Chapter 7

Ethnoscience and Bashiic Research
Understanding the native culture and how it is related to the surrounding environs cannot be based on the ethnographer's preconceived ethnocentric notions. It is necessary to view the natives as they view themselves and their environment. Only in this manner can the outside observer comprehend how the native perception of the environment affects cultural and social habits. This approach goes beyond mere observation and recording. It is an attempt at indigenous or true and actual understanding of the culture. Thus an ethnographer cannot be satisfied with a mere cataloging of the components of a cultural ecosystem according to the categories of Western science. It is also essential to describe the environment as the people themselves construct it, according to the categories of their ethnoscience. Only in this way can an ethnographer hope to determine the extent to which ecological considerations, in contrast, say, to sociological ones, enter into a person's decision about what to do (Hardesty 1977, 215). As such, a determination of native conceptions of their environment should be part of every thoroughgoing ethnographic study.
It is here that we encounter two paradoxes. On the one hand, native explanations or accounts of cultural activities may turn out to be idealized or false representations of actual behaviors. On the other hand, a native member of a culture cannot perceive the interrelationships of behaviors in the culture whereas an outside observer cannot fully comprehend the implications of the same behaviors. For my part, I feel caught "between the sword and the wall." Although I am not a Yami native, I lived with the Yami. Thus all my interpretations come from an area halfway between that of a complete outside observer and a complete native. Along with my ethnographic approach, I add the perspective of literature and the viewpoint of the folklorist. This integration is not easy to accomplish, however. The main difficulty in combining folkloric and ethnographic perspectives is that, although related, these two disciplines seemingly operate from different underlying premises. For this reason scholars from both disciplines ignore each other's work on the same culture and thus never achieve a comprehensive picture of their subject.
The attempt to examine the relationship between anthropology and literature can be compared to the experience of riding a boat down the delta of a wide river: one does not really know where the river ends and where the ocean begins. The only way to find out is to taste the water here and there. The vastness of the waters symbolizes the transition area or overlap. Anthropology is a science that creates theories and methodologies to account for human culture, while literature is one of the building elements and products of this culture.
Herskovits, in the introduction of his Man and his Works, writes that the literary forms with which the anthropologist deals constitute folklore, and that a good collection of myths or folktales is more than a mere group of stories: it can be regarded as an ethnography of the people to which it belongs. And if we accept Geertz's statement that social anthropology is ethnography (Geertz 1973), we can safely assume that within culture the actual area of overlap between anthropology and literature is indeed folklore. As for folklore, Pierre Maranda and Elli Kongas Maranda in their Structural Models in Folklore define it only "tentatively" as "unrecorded mentifacts." They also state that "one of the corollaries is that no text as such is a real folkloristic item: texts are only records of mentifacts whereas an artifact always is its own record" (Maranda 1971, 16).
The term "folklore" was used for the first time by Ambrose Merton in a letter published in The Atheneum of London, 22 August, 1864, signed under the pseudonym William J. Thomson. Before this event, "the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, of the olden time" were known as "popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature" (Herskovits 1947, 419). However, even after a wide acceptance of the term, its meaning varied according to who studied what. The confusing circumstances were described by Propp when he complained that in Western Europe "folklore" refers to the peasant culture of one people, usually one's own people. In such a case it is understood as "Volkskunde," but if it concerns the culture of other peoples, it is interpreted as "Völkerkunde;" (the English equivalent of the German term here does not present the desired semantic difference) and is considered the object of another discipline, defined as anthropology, ethnography, or ethnology. The absurdity of this principle is well exemplified by Propp's remark that "if a French scholar studies French songs, this is folklore, but if the same scholar studies Albanian songs, this is ethnography" (1984, 5).
A distinction between folklore and ethnography is made also by Herskovits, but in a different sense. His argument is based on the fact that in 1888 when the American Folklore Society was founded, the following categories were set up as objects of study: "Relics of Old English Folk-lore," "Lore of Negroes in the Southern States of the Union" ( in practice they turned up under the heading "Lore of French Canada, Mexico, etc." ), and "Lore of Indian Tribes of North America." The fact that several language territories had been included shows that the use of "folklore" was not interpreted in the Western European sense. However, when researchers left their own culture areas and engaged in fieldwork at places where illiterate people lived, they realized that vestiges of earlier ways of life could not always be found, as they normally could in the European rural environment. This difference, in the cases of Africa, Australia, and the South Seas as well as among the North American Indians, had to bring about a distinction between folklore and other aspects of culture, that is, a distinction between folklore and ethnography. This, according to Herskovits, "from the anthropological point of view, is the basis of the limitation of folklore to myths, tales, proverbs, riddles and verse, together with music" (Herskovits 1947, 422). I find this somewhat odd because in some circumstances, even in tribal societies, vestiges of earlier ways of life can still be found. For instance, in the case of the Yami of Irala, the population is clearly split into three culturally different generations:
(1) The elders, who still live in their traditional forms of housing, recessed into the hillsides, and who observe all taboos. (2) The younger, 25-to-35-year-old generation, who are literate to a minimal degree in Chinese, and who mostly live in new cement houses and observe only a restricted number of taboos (restricted by their belief in them or by their knowledge of them). (3) The children, who are the literate victims of cultural or ethno-genocide operating from the outside, and who do not know even the tribal language well, let alone the tribal belief system.
In the second and third group the old ways are known but not practiced. This cultural area is, then, somewhat similar to the European one, where the rural areas still preserve their "popular antiquities." So, following Propp's logic, if a fieldworker is collecting data from the first group located on the hillside, is he then doing ethnography? And if he is working with the second and third groups at the foot of the same hill, is he then recording folklore? Or does Herskovits draw his distinction from the fact that in a tribal society every aspect of culture becomes the target of investigation, while in the traditional rural European-type setting not all aspects will become a matter of observation? Or is it simply that it does not matter where and what data the researcher collects, but what he wants to do with it? No doubt Herskovits is right in saying that folklore and ethnography are divided because they are treated in that manner by anthropologists.
Regardless of how anthropologists limit folklore or divide it from ethnology, "what folklore does for the social anthropologist" can hardly be considered a matter of dispute. For example, most anthropologists agree that a culture's creation myths and cosmologies elucidate its understanding of the universe and humanity's appearance in it; or that myths also supply a basis, or at least an explanation, for ritual and belief systems. It is fairly widely accepted that many legends and stories are excellent unwritten accounts of tribal histories, while genealogical stories prove the right of lineages or individuals to belongings, land ownership, social rank, power, or ritual rights.
I believe that a demarcation between folklore and ethnology should not be a disciplinary one, but instead a matter of a pragmatic, intrinsic taxonomy, a kind of "interdisciplinary discipline" such as ethnography. Everything that folklore offers to the researcher can be used as anthropological data pertinent to subsistence, belief systems, migration patterns, and so on. I shall therefore apply my folklore data in its "ethnographic sense" to show the Yami's ethnoscience.
Ethnoscience is the sum of all the ways a culture makes its own sense of its milieu. It is not the general study of some aspect of an "ethnic group," but a study done from that group's own point of view. How natives think can be deduced from the ways in which they perceive relationships among different aspects of their environment. Different levels of generalization, as well as various unifying features (common shared cultural elements or categorical domains), can be described. Thus a balanced study of culture approaches its subject from both angles, explaining native categories in terms that non-natives can comprehend, yet retaining the essence of the principles that led the natives to form their categories in the first place. Ethnoscience, then, specifically looks at the way natives view their environment in ways that determine or alter their behavior towards utilizing their environment. The following case is an example of such behavior-altering changes in cultural viewpoints.
In April 1984, the principal of the Batanes High School, Orlando Hontomin, and I rowed out in a small boat to draw in the nets we had set the night before. The conversation was about diving and I told Orlando about the way the Yami search the ocean floor for kono, the giant clam. I also asked him if the Ivatans liked to eat kono. "There are no more kono here," he said, "even the smallest ones must have been picked ages ago, because now we see them only if they are close to the shore and the low-tide exposes them. The last kono I saw," he said, "was a few years ago, on the shore of the scarcely inhabited Ivohos. We saw a crane-like sea bird flapping its wings while searching the reef for fish. Since it stayed on the same spot and, after a while, it started flapping its wings helplessly, we went over to see what was going on. To our great surprise, the long bill of the bird was caught in a big kono, a few inches under the low-tide level of the water. Probably the bird wanted to eat it and the clam shut down on its bill, trapping it. It was a good catch, a bird and a kono at the same time."
When I jumped into the water to remove the fish from the net, to my greatest surprise I saw that the ocean floor was virtually covered with kono. I asked Orlando to come and see for himself, but, even after I pointed several times in the direction of some large shells, he failed to detect them.
It should be noted here that when the kono is open, the gills of the mollusk cover the edge of the shell. The colour of the gills is usually a perfect imitation of the immediate environment of the kono, so that for the untrained eye the molusk is almost impossible to detect. I remember only too well the hardships of learning how to find and remove these shells from the ocean floor. Orlando, and later several other Ivatans with whom I dove, could not see the kono because those particular skills were now missing from the practices of their fishing cultures.
We took several shells home and I showed them how the Yami clean and prepare them. Everybody who tasted it liked the kono very much, and from that day on we looked for them whenever we went out to sea. In less than a month not only Orlando and his son, but also several other adults and some children easily learned how to find and remove these shells. When I returned to the Batanes after an absence of two years, a few families were still including kono in their menu.
My interpretation of the above episode is that in a place where food is always scarce, and especially when the sources of protein are limited, a nutritious, good-tasting food like the kono could not be given up without a major reason. The fact that the Ivatans still know the name of this edible clam, but do not catch and eat it, is in my opinion the result of a major change in emphasis in their subsistence activities. Due to Spanish colonial constraints, the Ivatans were made more dependent on agriculture. As a result, fishing, and especially diving, were given a less important role in their subsistence. Because youngsters had to go to church and school every day, they could not spend their childhood playing in the waters of the shore, developing, among other skills, the technique of how to detect and remove the kono. I had the sad opportunity to witness the same phenomenon taking place concurrently on Irala, where Yami children are not given the chance to carry on the cultural heritage of their own people.
In accounting for the kono incident, I have tried to explain not only the "how" but also the "why" of native cultural practices. An advantage of this combined approach is that the discrepancies between what the natives say they do and what they actually do reveal another dimension of their culture, which would not have been available without the comparative (combined approach) study. This dimension reflects the strength of taboo in a culture, a topic addressed in part 1 of this book. One can suppose that in cultures where taboo is strongest, the discrepancy between actual events and the verbal descriptions of the events should be small. Yet in a culture where taboo is lax, one expects oral renditions to parallel taboo, but real-life actions to differ greatly. For example, the Yami do not eat a great variety of fish, even though most of the same fish are eaten in neighboring Taiwan. The reason for this behavior is the Yami's extremely rigorous taboo system that controls the consumption of food. Limiting the analysis to seafood here, all fish that comes out of the ocean is basically divided into two categories. One is marahet a among, which means "bad fish," but is usually called rahet for short. The other is oyod a among, which means "real fish," usually called oyod. Depending on the person who wants to eat it, taboo will define the fish as oyod, which can be eaten by both men and women or rahet, which can be eaten only by men. However, depending on the situation, the following taboo categories exist: Fish which can be eaten by nobody; nobody in a certain village; everybody; only by men; only by old people; only by old men; only by old women; only by adults; only by women during the period of pregnancy; by women only after childbirth.
According to Tsuchida;'s survey of Yami fish names, the Yami could name 450 fishes (1984). Out of 450, 88 species are tabooed for everybody; thus the Yami consider them inedible. The remaining 362 species are considered edible but not always for everybody. For men, out of the 362 edible species 60 may come under occasional taboo, like the one observed during the wife's pregnancy. Four species are eaten only by women. The remaining 298 species are eaten without restriction by men. For women, out of the 362 edible species 60 are considered rahed, "man fish," and 140 species fall under occasional taboo. To the remaining 162 species we can add another 37 species which may occasionally be eaten by women. The final balance is 199 species that women eat at one time or another. This means that out of the total kinds of edible fish, men may eat one third more than women.
Comparing the data of an energetic study of the Miskito Indian fishing culture (Nietschmann, 1973) with what the Yami dare and do not dare to eat, it is obvious that the taboo is a most disadvantageous bargain for the Yami. Fishes like devilfish (Manta birostris), sawfish (Pristis sp), stingrays (Dasyatidae), swordfish (Xiphias gladius), and sharks and turtles are not simply occasionally or seasonally tabooed, but are part of the 88 species considered taboo for everybody at all times. Furthermore, the way in which flying fish are caught, scaled, cut, dried, cooked, shared, and eaten is surrounded by a jungle of taboos. After the last day of the Yami summer, which coincides with the last day of the flying fish season, if flying fish are caught involuntarily (by net) they may be eaten, except for the blue-winged ones, which will be thrown back or, if killed, then fed to animals.
The local creation myths account for some of the reasons why certain fish are not allowed to be eaten or caught. Other genres of the local folklore contain explanations of a similar kind. For example, a legend of Yayo village clearly explains that the kanini the earthquakefish, a species of wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), is tabooed only in that place because once when that fish was caught, a strong earthquake occurred, destroying the settlement. On the whole, however, there is no valid scientific explanation of the phenomenon (in the sense that myths are not scientific), and it is not known how exactly certain fish became taboo to eat, or why the taboo is so strongly respected even if the population is undernourished.
Logically, one may argue that restraint from fishing or from eating certain edible fish due to taboo may be perceived as an intrinsic fertility control device. Women, due to food restrictions, lose fats and become less fertile, or cannot lactate properly. This increases infant mortality rates. The problem with this theory, however, is that the Yami have never experienced a population growth that abused the land's carrying capacity. At least there is no archaeological proof of such a pattern of growth, and all previous census reports by the Japanese and Chinese for the past hundred years were far below the present one. The lush tropical environment, with fairly new volcanic soil and abundant water for irrigation provides optimal taro growing conditions. As a matter of fact, poverty on Irala is directly associated with laziness. In other words, ecologically speaking there is no need for fertility control, however indirect.
A cautionary remark has to be inserted here, though. The Yami actually have abused not the agricultural carrying capacity of the land but the large tree assets of the island. Not knowing the saw but only the axe, out of each tree trunk they obtain only one board or beam, while the rest of the trunk is wasted. As far as I can determine, one of the reasons for the complete halt of mass migrations in the area (and maybe in the South Seas as well) is the lack of large trees. Houses can be built from small boards too, but the keel of a boat must be a strong, one-piece beam.
The Yami invest much time and energy in their rituals. The deeper one looks into the heart of the matter, the more it appears that the main concern regarding ritual and religion shifts from the point of the Malinowski-Radcliffe-Brown; argument to the question of "human obedience to authority." According to Malinowski, primitive peoples possess substantial empirical knowledge of subsistence activities. But their efficiency is always limited by factors that make the outcome of their labor uncertain. This uncertainty brings about a feeling of anxiety, which makes them perform magic rites to secure a good outcome for their activities. Radcliffe-Brown who did not wholly agree with Malinowski, suggested that it was not anxiety, but society, that made the natives perform the rituals. It was probably personal feelings that prevented these two famous students of anthropology from admitting that both theories were correct. In the case of the Yami, my concern lies not with what generates ritual or taboo, but with the question of why the Yami do not object to rituals and taboos that interfere with their subsistence activities.
The following incident has become part of the local folklore of Yayo village of Irala. Between the end of the typhoon season and the beginning of the flying fish season (December to March), there are fewer taboos regulating fishing activities. This is a good time to use large nets and drive schools of fish into them, and to put on a little extra weight for the following hard first-stage of the flying fish season, which is low in yield for men and almost zero for women. One of the fishes that frequently ends up in the nets is the serer, a snapper (Labrakoglossa argentriventis), which by virtue of the food taboo is not eaten by women. Thus during this period women cannot profit from the large catches, because sometimes up to 80% of the fish are prohibited to women. Nine years ago, a certain Siamen-Paroy, who was the catechist of the Protestant church of the village, took his wife to his church and in front of his parish asked her to eat a cooked serer. To everybody's horror, she did so, and did not vomit from it, as all would have expected. "From today on," Siamen-Paroy announced, "in our village, serer is going to be considered oyod so that our women do not remain hungry when we return home with a large catch." As people remember the incident, everybody thought that the man was out of his mind. Instead of immediately accepting his offer, people placed him and his household under taboo to the point that they did not even want to go fishing with him. With time, however, the situation has changed. Today Yayo is the only village on Irala where serer is eaten by women.
What psychological entities are at work when something like this happens? How far does human obedience to the authority of magic and religion stretch? Why do some of the natives consciously break a certain taboo in public, and why do a few others, or suddenly a whole community, but only that one community, follow the new practice? Apparently, the answer to these questions lies in the study of belief systems, a vast discipline that has remained largely beyond the grasp of Western scholarship. The only way to enter a culture intimately enough to observe the mental processes of its people is through an understanding of their myths (folklore;) and their practices (ethnography;). Then, with both inside and outside understanding (via ethnoscience), a true picture of the culture can be developed.