Fighting Back is Not the Way:
Suicide and The Women of Kaliai

Dorothy A. Counts
University of Waterloo

1980. Counts, Dorothy Ayers. Fighting Back is Not the Way: Suicide and The Women of Kaliai. American Ethnologist 7(2):332-351. This manuscript differs slightly from the published version. Please cite from the published version.

The Death of Agnes

The suicide It was about nine o'clock in the morning. Most of the villagers were leaving for their gardens, and I was sitting on my steps talking to a neighbor who was carving a shield for his son to carry in the dances celebrating Papua New Guinea's coming independence. A cry came from across the river that runs by the village and my friend looked up in alarm. "Who's dead?" he shouted, "Who's hanged herself?" We joined the other people who were running to the river bank, and watched as a grieving group of villagers loaded the warm and limber body of Agnes, a sixteen-year-old girl, onto a canoe to return her to the village and to the house of a kinsman. A young man was sent to find the girl's parents, who had left for distant gardens at dawn, while the rest of us stood outside the house talking quietly. "What happened?" "Why did she do it?" As we discussed the possible reasons for her suicide, my friend remarked, "I feel no tears for this. I have only anger at her wasted life, anger at the people who drove her to this." In mid-afternoon Agnes' parents returned to the village. Her mother went directly to the house and began to weep and caress the body of her daughter. The father staggered into the village plaza, fell, and writhed in the dirt, crying out, "Why did you kill my child? Why did you not kill me instead? Why did you kill my child?"

Background The events that led to Agnes' death began several months earlier when Victor, a young villager, returned home from his job at the Cape Gloucester patrol post, bringing with him a young woman whom he wished to marry. His mother, Gloria, was furious with Victor, and she informed the young couple that she would never accept a foreign bride. She insisted that he marry a local girl even though she, herself, was from another linguistic group who lived in a distant village near the Talasea Peninsula, nearly eighty miles away. Gloria then approached Agnes and encouraged her to seduce Victor, telling the girl that they would buy her for Victor if she could drive away the foreigner and become his wife. Agnes readily agreed, for she had long hoped to marry him. One evening during an all-night ceremony, the two of them slipped away together, and shortly thereafter the other girl returned to her home village.

Although Agnes and Victor began to live together openly as a married couple, no one consulted the bride's kinsmen -- in violation of the norm that marriage should be arranged between the parents of the couple -- and her paternal kinsmen were angry. They argued that the entire procedure had been improper, and named the following breaches. First, Gloria should have accepted Victor's choice, as the girl was known to be from a good family and she was modest, hard-working, cheerful, and attractive. The treatment of this decent young woman had been shabby, and Agnes' kin were embarrassed by her part in it. Second, Gloria should have approached Agnes' parents openly, instead of beguiling the girl in secret, and Agnes should have confided in her parents and taken their advice before compromising herself with Victor. The secrecy practiced by both women annoyed Agnes' kinsmen. Third, Victor's parents should have made an initial bridewealth payment before he and Agnes began living together as a married couple.

To demonstrate their ire at what they took to be shoddy treatment of themselves and of the first girl as well, Agnes' kin demanded that Victor's parents pay a bridewealth of 300 fathoms of shell money. In the 1970s, bridewealth payments in coastal Kaliai were consistently between 250 and 400 fathoms of shell money, so this brideprice was not unreasonable by local standards. However, Victor's parents apparently hoped to pay the sum officially set by the local government council at a maximum of fifty fathoms. Accordingly, they announced categorically that they would not pay what they considered to be an exorbitant demand.

Furthermore, Victor's parents said that he would never have their consent to marry Agnes, for she had shown herself to be promiscuous and a whore by living with him before any marriage arrangements had been formalized between the two sets of parents. Gloria expelled Agnes from her house, where the couple had been living, and the couple moved into the house with Agnes' parents. Victor's father made numerous public statements that Victor was not married to Agnes and never would be, and began marriage negotiations with Karl for his daughter, Rose, who was Agnes' patrilateral cross-cousin. Meanwhile, Gloria gossiped about Agnes, calling her a whore, and demanded that Victor return home. When Victor finally returned to his job at the patrol post Agnes did not go with him, and he was shortly joined by his parents who moved in with him for an extended visit. A few weeks later Karl received a letter from Victor's parents formally asking for Rose to marry Victor, and Agnes received a letter from Victor in which he told her that he did not wish to marry her.

During the weeks after Victor returned to Cape Gloucester, Agnes' behavior changed. She was frequently seen crying, and she cooked and ate alone rather than sharing a fire with other women because -- as she told one friend -- "the women point to me and tell their children that if they aren't good they'll grow up to be like me." Also, two days before her death, she scratched the following messages on some young coconuts: "Goodby. I'll soon be leaving you"; "I am an outlaw"; "I'm sorry I'll soon be leaving my people." A village man found some of these coconuts and took them to Agnes' parents' house, but they were not home. By evening the coconuts had been lost by children playing with them, and the messages slipped the man's mind. The evening before her death, Agnes joined a group of gossiping women and turned the conversation to the subject of suicide, asking for details surrounding other deaths, including how the hanging knots were tied and what happened after the suicide. Two days after receiving Victor's letter, on the morning of her death, Agnes wrote a letter to her friend, Martha, who was also having marital problems. The letter asked Martha to tell Victor of her death and ended, "I go now. Later you follow me." This was a clear invitation to Martha to join her in suicide. Agnes gave the letter to Martha's younger brother to deliver, then dressed in her finest clothing and slipped out of the village alone. A short time later she was hanging by the neck from a tree beside one of the main paths to the nearby gardens.

The inquest Word of Agnes' death quickly spread along the coast, and the manager of the nearby plantation sent a telegram to the patrol officer at Cape Gloucester telling him of the suicide and asking him to come and investigate it. Because he worked at the patrol post and had jilted a girl from another area, and because his father was a local government councillor, Victor's love life was apparently the subject of widespread gossip. As word of Agnes' suicide spread, many people -- including locally recruited plantation workers and patrol post employees -- predicted that her death would result in violence; thus the manager's concern to quickly notify the patrol officer. The day following Agnes' death, just as her family was preparing for her burial, the patrol officer arrived with Victor, his parents, and a number of obviously nervous policemen -- one of whom asked me if I expected there to be a murder as soon as they left. The patrol officer held an inquest into the death. He heard how Agnes' body was found hanging from the lower branches of a tree, her toes almost touching the ground, and how the man who found her had fled in terror instead of immediately cutting her down. He examined the now swollen body, heard more witnesses, and ended his inquiry with the statement that he found no indication that Agnes' death was anything but suicide; therefore, it was not a matter for the government to deal with. He then enjoined the assembled villagers to settle the matter according to their customs, but advised them that if there was bloodshed in the settlement he would return and jail everyone involved. He then left the village and Agnes was buried.

Aftermath Following the burial, a village meeting was held to discuss responsibility for Agnes' death. One group of her kinsmen suggested that no indemnity should be paid as there was no payment that could cancel out the wrong that had been done to the girl or bring back her wasted life. My informants interpreted this as an implicit statement of intent to murder Victor and his parents, especially Gloria, probably by sorcery. Other villagers reminded Agnes' kin that the patrol officer had ordered the community to settle the matter using traditional means that did not involve bloodshed. A number of men recommended that Victor's parents should pay an indemnity to Agnes' classificatory mother's brothers -- who should be compensated for her death and for the negligence of her father's kin's failure to protect her -- the amount to be set following a divination to determine whether Agnes was enchanted into suicide or whether she had committed the act of her free will. The divination, which involved her cross-cousin calling for Agnes' ghost to return to the village if she had been the victim of sorcery, was done. It demonstrated that she had not been under a spell when she committed suicide. Once this was determined, some disinterested elders met separately with the two sets of parents and agreed on a sum of fifty fathoms of shell money as compensatory payment. In January 1976, four months after Agnes' death, Victor's parents paid compensation of sixty-five fathoms of shell currency, six kina, and one pig. The extra payment was made by, and at the insistence of, Victor's grandfather's brother, who told me that although no payment could erase his kinsmen's wrong, the extra sum would perhaps emphasize true regret and repentance and might help prevent the retaliatory murder of Victor.

The consequences of Agnes' death The dramatic suicide that I have just recounted was a social and a political act. Agnes was a powerless figure in a set of social relationships that she could not change by direct action. Her death enabled her to communicate, in a medium that she knew could not be ignored, a message that must be heard. She could reasonably expect that her action would have certain consequences. First, all the villagers with whom I talked agreed that by singling out Victor and his kin to be notified of her death, she had accused them of being responsible for it. Second, she knew that her kinsmen would consider her to have been murdered, 'killed with talk', and that they would hold Victor and his parents criminally responsible. As a result, her kin would demand compensation for her death, and they might possibly take revenge. Third, her death would remove her shame. Everyone -- her kinsmen who had not adequately supported her, her neighbors who had gossiped about her, and Victor and his kin who had shamed her -- would realize how deeply she had been humiliated and wronged and would be sorry for their treatment of her. Finally, Victor and his parents would know that they were responsible for her death and, in addition to their disgrace, they would also bear the financial cost of compensation to her kin as well as the fear that they would be killed.

Suicide: Definition and Explanation

Sharon Tiffany (1978:44) has remarked that studies that increase our understanding of women and politics should be concerned with expressions of power, such as suicide, as well as with administrative actions. I agree, for such indirect uses of power may neutralize more obvious displays of force and may, indeed, be ultimately more effective and enduring. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the power of the weak over the strong is the only power that lasts.

I wish to concentrate on two aspects of the subject of women and suicide. First, I focus on suicide as an expression of power that, although it is not restricted to women, is an especially potent form of political action for them. Using data from Kaliai, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, I will identify the social persons who commit suicide, the circumstances surrounding the act, the response people have to it, and its consequences.

Second, I am concerned with the validity of applying the terms 'homicide' and 'suicide' cross-culturally. I argue that suicide is an aspect of social relationships, not an individual and isolated act. I argue further that the categories 'homicide' and 'suicide,' which derive from Western European and North American legal traditions, may be inadequate and inappropriate when applied to the behavior of people who have a different cultural and normative heritage. If such is the case, then the implications are profound for those who are involved in codifying legal systems for new nation-states.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines suicide as "the act or an instance of intentionally killing oneself" (Moris 1969:1287). By contrast, homicide is "the killing of one person by another" (Morris 1969:630). The acts of homicide and suicide are interrelated in psychoanalytic theory, which states that suicide involves a wish to kill someone else as well as oneself. Karl Menninger (1938) says that suicide must contain three elements: a desire to kill, a desire to be killed, and a desire to die. According to Simpson (1951:24):

The most widely accepted view today in psychoanalysis is that suicide is most often a form of "displacement"; that is, the desire to kill someone who has thwarted the individual is turned back on the individual himself.

In his classic sociological analysis, Durkheim (1951) developed a taxonomy of suicide (anomic, egoistic, altruistic) in which the defining variables are the society's level of institutionalization and the degree to which this institutionalization is satisfactory to society's members. To this taxonomy, Jeffreys (19523) added a fourth type, revenge or samsonic suicide, so named after the Biblical hero who pulled the pillars of a house down on his own head in order to kill his enemies. Jeffreys' typology is based on different principles than is Durkheim's. As Bohannan (1960:12) notes, the two different typologies should probably not be evaluated in the same terms or included in the same system. According to Jeffreys (1952:122), one of two criteria must be present for suicides of revenge to occur: the social structure or the native court must impose a penalty on the person who provided the suicide, or people must believe that the ghost of the suicide has the power to torment the living provocateur.

In his essay on theories of homicide and suicide, Bohannan distinguishes the two in terms of the number of persons involved and the degree of culpability. "Homicide is ... a social relationship..." involving at least two people, as opposed to suicide, which by implication is a solitary and individual act (Bohannan 1960:27). As Beattie (1960:143) comments in the same volume, "There is, directly at least, only one party to a suicide, so we cannot inquire into the social relationships of the parties to it as we did in the case of homicide." Furthermore, according to Bohannan (1960:18), "Homicide has a criminological dimension that suicide does not have, even when the latter is a crime."

This distinction -- that homicide is social behavior with a criminological dimension, whereas suicide is the solitary act of an individual -- is not borne out by careful consideration of cross-cultural data. Certainly, Agnes' suicide (and all other acts of Kaliai self-killing for which I have information) climaxed a pattern of social interaction. Furthermore, when the killing was not the culmination of a ritual, someone was considered to be culpable for the death. Villagers were acutely aware of this fact, and the focus of their inquiry was precisely the social relationships that existed between the victim and other parties.

Another distinction between homicide and suicide is that of intent or psychological motivation; death by suicide results from activities initiated by the victim and intended to bring about his own death. As Farberow (1975a:xi) notes, "This motivation is usually exactly opposite to that found in the other modes of death -- natural, accident, and homicide -- where death is considered to happen to the individual, not by him." Rather than be concerned with the motive for suicide -- as the term 'motive' is imprecisely defined and is, in any case, unknowable in successful cases -- Bohannan prefers to consider the cause that is assigned to the act by the survivors, or the "folk-explanation." By concentrating on folk-explanations, it is possible to adopt a 'culture pattern' technique of studying suicide and homicide. If suicide is part of a culture pattern, it is by definition " action or series of actions which recurs recognizably in a social group as a mode of social relations.... It may be institutionalized and recognized by the people of the social group in which it is found" (Bohannan 1960:27).

The notion that suicide is a patterned aspect of culture is undoubtedly true for societies throughout the world. In Micronesia, for example, suicide is the most common cause of death among young men (Marshall 1979; Rubinstein 1985, 1986; Hezel 1985). Marshall argues that it may be the only way in which a shamed person can successfully avenge himself against his tormentors. Although it is not so common in Kaliai as it appears to be in Micronesia, suicide is part of the culture of northwest New Britain. Suicide in Kaliai occurs under specific circumstances in both life and mythology. Although oral literature does not suggest that a person should kill herself under certain circumstances, it does present suicide as an option and describes the expected consequences of the act.

It appears that suicide is an option adopted by women of many cultures because they lack an effective, more direct means of affecting the behavior of others. In Muslim countries, according to Fluehr-Lobban (1977:135), women threaten suicide "... in order to pressure their families into accepting their will." In India, suicide may be a Havik Brahmin woman's only recourse, because she has " formal power" (Ullrich 1977:101). In Papua New Guinea, Berndt (1962:180) reports that both Fore men and women kill themselves, women perhaps more frequently than men. In forty cases he recorded, there were twenty-six successful suicides -- twenty-one by women, five by men -- and fourteen unsuccessful attempts -- five by women and nine by men (Berndt 1962:180). Berndt classified seven categories of suicide -- not in terms of level of social integration, as does Durkheim, or of intent, as does Jeffreys -- but in terms of cause-and-effect, with suicide being a result of preceding events. His categories include bereavement, marital dissension, illness, sorcery, shame at remaining unmarried, shame as a result of false accusation or severe criticism by others or as a result of a quarrel, and fear of attending court (Berndt 1962:181). With the exception of suicide resulting from an illness so morbid that the person desires to escape further pain, all of Berndt's types of suicide seem to be expression of social relationships, not solitary and individual acts.

Berndt (1962:181) notes that suicide is of interest "...because in certain circumstances it is regarded as the 'right' course of action." To understand the mechanism of suicide among the Fore, Berndt suggests that there are two fundamental considerations to be taken into account. First is the principle of reciprocity and the importance to the Fore of balancing a wrong, as suicide will "more likely than not set in motion the machinery of revenge" (1962:204). The second consideration concerns Fore concepts of strength and assertion. Suicide may be an aggressive "hot belly" response to humiliation that provides "...a favorable setting for inflicting harm and injury on the suppose offender -- even if this takes the extreme form of an act of aggression against the self" (Berndt 1962:204). A Fore may commit suicide if she has been wronged and has no socially accepted recourse. For example, a married woman has no legal rights in her husband's village, and a wronged wife may have only one effective way of injuring her husband and righting the wrong: to commit suicide.

Suicide seems to have a similar aggressive aspect among the people of Mount Hagen. In her study there, Marilyn Strathern (1972:281-283) sees Durkheimian elements of altruism, anomie, and egoism, as well as a sense of fatalism, as components in their acts of suicide. She notes that a Mount Hagen woman might kill herself out of popokl, revenge-anger, or as a result of shame. 'Revenge-anger,' which may also be expressed as 'grievance-sickness', is one way in which a wronged person may express anger and frustration. It is intended to shame others and to cause others to regret what they have done (Strathern 1972:142-152; 1968). As Andrew Strathern (1975:351) notes, the concept of popokl, expressed both as 'revenge-anger' suicide and as 'grievance-sickness', "... points out the guilt and hence the responsibility of others in relation to a harmed person." In both of these New Guinea highlands societies, then, it is part of the culture pattern for a woman to express her anger and frustration, to establish that someone else is responsible for her misery, and to attempt to shame or injure those who have wronged her by killing herself.

Papua New Guinea women sometimes respond to violent treatment by committing suicide. They do this because of a desire for vengeance, out of shame at being beaten, in reaction to the humiliation of being publicly insulted, or because they interpret mistreatment by their husbands as indicating loss of affection.

Among the Gainj, for example, Johnson reports that only married women kill themselves. In every case recorded "a woman killed herself either after a fight with another woman in which her husband championed the other woman's cause, or after public physical abuse from her husband" (1981:326). According to Johnson, a woman's suicide threats may cause her husband to make concessions to her privately. He cannot do so publicly without acknowledging her power over him, a situation that a Gainj man would find intolerable. "Indeed," says Johnson, "the standard public response of men to a woman's threat of suicide is, 'there's a rope nearby'" (1981:333).

According to Healey, only the women of the Maring of Papua New Guinea commit suicide. The major context in which suicide occurs "is after severe, and physically violent, domestic arguments" (Healey, 1979:95). In three of six cases analyzed by Healey, women killed not only themselves but their young daughters after violent arguments with their husbands. Healey says (1979:96):

Destruction of a child in suicide is particularly vengeful, for not only is the husband deprived of a wife, but also of children who can care for him in his old age, and who will forge new affinal alliances for him. Further, he must provide the customary death- payments for both wife and child to the woman's agnates, and face the anger and possible vengeance of his affines by physical attack or witchcraft".

Panoff's (1977) concern in analyzing suicide among the Maenge of New Britain is to understand which types of social persons are inclined to kill themselves. He reports that suicide occurs chiefly among two categories of Maenge, orphans and women, "... precisely those [categories] whose members have the fewest opportunities to pour out their aggressiveness" (Panoff 1977:55). According to Panoff, Maenge women have fewer opportunities to express aggression than do "normal men" (non-orphans); of the twenty-five cases of suicide for which Panoff could obtain data, eleven were women and fourteen were men. With only one exception, all the female suicides for which he could obtain good documentation were by women having some sort of sex-related difficulty with men. Some were girls who had engaged in a liaison with a man other than their betrothed, some were women who had committed adultery, and others were women who had left their husbands because they had been humiliated or mistreated. The Maenge do not consider suicide to be proper behavior for everyone. Rather, it " a type of death appropriate only to 'rubbish men' and women" (Panoff 1977:50). Panoff concludes that suicides committed by Maenge women and by "men of silence" belong to Jeffreys' category of samsonic suicide.

The Lusi-Speaking Kaliai

Kaliai is a political district in northwest West New Britain Province, Papua new Guinea. It is a name used by outsiders to refer to anyone who lives there. The people of Kaliai practice slash-and-burn horticulture and reside in villages of 50 to 250 people. The Lusi- (Austronesian-) speaking coastal people, from whom most of my data were gathered, are normatively patrilineal and patrivirilocal.

The Lusi-Kaliai have an egalitarian society, for there is no ranked hierarchy and no inherited office. However, people are not equal, for power differentials exist on the basis of age, sex, and birth order. An older, first-born male has a power advantage, but not necessarily the authority to use it. There are supernatural sanctions against the abuse of power, and a number of myths recount that the neglect and abuse of powerless people, particularly orphans, eventually anger the ancestral spirits who use their formidable powers to punish villagers for their mistreatment of the defenseless. People are reminded of their responsibility to care for others; masked figures representing the ancestors dance, and choruses of men sing songs legendarily taught by the ancestors to orphans, so that villagers will not forget their obligation to help the needy members of their community. Nevertheless, those who are in a subordinate position must cope with the fact that a powerful person may use his power against them. The question, then, is: what strategies might the relatively powerless members of a community use to control the use of power by others?

A person may appeal to the national code of law as a source of authority and support in opposition to traditional norms. A person might also appeal to her kinsmen for support, and a woman who is severely beaten or humiliated by her husband may be defended by her male kinsmen. These men might intervene to stop the beating, or they might surround the husband's house and sound the bullroarer as a demonstration of their anger and distress, and that of their ancestors, at the mistreatment of their kinswoman. The husband must distribute shell currency and pork to his wife's relatives (but not to her) to assuage their anger, and he stands notified that they will not tolerate a repeat performance of such abuse. It appears that her kinsmen respond to the woman's appeal at least partially because their rights, not hers, have been violated by her husband's mistreatment of her.

Finally, a powerless person may respond to mistreatment by extreme passivity or by committing suicide, as Agnes did. In oral literature, abused women may cover themselves with ashes, refuse to eat, and permit their tormentors to kick and burn them and take their personal possessions until their pitiful plight shames their kinsmen into coming to their defense. These patterns of behavior are available to both men and women, but the only male suicides about which I have information were committed by men who were unable successfully to exercise their authority over women. Either they could not control multiple wives, and so became objects of scorn, or they were humiliated by their affines.

Lusi Women

There are three aspects of the status of Lusi-Kaliai women that are relevant to this discussion of suicide and that provide a context for understanding their behavior. First, a Lusi-Kaliai woman derives her social position from her association with a male, especially from her father or her husband. This is demonstrated in a number of ways: by the principles by which nicknames are given; by the secondary role that women and their gifts play in ceremonial exchanges; by the fact that a woman's affiliation and her rights over the estate of her kin group may be transferred or cancelled by her marriage; and by the fact that compensation for a husband's mistreatment of his wife may be paid to her kinsmen rather than to her. This suggests that when men become upset over the abuse of a woman, they are responding at least in part to the fact that is their rights over her, rather than the woman's rights over herself, that are violated.

Let us consider nicknames, exchange, and female status in marriage before proceeding to male control of female sexuality and covert female power, all of which provide contexts that are necessary for understanding female suicide in Kaliai.

Nicknames Although a person may receive as many as ten names at birth and during infancy, she is also nicknamed throughout her life by kin and peers to mark some special event or some personal characteristic. Women are often nicknamed for a special food preference of a dead male kinsman, especially a son or husband. In this way, women were named Biskit, Tapiok, Eau (water), or Rais in memory of their deceased male relatives. Although a Lusi-Kaliai father may be nicknamed for a dead son in this way, I know of no man who has been so named for a female relative.

Participation in exchange The nature of women's participation in economic exchanges also demonstrates the fact that women derive social status from their association with males. During a ceremonial exchange -- for example at a wedding or when children are affiliated with their father's kin group -- two kinds of goods must be given: goods such as pandanas mats, Siassi wooden bowls, Sio clay pots, and Lolo baskets; and shell money and pigs. Although both women and men own any and all of these items, the mats, bowls, pots and baskets are considered to be women's items. They are always brought to the distribution by women and are usually given by them. Shell women and pigs are publicly distributed by men, even if they are given in a woman's name. A woman who wishes to present shell currency usually asks her husband or a kinsman to make the presentation for her. Although the actual value of female goods is usually equal to, or may even surpass, the value of the shell currency and pigs given by men, the presentation is publicly evaluated only in terms of the amount of shell money and the number of pigs that exchange hands. Cash is counted along with, and in terms of, shell money. When men reminisce about the size of bridewealth presentations, or about the enormous mortuary ceremonies they have helped to sponsor, they only recount the amount of shell money and the number of pigs given and claim ignorance of the value of women's goods distributed in the exchange.

Female status, male status, and the life cycle The identity of the male with whom a woman is primarily associated, and from whom she derives her social status, changes as she moves through her life cycle. As an unmarried girl, she derives her status from her father. When a woman marries, she becomes associated with her husband and his kin. Rights to the products of her labor, and over property that she inherits, are transferred to her husband. A woman who attempts to exercise rights over her inherited property may be informed by her kinsmen, who dispute her claim, that she has no right to inherit since the property will eventually come under the control of her husband and his relatives and be lost to her group. As a result of this transferral of rights, fathers who have sons are reluctant to spend resources on daughters.

This social fact that a Lusi-Kaliai woman's status is derived from her association with a man limits her ability to directly challenge male authority. As a rule, women who publicly defy their menfolk are loudly condemned and may be physically abused by them. The inequity of physical strength between men and women makes overt defiance, or acts of physical retaliation, risky responses to male power and dominance. I know of only one Lusi-Kaliai woman who consistently fought back when her husband beat her. This woman, the first of two wives, was finally beaten into unconsciousness by her angry husband. Fearing that he might kill her in a future rage, he called for kinsmen in a neighboring village to come to his village bearing a varku mask. This mask represents powerful ancestor spirits and was a traditional instrument of social control. The masked figure shaved the husband's head, gave him a new name, and danced through the village with him as a public statement that the husband was now under its protection. If his wives struck him in the course of future quarrels, they would be required to pay a large fine to the mask. It did not enjoin the man from beating his wives. After the next marital argument -- during which the man struck his first wife but she was prohibited from responding in kind -- the woman attempted to commit suicide by drinking a concoction made from the derris (sp) plant. Onlookers forced her to vomit the poison thereby aborting her attempt, but her gesture apparently affected her husband's behavior. In early 1976, almost a year after her suicide attempt, although the woman had quarreled loudly with her husband and had fought with her co-wife, he had not beaten her again. This case demonstrates the validity of the comment of a friend of mine who, in response to my question as to why women did not hit back when they were beaten, said: "Men are much stronger than we are. If a man is really angry and you hit back he might even kill you. If a man wants to beat you, you have to take it. Fighting back is not the way."

Male control of female sexuality A second aspect of a Lusi-Kaliai woman's status that affects her options is that, ideally, rights over a woman's sexuality are controlled by men. Traditionally, it was the right of a father to arrange the marriage of his daughter without considering her wishes and without consulting her. A loving father would -- if he could -- select a hard-working, even-tempered man who was acceptable to his daughter, but the most important considerations in arranging a marriage were his own interests and those of his sons. If he could promote male interests and prestige through his daughter's marriage, he was expected to do so. A woman who strongly disagreed with arrangements made for her by her father might count on the support of other women -- her mother, for instance -- or the support of a lover in defying her father. Rarely would anyone else come to her assistance.

In the 1980s, a father who attempts to enforce this model is likely to meet with resistance and defiance from his daughter. Furthermore, his right to do so may not be supported by his fellow villagers. Now young Lusi-Kaliai leave home to attend school and make their own friends, and they feel that they have the right to choose their own mates. Although a Lusi-Kaliai woman is not supposed to control her own sexuality, she may in fact select her lovers without consultation with her father, elope with impunity, and successfully challenge attempts to force her to marry a man she dislikes. Furthermore, although polygyny is permitted, and a husband can demand compensation from his adulterous wife, a woman can also successfully claim payment from her husband if he commits adultery but does not marry the other woman.

Covert feminine power A third set of factors contribute to our understanding of the context within which Lusi women's behavior takes place. Although both public statements and oral tradition explicitly support the ideal of male dominance, careful observation uncovers a contrasting, underlying theme of covert and complementary feminine power. One example of the political implications of covert feminine power is found in the way a woman's skirt may be used to break up a fight. The fibers which hang at the front of a skirt, and which presumably touch her body, are said to bear the mark of a woman's genitals. These represent the essence of femininity. Although the notion of female pollution is muted among the Lusi-Kaliai when compared with some other New Guinea people (e.g. Berndt 1962; Goodale and Chowning 1971; Meggit 1964; Strathern 1972), it does exist. A bit of menstrual blood placed in a man's food is thought to have the power to kill him (the symptoms of the fatal illness are those of tuberculosis), women do not step over men, and a man takes precautions before sexual intercourse to prevent his lover's genitals from contaminating him. Femininity, then, is a potent essence that resides in the fibers at the front of a woman's skirt. A bigman can stop a riot by waving this portion of his wife's skirt, since she is the 'bigwoman bone of the village', and is also referred to as the 'mother of the place,' just as her husband is its father. When faced with the symbolic essence of the feminine generative power that gave them birth and that renews their community, the shamed men stop fighting. I saw this method used once in 1967, and its effect was remarkable. A vicious fight which I was certain would result in at least one death, was completely quieted in minutes. My informants told me that any shameless man who did not immediately respond to this signal would be marked for death by sorcery.

There are numerous examples of the stated ideal of male dominance. For instance, during a public debate between a woman and her maternal kin over her right to inherit her father's coconuts, the woman's matrilateral kinsmen shouted at her, "You are nothing but a woman! Your are insolent! You are a stubborn, disrespectful woman. You bring shame on all your relatives. You are a woman, not a man. You are crazy and have no shame!" (Counts and Counts 1974)

The domestic authority of a man is clearly stated in oral literature as well. For example, in the story of Akro and Gagandewa (see Counts 1980 for a detailed analysis and Counts 1982 for the full text of the story in Tokpisin and English), Gagandewa tells her husband, "You are my master. I am only a woman. I must follow your will. I cannot, as a woman, force you to do my will."

These statements, taken at face value, assert that a Lusi-Kaliai woman should be submissive to her husband and to all her kinsmen. Argumentative, insolent, stubborn, disrespectful, aggressive women are considered to be mentally deranged at best, and are a source of shame to their kin. A Lusi-Kaliai man is, by right, master in his house. There is, however, an underlying subtle message about feminine power that is reflected in oral literature and in behavior; power that provides a counterpoint to the explicit assertions of male authority. In oral literature, it is the submissive, seemingly passive woman, and not the overtly aggressive one, who successfully gets her way or destroys her enemies.

What is the fate of the aggressive Lusi-Kaliai woman? There are occasional examples of women who successfully assert their rights or take their places among men during ceremonial rituals. These women are almost always the daughters of bigmen and are either only children or first-born children, and people specifically attribute their uncharacteristic behavior to these facts.

Usually, the fate of the overtly aggressive Lusi-Kaliai woman is tragic. Of seventy-two myths I have collected from the people of Kaliai, only one concerns an aggressive, belligerent woman, and she is tricked by her husband, his first wife, and his sister into killing herself in grief over what she thinks is her husband's dead body (see Counts 1982 for the text of Silimala). In the village, women who quarrel loudly with their fathers or husbands may be beaten. If they strike back, they may be censured by the entire community and publicly enjoined from repeating such behavior. It appears, then, that under ordinary circumstances a Lusi-Kaliai woman is physically, socially, and culturally constrained from overtly challenging the structure of male dominance or from responding in kind to physical violence. A woman may successfully challenge her father's right to arrange her marriage without her consent, but in this case she will likely have the support of her mother and of a man as well. In other cases, if she wishes to be successful she must use indirect and subtle tactics to counter male authority or abuse. She may respond with such extreme and submissive passivity that her kin pity her misery and are forced by her humiliation to come to her defense. Or she may withdraw from human society by committing suicide.

Suicide in Kaliai

There are two ways in which a Lusi-Kaliai woman may engineer the taking of her own life. The first was practiced in the days before white contact and was outlawed by the German and Australian administrations. It involved only elderly widows and was similar in principle to the Indian practice of sutttee or sati, the immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. In psychiatric studies (Farberow 1975a:xvii; Rao 1975:232-233; Stengel 1964:56), this practice is considered to be a variant of suicide, and was treated as suicide by Westermarck (1908:19-20). Westermarck (1908:1) notes that in some societies "it is common for a woman, especially if married to a man of importance, to commit suicide on the death of her husband, or to demand to be buried with him." This type of death has variously been categorized as altruistic suicide (Durkheim 1951:219), religious suicide (Rao 1975:232), or as institutional suicide ... self-destruction that society demands of the individual as part of his identification with the group... a general attitude of approval arises when the act conforms to the ideals of the society.... Not only did institutional suicide prescribe the occasion in which the self-destruction was supposed to occur but frequently the form it was to take (Farberow 1975b:1-2).

I originally considered the ritual killing of Lusi-Kaliai widows to be a form of suicide for reasons similar to those suggested by Farberow. However, I now think that Western categories of homicide and suicide are not appropriate in this case. Technically speaking, the killing of a widow on the death of her husband is a form of ritual homicide. German and Australian authorities certainly regarded it as homicide and, as such, outlawed it.

The two bigmen of the village where I worked witnessed the ritual killings of their grandmothers, and reported that such deaths occurred in the following manner. Occasionally, the widow of a bigman would ask her sons or brothers to kill her shortly after the death of her husband. If her kin unanimously agreed, she knelt on a pandanas mat, and one of her kinsmen -- usually her eldest son -- either strangled her with a garrote or broke her neck at the base of her skull with a wooden sword carved especially for that purpose. A widow's behavior indicated to her kinsmen that she intended to request death. She did not grieve over her husband's body, or at his burial, but was inappropriately cheerful and went about her usual business in her home and gardens, rather than going into isolation and garbing herself for a period of mourning. One informant who witnessed his grandmother's death in this manner commented that there were few expressions of sorrow at her act, either by the woman or her kin, and that the death was not socially disruptive. My informants stated that a widow was not shamed if she failed to ask for death, but they interpreted a woman's request to be killed as being a rational act by an old woman who had enjoyed the prestige and plenty associated with marriage to a bigman. Once widowed, she could not tolerate being dependent on her children who might neglect her or resent having another non-productive mouth to feed as she became incapacitated with age, an unfortunately common fate of old women. My informants stated that the spirit of a ritually killed widow would join her husband in a spirit village where the two would forever live together. Lusi-Kaliai believe that male and female spirits usually live in separate hamlets, and are independent of each other, so that the union of the couple after death is unusual and allows them to continue the close and affectionate relationship that they presumably shared during life.

Goodale and Chowning (1971:8) and Todd (1935-36) report a similar phenomenon in the Passismanua area of the southwest coast of West New Britain. However, Todd (1935-36:423) says that if a widow's kin were reluctant to strangle her, she would taunt them by saying that they wanted her alive so they could commit incest with her. Then, driven by anger and shame, her kin complied with her request. My Lusi-Kaliai informants did not report this taunting, nor does my genealogical data show the ritual killing of widows occurring with the frequency that it apparently did among the Kaulong and Sengseng of the Passismanua. Goodale and Chowning (1971:8) report that before pacification a widow could expect to be killed, and that the great majority of them were strangled within twenty-four hours of their husbands' deaths. According to my Lusi-Kaliai informants, only the elderly widows of bigmen who insisted on it were killed. My genealogical data confirm my informants' statements.

The Bena Bena of Highland New Guinea also have the custom of killing a widow at her request. Edgerton (1976:40) cites a 1972 personal communication from L. L. Langness that a newly widowed Bena Bena woman might ask her brother's assistance in killing herself rather than be inherited by another man. The brother bends under a tree limb while she stands on his back and places a noose around her neck. When she signals, he walks away. The anthropologist notes that the woman's brother "sees the decision as hers to make without interference.... No rule is violated, and no trouble results." Edgerton considers the woman's act to be suicide.

Although by German and Australian standards this form of death was homicide, by Kaliai criteria it lacked any aspect of homicide except that the ritual required a specifically designated man to assist the widow. The killing was in no way considered socially disruptive and, in fact, the ritual permitted the participants to avoid any aspect of the culpability that ordinarily is associated with homicide. It had to be requested -- indeed, insisted upon -- by the widow; all of her kin, the persons who customarily would avenge a homicide, had to agree to it, and were urged to be present when it was done; and one of the woman's close kin was required to carry it out. If she were slain with a wooden sword, her descendants kept the item as an heirloom of great significance, to be displayed on ceremonial occasions in memory of the woman.

The second way in which a Lusi-Kaliai woman might end her own life was by committing suicide. People customarily usually killed themselves either by hanging or by drinking a concoction made of the derris (sp) vine called tuva and used as fish poison. Similar methods are described by Malinowski (1926) for the Trobriands who, if they were serious in their attempt, jumped from the top of a palm tree or took a poison extracted from the gall bladder of the globe fish. Malinowski (1926:94) considered taking fish poison (also called tuva by the Trobriand Islanders) to be indicative of a less serious suicide intent because the person could be revived by being given an emetic, and there were no fatal cases in attempts using this method. Hanging and using a poison derived from the derris species are also methods of suicide used by the Maege (Panoff 1977), while the suicide victims of the Passismanua hanged themselves (Todd 1935-36:424-425). Nowadays Lusi-Kaliai may also drink concoctions made of bleach or battery acid or take an overdose of chloroquine phosphate, a readily available malaria suppressant. When Lusi speak of the act of self-killing they either describe the method by which it occurred ('He hanged himself.' 'She drank fish poison.'); they say 'i pamatei' 'he killed himself'; or they attribute responsibility for the death -- 'ti pamate eai ngani posanga', 'they killed her with talk'.

Obviously, concepts such as homicide and suicide, which derive from Western European legal traditions, are inadequate for discussing the ritual killing of a Lusi-Kaliai widow. Neither of these terms describes the act, the social relationships expressed by it, or the attitude that people have toward the woman and her killer. Nor do they give outsiders any accurate clue as to how local people will probably respond to her death. This is an act for which Westerners have no linguistic gloss and no relevant legal category.

Suicide is not commonplace in Kaliai, but it is an act that has great emotional impact on the community when and where it occurs. Between 1966 and 1976, over the course of three stays in Kaliai (for a total of twenty-three months), I gathered detailed information about five suicides -- three by women and two by men -- and two attempted suicides by women. Between 1979 and 1985 there were seven more suicides by women and one attempt by a man, four of the female suicides occurring between June and October of 1985. I also found accounts in oral literature of twelve successful suicide attempts -- eight by women and four by men -- and one story in which sisters set out to starve themselves to death in a successful attempt to force a reluctant man to marry them. In all these cases, in story and in fact, both men and women killed themselves during a period of strife between sexual partners, because their relatives refused to allow them to choose their mates, or following an episode in which they were shamed or abused by their affines.

The relationship of people united by marriage is a fragile one. Affines exchange rather than share with one another, and there is an element of tension between them. This strain is demonstrated, and relieved somewhat, by the rules of avoidance which prohibit affines from speaking each other's names, eating in each other's presence, speaking directly to one another, or being alone together. The tension and potential, but contained, hostility that exists between affines makes the relationship a difficult one, and it means that affines are especially vulnerable to being shamed by one another. A wife who follows the preferred residence rules and settles patrivirilocally is in an especially vulnerable and powerless situation. She is surrounded by men and women who are potentially hostile and whom she must avoid, and she may have few supporting kinsmen residing nearby. This helps to explain the coincidence of suicide and marital or affinal tension.

In fact and in oral tradition, there are rules governing the way in which a person should kill herself. She should not kill herself impulsively or in secret. Rather, she should plan her act, and she should warn others of her intention. There are a number of signals by which a person may communicate the intent to commit suicide. A person may destroy her personal items, things she values or that she uses every day. One woman destroyed her canoe with an axe. Others have broken their shell armbands or their cooking pots. Or, a person may leave her footprints in ashes. Agnes' messages carved on coconuts represent a modern literate adaptation of an old custom. A person killing herself should also dress in her finest clothes or traditional costume, and she should kill herself in the presence of others. The dramatic message of a suicide is heightened if there are helpless witnesses to see the act and to hear the suicide's last message. Furthermore, it is undesirable for a person's body to rot, undiscovered and unburied. In all cases for which I have any information, the suicide victim drank poison or hanged herself either in clear view of others, on the periphery of the village, or beside a frequently travelled public path. In most cases the victim shouted out her intention before acting, and she usually asked others to apprise a particular person of what she had done.

In spite of the fact that death is self-inflicted, the Lusi-Kaliai treat suicide as an act of homicide. The phrase, "They kill him with talk," and Agnes' father's cry, "Why did you kill my child?" strongly suggest this. Certainly, following Agnes' death, the other members of the her community attempted to ascertain whose slander was responsible for the humiliation that led to her suicide and whether the matter was complicated by the element of sorcery. My informants consider a sorcerer (tanta musoaia 'man bilong poison') to be a murderer. Furthermore, they thought it possible that someone had enchanted Agnes and compelled her to kill herself. Had the divination ritual shown this to be the case, the villagers would possibly have performed a further ritual to determine the identity of the sorcerer and the individual who employed him, as they did in 1967 following the death of another child (see Counts and Counts 1974).

Once the community reaches agreement as to the identity of the responsible party, the victim's kin may retaliate physically or by sorcery. At best, those held responsible can expect to compensate the survivors just as if they had committed suicide. Generally, acts of violence or sorcery that result in bloodshed or death are not easily settled or quickly forgotten, even though the survivors accept payment. A person who is held responsible by community opinion for slander or mistreatment leading to suicide may reasonably expect the dead person's kinsmen to seek revenge. I suspect that it was partially for this reason that Victor and his parents left Kaliai soon after their payment to Agnes' kin in January 1976 and did not return for several years.

A person who contemplates suicide has the reasonable expectation that her kin and neighbors will respond to her act in certain predictable ways. They will be overcome with horror and grief, and they will act on the assumption that someone else is responsible for her death. Her suicide places on her kinsmen the obligation to avenge her. Lusi-Kaliai believe that the spirit of a suicide, or any victim of homicide, will continue to appear to his relatives until his kin take steps against those responsible for her death. The fate of the soul of the suicide differs, however, from that of the victim of violence or sorcery. Once those deaths are avenged, the spirit joins others in a spirit village and gradually loses interest in the affairs of humans. Not so the spirit of the suicide; both traditional belief and Roman Catholic doctrine agree that the soul of a suicide does not rest peacefully. A person who voluntarily leaves human society may not rejoin it, nor may her spirit join the society of the dead. Instead, the Lusi-Kaliai picture the spirits of suicides as dwelling at the edge of spirit villages, or as wandering abroad, malevolent and dangerous to the living. They also believe that the spirit of a suicide may be captured by a sorcerer and forced to live with him and serve him. This fate --to be ensnared by the most feared and despised of humans, or to exist eternally on the periphery of society -- makes suicide a particularly dreadful act to the Lusi-Kaliai. In spite of the hostility that the Lusi-Kaliai presume the ghosts of suicides feel toward the living, they do not seem to think that the ghost itself has the power to take direct action against those who caused its misery. In death, as in life, the suicide must depend on others to act on her behalf.

Following a death by suicide, the other members of the village -- including those who may have gossiped about the victim, or who were at best indifferent to her suffering -- are expected to express pity for her and for the intense humiliation she obviously suffered. They are supposed to feel anger, as my friend did, at the wasted life and at those who drove the person to do such a thing. Thus a previously callous community quickly coalesces into a sympathetic group of supporters who wish to see justice done.

Finally, one might predict that the suicide's tormentor is in immediate danger. The victim's kin may attack him or engage a sorcerer to kill him. At best, a suicide's death costs a great deal in wealth resources that those responsible must pay to placate her survivors. However, a few strands of shell money and a pig do not replace a loved one's life, and the guilty live in fear that they will be the victims of sorcery, a fear that experience shows is well founded. Lusi-speaking people know that these are the probable results of suicide, and this shared knowledge makes suicide a reasonable alternative for a powerless, humiliated, angry woman who cannot otherwise alter the balance of power or relieve an intolerable situation.

An act of suicide may have other, indirect consequences that the person cannot be expected to anticipate. Agnes' death, for instance, increased the bargaining power of other young women involved in disputes with their menfolk, for her example caused people to fear that other young women might follow her if they were pushed too far. Indeed, in her letter to Martha, Agnes invited her to do so, and villagers discussing the subsequent suicides of other young women opined that the death of Agnes had given the idea of suicide to others and had begun a tragic trend.

Consequences of Agnes' suicide A month after Agnes' death, a young husband declared his intention to divorce his wife after a particularly vituperative fight. Their kinsmen quickly called a meeting, and the husband's father emphatically stated that he considered his son's behavior to be unacceptable. "I will not have this trouble," he said. "I do not want another woman ruined as Agnes was. This pattern of breaking up established marriages results in tragedy, and I will not have it laid at my door. Before I will allow this I will take the quarrel and this couple to the court and let the patrol officer decide what they should do. Then everyone must abide by his decision." Tempers were quieted by this reminder of Agnes' death and by the threat to deal with the dispute according to the standards of Australian law in order to avoid repetition of the tragedy. Shortly after the meeting, the young couple were back together again.

In January, four months after Agnes' death, the village held a meeting to decide whether Victor and Rose should marry. After Agnes' funeral, Rose's father had arranged her betrothal, without consulting her, to another young man whom Rose disliked. She loudly informed her father that she would never consent to the marriage, and he responded that she would do as she was told or receive a beating. Rose then settled the question by running off with Victor. When the couple returned to the village several days later Rose announced that, as she was not now a virgin, her betrothed's father would no longer wish to buy her. Her furious father was restrained by his kinsmen, but the question was then raised as to whether Rose and Victor should be required to marry. The village leaders called a public meeting, demanding that the young couple speak and that everyone, including the couple's parents, abide by Rose's and Victor's decision. Rose's father tried to speak, but he was hushed by the other men (as it turned out, he did not want Victor as a son-in-law). After considerable pressure, an obviously embarrassed Victor mumbled that he did not want to marry Rose. Rose was then asked her wishes, and she responded, "I wanted to marry him at first. That's why I ran off with him. But now his mother has started saying that she would not have me for his wife, and I don't want things to go as they did with Agnes. So I have changed my mind."

People spoke, agreeing that the wishes of Rose and Victor were of primary importance, and Victor paid a fine of two kina to Rose's parents. Following this exchange, a speech was made by a man whom many villagers had suspected of planning to avenge Agnes' death by working sorcery on Victor's parents. "The time of telling young people who they should marry is over," he said. "The attempt to do this results in tragedy. Young people must be consulted and their agreement secured before marriage arrangements are made. This is finished." At this, people applauded.

As these two examples demonstrate, an indirect result of Agnes' death was that people became intensely aware that suicide was a realistic alternative available to women who saw themselves as being wronged. The possibility that the tactic might be used again alerted community leaders to the necessity of supporting women who otherwise had little power, thereby curtailing the traditional right of men to control women, and giving public sanction to social change. Although women had individually defied the exercise of the male prerogative to control women's sexuality, the right itself had never been publicly questioned. Certainly it had never before been publicly disavowed in favor of the right of young people to choose their own mates. This was the indirect result of Agnes' death.


Even though suicide is the tragic climax of a bad social relationship and results in the disruption of society, it is an integral part of the cultural system of northwest New Britain. In this egalitarian society in which power is not equally distributed, and where women are not accorded the same rights as men, suicide provides a realistic alternative for those who are shamed, abused, and powerless. It permits them to shift the burden of shame from themselves to their kin and tormentors, and to enjoy some measure of revenge against those who drove them to the act. There are a number of indications that suicide is an institutionalized and culturally recognized mode of Lusi-Kaliai social behavior.

There are rules of procedure that, if they are followed, allow the suicide victim to communicate a powerful message by her act. These rules are implicit in the myths, legends, and folk tales of Kaliai, and are communicated at story telling and gossip sessions where people discuss past suicides and evaluate the act and its results. A Lusi-Kaliai knows that a person planning her self-destruction should inform others of her intent in certain specific ways. She knows what preparations she should make for her death, the ways by which she can attribute blame for her act, and the alternative methods that Kaliai are expected to use when they kill themselves. Finally, she may anticipate the response of her kinsmen and her tormentors to her death. The complex behavior surrounding an act of self-destruction is, then, patterned, predictable, and known to the members of the society.

A second indication that suicide is a patterned part of Lusi-Kaliai culture is the fact that it is derived from, and consistent with, concepts that are basic to Lusi-Kaliai notions of social responsibility and justice. People in Kaliai do not demonstrate the need for privacy that is felt by North Americans. Indeed, people are expected to do things together and to look out for each other. A woman who shuns others -- who works, cooks, and eats alone -- is exhibiting abnormal pathological behavior and should be carefully watched. My informants told me numerous times that Agnes' practice of cooking and eating alone were a sure sign that she was deeply disturbed, and that her kin should have been aware of this symptom and never let her go alone to the gardens. Their responsibility for her death lay in their insensitivity and neglect.

The Lusi-Kaliai consider death to be an unnatural event. As David Counts and I have argued, the good death -- one which is not caused by the malevolent actions of men or spirits -- is rare (Counts 1976; Counts and Counts 1985). Someone or something is responsible for almost all death, including that which is self-inflicted. The causative act may be one of violence, of sorcery, or of slander. Furthermore, those who perpetrated the act are held accountable by the survivors who may themselves be held indirectly responsible for the death by virtue of their insensitivity and neglect. Agnes' parents and agnatic kin were, by Lusi-Kaliai norms, responsible for her death in this sense. Therefore, compensation by Victor's parents went not to Agnes' agnates but to her maternal kin whose interests in the girl had been violated by both parties.

Suicide and homicide are closely related acts. In the psychoanalytic view, the desire to kill another person is inseparably entwined with the act of killing oneself. Some sociologists consider both homicide and suicide to be acts of aggression, while others relate both to feelings of anomie (Henry and Short 1954). In some acts of suicide, specifically samsonic suicide, the person who kills herself does so with the specific intent of injuring someone else. Bohannan distinguishes between homicide and suicide by emphasizing that homicide is a social relationship with criminological dimensions whereas, presumably, suicide is not.

These categories prove to be inadequate when we attempt to apply them cross-culturally to acts of self-destruction. For instance, the ritual killing of a widow at her insistence contains neither the element of criminal responsibility nor the element of social disruption that the Lusi-Kaliai associate with self-killing. The widow's death expresses strong positive social ties and is socially cohesive. This cohesion is reinforced by the belief that the soul of the dead woman is united with her husband in the spirit world. Thus an act that is treated by national legal authorities as homicide contains none of the negative elements of guilt, conflict, and violence that are normally associated with murder. Self-killing, on the other hand, derives from and is antisocial behavior, and is associated with conflict, potential violence, and criminal guilt -- the negative social by-products that we usually associate with homicide.

People with a non-Western cultural heritage can be expected to interpret acts of self-destruction differently from Westerners. Local legislative bodies may attempt to bring these acts under legal jurisdiction in ways that we cannot anticipate if we confine ourselves to debating definitions of Western terms, without being aware of indigenous ideas about the appropriate social response to self-administered death. For example, in the New Hebrides, on March 7, 1979, the Aoban Council of Chiefs voted unanimously in favor of a proposed law penalizing person who unsuccessfully attempt suicide (Rodman personal communication, September 8, 1979). The anti-suicide bill was considered immediately after an anti-abortion bill, and several delegates remarked that seeking to kill oneself was an offense that was similar in nature to seeking to kill one's fetus. The Chiefs gave themselves the right to impose a fine of $300 on anyone who tried, without success, to take her own life. However, the failed suicide victim does not bear the burden of the fine herself. As different representatives pointed out, "People commit suicide for a reason, which inevitably stems from the actions or attitudes of other people. A person driven to suicide is a victim and, consequently, should share the penalty with those the court judges as responsible for the suicide attempt."

Although the peoples of Kaliai do not share with the Aobans the notion that abortion and self-killing are similar acts, they do agree that self-destruction has a criminal dimension. This is a concept that is as alien to European-derived law as is the Lusi-Kaliai practice of ritual widow killing. The fact that people from different cultures have different perceptions of death has profound implications for those who have the responsibility of drafting legal codes for new nations. It is vital that they consider acts of self-destruction and ritual killing in the context of indigenous custom and that they not be saddled with inappropriate and irrelevant concepts of suicide and homicide. More important than legal definition is the question of whether the circumstances surrounding the death encourage or disrupt social harmony, and whether the local people attribute culpability to persons who they define as being responsible for the act. These problems bring into the legal arena the ever-present anthropological dilemma of cultural translation.

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