By Jenny Neyman
Herb Schaan’s physical view has changed considerably over the last 40 years — from one end of the Pacific Rim to the other, trading vistas of the lush green mountainsides of the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea for the flat blue expanse of Cook Inlet and snowy Alaska Mountains beyond.
He’s incorporated much of the former into his life in the latter. His home atop the bluff in North Kenai is decorated with treasures from his time in Papua New Guinea — intricately woven brightly colored bags made by New Guinea women and sold at open-air market stands; shiny, crescent-shaped Kina shells, which served as money in the traditional, trade-based economy; and, of course, the photos. Stacks and boxes of prints and slides of images, shot on still-bright Kodachrome film, documenting his time doing missionary work in the country.
When he was shooting during the mid-1960s to 1980s, it was in the vein of anthropological endeavor to document the culture and society of the Enga Province residents, who lived a traditional lifestyle in an area of the country that had previously been closed to outsiders. Forty years later, those photos have become more than just supplements to Schaan’s memory of that chapter of his life. With the Enga region on the verge of massive, near-instantaneous change, Schaan’s photos have become a vital link to the region’s history and traditional ways, and are being incorporated into a new museum and cultural center designed to help Enga residents remember where they’ve come from as they rocket along an uncharted path toward a future of greater integration with the modern world.
Schaan arrived in Papua New Guinea — the independent, eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, off the coast of Australia — in the mid-1960s as a missionary with the Lutheran Church. Previously, outsiders were only allowed along the coastal areas of the country. After World War II, inland regions, including the mountainous Enga Province, were opened to outside access, including to the Catholics and Lutherans, which had already established a presence in the coastal areas.
“People wanted medicine and education and the goodies that the outside world had,” Schaan said. “… We were sent to help set up hospitals and schools and do it in a Christian framework that was liberal to the culture, that did not damage the culture. We were under orders to respect the local ways.”
Schaan and his fellow Lutheran missionaries were tasked with studying the language and culture, and Schaan picked it up better than most. He served as an evangelism director, which had him traveling throughout the province and brought him in contact with many of the residents.
“I knew the language, I have to say, probably better than anybody else, and I had the grassroots connections in a lot of the areas,” he said.
Wherever he went, he brought his Pentax camera with him, enabling him to capture images of life and culture still operating in traditional ways.
“I went through a wide area and met a lot of people, so I had photography a lot of people didn’t have,” he said.
That photography was relegated to storage after he left Papua New Guinea in the 1980s and settled in Kenai. But when a project began to create a cultural museum in Wabang, Enga Province, one of the coordinators of the project got in contact with Schaan and asked if he could contribute photos from his time in the region to the museum. He was happy to oblige in an effort to preserve the fabric of a culture that is rapidly twisting into new patterns.
“The culture is going through such rapid change that it spins your mind almost. The children hardly know anything about their grandparents,” Schaan said.
The biggest impetus of change is an influx of money brought about by industry seeking natural gas development. Schaan read one newspaper article estimating an influx of three stages of $8 billion, into a country of just 7 million people, who suddenly have the desire for and access to all kinds of influences from the modern, Western world.
Almost overnight a region like Enga, which is one of the more primitive in the country, is changing from a trade-based, communal tribal culture to one rife with cash and the individualistic perspective wealth can bring.
“These oil companies, when they come they just sort of come and take over. They say, ‘We’ll give you this amount of money and we want rights to the land for this number of years.’ Those kinds of things set family against family. Like, ‘How come your family gets more money than we do?’ Or, ‘You guys shouldn’t even be up there talking to the companies because it’s not your land in the first place,’” Schaan said. “Tribal land is like that, it’s set for eternity to be communal property, and then as soon as somebody comes in and says they want the rights, certain bossy-type people set themselves up and say, ‘Oh, yeah, if you give me this I’ll deliver the land to you,’ and everybody else rises up and says, ‘It’s not your land to give away.’ So that kind of internal strife is very rife right now.”
The traditional economic structure was one that encouraged communal living, but that is rapidly changing, he said.
“A cash economy is coming in and that changes the whole value system,” Schaan said.
Traditionally, until about 10 years ago, pigs were the gold standard in New Guinea, used to barter and pay debts. If someone butchered a pig, they were forced by the fact that the meat would spoil in a few days to share it amongst the community so it didn’t go to waste.
“But with the advent of cash and refrigerators and freezers you can take that pig and kill it and tell everybody where to go and say, ‘That pig is mine. I’m going to save it for some other time,’ and become very selfish. It depends on your generosity built into your character whether you’re going to share or not. Just that one aspect of their culture is under conflict now by the fact that individualism now is very possible. You can be very selfish, so the culture does not prop up the communal values in the cash culture like it did in the traditional culture,” he said.
After scanning and sending 250 photos on various topics to be included in the museum, Schaan visited Enga Province in March and April to see the facility, which opened in September 2009. His photos are incorporated in several displays and he toured area schools to give a presentation of life in Enga when he first arrived in 1960s. It was a bit of a surreal experience, as an outsider teaching residents about their history and culture. But it was rewarding, especially when Schaan came across residents who recognized family members or themselves as children in his photos.
“A lot of the New Guineans are just good-hearted and spontaneous. The vast majority, they just sort of break into laughter, and it’s a genuine, good smile and laugh,” Schaan said. “The school kids were wonderful, just very receptive. Our idea was to whet their appetite to bring them to the museum, to get the ball rolling getting the kids familiar with what’s in the museum and getting the educational process established between the teachers and the museum. This is an ongoing, intelligent, directed cultural discussion.”
After returning to Kenai, Schaan still has a multitude of photos to sort through and scan for future documentation at the museum, and is already thinking about a return trip. New Guinea may not be his original culture, but being an area which he called home for so long, he said he’s honored to help preserve it.
“If I can help out with this education stuff, I will. It’s been a real success in profound ways, so I will go back to help,” he said.