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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2002 > Margaret Mead and the Death of Alexis Gewertz Shepard
Papa New Guinean wearing colorful regalia, with feather headress.
Patrick Yarapat arrives in full regalia to claim preeminence as an ancestral presence.

Margaret Mead and the Death of Alexis Gewertz Shepard

By Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington

When anthropologists Gewertz and Errington told Chambri friends that Alexis had died in an accident, they were summoned to Papua New Guinea for a moving—and difficult—ritual of mourning.

In Cultural Alternatives and a Feminist Anthropology (1987), we asked what would have been, for Margaret Mead, an important comparative question: What, of general significance to the lives of American women, and of particular significance to the life of Alexis, Deborah's daughter and Fred's stepdaughter, had we learned from our restudy of the Chambri of Papua New Guinea? (Margaret Mead first described the Chambri as the "Tchambuli" in Sex and Temperament [1935], her comparison of gender relations in three Papua New Guinea societies and in the United States.) To be sure, we would phrase the contrast between "us" and "them" far less sharply now, but we would still hold that bringing differently positioned if historically intertwined lives into conjunction can further understanding: can clarify and serve not only our lives but the lives of all involved.

If the contrast between the Chambri and ourselves was intended to be significant to Alexis as she contemplated her life's possibilities, we certainly had not expected that this contrast would prove significant to us as we contemplated her life's finalities. But when we wrote in the spring of 1998 to some of our Chambri friends to say that our only child had been killed by a truck while riding her bicycle to work, they insisted that we come to Papua New Guinea as soon as possible, preferably with Aaron, her husband. They wanted to perform the first part of the tsem mijanko, a ritual designed to "finish worry." After all, Alexis had lived with the Chambri when she was a small child and had visited them as an adolescent. As one Chambri put it, "she had grown big at the hands of Chambri women who worked hard in providing her with food." For this ritual, we were instructed to bring photographs of Alexis and personal items, including some of her clothes.

Interested and intrigued, touched and moved, we decided to give it a go. We would give it our best. We wanted to see what sort of cross-cultural understanding might be possible for us: we wanted to see what we might learn, including what we might feel. We also went with a sense that this was an important transition in a history of our long-term fieldwork with Chambri (since 1974 for Deborah and 1983 for Fred). We had always been aware of asymmetries in our relationships with these people. As outsiders, we had always been somewhat unsettled by them, for they remained, of course, vastly more culturally capable and informed about being Chambri than we were. As insiders, they had always been somewhat unsettled by us, for we could come and go as we pleased in a neo-colonial and modernizing world where we were white and (relatively speaking) rich.

As it worked out, and as we hoped might happen, armed as we were with models of solidarity and communitas, we and they did become (at least temporarily) both different kinds of insiders and different kinds of outsiders. Through cross-cultural engagement in a transcultural community of suffering, all of our lives were, in fact, clarified and served—although, as we shall see, not always in ways we might have fully anticipated or welcomed.

Here we will describe the ritual, performed in June 1999, in bare outline. (We presented this ritual in detail in Twisted Histories, Altered Contexts [1991], as it focused on the death of a young Chambri of about Alexis's age.) In so doing, we wish to give recognition to what we think was Margaret Mead's most important legacy: her insistence that Anthropology, through its probing of human similarities, differences and connections, should educate us all; and her insistence that it is personally and politically important to challenge the commonplace understandings of everyday life—to lead lives that are culturally thought-through.

Continued >>

Photo: Frederick Errington


Online Extra


Papa New Guinea Online

Margaret Mead Centennial

American Anthropological Association

Amherst Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology

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