Islanders Worship Spirit of WWII US Soldier

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This is February 15, John Frum Day, on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Every February a cult gathers at the base of an active volcano in the South Pacific in a religious tribute to a dead American soldier. The elders wear American military uniforms jangling with medals, the rest paint ‘USA’ in red paint on their bare chests. They march around a rickety pole in military formation before raising the American flag. The island’s John Frum movement is a classic example of what anthropologists have called a “cargo cult”—many of which sprang up in villages in the South Pacific during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands from the skies and seas. As anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, explains: “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world. To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region constructed piers and carved airstrips from their fields. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere, bearing all kinds of treasures: jeeps and washing machines, radios and motorcycles, canned meat and candy.

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