Testimonies of a Dispossessed Culture

Katerina Teaiwa is the author of Consuming Ocean Island (Indiana University Press, 2015). Her book describes how Banaba Island in the Pacific was strip-mined for phosphate, tracing the environmental, cultural, political and spiritual effects of this devastation on the island's inhabitants. In this interview, Katerina outlines her complex interdisciplinary approach to recovering the stories of the Banaban islanders. 

 "I’m not in the academy to be someone who helps reproduce history, or reproduce anthropology. I’m there to tell Pacific stories and tell them in more complex and interesting and creative ways. So, therefore, I see things and I value things in the archives or in the library or in the field in a way that I think many scholars don’t. So, for example, [...] I paid attention to dance. I didn’t just see it as something illustrative of one aspect of Banaban culture, I paid attention to bodies, and I paid attention to choreography, and I paid attention to what that might mean. And I’ve always been a very visual person, so when I saw the photographs of the mining, which the Company had created so meticulously over so many decades and they just stuck them in their files, [...]  I would animate the bodies, and try to imagine them walking across that landscape, so there was a frozen shot of a worker kind of digging up the phosphate with the wheelbarrow behind them, I was trying to imagine what the air was like, what the dust particles were like, what his back felt like, how heavy the shovel was. So I was using all of these different techniques to interpret, reanimate, and imagine."

"I had to be angry for many years, many, many years, before I got to a place where I could let it go and say, now I can actually see all the different actors and all the different subjects as human – as people with their own dramas and their own struggles and their own anxieties; white mothers landing on the island, worrying about the health of the babies, or, you know, single men or single women on the island who might be a bit stressed out about having no outlet for their hopes and needs. [...] it was actually paying attention to the land, to the material side of this history which helped me see the humanity better. So the materiality led me back to the social and through that I said OK, now I can just listen to different stories. "

"What is done to the land and what is done to the resources is deeply entwined with what is done to the people and it flows through the generations, the devastation flows through the generations. It’s not particular only to Banabans, but in pretty much every Pacific culture, land and people are this one complex. [...] They’re one complex, so you can speak of the land as Maori do as mother, or sky as father, and you don’t just mean that metaphorically, which is what a lot – when I was doing my PhD –a lot of anthropologists would say: “it’s not real. You know it’s not real.” No, you don’t know if it’s real or not real. Don’t tell me. Growing up in Fiji, nobody had to tell me that land and people were connected. It just was and just is. I’ve always believed in the deep relationship between land and people which are spoken about literally in terms of blood. So there is kinship, there is kinship relations with the land and earth. That’s how you become, that’s how you come to be born from this earth. So Banabans being born from the rock, for me this means what happens to the rock completely is connected with what happens to the people, and vice versa."

"I do say to my students and to others – we don’t need oil, we don’t coal, we don’t need gold. We don’t need a lot of that stuff. We actually do need phosphate and you do need phosphorous and nitrogen. So, those are absolutely critical to human survival and to the ecological processes on the planet. And there’s a lot of scientists have already established that – which is why I put all that stuff in [the book] about bottlenecks and the science fiction writers who were kind of obsessing and worrying about phosphorous, and also that quote in the remix chapter about bodies in the future not being buried but just being put straight back into the factory to produce phosphorous, because it’s really, really important. [...] The phosphorous and phosphate story is interesting because it is a thing we need, but like the work that I was citing on the phosphorous network which comes out of Europe and the University of Technology Sydney, which talks about a whole range of geopolitical issues related to phosphorous, it kind of really sharpens the debate and the picture around the trade off between stuff that’s perceived to be for the good of humankind, versus the devastation and ruining of an island and a people. It poignantly brings that debate into sharp focus."


"I’ve thought about it in terms of what that means in terms of our relations, indigenous relations as Banabans to other indigenous peoples. For example, Maori, and indigenous Australians. In the Maori case, it’s easier to think about because it’s a smaller landscape, lots of Maori were involved in farming, and the top dressing – it was very clear through the top dressing where that phosphate was dispersed, and there’s enough evidence historically about how top-dressing completely transformed the nature of the New Zealand landscape from something that was completely wild and difficult to control to this ‘Middle Earth’ green place that it looks like now. So, in the New Zealand context it’s easier for me to confront – not to confront, but to challenge – both Pakeha and Maori scholars and artists and to say, our land’s in your country, I can see it everywhere – it made everything green and lovely. Now what do you think about that? I’ve had this conversation with Maori who have been like, oh my god, we ate your island! We did! I know it! And I even had a Maori woman who said to me, she grew up on a farm and her father would say taste this butter made from the milk of the cow that was fed on the pasture that was fertilised by phosphate; now eat this other butter that came from a different cow. And he goes, it’s much better, the one that came from the phosphate tastes better. [...] So I’m like, my land is in your land, now what does that mean?"