Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Inside the "John Frum" cargo cult on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu:
This is February 15, John Frum Day, on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. On this holiest of days, devotees have descended on the village of Lamakara from all over the island to honor a ghostly American messiah, John Frum. "John promised he'll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him," a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. "Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things."

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.

But the venerated Americans never came back, except as a dribble of tourists and veterans eager to revisit the faraway islands where they went to war in their youth. And although almost all the cargo cults have disappeared over the decades, the John Frum movement has endured, based on the worship of an American god no sober man has ever seen.
Here's the print-friendly version of the Smithsonian article. (Via Boing Boing.)