Chief Esau Kekeubata lists three pillars in Kwaio’s universe: their land, ancestry and culture.

Their concern for land and ardent desire to protect it from environmental destruction by logging and mining found a common ground with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, prominently represented by Dr Tyrone Lavery, a mammal specialist, and the Australian Museum, under leadership of Dr Rebecca Johnson, conservation geneticist. They and their teams are supported by lucidly vocal Professor Tim Flannery (University of Melbourne), former curator of mammals at the Australian Museum.

Kwaio homeland in central Malaita Island, like the rest of the Solomon Islands is characterised by high endemic biodiversity and a high rate of environmental degradation. Kwaio people and researchers hope that conservation areas such as Kafurumu, Aifisi and Kwainaa’isi will help to preserve a good portion of land and its biological richness along with traditional knowledge.

And not only preserving traditional knowledge, but putting it to practical use within a sophisticated health program – participatory action research – conducted by a team with Dr David MacLaren, Senior Research Officer at James Cook University.

Kwaio involvement in these worthy programs helped to secure some resources for creating a Cultural Centre and a school where several local teachers offer not only modern education grounded in cultural and linguistic tradition, but nurture transformation to the digital era.

Kwaio use modern technology in biological surveys, produce documentary videos, fuse traditional healing practices with modern public health and are establishing their own museum. Interest in knowledge and history mediated by artefacts – objects of daily use, technology and symbols - bring Kwaio and the Pacific Collection at the Australian Museum together.

A group of Kwaio visited our collection last year, and again in November 2017, to examine their artefacts and share their insights with Dr Jenny Newell and her team. Our visitors generously offered comments and identified some individual objects, they also conducted artefact-making workshops for the Museum staff and the public. The workshops were very popular as many of us enjoy the tangible engagement with our visitors and making things together is a wonderful path to sympathetic communication and understanding.

Kwaio visit the AM Pacific Collection
A delegation of the Kwaio people visit the AM Pacific Collection Stores in May 2017 and run weaving workshops in the Atrium of the museum. The Kwaio people who live in the interior of the island of Malaita, Solomon Islands are renowned for retaining strong kastom (tradition) – lost in most parts of the country because of colonisation and modernisation. Many Kwaio follow their traditional ancestral religion, engage in a shell money economy, refuse to convert to Christianity and continue to practice many ancient rituals. They therefore retain significant traditional knowledge. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Kwaio and their culture were brought to the attention of the westerners only in the 1960s when Roger Martin Keesing, an American anthropologist conducted a comprehensive study, resulting in numerous publications. But Kwaio have their own history. Chief Esau Kekeubata memorised his ancestry for 19 generations – further back than the time when Spanish adventurers attempted to establish the first colony in the Santa Cruz group in the Solomon islands in late 16th and early 17th century.

On reflection, land, ancestry and culture look like the aspects of the same universal essence of every human group, defining its identity, history and, ultimately its future. We believe all who engaged last week with Kwaio group at the Museum were inspired to learn more and share all we can for a better future.

Additional Information:

Kwaio visitors included:

Chief Jackson Waneagea - Coordinator of Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre, master comb maker and holder of vast cultural knowledge about plants and animals,
Chief Esau Kekeubata - Community leader, Cultural Broker, researcher and performer,
Mr Tommy Esau - Secretary of Kwainaa’isi Kwaio Cultural Centre, research worker at Atoifi Health Research Group and performer,
Ms Dorothy Esau - cultural broker with women, performer, interpreter (she speaks English, Pijin and Kwaio language)

Kwaio Community Members with various skills including performance, craft-making, digital media and education:
Mr Maasafi Alabai
Mr Fo’oori Sedawasi
Ms Laminaia Lobotolau
Ms Firua Fo’osi’ao
Ms Madelena Ma'ato'o