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The Tanna Heresies

The Village Explainer
The Tanna Heresies
By Dan McGarry • Issue #41 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

A latter-day interpretation of the Prince Philip story incorporating biblical elements
A latter-day interpretation of the Prince Philip story incorporating biblical elements
The death of Prince Philip last week sent me on a dual mission. The first was to cover reaction of the people of Yaohnanen and nearby villages to the death of their scion and great spirit, Prince Philip. The second was to learn what it is to have faith.
I was allowed the rare privilege of meeting and discussing the issue with some of the kastom chiefs of Tanna. It was an experience open to few, the kind of thing you tell your grandchildren.
Not to brag, but to teach them humility and respect.
In some ways, this is a cautionary tale to myself, a reminder of the care and attention required by those who want to turn back a tide of narrative that infantilises a people whose belief system is vivid and alive, unencumbered by the centuries—even millennia—of dogma and canon that most cultures have come to recognise as religion.
Bearing witness to the people of Tanna as they reconcile 3000 years of living tradition with the sometimes irresistible force of colonialism and empire is a fascinating and illuminating experience.
Pacific's Prince Philip worshippers mull Charles as successor - France 24
I have to start with the obvious caution: I am sure to be wrong. despite having spent several years listening and learning, nothing will replace the lifetimes of wisdom that inform the Prince Philip movement.
Why write at all, then? Well, because others have, and they’ve done a disservice to the people of Tanna. And because the people of Yaohnanen village and their neighbours have chosen to live a life that largely ignores the world outside. They are not inclined to engage with it.
So that leaves me, an unwitting bit-player in a fascinating exercise in world-making.
Is this appropriation? I desperately hope not. If you ask me, it’s just a reporter plying his trade in defence of a few unlikely friends.
If I get parts of this right, it’s because of them. If I get things wrong, it’s because of me. I will avoid saying untrue things, but I will certainly err in emphasis and omission. You’ve been warned.
Most people who learn about Tanna’s Prince Philip movement do so at the end of a the journalistic equivalent of a game of Chinese Whispers. This is just one semi-random example:
Prince Philip worshipped by indigenous people in Vanuatu, on the island of Tanna - The Washington Post
I could parse the text, correcting, niggling, downplaying and de-emphasising, but I don’t think that’s really useful.
The plain fact is, there is no One True Prince Philip Movement. Canonical truth, as most of us understand it, is unattainable at this moment. The belief system that drives the Prince Philip movement is alive. It’s organic, and it’s still growing.
It’s fascinating to witness.
Radio Australia's Pacific Beat - The People of Tanna mourn their Prince
But that’s only the part that fits into the news. There is so much more. Consider the story of Joseph Kapalu. He visited me in my office several years ago, with a message about the power of Tanna kastom, and a vision of how Prince Philip had helped ensure that its bounty reached across the globe.
Joseph was an earnest young man, very much of the modern age. When I met him, he presented me with a copy of the poster you see at the top of today’s newsletter. He incorporates biblical references, signs and symbols from his own revelation and insight, and common Vanuatu motifs, and then weaves from them what he considers to be proof that Tanna kastom is the wellspring of all that is good in the world.
Here, in his own writing, is his recounting of Prince Philip’s early days.
Just one interpretation of the Prince Philip story.
Just one interpretation of the Prince Philip story.
Joseph is seen as a crackpot by some, but he has a clear vision, and it is as vividly elucidated as any other I’ve encountered. I suspect he might be regarded differently if he’d remained on the island.
Not every interpretation of Philip’s Hero’s Journey is driven by faith alone. Take the friendly old chief who introduced himself to me as Jack Naiva.
I’m ashamed to say I believed him.
Jack Naiva, I learned too late, was the paramount chief of Yaohnanen village. He was the custodian of the village’s treasured photos, sent to them by Buckingham Palace.
He died in 2009, almost a decade before I met this… other Jack.
I later learned that he was representing himself as the Philip’s blood brother, and claimed to be on the cusp of delivering billions of dollars in wealth, just as soon as he and his bro Phil managed to clear a few hurdles.
I cut ties with the old so-and-so, but not before I’d inadvertently assisted him in his masquerade. I still flinch at my naïveté.
I have a sense that ‘Jack’ is not the only person deliberately constructing their own interpretations of the lore.
For some, the Philip narrative is a useful vehicle for fable.
I met a chief from Port Resolution in Lenakel last week. He was in town to greet the Prime Minister and other government officials, who had arrived at the same time we did.
Explaining how the pale-complected Prince Philip could come from Tanna, he told me a story about two boys who went swimming in the rough surf near his home. The action of the sand and water scraped their skin clean, and scrubbed one of them so hard that he lost all his colour.
“You,” he said with a pointed grin, “are my little brother. The black man is the big brother, and you are our little brother.”
Chief Willie Lop is the head of the Tanna Island Council of Chiefs. It’s a powerful post, and Chief Willie is a redoubtable man. He’s thoughtful, canny and very much a man of the world.
To him, the Prince Philip story is simple unadorned truth: Philip is from Tanna. As a young man, he rode his horse to the south of the island, leapt into the sea and was transported to England, where he met, wooed and won the princess, and spent his life at the right hand of the throne.
And honestly, when you put it like that, the biggest difference between his story and that of Arthur or Mohammed or Jason or Moses is… time.
Time. Their story happened once upon it. For the people of Tanna, it’s happening right now.
I spent a day last week watching the kastom chiefs of Yaohnanen and the surrounding villages beginning one of the most important tasks in recent history. They are plotting the course for their people for generations to come.
The lore is alive, twisting like a vine, tendrils waving speculatively in the breeze, looking for the trunk that will allow it to climb to the heavens. Will it be Charles? Will wiley old chief Albi of Yakel witness their tabu spirit passing to a grandson instead? Will the spirit leave England, as one chief warned, and return to Tanna?
Prince Charles shares a private moment with a messenger from Yaohnanen village
Prince Charles shares a private moment with a messenger from Yaohnanen village
The answer matters a lot. Just not to us. This story is not about us.
But just because the narrative belongs to someone else is no reason to belittle it.
Having spent my formative years labouring under the oppressive weight of the Catholic church (Irish edition), learning about Philip from the people of Tanna has taught me to think differently about Yeshua the man, and the people who built a millennium-spanning institution on his bones.
I caution anyone who denigrates or infantilises the people of Yaohnanen. They don’t owe you an explanation. You owe them your respect and your attention. And if you really listen, you’re likely to learn a thing or two about your own life and faith.
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Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu