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Over the Next Hill

For prominent UVM anthropologist, a new culture, a new adventure is always on the horizon

Mitchell with children
The New Guinea Wapa are an extraordinarily egalitarian society with men taking a large role in the care of children, according to William Mitchell, professor emeritus of anthropology, here circa 1970. (Photo courtesy of Mitchell)

Upstairs in an old farmhouse that looks out over a postcard Vermont valley is William Mitchell’s office, meticulously organized with the notes and articles, photographs and tape recordings collected over decades of fieldwork, including six trips to New Guinea, the first in 1967 with his teacher and lifelong friend, Margaret Mead. The Bamboo Fire: Field Work with the New Guinea Wape, an account that weaves stories of the indigenous people with personal reflections on what it means to be the anthropologist-observer, was recently republished in its second edition, this time with a new afterword by Mitchell, UVM professor emeritus. Just last year he returned to the village of Taute -- where he and his young family had spent nearly two years in the early ‘70s -- still with no roads, making the arduous trek on foot.

But that’s what Mitchell understood from the moment he discovered anthropology. Working on a master’s thesis in philosophy at Columbia University about normal and abnormal human behavior, he wandered into this different discipline. “Wow,” he recalls thinking. “This could entertain me forever.”

“His successful return to the field -- and most certainly not an easy field,” says anthropology professor Robert Gordon, who was hired by Mitchell when he chaired the department, “at his age is, in a word, incredible and speaks to the spirit of the man. He is certainly one of the better fieldworkers of the many that have traversed Melanesia and his theoretical insights are highly pertinent. The fact that Bamboo Fire has been reprinted after such a long interval (it was originally published in 1987) speaks volumes to the quality of his work.”

The call of demons

Among other areas of expertise -- he is an authority on kinship and wrote his doctoral dissertation (with Mead heading the committee) on Jewish kinship in New York City -- Mitchell is interested in therapeutic systems, what a culture views as sick or deviant and the means they undertake to instruct, punish or heal in order to bring an individual into the realm of the acceptable.

In Bamboo Fire Mitchell writes, “It is what we are taught to abhor and fear in others and ourselves that is at the affective core of each culture. But to study what is despised and feared in a culture is also to understand what is honored and desired… people invent ways to remedy the bad, to correct or eradicate what threatens the good life, and to conserve the cherished concepts and customs….”

Mitchell wondered how these systems were playing out in New Guinea, where indigenous beliefs were now countered with the messages of Western missionaries. With a hard-won grant, he packed up with his wife, four-year-old son and three-year old daughter in 1970 in hopes of teasing out answers among the Wape, one of the most complex and challenging tribes in the region. “I took my family into the forest where there are no facilities of any kind, not even a road,” Mitchell says. “There’s no running water, no electricity. You have to invent your life.”

In exchange for the physical and emotional hardships and a complicated mix of frustration and deep affection for the locals, Mitchell was serendipitously rewarded by the discovery that, unlike many tribes that center their religious ceremonies on male-initiation and other rituals, the Wape practiced elaborate and prolonged curing festivals. What he had traveled so far to understand was a central component of the society.

Mitchell writes of the moment that connection crystallized for him. Drawn in by ceremonial drums booming through the night, he headed toward one such festival, the final night, hundreds of people with bodies brightly decorated with paints, powder, leaves and ferns. In the book he recalls images of that moment: “Shimmering and shaking tin towering grandeur, the masks, aflutter with bird-of-paradise feathers and flags of fur, were like Calder mobiles magically gone wild.” Marathon dancing, incessant drumming, hypnotic chanting, all glowing in the fire of bamboo torches.

Demon spirits, present at curing festivals in the form of these elaborate masks incarnated by priests who wore them, were considered both responsible for illness in Wape culture and also to have curing powers. In the absence of elaborate ceremonies, if someone got sick it was believed that a demon or ghost was the cause and an exorcism would be performed. Western culture did intersect -- people with a fever would sometimes get a shot of penicillin from a mission or government “doctor boy,” who, Mitchell says, never got credit if the person got well.

To Mitchell’s dismay -- and a factor in his last return, to see firsthand -- the curing festivals have been vanquished from Wape life. Despite long-failed efforts by Catholic and Christian Brethren missionaries to stop them, charismatic Pentecostals won the Wape over, to an extent. The word to Mitchell is that people still believe illness is the work of demons only now they appeal to God to expel them. It’s a cultural loss as Mitchell sees it -- the masks were true art, the ceremonies the major excitement in the lives of the people.

Many rivers

“It was an exorcism for me to get that experience out,” says Mitchell on writing the book. “I’m getting chills just thinking about leaving, being in that plane, looking down.” He opens with that scene, holding the feeling of equal parts relief and grief. “It’s an awesome experience to spend two years in the bush with none of your supports, your friends, anything of your earlier life. You get the edges knocked off you with challenges you wouldn’t experience in our society. But you go through all these emotional things and when you leave you really come to be very close to a lot of people. Yet it’s an end and you know it will never be the same even if you go back. It’s finished.”

Bamboo Fire includes a letter he wrote to friends in which he jokes that someone should be there studying his family as they cope. That meta-thought supports his later reflections in the book about the limitations of one anthropologist’s perspective on a culture. The view of the Mitchells, if there were one, his view of the Wape, come from one person’s observations. But as he writes, “it is an authentic version of what happened and, therefore, truthful if not the “truth.”

Mitchell borrows a famous quote from the Greek philosopher Heraclites, “no one ever steps into the same river twice.” The waters flow even back in New Guinea, where the people now have cell phones despite few other changes in terms of infrastructure or economic progress. (Mitchell notes the irony that despite the island’s numerous cell towers his iPhone has no reception in his remote Vermont valley.)

And Mitchell headed on a tour to Turkey to avoid November in Vermont, but he’s counting on returning to snow and his passion for downhill skiing. He’s at work on a new writing project on the Lujere people that would be further along if the beautiful summer hadn’t called him out hiking quite so often in his woods near Stowe. And he doesn’t rule out a return to New Guinea.

“Bill's joie de vivre is contagious,” says his former colleague and friend Rob Gordon. "Of all the folks in Vermont who have influenced me and shaped an outlook I can only aspire to, Bill is the person.”

Maybe it’s the joy of their field. Paraphrasing Mitchell at the end of the epilogue, the domain of cultural anthropology is humanity itself. There will always be “those curious ‘others’ -- the anthropologist -- wondering how the people over the next hill live, then going to stay with them to discover how and why they do what they do.” Mitchell saw that spark in Mead even as he visited her in the hospital shortly before she died. He mentioned he was on his way to the annual meeting of anthropologists, and she animated with parting words: “Have fun!”