UVA Anthropologist Digitizes a Changing Culture From Half a World Away

(January 10, 2020)

In 2006, University of Virginia anthropologist Lise Dobrin received a document attached to an email from a man she knew in Papua New Guinea, where she had conducted fieldwork for her dissertation several years earlier. The document told the story of the history of the man's village. He wrote that he was afraid if he didn’t write it, no one else would.

“I feel the urge to write because just as day fades into darkness, so do our memories fade from realities into fantasy and eventually silence. Death scatters our memories.”  Thus wrote Bernard Narokobi about putting down on paper the “History of Wautogik Village” in Papua New Guinea.

Narokobi, an important late-20th-century political and cultural figure in that country, told Dobrin when he sent her the manuscript about his village that he could not claim ownership and publish it.  He would’ve wanted to show his written account to elders – “knowledge holders” – so they could review it and make corrections, but the people he thought could do that had all died, he told Dobrin.

“There’s no formal group or bureaucracy that would decide what or what not to include,” she said. “That’s typical of oral culture. There’s not always agreement on the details. There’s no definitive version.”

Instead, Narokobi, who died in 2010, trusted Dobrin with the document – which only existed as a Word file – and his family gifted it to UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Now, Dobrin has found a way to address Narokobi’s concerns while giving this story a public, interactive place for the Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea, many of whom have moved away from their ancestral village, and making it accessible to researchers.

With a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities-Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publication, she will make this “remarkable cultural and historical resource” available online. The site, put together with help from programmers in UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, will include links to dialogue boxes, audio, video and maps to explain parts of the history and provide alternate or additional information. This format allows users to interact with the story in a way that fits with traditions of oral history and public discussion in Papua New Guinea villages.

UVA Today Press