The Nompi en Ovoteme Erromango Project
Since 2008, the ECA has managed the Nompi en Ovoteme Erromango (‘The Erromangan Way’) Project, a two-phase cultural revitalization project. The project is designed to inspire a positive Erromangan identity by promoting the simanlou traditional governance system, Erromangan material culture such as tapa (barkcloth) making as well as the revival of Erromango’s endangered languages.
Through this project, the ECA:
- published Vanuatu’s first-ever community-produced children’s books in vernacular language;
- coordinated the first ever indigenous-produced book in Vanuatu on custom and culture;
- undertaken extensive work to strengthen the traditional simanlou governance system that links people to the land and each other; and
- is actively promoting the revival of traditional tapa (barkcloth) arts. This is a continuing project as the momentum for cultural revival grows.
Phase I, undertaken in 2008, resulted in the publication of children’s language books and community simanlou (traditional governance) workshops.
In Phase II, beginning in 2009, the ECA has been undertaking community-based work on cultural heritage preservation and the promotion of cultural pride, including supporting the attendance of a large contingent of Erromangans to the 2009 National Arts Festival.
The ECA has received much positive feedback from the Erromangan community and from the wider Vanuatu society, including bodies such as the Erromango Natmonuk Simanlou Council of Chiefs, the Tafea Cultural Centre, the Tafea Provincial Council and the Vanuatu Government. These bodies have provided recognition of the important role the ECA is playing in the promotion of Erromangan custom and culture. ECA advisers have also recently been actively involved in land law reform consultations lead by the Vanuatu Government.
In Phase III of the project (2014–16), the ECA continued to support documentation and promotion of the culture and languages of Erromango through tapa and kastom dance workshops, production and use of vernacular language resources. The ECA also initiated a digital archiving strategy, which included the development of this website and online access to Erromangan objects and artifacts housed in museums and collections around the world. The ECA also facilitated community research to strengthen traditional governance structures, resulting in recordings and a handbook on traditional chants (tempor) to assist Erromangan youth to learn their genealogies and land rights.
Reconciliation with the descendents of Rev. John Williams
In November 20, 1839, English missionary the Rev. John Williams of the London Missionary Society was murdered shortly after stepping ashore on Erromango. His killers, incensed by recent transgressions against them by greedy, amoral sandalwood traders, were determined to stop any more foreigners from coming to exploit them.
In the late 1800s, Erromangans, newly converted to Christianity, began to attribute their subsequent tragic history to the murder of the Reverend Williams, claiming a ‘curse’ had been place on Erromango for this terrible act.
On 20 November 2009, supported by the ECA, a reconciliation ceremony between the descendants of Rev. Williams and the entire island of Erromango was held. This ceremony was a national historic event and its ongoing significance lies in the recognition that this metaphorical ‘curse’ has been lifted.
This reconciliation originated when the Canadian descendants of Rev. John Williams donated items collected by him in the South Pacific to the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA). MOA Pacific curator, Carol Mayer, accepted the Williams family’s donation on behalf of MOA and suggested to the ECA the idea of bringing the Williams family and the people of Erromango together for a reconciliation ceremony.
During Phase II of the Nompi en Ovoteme Erromango project, the ECA and the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology published a commemorative book, No Longer Captives of the Past, capturing the memories of the event.
This book tells the story of the righting of this historical wrong – the reconciliation between the Williams family and the descendants of his killers, 170 years after Williams’ death. The book tells a story of forgiveness and justice, told from the personal perspectives of the people involved on both sides, with profound implications not just for those involved, but also for the nation of Vanuatu and for the wider Pacific islands region.