Kula ring

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Location of Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea

Kula, also known as the Kula exchange or Kula ring, is a ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. It involves a complex system of visits and exchanges and was first described in the west by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922. Reciprocity was one area of fundamental work done by Malinowski, and Marcel Mauss also produced some seminal observations in The Gift. Both works remain important to anthropology today. The objects exchanged in Kula are not particularly valuable in themselves, but rather serve to help forge social connections which are depended upon at various times throughout an individual's life. The study of this practice has helped to show that many indigenous peoples have traditions that serve many purposes beyond basic survival functions, enabling sometimes distant social groups to have harmonious relationships that benefit all.


The Gift

Kula arm bracelet

The Kula gifts are of two types and are not in themselves remarkably valuable. One consists of shell-disc necklaces (veigun or Soulava) that are traded to the north (circling the ring in clockwise direction) and the other are shell armbands (Mwali) that are traded in the southern direction (circling counter-clockwise). Mwali was given with the right hand, the Soulava given with the left hand, first between villages then from island to island. If the opening gift was an armband, then the closing gift must be a necklace and vice versa. These are traded purely for purposes of enhancing mutual trust relationships, securing trade, and enhancing one's social status and prestige.

The Mwali armband uses a ring of shell cut from a giant cone snail. Traditionally, they would travel in pairs, but today’s Mwali are smaller and travel as a singular item. They are embroidered with colored trade beads, egg cowries, and sometimes nuts. As they are too small to be worn they are carried on a rope. The shell itself is fished from the sea and then prepared. Soulava necklaces are made from spondylus shells of which there are two types. Depending upon the part of New Guinea, the color used will be different—around Normandy Island it is red, and further north in the Trobriands there is white with only a little red. The quality of the Soulava is in the richness, color, cut, and polish of the shell.

These Kula objects have nine levels of grading or value, and the grade shows the importance of the person who owns it. This could be likened to the western items of family jewels, or the swords and crowns of kings, representing a certain social position. The highest grade of Mwali is yoiya and may be considered dangerous, as the owner must have the content of character and status that can sustain the spiritual elements comparable to the value of the object. It can be bad fortune to possess a Kula item that is above one's level of prestige.

Many of these objects carry memories of death, magic, or poisoning. As each object is unique, a person may decide to try to acquire certain ones. Even individual shells may have a unique history. They may be difficult to obtain and are often given to the Kula master (chief).

The Kula objects are of two kinds. The kunedawesi is owned by the Kula ring and cannot be sold, and the kitom is owned by the person who holds them and can be sold. The vast majority of items are kunedawesi, but in some groups like the Muyuw, all Kula objects are someone's kitom (Damon, 1980). The person owning a valuable as kitom has full rights of ownership over it: he can keep it, sell it, or even destroy it. The Kula valuable or an equivalent item must be returned to the person who owns it as kitom. The most important Muyuw men, for example, may own between three to seven Kula valuables as kitom while others do not own any. The fact that, at least in theory, all such valuables are someone's kitom adds a sense of responsibility to the way they are handled, reminding the recipient that he is only a steward of somebody else's possession. The ownership of a particular valuable is, however, often not known. Kula valuables can also be exchanged as kitom in a direct exchange between two partners, thus fully transferring the rights of ownership.

The Exchange

The Kula ring spans at least 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago, including the Trobriand Islands and involves thousands of individuals.

There is much anticipation and preparation for the Kula season. It begins in the garden, harvesting surplus yams particularly in anticipation of the trading to come. Although taro is a staple, the higher status yams are a favorite item for the Kula trade. The yams will be displayed competitively and are also used in the feasts to come. They provide one of the ways a village can show hospitality to their visitors, old and new partners.

The Kula trading period ushers in a period of trade of various commodities, games such as Trobriand cricket, feasts, catching up on the news, and various other social events. For the new trading partners, it is not until the second visit that a Kula gift is exchanged. All of these elements serve to link islanders and the Kula partners. There is an opening gift and finally a closing gift, all presented within the familiar context of tradition and ceremony, linking them also to the past.

At sea, participants travel sometimes hundreds of miles in a ceremonial canoe (waga) used specifically for this occasion. If, for example, a particular village had presented their visiting partners with necklaces the previous year, then now the villagers fly across the waves in their own powerful Kula canoes to receive armbands. The men who arrive to receive Kula valuables are seen as aggressive visitors by the men in the host village whose turn it is to give. They are met with ceremonial hostility that the visitors must charm away, often by giving lime spatulas and betelnuts that carry magical spells to induce their hosts to return good pieces. The visitors present themselves as being strong and as having immunity from danger, which is seen as physically beautiful.

The hosts in this competition are seen as relatively passive and vulnerable to the strength, beauty, and magical charms of the visitors. The hosts comply because they know that the next time around it will be their turn to be the visitorss. Each man hopes that his own beauty and power will then compel his trading partner to give him the Kula piece he desires.

Carefully prescribed customs and traditions surround the ceremonies that accompany the exchanges which establish strong, ideally life-long relationships between the exchange parties (karayta'u, "partners"). The terms of participation vary from region to region. In Dobu all men can participate whereas on the Trobriand Islands the exchange is monopolized by the chiefs. Historically limited to male trading partners, women may participate in some areas.

On these annual voyages, when a man presents his partner with a valuable, it must be reciprocated with a gift of equivalent or greater value before too much time passes. Each man tries to hold on to the most valuable and greatest number of pieces for as long as possible. If a man keeps an important valuable for longer than a year or so, or takes it out of the ring, he can expect intense disapproval and perhaps sorcery. It takes two to ten years for a shell to make the circuit. The valuables are kept in constant motion, encircling the scattered islands in rings of social and magical power.

Some partners are close by, but many and the most important are far away. Those in a specific cycle (keda) are not usually personally known to each other, but each knows the others’ names and stories as they are passed along together with the exchange of the powerful and magical valuables. Older named pieces which have been around many times increase in value as they are owned by powerful men. Even temporary possession brings prestige and status. Important chiefs can have hundreds of partners while less significant participants may only have less than a dozen (Malinowski, 1920).

It is critical for a successful man to have Kula partners for life. Many young men state that they would rather be successful in Kula than in business, but as both come together it is rather a choice of order than exclusion.

Social Networks

Kula creates a two-way return of favors. This is not a form of trade where once you trade items the commitment is absolved. Rather, in Kula, once you are a part of the circle it is a permanent connection. The saying around Papua is "once in Kula, always in Kula" (Damon, 1980).

The right of participation in Kula exchange is not automatic. One has to "buy" one's way into it through participating in various lower spheres of exchange (Damon, 1980). The giver-receiver relationship is always asymmetrical: the former are higher in status. Also, as Kula valuables are ranked according to value and age, so are the relationships that are created through their exchange. Participants will often strive to obtain particularly valuable and renowned Kula objects whose owner's fame will spread quickly through the archipelago. Such a competition unfolds through different persons offering pokala (offerings) and kaributu (solicitory gifts) to the owner, thus seeking to induce him to engage in a gift exchange relationship involving the desired object. Kula exchange therefore involves a complex system of gifts and counter-gifts whose rules are laid down by custom. The system is based on trust, as obligations are not legally enforceable. However, strong social obligations and the cultural value system, in which liberality is exalted as highest virtue, while meanness is condemned as shameful, create powerful pressures to "play by the rules." Those who are perceived as holding on to valuables and as being slow to give them away are quickly marked by a bad reputation (Malinowski, 1920).

The Kula exchange system can be viewed as reinforcing status and authority distinctions since the hereditary chiefs own the most important shell valuables and assume the responsibility for organizing and directing the ocean voyages. Damon noted that large amounts of Kula valuables are handled by a relatively small number of people (Damon, 1980). For example, amongst the Muyuw, three men account for over 50 percent of Kula valuables, and the ten most influential men control about 90 percent of all and almost 100 percent of the most precious Kula objects. The movement of these valuables and the related relationships determine most of Muyuw's political alliances. Kula relationships are fragile, beset with various kinds of manipulation and deceit. The Muyuw, for example, state that the only way to get ahead in Kula is to lie, commenting that deceit frequently causes Kula relationships to fall apart (Damon, 1980). Similarly, Bronislaw Malinowski wrote of "many squabbles, deep resentments and even feuds over real or imaginary grievances in the Kula exchange" (Malinowski, 1920).

The Kula ring is a classical example for Marcel Mauss's distinction between gift and commodity exchange. Melanesians carefully distinguish gift exchange (Kula) from market exchange in the form of barter (gimwali). Both reflect different underlying value systems and cultural customs. The Kula, as Mauss wrote, is not supposed to be conducted like gimwali; the former involves a solemn exchange ceremony, a "display of greatness" where the concepts of honor and nobility are central; the latter, often done as part of Kula exchange journeys, involves hard bargaining and purely serves economic purposes (Mauss, 1990). Kula valuables are inalienable in the sense that they (or an equivalent object) have to be returned to the original owner. Those who receive them can pass them on as gifts, but they cannot be sold as commodities (except by the one who owns them as kitom).

The Myth

There is a myth that connects to the origins of the Kula exchange (Malnic and Kasaipwalova, 1998). A long time ago, a hero named Tava, who sometimes appeared as a snake, would pass between certain villages and when he was present, good fortune and prosperity were there as well. Only one woman in each village knew where he was, and she would feed and take care of him. It was important that he be treated well because if he felt mistreated or betrayed in any way, he would move on to the next island. When he left, the good fortune left with him. Still, thankful for the goodness he received while he was there, he left something behind as a trade. It could be a surplus of pigs and yams in the Trobriand Islands or perhaps fine pottery made in the Amphletts. In other areas he left gifts of obsidian and betelnuts. This story could be the origin of the Kula ring and the way it operates among the islands.

The Meaning

The word Kula is derived from bita kuli, a verb, meaning both “to form in the likeness or image of another” and “to be formed as a likeness or image of the other.” This is the "reciprocity" that Malinowski wrote about. According to the Muyuw, a good Kula relationship should be "like a marriage." “It is a motion, an action of giving and taking between people—two people (partners) to begin with. This action results in the growth of participants” (Malnic and Kasaipwalova, 1998). Kula is an experience encountered by two personalities. This expands to include and link whole communities and islands that are otherwise very far away.

On these islands, trade is often necessary for prosperity. However, historically there has been an urgent need for a method of fostering harmony between the islands, as they often had very different social practices. For example, some practiced cannibalism on those captured in warfare, while others did not. The Kula ring provides a connection between the environment, the spiritual world, and the other tribes. This allows the distinction of "the other" to be relaxed within a Kula relationship. The social stratification that the exchange reinforces also helps provide a stable social system that can protect the individual.

The highly decorated waga, or ceremonial canoe used for the Kula trade, illustrates some of the investment of meaning in the journey. The waga is made to hold approximately 15 men traveling comfortably over hundreds of miles at open sea, and are quite different from the smaller canoes used normally for fishing. The symbols carved and painted on the lagim (splashboard) on the bow of each canoe show the social ranking of that waga and the party on board. A bwalai (small man figure) at the bow represents the spirit of the man in charge of the canoe and allows his spirit to search the ocean. They utilize designs of minudoga sandpipers, a bird that floats on the ocean, which symbolize the care that must be taken by the leader for his crew and his community. The leader may need to push the others to the extreme but must also be aware of their physical well being. The journey reinforces the ideas that status has obligation, and that each social position has its unique value.

Kula ideally allows communities to obtain Mwasila. Mwasila is the creation of good feeling between people—to be happy, free, and to have no worries. Individually, it involves creating a clear path between oneself and one's environment. This technique enables one to link with the environment and to eliminate all other thoughts that clutter the mind and make problems. Mindful thinking can thus be restored. The Kula exchange becomes an opportunity for cleansing on a community level, smoothing relationships, and rectifying any bad behaviors in the past.

Kaitari, the enchantment of the waves and the tides, is a link to the environment of the ocean and those in Kula must remind themselves of its power. Men on a Kula expedition are at physical risk from the sea and also at magical risk from witches and sorcerers. The excitement, potential for advancement, and structure of Kula helps provide meaning and motivation to endure this day to day difficulty.

Kula is a source of stability in the personal and social well-being of the islanders. The men are away and must be strong and fit, and the women must find harmony and ways to cooperate while they are gone. The Kula circle has always been associated with making contact with far off neighbors. It has been suggested that the trade is one way to avoid inbreeding, as many romances may form with far away partners during the trading times.

"When attention is directed onto an object, it remains in the object. Throughout the mystery of Kula, trading the Mwali and Soulava became ‘living personalities’ with definite cultural identities" {Malnic and Kasaipwalova, 1998). The Kula tradition is carried by word of mouth and is symbolized by the objects Soulava and Mwali, or Bagi as they are known in different parts of Papua New Guinea. It is a motion, an action of giving and taking between two people as partners to begin with, but Kula is also the sacred experience of entire communities. The act of giving, as Marcel Mauss wrote in The Gift, is a display of the greatness of the giver, accompanied by shows of exaggerated modesty in which the value of what is given is actively played down. Such a partnership involves strong mutual obligations such as hospitality, protection, and assistance. Kula is the simple human experience of growth and growing as an individual and as a community engaged in giving and receiving.

Similar Practices and Modern Outlook

Other cultures have practiced similar forms of gift exchange:

  • Potlatch is a similar practice among some Native American and First Nations peoples of west coast North America
  • Koha, a similar practice among the Māori of New Zealand
  • Moka, a similar practice in the Mt. Hagen area of Papua New Guinea
  • Sepik Coast exchange, a similar practice in the Sepic Coast of Papua New Guinea

Although the Kula exchange has continued, naturally the interaction with modern economic exchange and cultures has changed the events. Currently, there is much less ceremony and care in the preparation and execution of the events of the Kula exchange. Some women exchange Kula, and sometimes Kula objects are sold at the marketplace in exchange for money. As early as 1922, there was some notice of the deceit and manipulations that some men would go through in order to obtain particular Kula objects or arrange matters in ways favorable to them. It is unknown to what extent their contact with more modern cultures has influenced them. Many in Papua New Guinea, however, still practice and value this traditional social custom.


  • Damon, F. H. "The Kula and Generalised Exchange: Considering some Unconsidered Aspects of the Elementary Structures of Kinship." Man. Vol. 15. 1980.
  • Leach, Jerry, and Leach, Edmund. The Kula: New Perspectives on Massim Exchange. New York: Cambridge University. 1983.

ISBN 0521232023 Retrieved June 22, 2007; ISBN 978-0521232029

  • Malinowski, Bronislaw.Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd. 1922.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Retrieved June 22, 2007.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. "Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea." Man. Vol. 20. 1920.
  • Malnic, J., and Kasaipwalova, J., Kula: Myth and Magic of the Trobriand Islands. Cowrie Books. Halstead. 1998. ISBN 0646346172
  • Mauss, M.The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge. 1990.
  • Oliver, Louise. The Magic of Kula. Retrieved June 22, 2007.
  • Young, Michael. Logging or Conservation on Woodlark (Muyuw) Island. Retrieved June 22, 2007.

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