Gender and Religion

Ancestors, both male and female, are the principle supernatural beings on the island. Gender among ancestors is muted; people respect the powers of all the dead. However, leading men are often buried along the circumference of important kava-drinking grounds, while women are more commonly buried in graveyards near villages. Kava-drinkers noisily spit out the last sip of their drink as a sort of ancestral libation to the dead, their male ancestors buried underfoot. Traditional gods and culture heroes are also mostly male, including the pan-Polynesian figures Mwatiktiki (Maui Tikitiki) and Tagarua (Tangaloa), although many myths and legends feature female spirits as well. A kava origin myth, for example, explains how two women were the first to find and use the plant before men stepped in to monopolize the drug (Lindstrom, 1987, p. 113).

The majority of Islanders nowadays are Christian (notably Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, or Seventh-Day Adventist) although traditional Pacific beliefs about the power and constant presence of ancestors remain strong. Several local syncretic religious movements have also emerged on the island. The best known of these is the John Frum Movement that combines traditional and Christian elements and also an appreciation of the U.S. military that dates back to men's work experiences on American bases during the Pacific War. Christian churches and local religious movements alike are important social organizations on the island, with both male and female membership (Jolly, 1991). Islanders quickly noted that the Christian god is masculine, and men dominate church governance. Moreover, worshippers sit on opposite sides of the aisle during service or mass rather than seating themselves as families. Most denominations have separate women's organizations (such as the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union).

Many men and women alike have inherited local pharmacological recipes ("leaf medicine") that they use to treat various ailments. Some of the most respected cur-ers also serve as diagnosticians and divine the cause of disease, which often is ancestral anger. Occasionally, women become well-known curers and diviners, and many people come to consult them. Although women may not drink kava, they can dream and thereby tap into ancestral wisdom when asleep (Lindstrom, 1990, p. 98). Women produced some of the founding visions that led to the institutionalization of the John Frum Movement in the 1950s, and women have since played important visionary roles within the organization.

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