Vanuatu’s Customary Taro and Yam Exchange

The Vanuatu Daily Post ran an interesting article about a ceremony that recently took place on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu called the ‘niel’ ceremony. This was one of those unique events that could only take place in the Pacific Islands. Back in July  a ship arrived at the island carrying approximately 50,000 tubers of taro that was exchanged for yams.

According to the Minister of Lands, Ralph Regenvanu, the name of the ceremony in the language of this area is ‘nieri’, while other areas on Tanna refer to it as ‘niel’. “The Tree and the Canoe: History and Ethnogeography of Tanna,” authored by Joël Bonnemaison states that two of the great rites of Tanna’s contemporary kastom (traditional culture) refer to the ‘nepro’ society, which entails the sharing of food among allies. It further states that the ‘niel’ excludes any form of profit-making and does not designate a winner or loser.

“Tanna’s first society has no knowledge of debt, that powerful mechanism of social stratification which prevails in the graded societies of the northern part of the group,” said Bonnemaison. “Here, what has been received, is strictly given back, and what is owned is given away with expectations of receiving it back from one’s ally.” He notes that the ‘niel’ rites tend to deal with specific food, citing examples of a ‘yam niel’ in exchange for a ‘taro niel’, a ‘banana niel’ for a ‘sugarcane or fish niel’.

The Vanuatu Daily Post understood that the highly respected late Chief Jacob Kapere was documenting the preparations of the niel ceremony before his sudden passing. As former Director of the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS), Kirk Huffman stated, it would be almost impossible for the nation to replace the late chief Kapere’s vast cultural filming experience.

The former VKS Director previously revealed that the late chief’s important field video film was his detailed film documentation of the opening ceremonies of the then newly-constructed vast traditional nakamal (traditional meeting place) in the village of Purao, Tongoa Island, in January 1987.


The market in Port Vila, Vanuatu

About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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