t know where she is buried.

How do we explain these days?

Why was she buried there?

Her story is visible to me. It exists on other lines.

Other’s stories. Others’ stories.

Her story is part of mine. Her lines may tell her story one day.

Her story journeys with mine through another’s line, another’s time.

Her story is our story.

Bloodlines. Timelines. Storylines.

Why was she buried there?

She wanted to rest next to her husband.

She preserved his lines, her own lines on paper.

She kept the land, waiting for the day she would lie down next to him.

Her mother’s mother had three husbands. Her mother had disease.

As she lay awaiting rest, people did not ask why she was to be buried there.

The buried women appeared; embodied in our eyes and voices.

They told us why they came. I am here.

After she was lain to rest in whole form, the time came to divide what remained.

The buried women receded, taking her remains with them. Awaiting another time.

Now stilled, the buried women give way to other lines.

When the time came to clean her rooms, written lines appeared.

The presence of the written lines opened another view. Into other lines.

Bloodlines. Timelines. Storylines.


Part 2: Mortuary, archival, and writing practices in storying Nahau

These snippets of buried women’s histories are just a few stories of dearly loved women on

my maternal Nali, Manus side. The last snippet relates to my mother, Nahau Rooney, who

lived 75 years between 1945 and 2020. During her lifetime she was known for her,

sometimes controversial, national political career in the early years after PNG’s

Independence. She was one of the few PNG women to have successfully contested the

national elections. I am currently trying to document parts of her life. My challenge involves

how best to bring together various sources and forms of materials about her life beyond the

“few women in PNG national politics” narrative. These materials include interviews

recorded when she was alive, hers and her husbands’ writings, collected when she died, and

video footage of the mortuary processes when she died. There are also public records such

as media stories, her own publications, and official records.

Mortuary practices as both presencing the past and making the future’s past

When my mother died, I was fortunate, during the COVID19 pandemic, to be able to return

to PNG for the mortuary processes leading to and after her burial. I tried my best to

document these processes so that I could better understand the meanings of events as a

way of understanding her life. Looking back and with the benefit of reviewing the footage

taken on my phone and digital camera, this tumultuous time was filled with important

events, words and symbols detailing multiple perspectives into her life. These mortuary

processes provide insights for our understandings of the intersections between the state

and government, women and women in politics, and Manus society and kinship

relationships. Three specific examples of events in Manus which I recorded include: (i) The

state and government arranged procession from the airport, around Lorengau, stopping at

the Pihi Manus Association office, then lying in state in the Lapan Assembly before the

official handing over of her body by the state to her family; (ii) The all-night vigil arranged by

the Pihi Manus Association; (iii) The mortuary ceremony after her burial which involved the

distribution of the material items of cash and food. Together, these events speak to her life

in relation to the state and politics, women and politics, and her relationships with her

Manus family.

To illustrate the ways these mortuary processes presence the past I will re-render the above

snippets of buried women’s histories framed around the question: Why was she buried

there? Actually, my female family members are not remembered nor storied this way

publicly in the mortuary arena. Instead, these women, and others, manifest themselves

during events like bride prices, deaths and burials and subsequent mortuary feasts. These

women arrive and leave in embodied and material form in our, their descendants, arrivals

and contributions towards these events and receiving of the distributions of materials

amassed as part of these processes. In this sense, the timeline, and the historic past matter

in so far as the name of the woman is invoked and embodied in the present. The actual

details and times of their lives may or may not be known or told and do not seem to matter

so much as their meaning in the present event which is almost always centred around and in

relation to a person. In this case, the person was the now deceased, soon to be buried, and

buried, Nahau Rooney. The buried people provide the bloodlines (blut), timelines (buried

ancestors), and storylines (stori), or the roads (rot) for people to arrive. Thus, Nahau Rooney’s death and the associated mortuary processes, and the presence of past people

embodied in the present, tells a lot about who she was and her life.

Archival practices as both presenting and making the past

In the way I have described above, mortuary practices are a form of archival and historicity

practice – the preserving of present and past knowledge and the unpacking and use of it in

the present to make sense of the present while also making the past. This manifestation of

buried women’s stories embodied and materialised in the present may or may not last.

Indeed, she, they, and of course all the buried men, may recede quickly once the occasion is

over. That is, the people disperse after the mortuary processes are over. In this way, the

historicity of the present event or the persons at the centre of the event can be understood,

not through detailed written historic accounts, but through the ways the people arrived, the

stories they tell, the material items they give, the ways their bloodlines, timelines, storylines

emerge and are narrated in the present. Mortuary practices are therefore important for this

project of archiving Nahau Rooney’s story.

What about archives in the conventional Western sense of the storing records of the past?

During those tumultuous times around Nahau’s death and mortuary processes, the task of

cleaning her rooms fell to me. I took on this task with the view that whatever I could gather

of hers and our father’s records were private, and they also had historic importance.

Assisted by a small group of people, I began the process of cleaning the intimate spaces of

her rooms, which itself was a sort of erasure. We sifted, gathered, read, and sorted through

many material items.

This process of cleaning was unsettling because we were still grieving for someone who had

held such a powerful and loving space in our lives for so many years. It was also unsettling

because we were both unmaking, by disrupting through cleaning, and making, through the

intent to preserve, the past. For many people, what mattered was to have a small piece of

material keepsake, a reminder of her. One auntie showed me a shirt that Nahau had given

her decades ago. To this shirt, she added the clothing I gave her when I distributed some of

Nahau’s clothing. Another reason why I think it is important, though I am yet to fully

understand this, is because there is a mortuary practice in Manus where certain members of

a deceased kinship group ‘run’ (‘ron’) through the deceased family members home and

place (ples) and the mortuary arena, wreaking havoc in their wake: taking, destroying things,

throwing family into the sea, teasing family and so on. Even though it is not directly related

because there are specific kinships categories associated with this kind of mortuary practice,

I am relating this visualisation of disruption and destruction and wreaking havoc around the

deceased to the process of disrupting her belongings and cleaning her rooms. In my mind,

there is something common about the kind of erasure or cleaning of space after death and

of the symbolism of disrupting the deceased persons remaining materials and their

remaining family that speaks to claims about who this person was to which people. I must

ask my family more about this practice and what it means.

We packed eight archive size boxes and had them sent to Canberra. I met the costs of the

process from remaining cash contributions made directly to me by friends and family after

giving part of those funds towards the family funds collected by my uncle and other

associated costs. I preserved some of these funds knowing that it would be costly to brings these materials to Canberra. I locked the remaining materials and documents in her room in

Manus and planned to return after COVID19. When I opened these eight boxes two years

later in Canberra, I spent several weeks continuing this process of disruption and cleaning

away rusted staples and clips from the files and sorting them into some categories, themes,

and times.

Every step along the way of this mortuary-archive practice involved a relational iterative

process of cleaning, erasing the form that existed, and sorting and reordering it. In the

process I was learning about what these materials tell us about the past but also what they

might mean for the present and future. Whatever form this archival material takes from

here, it will have arrived at this form from the process I have described briefly here and the

emotions and activities that were shared with different people along the way. The materials

have their own story, and they will affect different people now and in the future. They paint

her story, told in the way she preserved specific documents and not others, about her life

and political career. Their material form and order have also been transformed – in the

sense of cleaned and catalogued according to my logic - in the process.

Writing practices as both presenting and making the past

I have tried to explain how I see the relationship between mortuary practice and archive

making practice in the sense of both being a relational performance of storing and enabling

the presencing, presenting, and making of the past. What about writing practice?

If I re-rendered the above snippets of buried women’s histories, along historical timelines,

their buried histories would be traced back to the late 1800s and early 1900s and would

map and interweave stories across spaces, times, and genealogies. We would have a

completely different understanding of the ordering of time as it relates to their lives and our

understanding of Manus during that period. We would have a different understanding of

the rules and answers to why they were buried in those places. I imagine that somewhere

buried in an archival artefact – an administrative record, a hospital record, a school record, a

letter, a church record – there might be a record providing snippets into their unique stories

in the times of their lives. However, I did not come to know their names and their stories

through a historic documented timeline. I know the stories of these buried women because

their names and stories are part of my story; etched in my memories, and embodied in our

presence, their descendants, in the present. I know these stories because, other than my

grandmother and great grandmother, who both died long before I was born, I knew and

loved these women. One of them, Nahau Rooney, wrote and is written about because she,

in relation to and with them and many other women, men and children, rose to a particular

kind of prominence in society during her times.

What is not known is that she had a very meticulous private writing practice. It is not a lot,

nor are they regular. Yet the notes range from detailed accounts of a night in the parliament

house, her going to jail, to notes on bride price and mortuary payments. They are reflective

and provide her view of the world over the years. I did not know about this until after she

died; when I began cleaning her rooms, and later when unpacking and sorting her papers.

Hers, and her husband’s writings, and other documents she kept also are important in

understanding her.

Written historical accounts of Manus are determined by specific written singularised

accounts of people who write from a theoretical, written tradition. In my mind, these

writings involve an embodied practice of spending obligatory time in the field or gathering

archived documents. The author, including myself now writing to you, then writes facing

and speaking to their home or institutional audiences. Contrast this to the embodied buried

past’s arrival into and performance in the present mortuary arena.

Nahau’s timeline in the history begins at the end of World War II and the beginning of the

Paliau Movement. Nahau’s life was deeply shaped by the context of those times and by the

Paliau Movement. In her death Manus leaders acknowledged that she and they were,

“Children of the Paliau movement”. Imagine if an anthropologist had worked alongside

Margaret Mead among the Nali or other Usiai or other Manus people? Imagine if after

Scwhartz’s work on the Paliau Movement an anthropologist had decided to examine the

Nali threads in Schartz’s and Mead’s work? This Nali thread would inevitably have arrived

Nahau’s story; and an important feminine perspective on Manus leadership and politics.

Pasts in the making

Mortuary practices, archival practices, and writing practices are thus intimately related in

this project of documenting the life of Nahau Rooney. Her death and life are relational

because she will re-materialise embodied in future events taking on a specific meaning

depending on who is present and the occasion. I can only offer one perspective, and my

own story must be relational to both her and my father, and other important people who

shape my life, because without my own relationality I would not even be here in Canberra

writing this. Thus, while I will focus on trying to write her story as a PNG woman of her

times, it makes sense that the written archival materials be kept in the form has enabled me

to bring them this far; as the Wesley and Nahau Rooney archives. It makes sense also for me

to step back to position myself in my own relational sphere so that I can focus on her story.

I envisage the following outcomes: (i) archivable materials that can hopefully one day be

digitized; (ii) a professionally produced series of video documentaries showing different

lenses on the mortuary practices around her death; (iii) publications offering my

perspectives of what these materials tell us about her bloodlines, timelines, and storylines

and her place in the national and provincial levels of state and government, national and

provincial levels of women, and her Manus kin; (iv) most importantly, I hope that these

materials will one day be available to Manus and PNG people.

In memoriam

This paper is dedicated to nano (mama), nasi (grandmother), Dorcas Powasiu, who passed away today Saturday 5th November 2022. This morning, the day after I sent this paper to my colleagues in Denmark for the Pasts in the Making conference, our beautiful, brave, strong, indepedent, generous, loving auntie Dorcas Powasiu passed away. She had been living in the home I mention in this paper, where I had locked the remaining of our parents belongings. I received a call in the afternoon to let me know. I am so very heartbroken and sad. She was unwell. She had so many more years to live. Life is so short. What matters most in life is our love for each other.

Thinking of our family at this time.


Note: This paper is being presented at the Pasts in the Making Conference, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark. The conference is organised by Professor Ton Otto and Associate Professor Jaap Timmer.

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