‘We Are Fire Clan’: Groups, Names
and Identity in Papua New Guinea
Peter D. Dwyer Monica Minnegal
The University of Melbourne The University of Melbourne
This paper draws on two case studies concerning Kubo and Febi people of Western Province, Papua
New Guinea, to reveal, ﬁrst, ways in which people present themselves to the state as groups that qual-
ify as legitimate beneﬁciaries of ﬁnancial beneﬁts expected to ﬂow from extraction of natural gas on
or near their land and, second, simultaneously present themselves to their immediate neighbours in
ways intended to either lay claim to particular areas of land or offset possible challenges to their
asserted rights to land. To achieve these ends, people strategically employ names to variously connote
or denote particular assemblages of people.
Keywords: names, identity, land owners, resource extraction, Papua New Guinea.
In his inﬂuential essay ‘Are there social groups in the New Guinea highlands?’ Roy Wagner
When the white men ﬁrst came to Karamui they felt a strong obligation to dis-
cover groups. They were administrators, faced with the task of building an inter-
face between the native’s ‘institutions’ and their own, and intent on resolving a
confusing array of names and settlements into groups that could serve as the ﬁnal
(local) constituents in a political chain of command (1974:115).
Early anthropological and linguistic studies in New Guinea were, similarly, concerned
to demarcate and label groups that, on the basis of some selected characteristics, appeared
coherent. ‘Groups’, Wagner wrote, ‘were a function of our understanding of what the peo-
ple were doing rather than of what they themselves made of things’ (ibid. 97, original
emphasis). Regions, languages, tribes, moieties, phratries, clans, lineages, and so forth were
invoked in attempts to order the extraordinary diversity of human populations in New
Guinea (e.g., Hays 1993; McElhanon 1971; Weiner 1988). Names that people used to con-
note relationships, and employed strategically in contexts that were forever shifting, were
taken to be denotative, to express ﬁxed structures when local concerns were, so often, with
In the aftermath of Wagner’s essay, an emphasis on the ways in which social relations
were variously generated or dissolved, and strategically employed, came to characterize
much Melanesian ethnography.
But as notions of process and ﬂux were fore-grounded in
© 2018 Oceania Publications
Oceania, Vol. 88, Issue 1 (2018): 90–106