Association for Feminist Anthropology
Retrospective - Oral Presentation Session
As the victims of ignoble nuclear bomb tests, and now with the precipitous rise in sea levels, the Marshall Islanders recognize clearly the externally caused threats to their low-lying coral atolls. And yet they also playfully imagine their own trickster figure as the source of this global violence. This relatively small community of islanders also pushes back against the orders of destruction and institutionalized power, most notably through the kam̧ōļo performance wherein women and a transgendered being dramatically draw upon the trickster’s sexual, mocking, and subversive behavior to offer a renewal. Beverly Stoeltje’s discerning consideration of women as signs in performance, focuses our attention on how these gendered representations may reflect a counter-statement in social life through the signification of multiple and contested meanings. Her recognition of both the construction and inversion of gender in local contexts offers a critical perspective on contestations within “the margins of hegemonic discourse” and political practice. The Marshallese women’s kam̧ōļo, riddled with ambiguity, mischievously inverts gender and social roles through the trickster ethos and actions, and while doing so explores the forces of global incursion and power in very local terms. As performers invert images of gender and public decorum, they also juxtapose local meanings with the global, to push back against threatening forces through an act of regeneration. Both symbolic inversion and laughter defy an imminent death, to renew social life with hope and possibility.