Chiefs Today: Traditional Pacific Leadership and the Postcolonial State


Geoffrey M. White and Lamont Lindstrom

Contemporary Issues in Asia and the Pacific


Stanford: Stanford University Press

Publication Date: 1997
ISBN: 0-8047-2851-8
Binding: paper
Pages: xvii, 343


This is the second volume in the East-West Center-sponsored series, Contemporary Issues in Asia and the Pacific.

Thirty-five years after the first new Pacific states gained their independence, traditional leaders remain important political actors throughout the region. The political environs of the South Pacific, freshly populated with presidents, prime ministers, members of parliament, and local judiciary officers, are also increasingly crowded with newly visible chiefs. Far from being premodern relics, the chiefs who operate within modern Pacific states today figure significantly in attempts to fashion national identities and manage the direction of political and economic development.

This volume presents detailed analyses of the accommodations between chiefs and states in thirteen Pacific societies. In some states, traditional perquisites and political authority have overlapped so that the state is a contemporary form of chiefdom. Elsewhere, chiefs operate as a mechanism of local accommodation to centralized state authority, facilitating state operations in the local community. In still other states, local chiefs have risen up against central authority, leading their communities in opposition to the state and its depredations. In each case, the chief is a focus for cultural struggle in the border zones of local, national, and transnational politics.

The renewed significance of chiefs, and the discussions and disagreements that surround them, are a vital part of debates about identity and power in the Pacific today. In some cases, these debates produce calls for the revitalization and reempowerment of chiefs; in others, they spark attempts to constrict or otherwise regulate their powers. In either instance, these controversies provide a window into social and political transformation in postcolonial states today.

The Pacific societies treated are: Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Rotuma, Solomon Islands, Tana Toraja (Indonesia), Tonga, Vanuatu, Western Samoa, and New Zealand.

  1. Introduction: Chiefs Today
  2. The Persistence of Chiefly Authority in Western Samoa
  3. Rank and Leadership in Tonga
  4. The Kingly-Populist Divergence in Tongan and Western Samoan Chiefly Systems
  5. The Reemergence of Maori Chiefs: "Devolution" as a Strategy to Maintain Tribal Authority
  6. Chiefs, Politics, and the Power of Tradition in Contemporary Fiji
  7. Ritual Status and Power Politics in Modern Rotuma
  8. Traditional Leaders Today in the Federated States of Micronesia
  9. A Micronesian Chamber of Chiefs? The 1990 Federated States of Micronesia Constitutional Convention
  10. Irooj Ro Ad: Measures of Chiefly Ideology and Practice in the Marshall Islands
  11. Chiefs in Vanuatu Today
  12. The Discourse of Chiefs: Notes on a Melanesian Society
  13. Tuesday's Chiefs Revisited
  14. Constructing and Contesting Chiefly Authority in Contemporary Tana Toraja, Indonesia
  15. Conclusions: Chiefs and States Today


"This edited collection offers an insightful discussion of the role of 'traditional leaders' in the context of evolving domestic and international relations . . . This book works on two distinct levels. The main chapters can be taken as individual case studies which illustrate the specific issues related to each society considered. Beyond that there is an argument of broader scope which highlights the ongoing tensions that arise in all societies experiencing fundamental social, economic and political upheavals."

--Roy Smith, Nottingham Trent University
Pacific Review


"This is a valuable book, with much to offer to scholars of comparative social sciences focusing on the Pacific Islands."

--Journal of Pacific History